First of all
Get yourself some basic tools, and don’t skimp. The best source is www.micro-tools.com, kind of like the amazon.com of camera repair. They have EVERYTHING and the prices are good. Then there’s always the old standby, your local Radio Shack, where you can outfit yourself with all the basics: sets of precision screwdrivers, needle files, precision tweezers and clamps, dental picks, soldering irons (standard is the 25 watt, get a coil holder too)*, wire. The needle files were one of those ‘why didn’t I buy these sooner’ purchases. Other things you’ll need: a blower and brush for lenses, fine sandpaper, X-acto knife, magnifying glass. You’ll need Kimwipes (or lint-free photographer’s wipes, a $3 box will last forever and you should probably have them anyway), clean cotton rags, and many many Q-tips. Don’t forget an old toothbrush, essential for getting gunk out of tough spots and designed not to scratch the finish! Cleaners and solvents: Windex/Glassex for glass, I also use vodka – it’s pure ethanol and distilled water, leaves no residue; Flitz metal and fiberglass cleaner for chrome and brass is OK but I prefer Circle 7 rubbing compound. Lexol is good for cleaning leather; and for cleaning moving parts or stuck shutters I use either lighter fluid like Rosonol or 97% isopropryl alcohol as a solvent. Ether is OK but doesn’t dry as cleanly as lighter fluid (which you should use VERY carefully). For lubrication I use (very sparingly) the Radio Shack Teflon-impregnated light oil for little parts, comes in a pen-like dispenser (you can also use Nyoil watch oil) or for larger moving parts like lens helicals I use a high-quality synthetic bearing grease from a bike shop. Usually, on a camera clean is better than lubricated. Also get some Pliobond for gluing leatherette and foam, and some Duro cement for permanent glue jobs and epoxy for even stronger bonds. Use them all sparingly. And always leave the camera open overnight after working on it to let the solvents outgas.
ADDENDUM Real innovations in tools do come along once in a while and I’ve recently (1/2005) added two such items to my toolbox and expect them to become irreplaceable. The first is the “Cold Heat” battery powered soldering iron (www.coldheat.com). The instant-on, near-instant-cool makes it ideal for my oft-interrupted projects in my busy family setting, primarily from a safety standpoint. I splurged for the extra conical tip. The other is something I wish I had a couple of years ago, it’s a pen-dispensed conductive polymer I got at Radio Shack called “Circuit Writer”. It bonds small wires and electronics like solder but with no heat, and it stick to things that solder sometimes doesn’t. Dries quickly, is strong and slightly flexible, for tight spots you can squeeze it onto a jeweler’s screwdriver and apply it. It’s like a wish come true!
BY THE WAY, while specialty stores like www.micro-tools.com are great, I find that I can get just about everything I need, save spanner wenches and leatherette, at either Radio Shack or my local hardware store, craft store, auto parts store, or (gulp) gun shop. Yep, people feel about their guns the way we do about cameras and use some of the same stuff to repair & restore them. I’ll just leave that one right where it is.
Do all of your work in a large tray and have some wide tape handy. Why? You wouldn’t believe how many and how small the screws… I use a large ceramic-on-steel tray like the kind some watercolorists use for a pallette. Not only is it bright white but you can hear anything fall out of the camera like a hidden spring or screw. Alternately, and particularly when I’m working on lenses, I do the work on a paper towel so anything that drops doesn’t roll, I don’t worry about lens elements getting scratched, and I can also use it to wipe off my screwdriver tips if I use them for scraping grease. Keep careful track of where the bits and pieces go as you work. Some repairpersons suggest videotaping the disassembly so you have an exact record for reassembly. I sometimes record a disassembly with a digital camera. I knew it was good for something. (DOH!) Another case for this is that if you leave a camera for a while and come back to it later – I’ve been known to occasionally work on a repair over the course of a few weeks, or months – you can very easily forget which screw goes where, etc. without a record of the disassembly. I lay out the pieces in my tray as if it were an exploded diagram, and sometimes use tape for holding groups of tiny screws. If it’s very complicated I’ll draw a diagram. Lightly magnetize your screwdrivers. The best are made by Wiha — they’re the ones with black handles with red revolving tips. You always pay more for the best. I find that I use regular old Radio Shack jeweler’s screwdrivers the most, however.
