Molly ‘Porkshanks’ Friedrich’s Dieselpunk Headphone Mod

Author: | Posted in Favorites, Projects, Steampunk 1 Comment

Guest artist Molly porkshanks Friedrich shows us how to update a pair of vintage headphones for use with an iPod or MP3 player.

Greetings strangers and friends alike!

I was emailed by Jake a little while back asking me if I would be interested in taking a turn as guest contraptor on the Steampunk Workshop. Of course, this is roughly equivalent to asking a model railroader if they would like to take a real steam engine out for a spin on the tracks. How could I say no?

Like most people who might find themselves reading this now, I have been aware in a peripheral sense about the concept of Steampunk for most of my life, but it was always just a fantasy, something that only lived in our imagination through film, literature, and many other forms of art.

Jake's creations were a big part of what inspired me to take a deeper look at this idea. I loved the aesthetic; and the more I discovered the ideals that underpin the creative end of the community, well… I was hooked. I wanted to join them in subverting mass production and wondering aloud, "Why can't we live in a beautiful, hand crafted, personal world?"

So, I began researching and sketching. I found myself systematically rethinking everything around me. I live a modest life, some might say slower and simpler than most; and that is by choice. Music is one of the few things that are very important to me as an artist, and my collection is probably small by most collector standards (just under 2000 titles), however I consider it to be of the utmost quality and am familiar with all of it. I usually have my mp3 player with me, and when I first started dressing in a steampunk style on a regular basis last year, it was feeling more and more out of place as the weeks crept along.

This brings me to the project at hand. One of the first things I did was decide that I wanted to make retrofuture headphones. I saw a picture on the net of a woman wearing an old crystal radio headset she found in Europe, and it was exactly the look I wanted to achieve. The only hurdles were finding a pair and then modifying them to work with modern mp3 players.

I looked into crystal radios and found a bunch of different kinds, some better then others for a project like this. I will give my standard disclaimer that I am not an expert on this subject and if I say something wrong please feel free to correct me. Here is a short list of headsets I've seen to help for searching in stores, whether online or your local thrift and antique stores.

SG Brown LTD
CF Cannon Co. "The Chief"
Cannonball Empire
C. Brandes Inc "Superior"
Philmore "Pure Tone"
Telephonics Corporation TH 37
Western Electric

This is probably only a small portion of the names these things were manufactured under. I bought some lots of random parts on an online auction site, and there were some that had no markings on them at all (government or foreign perhaps?). A good catchall term is simply 'crystal radio'. Anyways, the clear cut best one of the bunch in my humble opinion are Cannonball Empires. They have relatively small housings and are made of soft metal. If the housing is too large, I find the headset to be a bit too heavy and clunky for practical application. A lot of the housings are made of Bakelite, and it not only doesn't work with my methods, it just doesn't carry the allure of metal headphones with fetching etching on them. Bakelite is a vintage material, but it has little to no romance about it. It is merely one of the first iterations of the kind of man-made materials we all seem to be trying to escape these days.

In the future, I want to eventually figure out how to design my own pair from scratch using hardware and found objects, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of steam there. This project is less involved, its something that almost anyone can do with a few basic parts and tools.

You will need:

A vintage headset – Since there are so many different kinds out there, just look around until you like something that speaks to you. I like the kinds that have the 'antenna' look to them, but maybe you like the simple metal band kind? Or the kind that have big rubber ear cups… if you are determined to make them work, it can be done!

A pair of modern headphones – *important note* This works best if the wires come straight off the bottom of each earpiece. Some headphones carry a wire between the earpieces over the headband… these will not work for this mod without considerable soldering and I don't recommend them. Be prepared to permanently disassemble this pair of headphones. I got the set shown for a dollar on Amazon.

Screwdrivers – most of these use standard screws to hold them together, but a couple use Phillips head or nuts, so use whatever tool is most appropriate for your headset.

Metal Snips – basically a beefy pair of scissors that can found at most hardware stores for under $10.

Wrenches – you'll need two of any smaller type, preferably.

Now, let's dig in!

The first step is getting the vintage ear cups apart. You'll find they all work about the same and it's a simple process; unscrew the cap, undo any screws or nuts. Once inside, you'll find the old speakers, and some mounting hardware. Just get that junk out of there… save it for other projects or something. Your phones will be ready when you have empty metal cups. Grab your snips and cut through to the hole at the bottom.

Now, let's get the modern headphones apart. Remove the foam pads and set them aside with some care, we will need them for later. Now we are going to get the speakers out of the plastic housings. I find the snips come in handy for just cutting the plastic apart. You want to end up with this:


Just the speakers and the plastic immediately around them with the wires to the plug all intact.

Get one of the foam pads and place it hollow side up inside the empty metal cup.

Then, place the speaker on the pad, making sure the wire goes through the hole with the knot inside the cup. If the knot is too small and it goes through the hole, just tie another knot over it to make it bigger.

Carefully bend the metal back into place. Avoid pinching the wire in there, if the wire gets cut it's not even worth soldering, just get a new set of heaphones; used ones like these are found cheaply all over. I even found a pair on the ground at a bus stop.


Screw the cap back on…

and finally repeat this on the other side and you're done!

Possible Complications:

No Hole – Some caps don't have a hole in the bottom. There are a few ways to fix this. You could drill a hole, although not everyone has the tools and skill for that. You could use one of the side holes and cut the wires to the speakers and thread them through the hole and resolder. If you have the time and patience, cool. I don't, so I just get the snips (or in the case of a thicker metal cup; a hand saw) and cut a wedge into the place where a hole should be. I would sand down the inside of the wedge a bit and just screw the cap on, as long as the resulting hole is big enough for the wire, that's all you need.

Nasty Head Band Piece – A lot of these have dirty or deteriorating fabric across the top headband. If you'd prefer to replace that, I would suggest getting some double fold bias tape from a sewing store and just hand stitching it over the headband frame.



Further Mods:

The holes in the sides of the ear cups offer many possibilities! Think of attaching monocle holders, or jeweler's loupes. Maybe a laser sight or a small LED flashlight would be more to your liking? You could replace the bland utilitarian fabric on the top with some lace or fancy trim, or maybe cut up some shoelaces and use them to cover the wires for a more authentic 'retro' look? The possibilities are endless, I think the best thing about sharing these kinds of projects is that I love seeing how people take the ideas and run with them… making their final result more personal!

If you do use this project as inspiration, I'd love to see it, so please share how it turned out! If you have any questions or comments, contact me at You can also see a gallery of my recent work at DeviantArt.

I also have a companion piece to the headphone mod, which is called the Ambience Enhancer at Instructables

Thanks again to Jake von Slatt, for inspiring so many people to express themselves in deeds not words, and for giving me an opportunity to share a part of the bold new world we are recovering from the past!

[Editors Note: Just to forestall the "I can't believe you . . ." emails, I'd like to say a couple of quick words about modding vintage stuff.

Antiques have value for two main reasons; they give us a connection to the culture that created them and they have monetary value in the marketplace. There is no doubt that singular handcrafted works of artists and craftsmen demand preservation as they give us unique information about past cultures. However, vintage mass-manufactured goods hold little unique cultural information, they have value only in the marketplace.

While modding an antique may destroy it's monetary value, it also transforms it into an object that now preserves unique cultural information about the present. So it all depends on what you feel is important. – Jake ]


  1. Posted by –Frank.