See the restoration progress of a 100+ year old ultra large format studio camera rescued from the attic of a lockup in Sunderland. From severe woodworm to extensive repair and eventual working order shooting 15″ square plates…

Wass Camera Project Post #1 – Background & First Photos

A slight precursor to this post for those outside of the North East of England regarding the word WASS.  Wass is a NE (or maybe Sunderland only) word which means massive, or huge, eg: ‘just seen a geet wass spider under me bed, like.’ And also a nod to the legendary ‘WASS HAIR’ unisex salon in Grindon.

Well, time to resurrect the blog (for now) as I’ve got a rather large project on the go. A month or two back, I was very kindly donated a huge studio camera, likely mid-late Victorian. It had been in the attic of a lockup belonging to the uncle of some very good friends, and he was glad to see it go to a good home where it’ll (hopefully) be returned to working condition and used! And very grateful I am for it too. Much thanks to Mr. Ramsey, Anna, and Uncle Ian.

It had been in the lockup for at least 60/70 years I think, according to Ian and the bloke who had the lockup previously. In all likelihood, it’s probably been there 100+ years. Also a theory that the building was previously part of land owned by the Doxford family so there could be an interesting Sunderland connection there… Here’s the photos which I was sent initially, I said YES straight away:

 

It was made by Urman, who were based in St. Nicholas Buildings, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, so it’s a nice local camera. It is an absolute beast, will produce images 15×15″ or thereabouts, and comes with a wheeled stand, presumably for moving around the studio. Can’t imagine it was ever used outside of a studio environment, but I have a feeling it will be soon. Ha!

Incidentally, if anyone knows anything about the manufacturer I’d be grateful to hear more – there doesn’t appear to be any evidence online so I think a delve into some local trade catalogues will be in order.

The lens is engraved by a well known manufacturer, bearing the words: ‘Adjusted by Perken, Son & Co Ltd – Hatton Gardens, London. 3B Optimus.’ Waterhouse stops too which would indicate this originates from late 1850s through to the early 1880s, although there is conflicting evidence of the Perken name changes in later years so I wouldn’t like to say for definite. It may have been a no-name lens which was fine tuned by Perken at a later date, who knows? Brass is in poor condition but glass is reasonably clear, and it does project a sharp image so I’m confident it’ll be usable. Bellows look beyond repair but I will evaluate those properly in due course…

Getting it down from the attic of the lockup via some very narrow and steep stairs was interesting to say the least. Ended up with 3 of us tying a rope around both the stand and camera itself and sliding them carefully down the stairs (separately!) to be caught carefully at the bottom. And here it is in the light of the workshop. Yikes.

 

As you can see, the woodworm has clearly found the stand a tasty place to hang out and the worst bit of damage has caused one of the legs to pretty much fall off, dissolving the supporting structure around it. The rest of the stand is peppered with many holes, indicating the beetles are long gone now. The camera itself has a smaller amount of woodworm damage – nothing that can’t be fixed though… Next post – work begins!

Wass Camera Project Post #2 – Stripping the Stand

As mentioned in the previous post – there was a canny bit of woodworm evident at some point in the camera’s life. Chances are the beasties inside had long gone but with the camera being stored indoors once restored it’s not a chance I wanted to take.

Fortunately, I work in a Museum. Equally fortunately, I have some very understanding colleagues who were willing to deposit the camera and stand into an industrial freezer unit – standard practice for all new arrivals to the Museum that may potentially have bugs and beasties lurking within which we’d not want to contaminate the other collections.

So, a good month it spent wrapped in plastic under arctic conditions, here it is seeing daylight again – the two articles nearest bottom left:

So…a week passes and a day off work meant I could get stuck in and see just how bad the damage was. The short answer – pretty bad!

The long answer…?

I decided to start with the stand, the logic being that I would have something to put the camera on once that was restored. Plus it looked like an easier start. So, I took the main components apart, bagged the fittings off, labelled, and started sanding. Using a DA, whilst not neccessarily an authentic (or subtle) technique means I can make a lot of progress in the short time I have to work on this.