Most simple repairs seem to involve nothing more than a good and thorough cleaning. Shutters, aperture blades, slow speed mechanisms, focus rings, get a little hesitant (sometimes stuck altoghether) from old lubricant, dust or whatnot. Sometimes just working them repeatedly does the trick. If not, then a little ether, 97% isopropryl alcohol, or lighter fluid swabbed in there will dissolve the offending residue. Work the parts till they feel like they move freely, and if all is well no additional lubricant should be necessary. Some technicians recommend using tiny amounts of graphite if the parts just don’t want to move smoothly even after cleaning. I tried Nyoil, a super-thin watch oil, but found I got more mileage out of a lightweight Radio Shack lubricant that comes in a handy pen dispenser. If you do need to oil something, do it the way watchrepairpersons do: dip a small needle into the oil and just touch the part needing lubricant. The amount should be microscopic. DON’T get oil on the lens. Rosonol (naptha) lighter fluid is be the best thing for cleaning shutter blades, a lifetime supply available at your local hardware store for a couple bucks. It’s scary stuff though, use with extreme caution.
This should go without saying, but never put liquid directly on a lens or other glass. Always blow off dust first, then gently use your lens brush before even touching it with anything else, THEN moisten a swab or square of photogapher’s wipe with solvent, and gently clean the glass, following with a dry wipe. I have been known to carefully use a fingernail to get off a sticky bit, or to rub pretty persistently with a Q-tip and vodka to get off some unknown gummy residue without damaging the glass. But be careful. For the long term and in general, protect lenses with clear UV filters so you’ll only have to clean the filter, not the lens itself. Keep the lens clean, don’t keep cleaning the lens, as they say. Mirrors should be cleaned VERY gently if at all, I usually use Windex when I do. Note that particularly with vintage mirrors and rangefinder mirrors you risk removing the silver if you’re not extremely careful and then you’re kinda screwed – camera mirrors are front-silvered instead of rear-silvered like regular house mirrors. It make surface-surface calculations easier and avoids ghost images.
This is of course documented elsewhere, as it is a very common repair need for collectible cameras, notably the very popular Japansese rangefinders from the 70’s (Canonet, Konica S2 and C35, Yashica GSN, Minolta Hi-Matic, etc. etc.) Great cameras, bad light seals. Make no mistake, replacing light seals is a tedious, dirty, painstaking job but absolutely worth it and often absolutely necessary.
Get out the Q-Tips, toothpicks, dental picks, 97% isopropryl alcohol, paper towels, and Kimwipes. Scrape, moisten, rub, carefully make it all go away, noting exactly where it all went, a section at a time so you can replace it precisely. I previously used strips of mousepad (neoprene rubber) carefully cut using an X-acto knife and a metal straightedge for the film door mating grooves in the camera body. If you cut the mouse pad strips a little wide and stretch them they’ll fit in the grooves without any adhesive (thanks Winfried for this tip!). But then I discovered Lily Sugar n’ Cream black cotton crochet yarn, product #CA00111. Just like you see in the old German cameras! Quicker and easier, just as permanent. Seems to stay without glue, but I recommend hitting it with at least a tiny spot of Pliobond on each end.
