View Full Version : Homemade Bellow Project

3-Apr-2017, 07:51
I thought I would share a little information to encourage folks who might be needing a set of bellows and are curious about trying to make a set themselves.

I will preface this post with a disclaimer that this is the first set that I have made. They are not perfect, beautiful or perhaps well crafted. But they are functional and I am pleased with the way they turned out. Best of all I spent around $20 for the materials. I figured even if I failed in my attempt, not much would be lost in the effort.

For reference, I had Camera Bellows in the UK build a beautiful red leather bellows for my 8x10 Century Universal, and they also crafted a striking red leather bellows for my 4x5 MPP Micro Technical camera. Wonderful quality at a fair price. I loved the red leather look, and wanted to try for the same or similar look with the set I made.

I think I read every thread on this site and several others on bellows construction. I read and read until my eyes were swirling in their sockets. Two posts intrigued me the most. One from Mr. Jim Galli, whose BBQ cover bellows struck me as a brilliant idea. The second from Mr. Mark Paschke who restored his Century Grand Studio camera.

The first thing I noticed when looking for BBQ covers was that they tend to be expensive, even at Wal-mart. And the cheapest ones were made of materials that did not inspire confidence of their suitability for use. I searched the local fabric stores but did not find anything that I liked. At the fabric store I saw the Roc-lon blackout cloth used for drapery liners. I did an internet search and saw that Wal-mart carried them. So I went to Wal-mart to look at them and found something I hadn't expected. A BBQ like material that had a rubbery coating on the back side and was only $4.97 a yard! I bought some, took it into my darkroom and fired a strobe on full power through a single layer of the fabric. I saw no light leaks, and decided to proceed.


I went back to Jo-Ann's fabric store and looked at the fake leather materials. They had a marine grade vinyl that was stated to be weather resistant and easy to clean for $10 a yard. My wife had a 40% off coupon, so she picked out a nice Maroon color and I purchased it. In hindsight, it was much too thick a material to use. But part of my intent was to learn from my mistakes. Lesson learned.


Mark Paschke's thread on his Century restoration had a nice photo of his bellows rib layout. After referencing all the information I could find, I thew up my hands in despair and decided to draft up something similar to what Mark had made in Autocad. Copying the dimensions of the old bellows, I drafted up something that I thought would work. I went to Walmart and bought some 22"x28" craft board used for children's school projects. It came in packs of 5, so it was fairly economical. I used a razor knife to cut it down to 13"x28" pieces, and ran them through my 13"x19" inkjet printer to make the bellows pattern. I made simple match lines and center lines to help align the pieces after they were cut out.


After assembling the pattern using blue painters tape, I cut out the BBQ cover material and the maroon vinyl. I wasn't sure what material to use for the bellow ribs. I considered buying a box of manilla file folders and cutting them out of that. But I remembered that I had a package of 300 gram water color paper in 12"x16" size that I was not successful in using in my printer for photos. So I laid out the bellows ribs in upper and lower sections in Autocad and printed them full scale onto the watercolor paper with match and center lines. It was super easy and quick to do. Cutting them out was not even as monotonous as I feared. Truth is, I printed out the bellows pattern and the ribs, cut everything out and had it all laid out on my table in 2 hours time.


I took a couple 4 foot long folding tables and butted them up together and laid heavy painters drop cloth type paper over the table tops to catch any over spray from the glue. I lined up the bellows ribs using the bellows pattern as I had printed the rib pattern out on the pattern. That made it really easy to line everything up. I used two strips of painters tape to run down across each rib set. I had bought 3M spray adhesive type 77 at Walmart. I found that the paint section of Walmart carried a larger can for less money than the one I found in the craft section. It was the same adhesive, just in different cans in different departments. I used the spray adhesive to sandwich the ribs between the BBQ cloth and the maroon vinyl. I also used a rubber roller to run over the bellows material on both sides to ensure a good bond of the adhesive to the ribs.

I was hesitant to spray the adhesive all the way to the edges of the bellows material for fear of making a mess and bonding the bellows material to my table. So I made my second mistake in using some Borden's brand rubber cement that I had on the shelf to glue the outer edges of the bellows material down to one another. The Borden's rubber cement did a poor job bonding this, and I had to rethink what to do. I went to Home Depot and bought some Weldwood rubber cement that is used to adhere counter top material to the counter base. It worked much better than the Borden's rubber cement. Again, in hindsight, I should have sprayed the 3M type 77 adhesive all the way to the edges because it bonded the two different materials together very well.

