My Process for Refurbishing a Film Camera

Introduction

One of the hidden joys of buying second hand cameras is that they often require some degree of refurbishment. From my perspective, the amount and type of work required is related to what the camera will be used for. If the camera will only be used for display, cosmetic work is all that is required. However, if the camera was bought to take photos with, there is likely to be other work required. All of my cameras fall into the latter camp, as I pride myself on keeping them all fully functional.

To explain my process for refurbishment, I will going to focus on the camera that I most recently finished: a Contax 139 Quartz from the early 1980s. The Contax overhaul was relatively minor, consisting of cleaning, re-sealing and re-covering, but the principles are the same as for any overhaul.

Deciding to Overhaul? Research Your Camera!

My Contax 139 Quartz, in the condition I purchased it in.
My Contax 139 Quartz, as purchased. A couple of hours on the internet gave me enough basic knowledge to diagnose the faults and assess its viability for refurbishment.

It is impossible to over-stress the importance of knowing what you are looking at. As with anything in modern life, Google is the best place to start. You need to know: how the camera works; if there are any commonly encountered faults; and how plentiful spare parts are. It is a good idea to download any service manuals if they are available, as they can save a lot of misery.

Once you have an idea of how the camera should be operating, and what faults are likely to be present, check to see that it is behaving as expected. As you do this, make notes of everything that requires attention. In the case of the Contax, the light seals in the film compartment and mirror box were perished, the body covering and leather pads on the strap (as with most Contax cameras of that era) were deteriorated, the lens and viewfinder were dusty, the mirror had a residue from the perished seal, the body was dusty, with the odd sticky mark, and the self timer didn’t work.

When you have an idea of the work to be done, the next port of call is to look at eBay and stores (online and otherwise). I use eBay to find market values of cameras in presentable condition, and also to price spare parts. I use local shops for items like batteries and cleaning supplies, while I use specialty online stores for items like body coverings.

The final part of this step is to assess the viability of the overhaul: is it achievable? Will the refurbishment cost less than the value of the camera once it is refurbished? In the case of the Contax, the work required was straightforward (i.e. achievable) and (including buying the camera) cost less than the market value. Therefore, I decided it was worth refurbishing the camera. I elected not to repair the self timer, though, as it is something I rarely use.

Refurbishing

A sticky residue on the back of the camera. This was one of the early jobs to be done, and was achieved by rubbing it with gentle detergent and a damp cloth.
A sticky residue on the back of the camera. This was removed with several applications of gentle detergent and a damp cloth.

Start by getting the easiest jobs out of the way, then work up to the more difficult tasks. This has two effects: you feel like you have achieved more of your task list, and you will not get stressed to the point of abandoning the project. For the Contax refurbishment, I started by dusting the lens and viewfinder with a camel hair brush, then wiped them with lens cleaning fluid and a microfibre cloth. Next, I moved onto the body, removing sticky residues with detergent and a damp cloth. After drying the body, I dusted it down, paying particular attention to the crevices around the controls.

The perished leather pad on the strap. Sanding it back lightly, and applying several thin coats of shoe polish does an acceptable job of restoring it.
The perished leather pad on the strap. Sanding it back lightly, and applying several thin coats of shoe polish gave an acceptable result.

After the basic jobs, I began running two jobs in tandem: the strap pads and the light seals. First, I sanded the leather pads lightly by hand with a 120 grit sandpaper. Next, I applied a thin coat of black shoe polish to each side of the strap. While this was drying, I removed the old light seals from the camera by scraping them out with a small screwdriver (taking due care not to slip and consign the camera to the parts pile). I recommend removing the film door if possible, as this makes the re-sealing process much simpler. Since I prefer felt seals to foam (they are more permanent), I cut some black felt to the various required sizes (using black wool for the thinner sections). I secured the new seals with a multi-bond adhesive, then trimmed extraneous fibres with a sharp pair of scissors. Once the seals were done, the thin layer of polish had dried on the strap pads. I repeated the sanding and polishing process an additional five times, until a hard layer, similar to the original, had formed.

The light seal on the film door. Removing the door is the easiest way to re-seal it.
The light seal on the film door. Removing the door is the easiest way to re-seal it.

The next step will likely spark some controversy: I cleaned the mirror. This is generally not advisable, especially on newer cameras, and I would not recommend it unless you can either afford to write the camera off, or live with the consequences. Being careful, it is possible to do it without causing any damage. My method is to use a soft cotton bud (I think Q-tip is the American terminology), and soak it in lens cleaning fluid, then softly draw it across the mirror surface in a tight zig-zag motion. I follow up quickly with a dry one in the same soft zig-zag motion. By moving the camera around under a bright light, you can see if there is any residue left. I repeated the process until any residues were gone. Satisfied that the mirror was clean and streak free, I moved onto the final job.

The final stage in the Contax refurbishment was re-covering the body. I ordered a kit from Aki Asahi, and followed their installation instructions as closely as possible. Once the body was re-covered, I loaded the camera with film and used it, to verify that everything was working well, and that my repairs were not compromising its functionality.

Closing Remarks

The Contax 139 Quartz after refurbishment.
The Contax 139 Quartz after refurbishment.

The refurbishment worked, and the camera looks, feels and works much better than it did when I purchased it (which is the goal, after all). It took me a week of evenings to finish the job, which is very quick (I have two cameras that I have been refurbishing for over two years a piece…). Now that the job is finished, the camera is regularly dusted, and the lens spends its time capped to prevent any dust accumulating. Occasionally, I remove the lens cap and expose the lens to sunlight, as the ultraviolet component of sunlight prevents fungal growth, which helps to preserve the lens.

 

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3 thoughts on “My Process for Refurbishing a Film Camera”

  1. I really liked this account of your refurbishment project. Some years ago I bought a non-working Contax 139Q with two lenses. Both the camera and one of the lenses required repair. I covered the camera with black leather from Milly’s Cameras in the UK. Now the camera is my pride and joy. Everything works perfectly and looks the part. A class object of cult affection.

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