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Cleaning & maintenance of old 35mm film cameras

 


 

Cleaning

 

Outside

The first and easiest step in restoring an older camera is to clean the outside. The external condition will not affect performance, but once cleaned it will look and feel a whole lot better. Even if it looks clean, the chances are an old camera is actually harbouring a lifetime of grime.

The best thing to clean a camera with is freely available: it's spit. The enzymes in saliva that break down food also break down dirt. Museum Conservators use spit to clean paintings (they call it cleaning with a mild enzymatic solution), and the phrase spit and polish acknowledges that saliva is a universal solvent that will clean almost anything, but damage next to nothing (except food and grime of course). Don't clean the lens or any other glass parts with saliva. It won't do any harm, but there are better products available. Be very careful cleaning the top face of the rewind knob on a Voigtlander. In my experience, moisture tends to dissolve the transfer printed markings.

Dampen a cotton wool bud (a Q-Tip) and rub. Don't get the camera too wet. Work on small areas at a time. Dry and polish with a soft cloth or sheet of kitchen towel. You'll see the cotton wool change colour as it removes grime.

The area on an SLR that often has the most accumulated grunge is that little triangle between the shutter release, shutter speed selector, and wind crank. An ordinary wooden cocktail stick, with a little piece of kitchen towel wrapped around the end, is often thin enough to be poked into this spot (and any other similar cranny). The principle to observe here is - whatever you use to poke into crevices must be made of a softer material than the camera - otherwise you'll just end up causing damage.

Occasionally, camera bodies require more aggressive cleaning. This can be done with metal polish, which is especially good for removing old sticker adhesive. The technique is exactly the same - a small area at a time, using a Q-tip with a tiny quantity of metal polish, a good dry polish off when you're done, or a re-clean with spit to remove the metal polish from little crevices. With something like an Agfa Silette, where the lens mount housing oxidizes, this part can be restored to a shine with lots of polishing. However, avoid touching paint with metal polish; it will quickly remove any shine or sheen. If you need to more aggressively clean a painted camera body, use a cutting compound made for cars (such as T-cut).

 

Inside

The insides of cameras are generally pretty clean, and don't often have more than a few stray tiny fibres or dust within, which can be removed with a blower, or jet of compressed air. This is far better than blowing, through pursed lips, since our breath contains moisture, which is not desirable inside a camera.

On some SLRs (such as Fujica STs), the mirror box is often lined with a Velour type material, and this can be a dust trap. Then best way to clean this is with masking tape. Masking tape has a non-transferable adhesive, so it's tacky, but doesn't bond (well it takes a long time to do so). Wrap a small piece of masking tape, sticky side out, around the tip of a finger or other poking implement. Set the camera shutter speed to "B". Trip the shutter, and hold down the release button to keep the mirror up and out of harms way. Dab the masking tape on to the walls of the mirror box, and remove. As with the saliva cleaning, you'll be able to see all the fibres and debris you collected on the masking tape. Go in through the lens mount (rather than the back of the camera), because it's a safer option, should you accidentally release the shutter while your finger is inside.

 

 

Glass

The tried and trusted lens/glass cleaning technique is to first blow and brush away any loose particles.

All glass surfaces are best cleaned with a made-for-the-purpose cleaner. The simplest lens cleaning products are generally little more than ionised water. There's nothing wrong with it, but neither is it particularly good. Others can contain ingredients such as silicone, alcohol and glycerine. These solutions tend to coat the lens while removing the embedded pollution from the surface. I use ROR (Residual Oil Remover) Pro Lens Cleaning Fluid. This can be used for general cleaning of other parts of the camera, but it's a lot more expensive than spit. Sparingly moisten a soft lens cleaning cloth (i.e. one sold for that purpose), don't rub too vigorously, and polish the glass dry with another cloth.

Mirrors sometimes have grunge on them (often picked-up from the damper), and have to be cleaned. They can be cleaned in the same way as lens glass, but do this very gently and with great care, as mirrors are easy to break. It pays to start with a tiny test corner first.

The focusing screen should be cleaned dry (unless it's removable, but let's assume it's not). Attempts to clean screens, in place, using fluids, usually make things worse, so stick to blowing debris away, and dry cleaning with masking tape. Debris that collect here have a habit of being sticky, and are often difficult to detach with a jet of air alone. Be prepared to live with anything you can't remove this way.

 

Body Covers

Camera leather can be cleaned with any leather cleaning products, but again spit does a good job. Good leather cleaning solution will feed and rejuvenate, but try not to smear it elsewhere. If a camera cover isn't actually leather, then any household cleaner (such as teeny amount of spray polish) will be suitable, but don't make the cover too slipery.

To reattach a lifting cover, I use double-sided tape - the kind used by picture framers - which is narrow, and chemically inert. The problem with adhesives is they are fluid, potentially messy, they may have a longer (or too short) setting time than tape, and can make the removal of the cover difficult, if that step ever becomes necessary.

 

Renovations

 

Light Seals

Almost all film cameras that are more than 15 years old will typically require new light seals. Deterioration of light seals is a product of time rather than use, so even that pristine camera that has never been taken out of the box is going to need some work. If your camera is old and German, it won't have light seals to replace: light seals are generally found on Japanese cameras.