Here’s the quick before and after of the top panel. Depending on the final finish I may not need to take it any further back. Not sure on the type of wood, pretty hard either way!

 

Tatty but solid – note the lack of leg on the right hand side – this is the worst of the woodworm damage…

Impressive mechanism for raising and lowering the stand – all seized but will work again!

Underside:

Partially sanded:

And this is the result of a bit of investigating the wormy leg. Woops:

I’ve taken the majority of the destroyed wood out, leaving a bit of a large gap to fill. Thankfully, it’s not an overly complex piece so should be relatively easy to graft a replacement piece in:

Fully sanded on the left, partially on the right. Suspect it had been black french polished originally:

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Bagged up bits:

 

Rack & pinion pieces:

Wheel/castor – will all clean up nicely:

And the raising/lowering mechanism:

More soon…

Wass Camera Project Post #3 – Rebuilding the Stand…

So, last post you may recall an impressive amount of woodworm damage in one of the legs of the stand which required a bit of attention…

Let me say firstly that I’m not exactly blessed with quite as much skill, tools or nice dry workshops when it comes to woodworking but I think, given the circumstances of working in between rain showers I have salvaged the camera stand to an acceptable standard. Especially considering it was destined to have either been fully eaten by woodworm or possibly just binned.

I’d initially hoped to have a light finish on the stand but it was clear it had been thoroughly stained black and that’s the way it had to stay without taking too much of the wood back. I chose a modern compromise for the finish:

First up a repair piece was grafted into the top part of the stand after some exploration with the sander dissolved a large section of it. Wood filler used as sparingly as possible to fill the gaps. Here it is after sanding:

And after a coat of the wood stain, it won’t be seen once the camera is on. Not bad:

 

A final tidy up of the area surrounding the missing column, and a piece cut to shape before attaching the leg with screws and wood glue from the back for additional strength. Not pretty at this point:

After filler and partial sanding:

Again, not a pretty repair but after a coat of woodstain it’s a bit more acceptable. I have decided to leave the woodworm exit holes – call it character:

Now, moving onto the hardware and raising/lowering mechanism for the stand. Using engine degreaser to take the thick of dirt off I was left with this:

All in decent shape, save for some missing teeth from the rack and pinion cogs but see how it works once fitted. The degreasing revealed that some of the parts had been originally green – and to counteract the blackness of the stand I’ve stuck with my interpretation this colour scheme:

And here are the parts all painted up ready to refit after a bit of greasing:

Getting there…Once the wood stain had dried it was a case of deciphering all the photos I’d taken and bagged off parts to reconstruct the stand. I also gave the screws a bit of a polish to take off some of the rust. Half an hour later, and here is the near enough finished stand.

 

That’s all for now – progress has also been made on the camera itself, but that can wait for another update…

Wass Camera Project Post #4 – The Lens

Well. After many hours of sanding and repairs with not too much to show for the effort, I wanted to feel like I’d achieved something and made something shiny so decided to tackle the cleanup of the lens. It’s an Optimus 3B, adjusted by Perken, Son & Co Ltd of Hatton Garden, London. I measured the lens to be approx 6″ with an estimated f-stop of 3.5 or thereabouts – Waterhouse slot, but I’ll not be needing that. Nice and fast, just how I like them. If anyone can provide me with info on this design of lens I’d be very grateful. It seems to be reasonably common design for the times, although I suspect there may be an element missing from the rear of the lens. It does project a sharp image however, so I’m not too concerned. Might get some nice swirl…

Here it is before work began. Decided against removing the lens from the lensboard as the screws were rather enjoying 100+ years of being screwed in. Who am I to disturb them and potentially risk damaging the lens?

