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View Full Version : Bellows renovation to do or not? (NOT LEATHER)



wood & Brass
12-Jul-2017, 05:34
Hi there hoping you guys can help, have recently acquired a Watson & Sons studio camera, our first job is to clean off the years of grime which on the wood and brass is coming along quite nicely. Although this is going to take a while we are already looking at the bellows, which are not of the leather variety. They seem in fine condition for their age but where they have been stored partially open when you extend the bellows the sun fading becomes very obvious.

So our question is a) do you try and renovate the bellows or just accept that this is part of its age and b) if the answer is to renovate what would you suggest, all the things i have seen so far relate only to leather bellows not these card/fabric types.

Please be gentle with me I am VERY new to this.

Steven Tribe
12-Jul-2017, 08:37
This is exactly the kind of bellows material you would expect to find on a UK made studio camera which was made for functionality, rather than the obvious glamour of russian leather. I imagine the bellows is square, rather than tapered, and the folds/corners are square too, rather than angled? And the finish is grey or black?

I have a couple of these. The inside is stout cloth, coloured black. The next layer is card, which is not coloured, and the final layer is either a thin paper dressing or, extremely thin leather (which doesn't look like leather!) having an embossed pattern.

Whatever the layers, they are glued together with water soluble paste/glue which means treatment of the outside with a water/spirit based black stain has to be done with a minimum of liquid or the layers will "sail apart"!

A couple of photos would help/confirm I am suggesting something appropriate.

wood & Brass
12-Jul-2017, 10:30
Steven, Sounds like you know exactly what type of camera I have! attempting to attach some pictures ..... I hope they show the discoloration etc167180167181167182167183

Steven Tribe
12-Jul-2017, 11:15
I have seen this camera before, I think! Within the last two weeks? I think it has two middle stages in the bellows to increase stability. The bellows have heavy canvas exterior skin which is in very good condition. Woodwork is very simple, which suggests a date of around 1880 +.

There is character with the way it looks now, in my view. A black commercial stain for leather (in methyl alcohol) is readily available - which would do the trick. Obviously, you would try with the underneath side first. If you posted a photo of the back, it might help put a date/usage on the camera. The bellows are originally glued to the standards with water based paste, so should be removable for cleaning and, perhaps staining.

Watson was responsible for many quality cameras, but how many he actually made himself is unknown. But he is known for having a workshop.

I can confirm that the camera was made between around 1880 and 1883. The name is viewable on the ebay listing and gives the maker as " Watson & Son" - this became " Watson & Sons" in 1883!

http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/W-Watson-and-Son-Full-Plate-vintage-Antique-Camera-/302361697443?hash=item4666295ca3%3Ag%3AK4wAAOSw6ShZT8oT&nma=true&si=OUFOxLwFVUM6OqJ9xv16WZIcCqI%253D&orig_cvip=true&rt=nc&_trksid=p2047675.l2557


The Studio Stand it is on, is also a very early one. As solid as a gun mounting!

wood & Brass
12-Jul-2017, 16:12
Thanks Steve, that is indeed the camera that I am sitting here looking at. It was found in the print works of the Hinckley Times when the building was demolished back in the 70's, the guy who owned it since then worked for the demolition people. It certainly wouldnt have been portable its huge and weighs a ton but perhaps they had some sort of studio.

It does have two middle stages although there seems to be some sag to the bellows so we wondered if there might have been some additional support? Its also missing what i will call the focusing screen and holder (sure it must have a better name than that lol) and i dont know what i am going to do about replacing/sourcing a new one, but i do have one dark slide (numbered 3 and 4 annoyingly) so i know there should have been at least one other. The camera is numbered 13384 in case you are interested.

I am very familiar with Watsons business as William who founded the business was my husbands 3 x great grandfather. Helpfully the changing names of the business ( William Watson, Watson & Son, Watson & Sons, Watson & Sons Ltd) means that getting a date on this is fairly straight forward. The listing was incorrect in its description as its label is Watson & Sons so made 1883 or later. From our research we are confident the Watsons did make the cameras along with magic lanterns, microscopes and telescopes as well as a huge array of mad medical items. We know a fair bit about the microscopy etc but we are new to large format, actually any, photography and hence joining the forum here.

Thanks for your tip on dying the bellows your comment about removing them makes me very nervous i think to start with we are going to stick with cleaning off the years of dust and dirt and giving it some tlc along with a good does of wax to feed the timber. Once we have done that we can stand back and decide whether or not we should dye them. In the meantime i guess i also will have to start looking out for a lens!

Thanks again for your comments most helpful

Steven Tribe
13-Jul-2017, 01:26
First, an extra congratulations on now owning a piece of Family history!

I know how you feel, as I have a small collection from my great great grandfather's Sports Shop (John Webber & Sons) in Exeter. He patented and made items in a back street in Exeter. Fortunately, a lot smaller than a Studio Portrait set! Things like Fly boxes for Anglers!

