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First off, I'm not talking about painting my plastic C64 in Ferrari Red! While this may look cool, I'm sure any value enhancement of the machine would be based purely on 'taste'.

I have a NeXT Cube, which is a 'sort of valuable' and 'sort of rare' bit of retrocomputer history. Being that this particular computer received quite of bit of usage in its heyday, the metal case has many scratches on its original paint job. Since it is a high-quality metal case (true for many retrocomputers), and since I know the code for the original paint color, I am considering repainting. My expectation is that it will look 'like new' after the paint job because there is no physical damage to this case.

My question is, as someone who cares for both the historical significance and the value of a retrocomputer, will repainting it (carefully) enhance these attributes, or detract from them?

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    The reason cleaning (for example) old coins is frowned upon is because it removes detail and because some like the patina. Will painting the metal case of a retrocomputer remove any detail or make it less attractive in any way? – snips-n-snails Mar 7 '17 at 19:29
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    Personally, if I had a Cube with a badly degraded paint job, I'd take it as an opportunity to strip the paint entirely and mirror polish the magnesium alloy, but that's down more to personal taste. – mnem Mar 7 '17 at 19:35
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    Short answer: If you intend to sell it, leave it as it is and let the buyer decide. If you intend to keep it (and use it), do as you please. I would. – Mick Mar 8 '17 at 12:27
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    A less than perfect paint job will detract more value from the thing you are trying to sell then corrosion within the case. Once you've reached corrosion state you can clean it up and maybe use a rust converting primer on it. Make sure you mask it well and don't not tell people about – Rowan Hawkins Mar 8 '17 at 14:25
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    If it's only light surface rust I wouldn't worry about it at all period and leave it to the person purchasing it whether or not they want to do something about it period making it clean is about as far as I would go with no solvents – Rowan Hawkins Mar 8 '17 at 14:26
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I think this is something that will change over the years, but if I was to make a current observation by drawing parallels to the automobile industry, I would say "sort of".

While I'm not trying to say that retro computer collecting is going to be exactly like the automobile realm, there are a few points to note:

  1. Original paint is far more valuable than a painted job, despite how good it may be.
  2. The current restoration process of using RetroBrite to restore the color of the plastics detrimental in the long run is up for debate.

For #1, obviously an unmodified relic is going to be more valuable since it is factory paint, provided the condition is good to excellent. People value the patina and authenticity. However, if the machine is in poor condition, it is not going to be as valuable (other than individual historical significance, if there is any) and only in that case you might want to pursue polishing the machine up. But I would imagine that taking a freshly painted machine and putting it up against an original of equivalent condition, the original is going to be worth far more.

For #2, there have been some studies lately that suggest that the chemical process that RetroBrite does actually damages the plastics and while looking awesome for the near term, could cause the plastic to be in far worse condition several years down the road. It might help get your eBay sale increased in value, but I'd be cautious of the long term.

I fall into the camp of leave the paint alone. If it is dirty, try cleaning it with mild soaps and scrub brushes; you'll actually make a huge difference just by doing that. If you're looking for long term value, make sure that the electronics are sound (capacitors, etc.) since most of the machines that are out there and for sale are probably not getting that treatment and are quickly falling into the "doesn't work, throw it in the trash" category. Saying that your machine has new caps/etc. and will last easily another 10+ years is going to pay off in the future, IMHO.

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    What about using color-matched vinyl dye to restore plastic? It won't cover up the original texture like paint and it won't harm the plastic like Retr0bright. – snips-n-snails Mar 7 '17 at 19:25
  • @traal you've mentioned this stuff in a couple of comments why not make an answer. There you can describe your solution and answer questions on it. Comments are supposed to be a comment on the answer or question for clarification. – Rowan Hawkins Mar 8 '17 at 15:41
  • @traal: BTW, another concern I have about bleaching is that by my understanding the brown color is often a consequence of flame retardants; if bleaching removes those flame retardants and something goes wrong electrically that wouldn't have started a fire, the damage to the flame retardants could pose issues reaching beyond the machine itself. – supercat Mar 8 '17 at 21:44
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By re-painting the metal case, you will most probably not increase the collector's value much. Reasons:

  • Original paint is generally much more durable than what a layman's paint job will ever achieve. New painting is likely to receive scratches much easier than the original paint job
  • You might not hit the exact original color and the result might look weird. (Admittedly, this is not so much of an issue with black)
  • As pointed out in other answers: Some people like to see the age of old equipment. Re-painting doesn't help much here.