There are plenty of articles on the Net that describe how to replace seals. The best are Jon Goodman's

There are broadly two types of seal: those that run in slots at the top and bottom of the camera back, into which the top and bottom lips of the door fit, and the hinge and latch side door seals. They require different materials. The door slot seals should ideally be replaced with a closed-cell neoprene type material (usually 1.5mm thick), while the door hinge seals are more normally either a self-adhesive Velour type material or felt (1mm thick). Lock side door seals vary. They can be felt-type, foam, or nothing. Of course you can use any material you like, but materials that are much closer to the original specification will do a better job.

Often there is no remaining trace of seals in the door slots. If you can't see a bed of rubber-like material in these slots, or that bed is lumpy and uneven, then the light seals have degraded. If there is a sticky black substance on the lip of the door, that's rotten seal material, and replacement work is required. If the seals appear to be on the door itself, they have either been replaced incorrectly, or the original light seal material has become gummy, stuck to the door ... and replacement is required.

The door hinge seals, being made of a different material, tend to hold-up much better, and may not need to be replaced, but I say ... if your going to replace light seals, do them all. These seals were almost always fitted to the camera body, so if the seals appear to be on the door itself, they have either been replaced incorrectly, or the original light seal material has become gummy, stuck to the door ... and replacement is recommended.

When the camera back is closed, if there is any play (movement of the door when you gently squeeze the camera body), this too is an indication that the light seals have failed. A camera with correct new seals will have absolutely no play in the door. Indeed, when the door is released, it should spring open due to the elasticity of the fresh seals.

All I would add to Jon Goodman's excellent instructions are that removal of the old seals is best done with methylated sprit. The best tool is a chopstick, whittled to a flat blade that fits in the channel, and which can be wrapped in a single layer of kitchen towel. I do not personally cut the top seal to fit around the film counter resetting button. I have found you can simply run a continuous seal over it, and the switch still operates perfectly. Either non-adhesive or self-adhesive closed-cell neoprene type material can be purchased. I prefer to use non-adhesive, because this makes it easier to take your time to bed the new seal completely flat in the groove, without twists and buckles, and get the tension right. However, Fujica ST cameras (and possibly some others) have an open top to the channel immediately below the film canister housing, and a bit of stick here helps the seal remain firmly in place.

 

Mirror Dampers

If the seals have perished, then the mirror damper is likely to be in the same condition. The sign to look for, apart from obvious deterioration, is grunge on the mirror, but it's also worth carefully touching the damper with your finger to see how it feels. I have personally encountered many dampers that looked fine, but when touched, they have permanently compressed or started to fall apart. Let me emphasise the carefully instruction, because the last thing you want to do is smear a decomposed mirror damper over the focusing screen, or dislodge a sticky lump that falls inside the camera. An open cell, spongy foam (usually 3mm thick) is a good replacement material, but this is the only place you should be using this type of foam.

Some cameras without interchangeable screens still have removable screens. It's always worth checking if a screen can be removed, because it makes replacement of the damper much easier.

I buy all my materials from UK eBay seller pilgrim18. I do not recommend any of the pre-cut kits, because they are all open cell foam, which should be reserved for dampening applications. If you are unable (or unwilling) to cut replacement parts from sheet materials, I guess the foam kits are better than nothing!

 

Electrical Contacts

Electrical contacts often oxidize, and even a microscopically thin coating of will reduce electrical conductivity. If there are any accessible electrical contacts - most often those in the battery compartment - don't be afraid to gently scrape any surface deposits with something abrasive. There are special fibreglass pens made for cleaning contacts, which are part of a domestic electrician's toolkit.

 

Replacement Covers

There is a further option to completely replace worn, damaged, or lifting covers. Aki-Asahi (Japan) is excellent. This website has detailed instructions on how to do it too. UK eBay seller millyscameras has a limited choice of uncut materials. The degree of difficulty in cutting your own replacement covers depends of the complexity of the camera you are working on.

 

Batteries

These are only problematic with cameras made to run on mercury batteries. The options are to use a modern equivalent silver oxide cell, but the higher voltage will require exposure adjustment. The Small Battery Company is good for identifying equivalent batteries. The correct voltage can be achieved with a zinc air WeinCELL, but these are significantly more expensive, and have a short working life. An MR-9 Adapter is a PX625 size/shape container with some micro electronics that houses a silver oxide cell and drops the voltage from 1.55v to 1.35v, but these are in short supply, and pretty expensive (at least 30). Take care when shopping for these, because there is a variant with no micro electronics; it simply makes a silver oxide cell a mercury battery size/shape. The final option is to keep using a 1.35v mercury cell. PX625 1.35v mercury batteries can be bought online from Moscow, via www.px625.ru, or through eBay seller ostashin. They are not cheap (about 15 with P&P), and seller listings are subject to removal by eBay from time to time. To be clear - I am not endorsing this seller - I am simply sharing information.

 

Repairs

 

Doing anything more rather depends on what camera you are restoring, tools available, your skill, knowledge and nerve. I have included links on individual pages of this site (plus general sources from the links page) to any other websites I've found that offer a good clear explanation of common repairs, but it's a case of necessity being the mother of invention, in so much that I only go looking for these resources when I encounter a problem. I much prefer to buy working cameras than attempt to repair them.