Restoring Vintage Cameras I: The Golden Rule (An eBay Buying Guide)


The Camera and the Goat

eBay Ad 2008

“Folding Ansco camera box with tripod.  I call it a camera box because it does not have any optical parts inside. The box (without tripod) is made of wood and brass and glass.  And the length depends on if it’s folded shut or opened all the way.  There is glass in either end.   The “box” folds and moves and tilts and swivels in more ways than one can imagine. It does everything but take a picture!   If you have any questions please email me.  Goat in photos not included.”

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The most important thing to remember about restoring vintage cameras is: Don’t.

Don’t put yourself in the position of doing a thing that you don’t have to.  This means buying the very best camera that you can for the least amount of money and needing to do the least amount of restoration possible.  Since much of vintage camera shopping is done on eBay, this means becoming painstaking about dissecting the language of eBay ads and examining in minute detail the often substandard photographs of old equipment.

First, the language.  The most obvious red flags are phrases such as “For parts”, “For restoration”, “As is”, and “No refunds or exchanges.”  These usually indicate an honest seller who has a camera that is in poor condition or has parts missing.  This is not necessarily a bad thing if parts are what you want.  Old 1920s Kodak Moroccan leather is almost impossible to match, and many otherwise nice Kodaks are missing the strip of leather just above the front plate.  Having a trashed camera to strip for leather to patch missing pieces can be a definite asset.  However, “No refunds” means just that, and if you are spending money with this proviso, be reasonably sure of what you are getting, or be prepared to accept the risk.

The other phrase one encounters is some variation on “I don’t know anything about cameras…”  In this case, the onus really is on the buyer to determine the condition and desirability of the camera from the image and what is usually a sparse and inaccurate description.  This situation can, however, at times work to the buyer’s advantage;  if one knows what one is looking for, a poorly-described item often attracts fewer competitors in the bidding process, and real gems can sometimes be picked up for a modest price.

Second, the photographs.  These need to be examined minutely.  If, like most photographers, you have a Photoshop on your computer, you can often use the program to examine substandard images.  Click “ENLARGE” under the image, then right click on the picture and use “Copy Image” or “Save Image As” to download a jpeg copy of the item’s image.  Then open the image in Photoshop and use the “Curves” and “Brightness and Contrast” functions to lighten up dark areas and expose detail.  The image can be expanded using Photoshop’s zoom function to examine manufacturer’s nameplates for model numbers, bellows for corner wear, and hidden corners for rust spots.

The defects that can be tolerated depend on one’s level of skill.  Repairing shutters is complex and potentially expensive, so I prefer cameras whose description indicates that the shutter is firing correctly.  Shutter speeds may still be slow in this case, but there should be no major problems.  Although very experienced restorers will rebuild or replace bellows, my experience has taught me that at my skill level, bellows requiring significant repairs are a major undertaking and should be avoided.  Scrutinizing the images for ratty corners or buckled or sagging folds will prevent hours of patching holes and reinforcing folds where the cardboard panels have collapsed.  In general, I avoid cameras where the description or picture suggest any problems with the shutter or bellows.

Bellows and Their Problems:

It is worth considering bellows construction in more detail in order to understand the anatomy of bellows problems.  The best quality bellows on older cameras were constructed from a thin leather skin with a fine linen cloth layer inside, between which were thin strips of firm cardboard which encouraged the leather to fold along the creases between the strips. The earlier bellows had square cut corners, but this was found to promote pinholing at the corners, so a shift to chamfered corners began around 1900.  In practice, most vintage cameras that one deals with have chamfered folds.

Square Cornered Bellows 1889 Lancaster Instantograph

Chamfered Corners 1904 Sanderson

Leather bellows can show remarkable longevity, and even after a century can still be soft and light proof with well-defined folds. However, if poorly stored or treated, they will simply fall to pieces, or if allowed to get wet will become stiff and fragile. If improperly folded or crushed so that the cardboard reinforcing struts are crumpled, bellows of any kind will become floppy and impossible to fold, as shown by this Rochester Century Camera:

Rochester Century Cirkut with Crumpled Bellows Stays

These bellows need to be replaced or disassembled and rebuilt.  The camera is probably worth the investment, but either approach is expensive and time-consuming.