As with pretty much everything on this camera, it was in a very sorry state! Thankfully, the damage was all cosmetic and it needed not much more than the corrosion removed and a good polish, plus a clean up of the rack and pinion focusing mechanism which was removed after a bit of a struggle with the screws:

Lens barrel removed from outer casing. See how shiny the unexposed part of the lens is – something to aspire to:

An initial light sanding with some fine grit sandpaper revealed the lens details:

That’s as far back as I wanted to take it without potentially losing the words forever! Fast forward a few hours with a polishing mop and it looks shiny shiny!

The glass was absolutely filthy. Some careful cleaning with lens cleaning fluid and it is now crystal clear:

The only thing remaining was the lens hood which had not aged well. Whilst the aim of this project is to preserve as much original material as possible, the outer ring of the lens hood had become very brittle, beyond the point of repair. I’m fortunate to know a very talented gentleman (Mr David Young) who can make absolutely anything out of anything and he returned the lens hood to me the very next day looking as good as (if not better than) new. That’s some before and after!

The inner ring of the lens hood has been painted with a flat back, and the lens is now pretty much good to go. Much progress has been made on the camera itself, but I will save that for another time. For now…

Wass Camera Project Post #5 – Stripping the Camera

With the stand repaired and repainted, with only a few minor finishing touches remaining, attentions turned to the camera itself. I initially felt this was probably going to be the most complex part of the reconstruction but actually, once I’d begun stripping things down it didn’t seem too bad. I’d barely seen the camera as it was straight in the freezer after collection from the lockup so took a while just looking at it after the initial unwrapping. Yikes:

As you can see – it looks pretty awful! Lots of attic dust, overspray, even a pool of dried paint on the base itself. The brass was tarnished to the point of being black and one half of the bellows were badly ripped. Excuse the funky carpet too… Anyway, on with the stripping of the camera, I separated the front and rear standards from the base – not an easy job as the screws were set for life in most cases but after a good hour or two battling I was left with what you see below. Not much better:

Bellows carefully removed, not that any further damage would make much difference! I think my initial plans to do some extensive repair work and use the originals were optimistic to say the least. More on those later.

Back to the woodwork, first job was to strip everything down. Fortunately with the bulk of the camera being made from some fine Brazil Mahogany the woodworm hadn’t affected this overly due to the hardness of the wood. Which meant less repair work!! Carefully removed the brass fittings that needed to be removed and bagged those off for later polishing. Initial sanding to remove 100+ years of dirt and dust revealed the true colour of the wood – lovely:

All of the brasswork was removed to be lightly sanded and polished up to a reasonable shine at some point:

Much progress has been made on reconstructing the camera – will save that for the next update…

Wass Camera Project Post #6 – Huge Plate Holder Arrives!

Another piece of the gigantic camera jigsaw (almost) in place now, a 12×15″ plate holder. Seen here on the left, with a whole plate and a 5×4 side by side for a sense of scale. It’s huge! Although not as big as I’d like, with the original being 15×15 it will suffice for now to at least be able to use the camera. Aiming to have one last look in the lockup where the camera lived to see if the holder is still there somewhere. Otherwise, it’s a case of making one from scratch the correct size.

It’s by no means mint, there is a chunk of the darkslide missing from the other side and a couple of cracks to fill but it’ll do the job nicely for now with a couple of repairs and adapting the back of the camera to hold it securely. The bellows are ready too, finally feel like it’s nearing completion. On target for using it in the new year…!

Wass Camera Rebuild post #7 – Rebuilding the Camera

This was always going the biggest job of the reconstruction, and without a doubt the most significant. Fortunately the fine brazil Mahogany was a little too tough for the woodworm to chew through and no significant repairs were needed, as had been the case with the stand.

To recap, the camera had been stripped down, sanded and generally cleaned of 60+ years of workshop attic dirt. The next step was then a case of cleaning and polishing the brasswork, adding a beeswax finish to the woodwork and reconstructing the camera. Sounds so simple! If only, a good few days work involved on these jobs alone…

I went for a beeswax finish for a number of reasons – mainly that I’m not keen on the orange finish of varnished mahogany, and also that beeswax gives a much more natural look. Plus it smells git nice n that.