Nine times out of ten in my experience the light leaks aren’t at the film door grooves though, they’re at the hinge or clasp (usually the hinge). For these – usually – straight flat sections I used to use strips of black felt salvaged from used film canisters (get them from your local friendly photo lab if you don’t develop your own film), glued with Pliobond. Now I use black Presto-felt, it costs about $1 for a 9×12 inch sheet at JoAnn Fabrics. It’s self-adhesive acrylic felt, and the adhesive is strong enough to stay but can be removed if necessary. Fast, easy, no toxic fumes. Now, for SLRs don’t forget to check the bumper where the mirror flips up, which often gets gummy and either causes the mirror to stick (my K1000) or leaves residue on the mirror (a friend’s Contax 137). But for ye gods’ sake don’t get any adhesive on the fresnel focusing screen! AAAGH! If you do, try to gently but firmly remove it with a toothpick point, something that won’t scratch the screen and cause more damage than the glue. Yes, I’ve done it.
For the larger sections of seals such as found in the Canonet QL17, you can use pieces of something called ‘Foamies’ which are about $.79 for an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet at craft and fabric stores. Get black (it comes in all sorts of fun colors). Apply it with double-stick tape or Pliobond. If you can find the self-stick Foamies all the better. I hear it’s available at Wal-Mart. Sigh. Go there if you must.
Leather & Leatherette
Clean leather with Lexol (you can get it at the hardware store). Follow the instructions on the bottle. Reblacking black leather invloves, intuitively, using black shoe polish. Get the good stuff, Kiwi, which you can also apparently use to stain wood (according to the label). For a nice finish and protection, you can follow up with Sno-seal (also shoe or hardware store), which is beeswax for boots, or a quality leather conditioner. Don’t use Armor-all, which leaves a slippery coating you may be sorry to have. (“Woops — dropped my Rolleiflex again!”) If your leather is totally shot get some more at www.micro-tools.com, just be sure you get the right thickness. Calipers would probably help for that, I don’t have any just yet. For gluing peeling leather, another very common repair, use Pliobond (available at hardware stores or guess where). If you use it as glue you’ll be able to remove the leather later (a good thing). If you use it like contact cement the bond is much stronger. Alternatively, you can find leather or leather-like materials at second-hand stores and yard sales in the form of belts, boots and handbags, just make sure it’s the right thickness or that it peels apart. Then you can have interesting new looks like I got with my FED 5B or Praktica MTL3.
Followup on the leather treatment, I’m still looking for a good leather conditioner for dry leather, I’ve tried Lexol (good), black and neutral shoe polish (good), beeswax (too thick & waxy), mink oil (looks good but may break down the leather long term), cocoa butter stretch mark lotion (nice, plus makes your camera smell yummy) and pure lanolin (OK but use sparingly). So far the Lexol and cocoa butter are the best, the beeswax and pure lanolin are much too thick and the others too thin. I’m trying some leather conditioner called ‘Blue Magic’ that seems OK. Depends on whether you’re trying to rejuvinate dry leather or protect good leather. Luckily I have some old beaters to experiment on.
Followup: a leather worker in UK recommends a product called Fiebings Neutral Leather Balm with Atom Wax for leather bellows. (Thanks Elliot!)
Aluminum and Steel
Windex will get oily residue and fingerprints off a camera body easily, if the residue is gummy you’ll want to use something like Goof-Off or Goo Gone, a petroleum-based solvent with citrus that dissolves that kind of thing. Use sparingly of course. Nail polish remover will take off paint and melt plastic so careful with that one. For tight spots use a toothbrush, for corrosion use vinegar. To shine it up I’ve used Flitz metal and fiberglass cleaner, unless it’s a tarnished aluminum lens barrel like we see in the older russian rangefinders. Some people like to use superfine steel wool, for me the resultant steel dust makes me nervous. What I’ve found works best for those lenses is a rubbing compound called Circle 7. Find it at your local hardware or automotive store. You’ll need a bunch of clean rags, it’s a messy little job. But you’ll be surprised how pretty they can be! Note – some are lacquered, using this will take the lacquer off. Cuidado.
