Ancient Wooden Field View Camera Restoration

25 Sep

For all its apparent simplicity in construction, repairing an old wooden view camera can be as difficult,  if not more difficult, than fixing a Leica.  These old wood and leather and brass cameras have more in common with cabinets and furniture than with gears and springs found in the mechanical average metal and plastic cameras.   Less precision in operation, but more demanding in fitting.  Everything is handmade and cut to fit.    The old screws don’t unscrew anymore.  Brass and wood tend to fuse somehow after decades (this camera must be anywhere from 60-100 years old).  The old screws have to be replaced with new ones with bigger threads to fasten the parts together.

The bellows in this camera has collapsed.  It was in a much better state when it arrived, but age has taken its toll- the mere action of folding and unfolding has caused the bellows to fall apart.  Add to that a sneaky fat cat who mistook the extended camera as a “pet taxi” and decided to sleep in it…    The bellows is actually a composite of three materials: An inner liner of black cloth,  glue-soaked cardboard stiffeners (those brown strips seen above), and an outer skin of synthetic leatherette.  Considering what went in, there would actually be 5 layers- leatherette, glue, cardboard, glue, and blacking varnish.

The materials for making new bellows can be easily found.  Bristol board (“cartolina”), glue, black cotton twill (thinner grade), and red bookbinding cloth, and black flat latex paint.  I chose red instead of black because I thought it would look nicer with the old wood than black.   The bookbinding cloth is rather expensive, so it’s best to do a “dummy” bellows first using a cheaper material.

Bookbinding cloth is painted black first (using black latex paint).  2 layers should suffice.  Absolute light proofing isn’t necessary here, just enough to make the  bookbinding cloth totally black on the inner side.

Lay over the old bellows over the new, to get the needed dimensions.  Leave plenty of allowances on all sides.

Measure the folds and width (narrow and long ends) of the bellows.  Note the size of the angled side folds too.  Use these measurements to determine the specifications for the cardboard stiffeners.

Make four panels, and number them.  Then draw lines across where the fold will be.  For tapered bellows, it seems that the folds aren’t equal in width, but instead alternate from wide to narrow.  The difference isn’t much- in this bellows, the wide pleat was just 2 mm wider than the narrow one.   Panels 1 and 3 will have the same frequency in the narrow/wide alternate pattern.  Panels 2 and 4 will be similar.  So if 1 and 3 starts with wide-narrow-wide-narrow pattern, 2 and 4 will be narrow-wide-narrow-wide.

And instead of having pointy ends with separate strips, this variation is adapted from the bellows style used in small roll film folding cameras:  straight strips narrower than the full bellows width.  The angle folds on the side will no longer have stiffeners in them.

Cutting on the lines.  Instead of cutting the panel into separate strips, the cuts were made so that a bit of paper remained uncut on both sides to keep the panel in one piece.  Glueing separate little strips can be difficult.

The cuts made the paper board ‘limp’ to allow easy folding to form the bellows’s “hills and valleys”.

Lay the panels on the bookbinding cloth and trace their positions with white pencil.  Leave space between each panel.  The size of this space is based on the width of the angled folds of the original bellows.  The original spacing was about 2,5 cm, but for this bellows, it was set to 1,6cm instead, because of the changes in the actual material and specifications used.

The panels are pasted on the book binding cloth.  Instead of glue, traditional “bookbinding paste” was used instead.  Since the materials involved were the same used for book binding, why not use the proper adhesive as well?  This process will require lots of adhesive, and a litre of PVA glue can be very expensive.   Apply the paste generously on the surfaces marked with the white lines.

Lay the panels on the pasted bookbinding cloth.  One thing good about using bookbinder’s paste is that it’s not as tacky as PVA glue and sets very slowly.  You can reposition the panels.  If the panels get soggy, that’s good.  It means that the paste in getting in them and will stiffen them further when it dries.

Flatten the panels well, make sure that they are in absolute contact with the book binding cloth.  No lifting should be allowed.  Leave for about half an hour to let some of the water in the paste evaporate.

Apply paste on the panels, and in the spaces in between and beyond them.  Make sure that it’s totally covered so that the cloth liner will totally adhere on the bellows skin.

Lay a piece of black twill cloth on the pasted surface.  Stretch it flat over, until it adheres fully.  Leave the composite bellows skin stretched on a flat surface.  Allow it to dry and set.  The bad thing about bookbinder’s paste is that it takes about a day or two to fully set, longer in humid weather.

After cutting the bellows to size (make sure there is a bit of flap, about 5 cm wide left adjacent to panel 1 or 4 to allow an overlap), glue to close the seam.    The cardboard stiffener’s cuts will show through the skin and will be used as reference for folding the bellows.

After the folding.  Start from the wide side, and fold down, alternating hills and valleys between panels.  Make sure that the angled corners are evenly folded.

FITTING THE BELLOWS ON THE CAMERA.  Not quite complete yet, but almost there…

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7 Responses to Ancient Wooden Field View Camera Restoration


João Freitas

September 25th, 2009 at 15:37

Outstanding work!
Congratulations and many thanks for posting – and for the very explicit demonstration. I look forward to see what comes next. Keep us updated.
Best regards



September 25th, 2009 at 15:50

Thanks Joao!

I hope I should be able to shoot with this asap.


» Portraits with the Wooden View Camera ZorkiKat ЗоркиКат Фотографий

February 12th, 2010 at 03:34

[...] Ancient Wooden Field View Camera Restoration [...]


Rae Pedrosa

February 16th, 2010 at 19:21


Avatar one pinoy pundit points and shoots

December 28th, 2010 at 11:58

[...] the idea to ask my friend Hannah to visit and pose for a few shots, since I also did want to use the camera. She was still wearing her school uniform, and I would’ve wanted the focus to be on the eyes, [...]



September 26th, 2011 at 21:12

Good day,

My colleague has two wooden camera with glass film pictures of the ancient Omani Arabs during their stay at East Coast of Africa.

The two wooden cameras are British make which aren’t function-able.

Could you be interested in purchasing may be for museum archives.

Kindly advice.


» Portraits with the Wooden View Camera ZorkiKat ЗоркиКат Фотографий

August 6th, 2012 at 17:08

[...] Last year this camera was restored: [...]

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