If you absolutely think you need to re-paint (maybe because there is corrosion on a metal case that needs to be catered for, or because they are really ugly scratches), make sure it is done absolutely professionally. Just putting a lump of paint on the computer certainly doesn't increase value. And a professional paint job might, depending on what you can or cannot do yourselves, be expensive, likely to be even more than the computer's current value. If you cannot do or have it done professionally, then rather don't do it at all.

Don't even think about painting if the original was not painted at all. Plastic parts normally weren't, and a lot of metal parts are typically not painted, but rather powder-coated. On powder-coated surfaces, paint will not stick well and you will not be able to match colors properly.

I only ever worked out a new paint job was needed on one retro box (an extremely rare CST Thor 16 Sinclair QL compatible that had only several hundreds built) that was in dire need of repair because of heavy rust on its metal case. It had been stored for over a decade near a pack of UPS batteries and was in such a bad state that corrosion had to be stopped immediately to prevent further damage and I had it professionally sand-blasted and powder-coated. Even if it was done by a friend who does that for a living, it wasn't cheap, but worth the effort - The computer is as new now, with very much the same (or better) durability than original. Such measures also normally require replacing any body stickers the computer originally had which is even more effort.

Also note that for a full (spray) paint job, the computer will have to be disassembled completely, which can be quite an effort - Some parts will not easily come off and might be destroyed in the process, needing further repair.

If it's only cosmetics like minor scratches, I would not do that. A thorough clean with water and some solvents like alcohol, maybe a run through the dishwasher with some mild detergentto remove the old grime should suffice.

  • I would not use alcohol to clean a case unless you were only touching bare metal parts. Alcohol will affect the luster of the paint. Just stick to straight soap and water or just even warm water to dissolve built-up grime and at Absolute most a plastic scrub pad to get out the nitty-gritty stuff but I would err on not using that and instead just using a little bit of extra elbow grease with a standard sponge. – Rowan Hawkins Mar 8 '17 at 14:23
  • Depends. It doesn't hurt (for any detergent or solvent) to first check in a non-visible area whether your chemical of choice works with your material. I haven't had any bad experience with alcohol so far except with printed badges or stickers where I'd rather be a bit more careful. Heavy rubbing might even do more harm to the paint than a solvent and some greasy stuff of dubious origin I really want to completely dissolve and leave in a near-sterile condition... – tofro Mar 8 '17 at 15:01
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As others have stated, the big question is if you plan on keeping it forever, or selling it one day.

Also, as morbid as it may sound, think about the people you leave behind when you visit the great computer museum in the sky (if that's your belief). Will your loved ones be able to sell it? Will they loose lots of money on its sale because you like it to look perfect? Those are things to think about. Remember, most family members don't share our love of retro computers.

That being said, I personally have over 80 computers in my collection. So during the 20+ years I've been collecting, I've developed a few simple rules I follow.

Those rules are:

1) I try to have multiple copies of each computer. One copy for "never touch, leave ugly, never mod" so that IF I decided to sell (or my family does after I kick the bucket), then it should (hopefully) be the most valuable. I then have another copy that I may retro-bright, re-cap, mod, etc. Now, that isn't possible all the time. As much as I would like to have a few more PET's, for example, they are a little expensive so I only have one. Same with my boxed Coleco ADAM. In your case, you only have one (that you mentioned) of the NeXT Cube. So this rule may not apply to you.

2) If the computer is ALREADY altered before I got it, then the damage is already done. For example, I only have one TRS-80 Color Computer 1 that I bought from eBay. The seller painted it white to match the model 2 an 3. So, the damage is already there. I don't feel guilty about stripping that white paint and restoring to silver. Or even adding a composite mod. It's never going to be factory original anyway.

3) If the computer is so damaged that the damage is preventing it from being useful, then I may restore it as best I can. Cracked cases, engraved initials, etc. Again, damage has already been done.

4) If the computer (or component) isn't hard to find, isn't expensive and it's ugliness is so bad that I can't stand to look at it, I will restore. Examples are yellowed Apple keyboards/mice, super orange 1541 drives, etc.

Those rules have served me well. Granted, I'm biased as that I don't collect to make money. But I realize my large collection will have to be "dealt with" by my family one day so I might as well leave a little bit of profit in it for them.

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