I then took the bellows outside and clamped them to a saw horse. I coated the flap on the ends of the bellow seams with the Weldwood Rubber cement, waited 20 minutes for the glue to become tacky, and then attached the bellows flap to the bellows body. Running the rubber roller over the seam using the top of the saw horse as a base made a good bond.

I waited a day or so for the rubber cement to bond better, and then folded the bellows and clamped them up. Here is where I made my next mistake. I left them clamped up for a week or so while I worked on other projects around the house. When I released the clamps, I noticed that the maroon vinyl material had clamp indentations in the pleats of the bellows. It is only aesthetic, no physical damage was done. But it does take away from the finished look of the bellows.

Next I glued up the wooden bellows frames to the bellows. I found my next mistake. I could not fit the bellows frames inside the bellows like on the original set. I was unsure of the spacing distance between the ribs sets when I laid it all out in Autocad, and did not leave enough space to get the frames in. They almost fit, but rather than scrap the whole enterprise I ran the bellows end flaps through the inside of the frame and glued them to camera side of the wooden frame. A pleasant knock on from this was that it was super easy to screw the bellows frames to the camera from the outside. When I took the original bellows off the camera, getting my screw driver inside the bellows to remove the screws was a contortionistic act. And my bifocals were making seeing the screws with my flash light in the other hand a big chore.

I had time to install the bellows last night and while they were not perfect, I was pleased with them. I can extend the rear standard all the way to the back of the camera frame, and can compress them to 7" between the film plane and the lensboard. The vinyl material was too thick to allow them to compress more than that. I don't think this will be an issue with an 8x10 studio camera, as I won't be using a lens that short. When I went to Wal-mart this past weekend, I noted that they also had the BBQ cover material in gray color. I might have to try making a set with black BBQ on the inside and gray BBQ material on the outside.

I shot a piece of X-ray film to check for light leaks and was pleased find none. I will probably take it out in bright sunshine today to double check for light leaks.

In summary, it was much easier to do than I thought it would be. Having built this set, I have a better idea of how to proceed for the next one. Doing a square bellows form was much easier than trying a tapered set, but you have to start somewhere. And for around $20, why not give it a try?


3-Apr-2017, 07:54



I could only load 4 images in the original post, so here are a few more to show the finished product. Please excuse the unfinished lens board, I whipped it out quickly last night to mount an iris clamp on it for my film test.

Steven Tribe
3-Apr-2017, 15:30
This sounds like some of my experiences. As I have had to make bellows to fit a limited space, I have never been able to find leather or imitation leather that is thin enough, but have used heavy duty coated paper.

You will never able to make sharp pleats with clamping layers of soft materials. After a pencil marking, I have used a hot domestic iron on each separate pleat edge (making sure that the temperature is OK for the material and bonding!). You could still do this.

Robert Brazile
3-Apr-2017, 15:38
Harold, that's inspiring. I have a simple DIY ULF build in mind and this pushes me farther along the path toward doing it. Thanks for sharing.


3-Apr-2017, 17:34
I have used a hot domestic iron on each separate pleat edge (making sure that the temperature is OK for the material and bonding!). You could still do this.

Steven, thank you for this advice. I don't think the vinyl would handle much heat without melting, but I have some scraps left over that I could try it on. And I am definitely going to try it out on the BBQ cover material scraps that I have. I googled the Pro-Tuff outdoor fabric today and there is a seller on the auction site that has this material in quite a few different colors at a cheaper price than Wal-mart. It is a pretty thin material and I think that using it as both the outer and inner layer might work well. So I will be sure to try the iron idea out to see how nicely I can get the material to crease.

Robert, I am glad that you found my post interesting. I have 5 or 6 large format cameras that either need or "should have" a new set of bellows on them, so this was just a warm up exercise for the more difficult cameras with tapered bellows. I bought my 5x7 Speed Graphic with ripped bellows and have wanted to replace them for many years. Seeing the red, blue and gray colored Pro-Tuff material has piqued my interest in doing that camera next. It is probably not the best material to use, but it is water repellant and suitable for outdoor use. But more importantly it is very cheap. I did not get the chance to shoot any film outside today - so I haven't given my bellows a good light leak test yet. But I will be doing so this week. Good Luck with your ULF project, that should be quite an interesting undertaking!

Michael Cienfuegos
4-Apr-2017, 11:40
Tandy Leather has a thin upholstery leather, not sure if it is too thick or not. Price is for a full hide, but it is quite thin.

5-Apr-2017, 13:19
I found Tandy offered some skins down to half a millimetre, but I didn't try any when I experimented.