Restoring Antique Cameras
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Camera Restoration

By Frank Marshman

Before I attempt to breach this topic let’s first try to illuminate 3 concepts: repair, restoration and conservation.
Repair usually means the cleaning, lubricating and adjustment of a camera to make it serviceable for the good working of taking pictures, kind of how you'd repair a flat tire so the car runs correctly.

1. Repair usually means the cleaning, lubricating and adjustment of a camera to make it serviceable for the good working of taking pictures. This may include the disassembly and replacement of parts as well as rebuilding any mechanisms as is necessary. The sole purpose is to make a camera workable where it wasn’t before.

2. Restoration means to bring the camera to a condition that reflects the original manufactures intent. This may or may not include the repair to operational condition of the mechanism.

3. Conservation is the idea of holding a camera at the point were it is and not allowing any deterioration. This may apply to a camera, which is perhaps the first of a run or one known to have been owned or used by a very important photographer. Usually neither repair nor restoration is included or involved with such a camera.

In this discussion, I would like to only talk about restoration.

I have been fortunate enough to make my living as camera mechanic for the past 30 years and during that time have repaired more than 75,000 cameras of every make, shape, model and age so I feel I come to this discussion with some sort of authority. Within the past few years, I find myself increasingly involved in the restoration of cameras. To that end, I have spent the last 3 years trying to determine guidelines.

Because photography and cameras are relatively new, invented in 1840’s for all practical purposes, no one group or organization has taken the time to work out the acceptable do’s and don’ts of restoration. I have talked to many collectors and curators to get their ideas and they run the gamete from “what ever is the cheapest” to complete renovation of the entire item. Consequently, I went to another source, The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in London, and their guidelines for what is acceptable in restoration of clocks and watches. After all, clocks have been around about 600 years longer than cameras and as a result, a great deal of information has been amassed about this subject.

A distillation of their guidelines are, “What is the intent of the original designer and any new parts should be recognizable and removable at a later time if so desired.” It is a given that the restorer or mechanic doing the work has the level of skill necessary to do the work and to that end they have degrees of proficiency awarded on experience, skill and testing. This is something that should be included in the camera repair sector also.

Even so, what is proper and what is not changes as science and information expands so what is acceptable today may not be tomorrow. For instance, a few years ago ultrasonic cleaning was thought to be the best way to clean gears and plate since it cleaned better by removing deep dirt that mechanical washing machines left behind. However, electron microscope examination of older gears and plates not made of a of modern brass revealed that these were sustaining barely perceptible but damaging fractures do to this very cleaning procedure. The accepted method is once again to use soap and the older mechanical cleaning machine for mechanisms of this age.

Cameras are far more complex than either clocks or watches because they involve not only mechanical and optical design but also the science of materials and the effects of aging, which complicate the steps for preservation and or restoration to manufacturers intent. There are the lenses that may or may not be coated, shutters of varying complexity, internal transport and mirror mechanism, body material and the external covering. All of these parts need to be addressed separately and each can bring a large headache to the job.

Finally, when I do a repair, I need to consider the wishes of the owner of the camera.
Altruistically we may consider ourselves the caretakers of history but in reality, most of us are not. The bottom line is going to be the value and cost: If we own a camera that has a value of X dollars how much are we willing to spend for the restoration of it? Likewise, if we are going to do the job ourselves how much are we willing to risk as far as damaging it, and in turn reducing its value?

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Historic Camera , 2002.