This posting will cover some of the basic techniques that I use in camera restoration: leather restoration, bellows repair, and maintenance of camera interiors. There may, of course, be a few digressions…
The three most common camera coverings are leather of the “Morocco” variety, typically found on the older, pre-1925 roll film cameras and large format cameras; harder black leather encountered on post-1925 roll film cameras; and leatherette and other artificial coverings found on prewar to modern cameras.
It is worth noting that true Moroccan leather is made from goatskin; the French make an imitation from sheepskin, which is also known as saffian. The Household Cyclopedia of General Knowledge‘s account from 1881 of the preparation of Moroccan leather makes interesting reading but is not for the weak of stomach. The descriptions of boiling the skins in lye or the days soaking in the nearby river provide an intriguing historical perspective, but the accounts of extended sojourns in extracts of dog feces are unappealing. It is to be hoped that George Eastman chose his suppliers with some attention to their methodology.
Etherington and Roberts’ publication on bookbinding defines Moroccoan leather thus:
“…A vegetable tanned leather having a characteristic pinhead grain pattern developed either naturally or by means of graining or boarding, but never by embossing…
…by long usage, the term “morocco” is taken to denote a goatskin, tanned by any vegetable tannage, and boarded in the wet condition…
…when properly produced, morocco goatskins are very durable, flexible, beautifully grained, and relatively strong… The skins are…. obtained from several areas, including: wild goats, principally from Africa, which generally produce heavy skins with a very bold grain; domestic goats, which produce a leather with the more familiar hard grain or ‘pinhead morocco’; and true Persian Morocco, which is produced from Indian or East Indian goatskins…”
As an aside, it should also be noted that, besides producing camera leather, the goats of Morocco are also famous for their ability to climb Argan trees,
whose fruit forms part of their diet in this extremely inhospitable environment. It appears to be a successful symbiotic relationship, as the droppings of the goats nourish the trees.
And returning to the topic…
Leather in good condition on later vintage cameras tends to be fairly hard and durable; if not mistreated, it may need nothing more than a light coating of a good leather cream followed by shoe polish and a good buffing. Also useful for restoring the sheen to black camera leather is the water-based instant shoe polish found with a sponge beneath the cap. Once applied, this is quite durable and imparts a high gloss to the surface.
The older Moroccan leathers were softer and more susceptible to staining and deterioration if misused. If well cared for, they may still be in wonderful shape, with good durability and flexibility. However, Morocco leather can become extremely friable with age if it dries out. Leather that has become detached should ideally be reglued with one of Aileen’s tacky craft glues before being subjected to polishing and rubbing.
Gently replacing the essential oils is the first step to restoring the integrity and flexibility old dry leather; this can be accomplished with either an oil-based treatment such as Dyo Viscol Waterproofing, or a good leather cream such as Dyo Leather Balm, and optimally, both used in succession with the oil-based treatment following the water/silicone-based cream. After the leather has been rehydrated, the surface can be restored with a good quality shoe cream or polish and then buffed. Scuffed areas, which appear lighter, can be darkened by local application of either leather dye or a dark brown shoe cream.
Other techniques are available but need to be tailored to the condition and type of leather. A product known as Lexol is also used as a leather conditioner, penetrating well and rehydrating the leather in one step; however, it darkens the leather and lends it a slightly oily texture. I use it only when I am desperate. Gently scrubbing the leather with a mild detergent can be used as a first step on more modern, harder camera leathers but should be attempted only very carefully (if at all) with older, softer Moroccan leathers.
Replacement black leather for mid-twentieth century cameras can be purchased from cameraleather.com. Although buying Moroccan leather on eBay has been suggested, obtaining an exact match to leathers from the earliest part of the twentieth century may be difficult, and scavenging the covering from an unrestoreable early Kodak may be the best way of replacing missing pieces.
Bellows restoration is another example of my Golden Rule: The best way to restore a bellows is to buy the best bellows you can find and to have to do as little as possible to it. It is possible to disassemble and rebuild a bellows, and instructions exist for doing so; however, it is a complex project best left to those with experience. Some flaking and peeling of the outer bellows covering can be handled by injecting dilute white tacky craft glue under the detached leaflets and re-securing them when the glue has partially dried. If this problem is extensive, however, this is a painstaking effort and may not be worth it. Seriously deteriorated bellows are best left to professionals unless you have the time or inclination to take on a challenging project.
Bellows that are without major structural defects still exhibit a variety of small tears and holes. Most commonly, these occur at the corners or edges of folds where abrasion or repeated manipulation have created small holes, called “pinholes” in photographic vernacular. These tiny corner holes represent one of the most annoying problems in vintage camera restoration. Occurring at the points of maximum wear and maximum mechanical stress, they are difficult to repair with any degree of permanence. As a gardener, a bellows full of corner pinholes is reminiscent of a lawn infested with moles – see below.
The many methods for fixing pinholes attest to the difficulty in finding a definitive remedy. They can be taped with black tape, but this method is, in my opinion, ugly and bulky. The traditional method is painting them with a mixture of lamp black and white glue. Lamp black, also known as “Carbon Black” or “Pigment Black 6”, is an extremely stable black pigment traditionally composed of fine soot collected from incompletely burned carbonaceous materials. Used as a pigment and in matches, explosives, lubricants, and fertilizers, it is today obtained as a byproduct of coal tar distillation and is available from Naturalpigments.com. I have had no experience with the combination of lamp black and white glue as a method of repairing bellows.