Popular 60s-70s rangefinders have a couple of common issues, one of which is cloudy rangefinder glass. Cleaning the outside is easy, just Windex or ethanol (vodka) on a Q-tip or photo wipe, wiped dry with a photo wipe. To get inside, though, requires taking off the top cap – the metal shroud that houses the rangefinder mechanism, film counter, eyepiece, etc. I’m finding this to be fairly standard construction across all makes and models, so this is pretty generic info that will apply in most cases. First remove any visible screws in the top cap, sometimes there are three or four, sometimes as few as one or two. Sometimes there’s one hidden under the rewind knob. The rewind knob almost invariably is removed by opening the back, placing a bar of some sort (screwdriver, tweezers) in the fork that enters the film canister, and winding the knob counterclockwise to unscrew it. A little extra pressure is required to get it started. (Make sure not to close the camera back until you get it back together!) The wind lever is almost always held in by a cap removed by a spanner in two holes or by gripping the outside and twisting counterclockwise. On some cameras like the QL19 there is also a second retaining ring that twists off similarly. Sometimes there are additional screws, rings, washers here — place them carefully aside, noting which way they were oriented when you removed them.
Gently lift the top cap straight up when you get all the screws and knobs removed. Often it will be attached by a wire to the hot shoe, try not to put any strain on this wire as you lay the cap aside. The rangefinder is often underneath another little cover held in by a couple of screws or little spots of glue. Do not touch the meter needle or anything else in here, just blow out any dust and dirt, then carefully brush off any visible dust before CAREFULLY cleaning the CLEAR glass and mirrors with moistened Q-tips. Don’t reuse them, just wipe the wet end on and then the dry end, then get a new swab. Mirrors should be cleaned VERY gently if at all, and you shouldn’t clean the colored (usually yellow) glass or the color is likely to come off and then no more double-image in your rangefinder! Don’t forget to clean the inside of the glass that’s fixed in the top cap. The frosted glass (it backlights the meter readout in the viewfinder) is perfectly ok to clean, it looks for a second like you’ve ruined it but it dries cloudy, I swear (on all my cameras anyway, caveat emptor). Put everything back together again the way you found it.
May as well include a glass cutter in your toolkit, I’ve used mine to cut replacement mirrors and ground glass. Here’s a handy tip: cut yourself a 35mm x 1 1/2″ piece of glass, and put frosted scotch tape on one side to have an easy way to check infinity focus on 35mm cameras. Set to ‘B’, trip the shutter with a locking cable release, open the back, put the glass with the tape side towards the lens between the film guide rails, and check focus with a loupe. Now, to make real ground glass for TLRs here’s an easy way: go to the auto parts store and pick up a little $5 container of valve grinding compound. It’s like grease with metal dust in it. Wearing surgical gloves and using a flat table as a surface, put some of the compound between two pieces of glass and rub them together until they’re good and frosty on that side (5-10 min should do it). Wipe them off carefully with paper towels and then clean them with Windex or other solvent, then cut yourself a piece of fresh ground glass. Messy but easy. Note: I tried using this for the focus check but under a loupe this kind of ground glass is too dark, like an SLR focus prism at small aperture. The tape works better for focus checking, the ground glass better for TLRs. I’ve hear you can use a glass etching chemical available at well-stocked craft stores. While you’re at it, make another bigger one for your 6×9 folders, why not?
