How To Clean Your Antique Camera

Among the first things I ever started collecting as a child were antique cameras. My interest in other collections has waxed and waned over the years, but my collection of cameras has grown and grown. Although I collect cameras of nearly every age, my favorite cameras are consumer models with bellows made between the turn of the last century through the 1930s. The detailing in the hardware, bellows, and cases make them as much art as they ever were cameras. Decades of sitting around in closets, attics and basements can take its toll on these beauties, but bringing them back to life isn’t as difficult as you might think. I’ll talk you through the steps on this Kodak model 3A I showed you in my Highway Hiatus post last week.

Camera and case before cleaning

Condition should still be considered when buying an antique camera. Dirt, scuffs and tarnished metal can be polished away, but missing or broken pieces can’t. When I found this camera, I examined it for irreparable damage, but was happy to find only filth, scuffs and general wear. Due to condition I scored it for just $15, but after about 20 minutes of work, it looked more like $100.

Camera and case after cleaning

The tools you’ll need are simple: Saddle soap, black creme shoe polish, a high-quality metal polish (I strongly recommend Weiman), an assortment of cotton swabs (I like to get long wooden ones and short ones that are pointed on one end, found easily at drugstores), paper towels and some soft cotton rags. For cameras that need more intense metal cleaning, it’s also a good idea to have your Dremel tool handy with some cloth buffing tips to speed the process up.

Step One: Clean the camera. First I like to gently vacuum everything with a ShopVac using a brush attachment. Be especially careful around the bellows and leather parts which may be dry and fragile. An old toothbrush or chip paint brush is also handy for loosening dirt. Next use a slightly dampened paper towel to wipe down the entire camera and case. Be careful not to get anything too wet. Also avoid using harsh cleaners. Windex works well on metal and glass parts, but it can damage paint and cause it to dull. If it’s necessary to use a stronger cleaner on painted parts, spot test it first.

Step Two: Polish the metal. Usually these cameras have nickel-plated brass fittings, although some later models have chrome-plated brass. Nickel dulls and pits and can even turn green. Chrome usually stays bright, but is prone to pitting. Both of these will usually brighten to like-new shine with just a little metal polish. Dip one end of a cotton swab in the polish, taking care not to get too much polish on it, then rub it gently over the metal parts to coat them. Use a pointed tip swab to get into crevices and nooks, especially around the film winders. Avoid getting the polish on anything but the metal—it can damage leather and paint and can be impossible to get out of little crevices if you put too much on. If the metal doesn’t need too much polishing I’ll usually buff it off with an old rag (a clean swab works well to buff crevices), but if it’s more intense I’ll use my Dremel with the buffing wheel on a low-medium speed followed by hand-buffing. This can be the most tedious part, but you’ll be glad you took the time to do it. This particular camera however didn’t need much metal polishing, just a good cleaning.

Step Three: Polish the leather. The leather is always the worst looking part, but the easiest to care for. Take a dampened paper towel and rub it across the surface of the saddle soap to build a little lather. Wipe the lather over all the leather pieces, gently buffing and cleaning as you go. Add more soap to your rag as needed. It should go on slightly opaque and be wiped until mostly invisible—it doesn’t take much. The saddle soap will hydrate the old leather while simultaneously cleaning away filth. You’ll be amazed at the difference you see right away. After everything has been rubbed with saddle soap, let it dry until the surface dulls. Once dry, take a cotton cloth and buff all the pieces gently until they have a slight sheen. You can repeat the saddle soap for extremely dry or dirty leather.

Leather case before saddle soap

Leather case after saddle soap

Step Four: Scuff and scratch fix the leather. Step four isn’t always necessary, The saddle soap will usually hide a lot of marring on leather, but sometimes there’s a deep scratch or heavy wear that makes a camera look a little more haggard than loved. In these cases black creme shoe polish is your best friend. I recommend wearing latex gloves for this part as it can be hard to get the polish off of your skin. Wrap a paper towel around your finger tip and dip in the shoe creme. Dab the polish on the scuffs and work into deep scars and scratches. Gently wipe away excess creme polish, but don’t buff out just yet. Let the polish sit for about 10 minutes and then, using a clean paper towel or cloth, buff out the polish just like you would for your shoes. Avoid polishing every square inch of the leather, as it can look a little overdone. Ideally the leather will still look old, but not tired.

And with that, you have a camera ready for your shelf. It’s a great way to get collectible cameras at a lower price and end up with a piece that looks like it cost top dollar. It also helps protect the delicate, ancient leather from further damage so you can be sure it will hang around for another 100 years.

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6 Comments

  1. Salem
    Posted November 17, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Good tips there, thanks for sharing. There is however one part of almost every vintage camera case that I find hard to clean. It’s the velvety inside of leather camera cases. I’m specially concerned about the mold that can spread to the camera and lens; how would you clean that?

    • Austin
      Posted November 17, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Hi Salem. You bring up a very good point. Those velvet-lined cases can be tricky to clean and be sure they’re safe for your vintage camera. Here’s a couple tips for cleaning them up.

      If the case is simply dirty, vacuum it out really well. I use a ShopVac with a small brush attachment used for cleaning keyboards. This provides some extra suction beyond a normal vacuum cleaner and the tool is long so you can reach down into all the nooks and crannies. Sometimes heavier soil can be worked out of the fabric with a dry toothbrush and then vacuumed again. I refrain from using any type of wet cleaner on the fabric. Usually the old velvet is not colorfast and liquid cleaners may cause bleaching or bleeding of pigment, not to mention damage caused to the leather underneath.

      Usually on the cameras that I buy that have evidence of mildew, the damage is old, dried and dead when I purchase the camera. Never buy cameras that have strong musty odors or have visible active mold growth—these cameras are generally beyond remediation. Old mildew damage, however, poses little threat to your or your camera’s health if cleaned properly. To be certain the mildew is dead, place the case in the sun for a few hours, propping it open to let light inside. Next, wearing a dust mask, work the fibers over with a dry toothbrush to loosen any dead organic matter and then vacuum well.

      Usually fungus growth in lenses is a problem with improper storage. Be sure to keep your camera in a stable environment with moderate humidity and good airflow to prevent mildew. If you’re further concerned about the case affecting the condition of the camera, don’t store the camera in its case, rather display it separately and place a note inside the case to remember which camera it goes with.

      • Salem
        Posted November 18, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

        Thanks Austin for the tips. I did work today on a 70 year-old leica iii case that has old mold on the velvet. I got at it with an old toothbrush dipped lightly in diluted carpet cleaner and it’s now drying in the sun. The velvet looks refreshed and clean; however, if I’m to do it again I would get a soft toothbrush as opposed to the medium one that I used. I feel that it was too harsh on the velvet that it seems to have thinned the lining in a couple of spots. Other than that it seems to have worked out fine.

  2. Posted February 11, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    If you’re worried about mold, put the whole thing in a ziplock bag in the freezer for a few nights. The mold will die and never come back. Then you can clean it properly.

    • Austin
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      That’s a great tip, AC. I’ve used the freezer trick before on different items, especially paper goods. I do advise caution if you’re considering freezing a camera. Exposing them to freezing temperatures can cause oils in the leather to solidify leaving it dry and vulnerable to cracking. Freezing also causes humidity dispersed in the cavities of the camera to collect on the surface as frost. When this thaws it presents the possibility of rust on the shutter. Those disclaimers aside, it’s a great last resort and useful for many things.

  3. Posted October 17, 2016 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    thanks for sharing.

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