Other techniques suggested on the Internet do not work. Black silicone rubber aquarium sealant creates a mess. The corners stick together and then the whole layer peels off like pizza cheese. Neither does the black rubber goo with which divers seal their wet suits.
The best solution to bellows pinholes and small tears is a material called Plasti-Dip, recommended by Thomas Tomosoy in his excellent book, “Restoring Classic and Collectible Cameras.”
Plasti-Dip is a syrupy plastic material used to coat tool handles. Manufactured by Plasti-Dip International (http://www.plastidip.com/home_solutions/Plasti_Dip), it can be painted in a thin coating onto bellows, covering up small holes and tears. It is lightproof, flexible, and tough. Some years ago, I bought a No.1 Kodak Junior only to find that some kind soul had carefully peeled off the entire outer paper coating, leaving only exposed struts and the bellows’ inner lining, which, fortunately, was intact. Several thin coats of Plasti-Dip produced a smooth outer coat that was almost indistinguishable from the original surface. I am still using the camera, and the surface has withstood multiple openings and closings. I heartily recommend Plasti-Dip for bellows repair.
Nicks in the paint on the interiors of metal-bodied cameras are best touched up by hand with a fine brush. If the bellows interior is faded and has lost its rich black color, a matte black spray paint such as Krylon can be used after carefully shielding the camera body.
The interiors of wooden camera seem to have been treated with a semi-transparent black stain that has soaked into the wood but has not formed a surface coating. After some experimentation, I have found that India Ink brushed onto the surface reproduced this coating well and is almost indistinguishable from the original stain. Once it has been painted on and has soaked into the wood, it is quite durable and can readily be touched up as needed.
“Lamp Black.” http://naturalpigments.com/detail.asp?PRODUCT_ID=480-50S.
“Moroccan Leather.” 1881. The Household Cyclopedia of General Information. http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Household_Cyclopedia_of_General_Information/moroccole_cfh.html.
Roberts, M. T. and Etherington, D. “Morocco.” Bookbinding and the Consevation of Books: A Dictionary of Terminology. U.S. Government Printing Office (Electronic Edition). http://cool.conservation-us.org/don/dt/dt2275.html.
Tomosoy, Thomas. “Restoring Classic and Collectible Cameras.” Amherst Media Inc., Buffalo, New York. 1998.
Wikipedia entry on Morocco Leather. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morocco_leather.
Pinholes Are Like Moles:
Regarding bellows and their problems: consider moles. Hosting one of these obnoxious little creatures is a bit like opening your home to your alcoholic Uncle Ambrose and his five pot-smoking teenagers. They will cheerfully
install subterranean turnpikes and interchanges beneath your lawn, causing the surface to collapse into ruts and miniature sinkholes. Their air shafts are marked by those familiar mounds of earth that pockmark your front yard like miniature heaps of mine tailings.
True story, Seattle Times, circa 1995: An amiable Seattleite had an evil neighbor. This individual argued about fences, cut limbs off the good neighbor’s favorite trees, complained about the slightest noise, and generally made his neighbor’s life miserable
One day, the evil neighbor put in a new lawn, and stood admiring it from his front porch.
Now, every once in a while, the cosmos does decide to balance its books. A few days later, a mole moved into the good neighbor’s yard, and soon little dirt piles began to appear. Being a kindly soul, the good neighbor bought a live trap and succeeded in capturing the mole. Unfortunately, this event happened right after a particularly egregious episode between the two neighbors. Proving that, when no-one is looking, even the best of us are capable of acts of true depravity, the good Seattleite crept into his neighbor’s yard after dark and let the little critter go.
Within a week, the mole had totally destroyed the evil neighbor’s yard.
Which is why anarchy doesn’t work. People are not naturally good. At least not all the time.
The truly amazing thing about moles is the number of ways that have been proposed for getting rid of them. The traditional method is the mole trap. Placed into a hole dug into the burrow, its jaws snick shut as the unsuspecting creature brushes past, neatly send him to the place where the worms are large and always slow. One company sells castor oil by the gallon to spray on your garden. Or you can feed a pipe connected to your mower’s exhaust down the hole, doing the little monster in with carbon monoxide. One gardener piped acetylene gas down the holes, then dropped in a match. Another drove steel stakes into his lawn then connected them to high voltage. I have a friend who pours gasoline into the holes, then sets them on fire. I tried it. Doesn’t do much for the moles, but it’s a lot of fun.
After spending a bundle on wimpy mole bombs, I found a solution: road flares. You just take off the cap, hit the phosphorous-laden red end with the striker, and shove the flare down the hole. Presto! The burrow fills with evil-smelling sulfurous smoke. Doesn’t kill the moles, but the smell usually persuades them to go to the Sheraton for a few weeks.
Truth is, the reason there are so many ways to get rid of moles is that none of them work. At least not permanently.
Pinholes are the moles of photography. They are difficult to fix, recur frequently, and ruin your best pictures when you least expect it. Thank God for Plasti-Dip!