A fungus among us? Strange as it sounds, there is a fungus that attacks the coatings on lenses, filters, and other camera glass, then the acid it secrets etches the glass permanently. You’ll see this mainly in older lenses, particularly ones that haven’t been cleaned in a while. I suspect that the fungus spores are simply present in dust and just allowing dust to collect on a lens, particularly around the rim, is enough to encourage eventual fungus growth (there’s a case for using caps). While I’ve been pretty lucky for the most part I have successfully cleaned fungus off a few lenses and converters. If you’ve got fungus, then in my opinion you’ve got little to lose by attempting to clean it off. Disassemble the lens, carefully, with surgical or cotton gloves on, from the front (usually) by removing the retaining rings in order. Important: place them down in order of removal or videotape yourself in case you get confused, and note which way the elements were facing. I mixed up the elements on a zoom lens and it took me two days to get them all back together correctly! (Though sometimes putting them in the wrong way can have unexpectedly pleasing results…) Often you’ll find screws are held in place with lacquer, you can dissolve it with a dab of nail polish remover, then reglue with clear nail polish on your way back out. Careful though, nail polish remover melts plastic and takes off paint! When you find the fungus, you can clean it with one of two solutions: either a 50-50 mix of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia (stinky but works well!) mixed right before you use it, or cold cream. An ex-camera tech wrote me to say that spit also removes the fungus and you can then clean it with Windex or something. I generally opt for cold cream and it works beautifully (though I’ll try the spit next time!). Just make sure you wipe off the excess and then re-clean the glass with Windex or ethanol before reassembly, and blow out any dust that may have gotten inside. Cold cream is mostly mineral oil, so if there’s a residue it will fog your lens a little. If the lens has been etched by the fungus, you’re almost certainly better off buying a new one than trying to do something drastic like having it reground. Or use it as a portrait lens, maybe the fuzziness around the edges will give you that soft halo you’ve been looking for!
Lenses: Mechanical Problems
Occasionally you’ll run across a lens that has mechanical issues. This can range from a bent auto-indexing pin to a loose ring to oil on the blades. Seven times out of ten this can be fixed rather simply by some common sense and a little know-how. Rocking housings and loose focusing rings are usually the fault of loose screws or spanner rings, find them and tighten them (sometimes they’re under the rubber grip, which lifts off) and if possible put a tiny bit of clear nail polish on the head to keep it from coming loose again. A bent pin on an M42 lens will keep the blades from stopping down, you can usually bend it straight by squeezing it gently with a needlenose plier. Oily blades should be treated the same way you would on a rangefinder, dismantle the lens to the blades and swab with lighter fluid till clean, hopefully on your way there you’ll see the excess of lubricant in the housing and can clean that up as you go. Sometimes it’s something else bent or a weak spring, you’ll only be able to determine that when you get in there and then may need the help of a parts lens to fix the problem. If the lens feels gritty when you turn it that usually means dirt in the heilicoid threads, clean them up and lightly re-lube with synthetic grease. Zoom lenses are particularly complex, I don’t recommend taking them apart unless you already have experience working on lenses, and even then be *extremely* careful to note the location and orientation of all the elements and spacers. You should do that anyway but after the fact it’s much easier to figure out on your own with a 6-element, 4-group normal lens than a 12-element, 8-group zoom. TRUST ME.
Also – see my special section on relubing the Industar-26 and Industar-61 lenses
This may be an issue with other lenses as well but I’ve only heard of it with Pentax Takumar lenses of a certain vintage. Something about the combination of rare earth (radioactive!) elements has caused the glass to take on a yellow cast over time. Though I haven’t tried this myself, I heard firsthand from someone who did, that you can put it in a windowsill for a week and the sun will bleach the glass back to its normal color. The one thing no one seems to be able to tell me is how long this fix is good for. Anyone?
Meters: Selenium Cells
You can spot selenium cells easily, they look a lot like ‘cat’s eye’ bicycle reflectors (these are actually the plastic covers, which are designed to increase the surface area and diffuse light over the meter cells). They are light-sensitive but eventually die and once dead, they’re dead. Some cameras like the Olympus Trip 35 and original Canonets have a ring of selenium cells around the lens and since they’re ‘always on’, you’ll find that they’re sometimes now dead if they’ve not been kept in the dark. Selenium was replaced as light meter material sometime in the 60s by Cadmium Sulfide (CdS) which becomes light sensitive in the presence of electric current, eg a battery. In any event, be happy if your selenium meter works, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t. Instead, learn the ‘sunny f16 rule’ or get a handheld meter like my fave, the GE PR-1 (also selenium, go figure!)