Here’s the base of the camera after the removal of the rack/pinion rails and a final sand down, with the first coat of beeswax visible in the centre. It took 5-6 coats in all before I was pleased with the shine, although I think another coat or two once the camera is fully finished will be required to bring the finish out fully out again.

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And after the aforementioned 5-6 coats:

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Next step was to remove dirt from the brass side rails which the camera moves, before a final polish. Before:

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Mid-way:

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And after:

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Not bad ey! The same went for the rack and pinion track which moves the camera along, and here the base and stand are reunited. Fully working in terms of tilting/height adjustments too!

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Next up, the front and rear standard of the camera, same procedure with the cleaning & polishing of the brass and beeswax coating of the outer surfaces. The insides were painted a very flat non-reflective black, as they were originally:

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Fast forward a few hours, a few dollops of beeswax and plenty of elbow grease and the camera is looking more like a camera!!! Albeit a very large one. A few of the moving parts had to be freed up with heat, quite understandable after standing for potentially 100 years in a damp attic.

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Hard to believe that it’s becoming almost ready to use again. Lets just remind ourselves what I started with:

Wass Camera Project Post #1 - Background & First Photos

Not far off now!! Next stop bellows…

Wass Camera Rebuild Post #8 – The Bellows

The bellows were always going to be an interesting part of this reconstruction, namely due to the fact that they were so big, and so badly damaged – finding something from another camera wasn’t really an option. Likewise repairing the originals, something I had originally considered but decided against after seeing just how badly they had deteriorated over time. This badly:

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Yep. So that left me with two options:

1. Make your own bellows from scratch.

2. Find someone who can make huge bellows and get some made up.

Option 1 was out of the question – whilst there are many guides and books which explain the process in great detail, making bellows on this scale really seemed beyond my ability and budget, especially bearing in mind that they may not actually work or be light tight in the end!

Option 2 – who on earth makes bellows for cameras in this day and age? And particularly such an unusual size? In the UK too? Step forward Custom Bellows, a company that have been in existence since 1895, probably the time this camera had been made originally.  I did consider that they could have even made the original bellows first time round, but lets not get carried away with ourselves…

So after firing off a quick email with details I received a very competitive quote, and after a chat with Keith from Custom Bellows to confirm a few details I agreed to go ahead with the order (thanks to a very kind parental loan) and sent the originals down to Birmingham.

Keith had originally quoted me a 6-8 week turnaround, very reasonable I thought, I was a little surprised (in a good way) when he called me up to let me know they would be ready in less than 10 days. Now that’s service! I have also kept what was left of the originals should they ever be required again. The package arrived and I wasn’t disappointed with what was inside:

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Couldn’t resist a trial fit into the camera:

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I suppose in an ideal world they’d have been red like the originals but that’s not so much of an issue. Some bellows are better than no bellows:

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Keith recommended gluing the bellows to the frames with contact adhesive, and he had also left plenty of extra material which was trimmed to size. Did one side at a time, allowing the glue to dry properly overnight before starting the second side:

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Left to dry:

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And the finished product! (Bit dusty, sorry)

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Inside, the supporting frame in the middle would probably benefit from a coat of non-reflective black paint:

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Cat back scratcher:

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And next to a Mamiya C330 to give a sense of scale:

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And this is pretty much where I am with it right now, still a few of the smaller fixtures and fittings to clean up and refit but nothing major. Work is continuing on the film holder repairs and ground glass before testing with photographic paper. Can’t believe it’s almost ready for testing!! Aiming to test over the Christmas/New Year period – watch this space…

 

Wass Camera Project Post #9 – Custom Plate Holder and Ground Glass Screen (Mark Voce)

After a few attempts to get the makeshift holder and ground glass screen