Later bellows, particularly on less expensive cameras, were made of a light canvas-like fabric treated to make it lightproof.  This material can be less durable and can develop pinholing at the corners, allowing light to leak in.  This problem is not uncommon and is virtually impossible to detect from eBay photographs.  However, it can in many cases be easily remedied if only a few corners are affected; this problem will be covered in subsequent posting on restoration.  Fabric bellows are also susceptible to crumpling of the cardboard struts if badly treated or subjected to moisture; such bellows are past being salvageable, as can be seen with this brown No. 1 Kodak:

Crumpled Bellows Stays on a Roll Film Camera

Returning Items:

Do not be shy about returning items that are not as described.  Sellers who send you items that are in poor conditition compared to the descriptions fall into two classes:  those who are genuinely trying to pawn of a ratty camera, and those who are well intentioned and simply do not know better.  Personally, I return unsatisfactory items as soon as possible, even sending them back from the post office within hours of receiving them, and without asking permission.  The true grifter will usually complain, but can do little when faced with a fait accompli.  The second class of seller usually knows nothing of vintage cameras, and simply does not realize that the nicks and gouges that lend character to an Edwardian sideboard are less appealing when encountered on a classic Voigtlander.  These sellers are usually most apologetic and tend to be very grateful for the feedback.  If a seller cheerfully issues a refund, I always give them glowing eBay feedback to that effect, and will often offer to advise them for free in the future on camera values or condition.  Good eBay sellers are valuable, but those who cover problems without question are a godsend!

Other Problems to Watch For:

Rust can be difficult to detect, but may show up as a darkish discoloration.  If you suspect rust, query the seller using eBay’s “Ask the seller a question…” function.  Missing leather is a frequent problem, and matching old leather cam be extremely difficult.  Camera straps are often missing or damaged, and photographs should be examined carefully to determine the condition of the strap.  The image below of a No. 1 Kodak Junior shows empty top brackets and an absent top strap:

Missing Strap, No. 1 Kodak Junior

Missing leather can be either obvious or subtle.  Frequently, small bits of missing leather can be compensated for by painting the underlying metal the same shade as the leather covering.  Alternatively, having a nonrestorable camera as a source of leather bits is helpful.

On classic Kodak cameras, one site to examine carefully is the region on the front of the body just above the drop-down front panel/baseplate.  This is covered by a single small piece of horizontal leather.  While the larger pieces covering the remainder of the body my become partially detached but usually retain some areas where the glue still holds, this small piece not infrequently falls off entirely when the glue begins to dry out, as illustrated by the Kodak below:

Leather Missing Above Baseplate

And Finally…

Even with carefully examination, there will still be some cameras that you pay good money for and just toss in the trash.  I recently purchased for $35.00 a 120 Certonet, a make with which I have limited familiarity, and found it to have multiple small problems and, despite my examination of the pictures, a missing strap.  Furthermore, it is simply a rather cheaply-made camera.  I consider it a learning experience and will not buy another one.  The same trip to the post office brought me a 3A Ansco roll film camera for which I paid the princely sum of $6.50.  Despite having detached leather and needing a great deal of cleaning, this old gem is well made and entirely intact.  It will restore beautifully.  In the end, it all evens out, and the occasional piece of junk is balanced by the gems that you occasionally find for next to nothing.

References:

Living Image Vintage Camera Museum.  “Camera Anatomy- Bellows Cameras.”  http://licm.org.uk/livingImage/BellowsCamera.html

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5 Responses to “Restoring Vintage Cameras I: The Golden Rule (An eBay Buying Guide)”

  1. Jim Says:

    This is great advice. I tend to buy old cameras that are in decent enough shape to use as is. I’m not experienced at repairs and prefer not to have to mess with them!

    • randcollins Says:

      Thanks, Jim. It is wonderful when you are able to find a vintage camera in that shape. Sadly, the majority need some work to make them look spiffy. Keep reading, and over the next couple of weeks I will post how-to tips on restoration. Some of these are fairly simple, and might be useful to you.

  2. Dean Sturgis Says:

    When was the Ansco 3A last used?
    The typed label inside the camera has a zip code in the address. Zip codes didn’t come into use until 1963. So someone was at least thinking of using the camera as late as 1963.

  3. Kah Wai Lin Says:

    A great article on eBay camera shopping:)

  4. Perci Says:

    Great said! Bellows are mostly used in cameras to protect dusts and it helps to extend camera upto a certain limit without any distracting.

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