Followup – I’ve since heard that the major malfunction of selenium cells is not exposure to light but actually exposure to moisture! So a well-made, well-sealed meter cell should last for quite a long time, as evidenced by the samples that I have, which are nearly all still working and working properly even after 30-40 years.
Meters: CdS Cells
The standard photocell since the late 1960s, cadmium sulfide cells look like little discs with a printed-circuit zigzag line on it. On SLRs you’ll ususally find them under the top cap behind the prism, on rangefinders they’ll usually be mounted inside the lens housing behind a ring with successively smaller holes in it. Like selenium cells, they are variable resistors that alter the amount of voltage reaching the meter, in this case the voltage comes from a battery instead of the sun. They can occasionally die but usually the problem is a corroded ground wire from a leaky battery. See my GAF Memo 35 page for details on how I replaced a CdS photocell with a new one from Radio Shack. Note that the replacements will be more sensitive than the originals (progress, you know), so you’ll have to adjust the inline variable resistor till the meter reads correctly against a known good meter. The variable resistor looks like the one in the picture below, turn the arm to adjust the current flowing from the battery. Incidentally, this is also a quick and dirty way to adjust a meter from 1.3v mercury to take a modern 1.5v battery!
Meters: Battery Compartments
Frequently in 60s-70s cameras with electonic meters you’ll find that a mercury battery was left too long in the chamber and leaked. After carefully removing and disposing of the battery, and washing your hands (it’s mercury, after all), you can swab out the green residue with white vinegar and a cotton swab. Hope the wiring is still all OK. Replace with equivalent Alkaline or Wein Cell, available at places like the Battery Guys. I’ve tried a Radio Shack contact cleaner pen, doesn’t compare with simple vinegar and a Q-tip. Sometimes a fiberglass scratch brush comes in handy but they’re a little hard to find, though inexpensive once you do. An alternative is a punched-out circle of fine sandpaper glued to a new pencil eraser. If the wires themselves are the problem you’ll need to replace usually just one, get out your soldering iron because this falls under the heading of…
For anything more advanced not covered here or on the camera pages (like the detailed GSN repair I walk through) you’ll probably want to get the service manual, likely available at CraigCamera or manuals2go.com and maybe a general camera repair text like Ed Romney‘s popular (if amateurishly published) Revised Basic Training in Camera Repair, which I have and recommend. Pricey ($40US) but pays for itself quickly if you’ve got the bug like me. I have service manuals for the Contaflex I-IV, Yashica GSN/GTN and others. Some are helpful, some are not, for instance the Contaflex one is extremely confusing as it tries to cover too many revisions of the camera and the language is obscure. Remember these are written for service technicians, not laypeople.
Patience and attention to detail are necessities. For me it’s a nice calming exercise as I am rather impatient and not so much detail-oriented. Also it helps to not have toddlers running around, that should go without saying. I do my work late at night with a bad movie on and a nice bright magnifying lamp.
Parts is Parts
On the subject of advanced repairs, if you need parts for a camera, the best source is obviously a ‘parts’ camera of the same type from which you can scavage screws, etc. This is especially true if you’re looking for a specific piece like a replacement for a badly dented top cap, a broken fresnel screen or a lens element. Generic parts like wind levers and self-timer levers can be scavaged from similar cameras, and possibly adapted to fit with needle files if you’re not too particular about restoring to ‘like-new’ condition. However if you’re looking for screws or springs, you can use not only broken cameras for parts but also broken radios, electronic toys, or possibly find parts at the local hardware or hobby store. I used a small $.99 mirror from a craft store to fix my ancient Voigtlander brilliant, screws from the hardware store to modify my Walzflex, and a battery spring from an electronic toy or flashlight will happily adapt a PX28 battery to fit in a Yashica GSN.
It’s also well known that people usually ruin the first camera they try to fix. Practice on a camera you don’t care too much about, like a $5 Argus. If it works when you’re done, all the better, if not – no big loss! I’ve been lucky so far, but then my Contaflex no longer works after I ‘fixed’ it. Yes, I fixed it good.