Vinyl Record

Wax Cylinders

Wax cylinders generally fall into two categories, soft wax cylinders and moulded cylinders, although many non-standard cylinders of different materials and sizes were produced.

SOFT WAX CYLINDERS  These cylinders were intended for direct cutting on recording machines and are the cylinder equivalent of instantaneous discs.  They were made of a soft waxy compound and have a waxy feel and often a waxy smell.  Early cylinders were a creamy white colour but later they were replaced by those of a light brown colour.  Later dictating cylinders for the Ediphone were black.  Various compounds were used but according to Frow and Stefl the most common was 12lb stearic acid/1lb caustic soda/1lb ceresin or paraffin wax/1oz aluminium oxide.  Standard soft wax cylinders are 4 inches long by 2 inches diameter.  These cylinders held up to 2 minutes of recording and could be re-recorded.  The normal length of dictating machine cylinders is 6 inches.

MOULDED CYLINDERS  Early moulded cylinders are black in colour and are made from a harder compound than the brown wax type.  The compound still contains some wax but it is mainly metallic soaps and bears more of a resemblance to shellac.  Later the cylinders were made of an even harder compound which could hold grooves about half the width of previous cylinders and therefore could play for over 4 minutes.  In 1908 Edison introduced the Amberol cylinder which was very brittle and was superseded in 1912 by Blue Amberol made of bright blue nitro-cellulose on a plaster core.  All Edison cylinders are of the standard 4 inch size except for the Kinetophone.  These were 10 inches long with a 5” diameter, made of celluloid, and used for sound synchronisation with Edison films.

RISKS  The early wax cylinders are now very brittle and have a strength similar to milk chocolate.  They often have extensive coverings of mould.  The soft surface is easily scratched and damaged.  Handling with bare hands softens the wax and can encourage mould growth.  Cylinders are prone to mould growth in warm, moist, dark environments.  The mould growth is accelerated by contact with the inner padding of the cylinder container.  Cylinders are also attacked by fungus and the animal bacteria residue can eat the wax, feeding on the surface of the cylinder and thus destroying the audio content.  Many cylinders contain oxides and oils which can migrate to the surface and at first sight these can appear to be mould growth.

CONSERVATION PRACTICE  Most wax cylinders have been damaged to some extent by repeated playback and handling.  Warping created by improper storage often causes stylus tracking problems on many cylinders.  Because of the length of time of storage in unsuitable conditions the cardboard containers have often been attacked by vermin or insects and the cylinders themselves are frequently covered in mould which feeds on nutrients in the wax compound and creates white blotches on the surface.  When replaying mould-affected cylinders a loud roar is heard as the groves have been physically eaten into.  Do not attempt to clean the mould off the soft brown cylinders as the surface is particularly vulnerable.

Mould growth on other types of cylinder can be cleaned off with a lint-free cloth and distilled water.  Do not immerse the cylinder completely in water as the inner surface is not water resistant.

Even though Blue Amberol cylinders are made of nitro-cellulose there are none of the problems associated with early films.  Research suggests that cellulose cylinders are subject to very gradual decomposition, but will not spontaneously ignite until heated to a temperature of 150 degrees C which is 60 degrees higher than the ignition temperature of nitrate film in good condition.

Mould growth and the migration of oxides and oils to the surface can often appear very similar to the naked eye.  However on closer examination, using a microscope or strong magnifying glass, it is easy to ascertain the difference.  Mould appears as `furry’ deposits whilst oxides and oils appear to be crystalline.  In both cases the cylinder needs to be copied as the crystalline deposits often mean that the cylinder has become extremely embrittled.

HANDLING  All wax cylinders are extremely fragile and should be handled with great care.  If dropped the cylinder will shatter into many pieces and even gentle handling can often cause cracks, therefore handling should be kept to an absolute minimum.  Cylinders, especially the soft brown wax type, easily distort and eventually melt in the presence of heat so finger contact should be kept to a minimum.  The grooved surface should never be touched.  Hold the cylinder by placing two fingers down the centre of the cylinder

STORAGE  Because of the susceptibility of wax cylinders to mould growth they must be stored in constant cool, dry conditions.  The original containers are unsuitable for permanent storage and therefore cylinders should be transferred to more suitable acid-free boxes.  The best method of long-term storage is in acid-free boxes with upright cylindrical pegs to support the cylinders sufficiently spaced to allow free air circulation.  Any free play between the cylinder and its support peg should be packed with acid-free paper taking care not to allow too much pressure on the cylinder.  Moulded cylinders, although not as susceptible to mould, should nonetheless still be stored separately from their original gauze lined containers.


Wax cylinders showing mould growth and breakage due to the brittle nature of the cylinders

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