It seems quite logical that this set ended up at a newspaper concern. These local newspapers were often invoved in general printing and reproduction so would have had use for a "process camera". Towards the end of the 19th C. , special cameras were made - even larger - and often afixed to rails and long tables. But a studio set would also serve well.

I have around 5 of these sets. So many because of the early lenses which were included! What you paid is absolutely the right price - they get to be very expensive with an original lens included (3 x as much).

The sagging bellows will sag for ever as it is very heavy with this design. But there is an easy solution! A lot of later cameras (10 years later) had a smart support system under neath. It is possible your camera had it too, but it has been removed. There was a series of thin slats the width of the camera - about 4 - just wide enough to rest on the base and support the underside of the bellows. The slats are joined together at the ends and first and last slat ends are fixed to the front and rear wooden standards. The slats are folded together when the bellows are at a minimum and are streched out, giving support to every single bellows fold, when the bellows are pulled out. I'll post photos later.

The missing back is not too serious. Almost all these cameras have been adapted in the period 1890 - 1930 due to advances in film emulsions. I may be able to help you when you decide on a format. The (probably) original plate holder is of standard type and you may be able to get extras. If you open up the book holder and measure the dimensions of the glass plate which fitted (inches!) I can tell you more.

wood & Brass
13-Jul-2017, 11:04
Wow very impressed your ancestor made fly boxes, we have never tried fly fishing but both love coarse fishing its a wonderful area to collect.

its nice to hear you think we paid a fair price for our camera too, we had never seen one this size before so didnt really have a clue, we just had to go with a gut feeling.

I love the idea of supporting the bellows and would love to see some pictures, i get that the weight will always be an issue given the size but it will be nice to give it some support in its old age

with regards to the back we feel we would like to keep it as close to the original design as possible however we know that if you had bought this from watsons and then gone back to them 20 years later they would have thought nothing of selling you some sort of upgrade or adaptation were it available as watsons were excellent at selling the latest thing going. So although original would be nice we are open to ideas and suggestions and ultimately would like to be able to take a picture or two with it (note to self book some sort of class in order to do this). When you open the book the dimension of the plate would have been 12 x 15 inches which from the catalogue is the largest standard size they offered.

Jim Galli
13-Jul-2017, 13:12
I would leave alone. Just me, but I enjoy the patina of age on working artifacts. I'll even endure a few pinholes. Simply throwing the focus cloth over the worn bellows during exposure takes care of a multitude of sins. Everyone is different though.

Steven Tribe
13-Jul-2017, 13:43
Do you have a catalogue which covers Watson's Studio camera?

15x12" is the usual largest size, but most studio cameras went up to full plate, 10x8 or 12x10". I think your 15x12" book holder is probably not part of the original equipment. Studio plate holders were usually single sided and loaded through the back.

I have a photo of the concertina slats underneath one of my studio cameras. These slats are quite thick compared with another one I have, which works just as well.
I enclose another photo of a different system which has a single "stiffener" frame, elongated to get support from base.
I have seen a third system which has a light metal frame attached to the stiffened sections with toylike wheels which move with the bellows. It is possible your middle supports have the remains of this system as I just can't see this heavy duty bellows not having a sag from new!

I absolutely agree with Jim Galli's suggestion that you accept the sun bleeching of the bellows as age patina. It looks 100% perfect, by the way!

Steven Tribe
15-Jul-2017, 01:59
I have attempted to find an illustrated account of the variety of camera backs that were employed in these large Studio Cameras - without success! If anyone does know of an account (Something like Vaubel's analysis of early american field cameras) I, for one would be delighted! Your description of how backs could be upgraded - more often, though, downgraded to. smaller negative sizes - by purchasing alternative backs from the manufacturer, is quite correct! The most succesful maker was Century, quickly bought by Kodak who produced basically the same models for many decades.

There were basically 3 major types of back, I think.

- the very early ones had slide in - slide up frames for the ground glass and single glass plate holders. The plate holders were square so the glass plates could be mounted either horiz. or vert. Loading was through a back door. These were used with both wet and dry plates. These are quite common, though often not as complete sets (back, gg frame and numbers of plate holders).

- varieties of sliding backs became popular. The gg could be pushed to one side and the plate holder moved into position. This system was maintained by Kodak until WW2 at least. The system as developed with lots of brass catches, so that the photographer could select how many different images he could take on a single glass plate/film.
The photo of a commercial sliding back is from the Kodak catalogue of 1934. The other photo is of a more simple back of this type, where the GG back folds down out of the way of plate holders.

- the last type is a simple spring held Ground Glass back. The Plate holder is inserted under the ground glass, once composition/focussing has been completed. In other word, the same system as modern field cameras.

Studio Photographers in small towns were often not wealthy members of the community, so surviving sets often signs of DIY modifications using softwood and nails!

THis is not meant to be a comprehensive guide!


I don't think this set would have been used for 15x12" unless it has always been used for some sort of "process" photography - like recording items in a museum, or an art collection. In which case, it would have used a RR type lens.
Much lower weight and much lower cost these days! A Portrait Petzval lens covering 15x12" would cost you, at least 2,500 ukp and weigh over 5 kilos. By comparison, a similar covering full plate size (quite a big size in the late 1800's) would be under 1,000 ukp for a quality name. They are cheaper because it is that size that was actually sold and used.

So my suggestion would be:

Renovate the wood - after removing the bellows (be brave!)
Renovate the stand. Looks good - perhaps just oiling the gears.
Decide the format. Purchase a set (not expensive).
Buy a suitable lens. The LFPF buy/sell is the best place (Reliable information and realistic prices, garantee etc.).
Make a lens board.

Meanwhile, you can check out types of film, development systems and so on!
I! personally

wood & Brass
15-Jul-2017, 04:52
167280167281167282Hi there guys, we dont have a catalogue for large format cameras just the smaller cameras, lenses and accessories (34th edition).

so over the last few days we have:
camera - Cleaned off the grime and with very fine wire wool and wax cleaned up the woodwork as much as we want to.
camera base - dismantled, hovered out spiders etc and then cleaned as per camera
stand - as per camera, it has got one loose piece of timber which needs gluing and it has a water stain on one part but we havent decided whether to try and fix that or accept it as signs of its past life. havent needed to oil the gears as the ebay seller did it and they move beautifully.

we are leaning towards leaving the bellows as they are and most likely the water stain as this was a work horse of a camera not an immaculate prized possession so that is probably the path we will stick with, however we really like the bellows support and will most likely have a go at making that just to help the bellows in their old age.

we have an enlarger and the front looks very very similar to this camera so that gives us somewhere to start with building the front. (See pics).

wood & Brass
15-Jul-2017, 04:55
regarding the back we have found a picture of a watson combination studio camera, slightly different but again close enough to give us a start, and i have taken a better picture of the back of ours which measures 17.5 inches wide x 18 high (inside measurement between the timber frame).

we have a watson scientific double extending camera which needed a new focusing screen which we did ourselves so feeling reasonable confident we can make a new one for this.

thanks for all your help, looking forward to getting stuck in to sourcing and making the missing bits
(split message due to photo limit)

167283 167284 167285

Steven Tribe
15-Jul-2017, 11:16
Thanks for the photos - it clears up a lot!

The bellows is the same type as yours and the catalogue engraving shows the expanding support slats I mentioned earlier.

I can see that your back is complete. The velvet vertical strips for light exclusion are still there. All you need is the fitting GG frame and some plate holders of the same dimensions. This is "type 1" camera back and is the easiest to make/have made!

I found a couple of examples just now and the light was good enough to take some photos.

Note that the GG frame is missing its glass and that it is (was) held in place by wooden strips rathan than brass tabs. It is far less thick than the shown plate holder. This is of the tambour type, which means it is not necessary for a light seal across the top. You can see the cross mounting system for loading the plate horiz. or vert. Each corner rests on a small silver triangle. I have taken out the rear loading door and not pulled the tambour down at the back. This is far too complex for reconstruction, but a simple design could be just as effective.

The GG frame and the plate holders are basically plane sided boxes. You can just attach pegs at the top and bottom to match the cut-outs that are already there.

Sorry about the information overload but I have a back which shows how your original system can be adapted to more humane sized photography. The last photo shows a frame type which would slot down into the back of the camera - and which is mounted with a permanent GG and place for plate holders.

wood & Brass
16-Jul-2017, 12:38
Thanks steve, huge amounts of information but in a good way! you have given us loads to think about and get on with which is great. we think we might have found a potential lens so if that works out we are going to start making the woodwork for the lens and for the ground glass holder.

thanks again for your patience explaining everything.

Steven Tribe
16-Jul-2017, 13:12
........we think we might have found a potential lens......

Which means you have decided the format?

wood & Brass
17-Jul-2017, 07:04
possibly, but dont hold me to it, we think we are going to aim for 12 x 10, but would really like a watson lens so i presume this will have an impact?

Steven Tribe
17-Jul-2017, 08:37
Watson did not make any lenses.

He engraved other makers lenses with his own name and a serial number - he probably kept a shop ledger of these numbers. In fact, I have a Ross CdeV lens which is engraved by Ross on one side and Watson on the other. The Watson side has two serial numbers. The first is when the lens was sold for the first time (New) and the second (A much higher number) for when they sold it as a used lens some years later.

Apart from Ross and Dallmeyer - who always engraved their lenses - there were other UK and French makers who would supply "blank lenses" to respected sellers like Watson.

It is easier to find lenses for 12x10" rather than 15x12" - even slower Portrait Petzvals can be found.