View Full Version : How to clean up a musty bellows?

Steve Goldstein
28-Oct-2010, 14:00
I recently got my hands on a fairly nice Nagaoka 4x5 for hiking use - it's half the weight of my Shen-Hao HZX45-AII. Everything is intact and functional, and the bellows passes the light-bulb test. The only real flaw is an annoying musty smell to the bellows, and I'd like to do something about it. In searching the archives I found comments about Lemon Pledge and Lexol, but suspect these products are really for use on the leather bellows exterior and not on the cloth lining.

Any suggestions?



Gem Singer
28-Oct-2010, 14:23
Remove the lens board. Remove the back, or the ground glass if the entire back is not removable.

Extend the bellows all the way. Leave the camera outside in the fresh air for a few hours.

Don't use moisture of any kind on the inside of the bellows. However, wipe off the outside of the bellows with a slightly damp cloth and vacuum the inside with the crevice tool of a vacuum sweeper.

I once purchased a used camera that smelled from tobacco smoke. This treatment worked like a charm.

28-Oct-2010, 16:18
I have used "Smells be Gone" for these cases. In fact last week I was changing mixing boxes on my Durst 8x10 enlarger and noticed how bad the inside of the bellows smelled, so I treated it with the Smells be Gone.

John Jarosz
28-Oct-2010, 16:25
baking soda

Steve Goldstein
28-Oct-2010, 17:00
baking soda

How? Put it in a sealed space with an open box of baking soda like I do with my fridge?

John Jarosz
28-Oct-2010, 17:36
That's how I would try it. I just know that stuff is really good at removing odors, but I don't know how it does it.

31-Oct-2010, 11:17

The smell is caused by mildew, the bellows probably got moist and was stored for a long time. I went all over the net trying to find a remedy for my Korona Gundlach's smelly bellows. I heard everything from 1:1 rubbing alcohol and water, clorox, lysol, soapy water, and a supposed camera repair expert even told me to use hydrogen peroxide!!!!! I actually tried the rubbing alcohol and it was a bad bad idea, it dried the leather bellows out so bad I had to use neatsfoot oil on them.

I have a friend who's a photographer and works as the head of book restoration at the Portland Public Library in Maine. He spends all day restoring old musty, rotten, dusty books with leather bindings, some of them more than 100 years old.

He told me get a plastic box large enough to fit the camera in, poor a layer of normal cat litter in the bottom 2 inches thick. Put a piece of cardboard on top of the litter for the camera to sit on. Then put the camera in with bellows extended, lid the box to seal it, and leave it alone for 1-2 weeks. The cat litter absorbs moisture and kills the mildew without actually touching the camera with harmful chemicals. You can even get scented or unscented litter. I would suggest the latter unless you want your old camera smelling like a flower bed. After that take the camera out and put it outside on a sunny dry day. This will air it out and make sure any remaining mildew is dead. If the bellows is dried out use a very small amount of Neatsfoot Oil on the leather.

DON'T EVER EVER use Pledge, Clorox, alcohol of any kind, windex, amonia, hydrogen peroxide, anything with a harsh chemical smell. I would keep anything wet to a minimum because mildew thrives on dampness not to mention it will make the old glue separate in some cases. Anyone that tells you to use any of these chemicals to clean bellows has no idea what they're doing as far as restoration. Those chemicals might be ok for cloth bellows but not leather. Treat the leather like you would your own skin, you wouldn't rub clorox on your skin would you?

Baking soda would probably work well as a moisture absorbent but I don't think it would kill the mildew but I'm not an expert. My suggestion try both and see which one works. But just to let you know as unbelievable as it is the kitty litter actually works, my Gunlach bellows have a neutral smell to them. I applied some Neatsfoot Oil and it gave them a nice leather smell, just PLEASE use the oil very sparingly. Get a rag and put only about a half a teaspoon on, rub the cloth together and then lightly massage the bellows going vertically down the creases. If you use too much the glue will separate and your bellows will fall apart. Neatsfoot Oil is available from any leather supply or hardware store.


Steve Goldstein
1-Nov-2010, 04:15
I did the Lexol thing yesterday, first the cleaner followed by two treatments of the conditioner. The smell was greatly reduced after cleaning, and the bellows looks great now that it's been treated. There's still a slight residual odor that seems to be more on the (cloth-lined) inside, so it's into a box with baking soda first since I've got some handy. If that doesn't do it, I'll try unscented cat litter.

Thanks everyone. My wife is happy I bought the Lexol, now I get to do the leather sofa and chairs, and the car interiors, and....

1-Nov-2010, 07:35
Yeah, I have heard about the cat litter thing from a few restorers I know.

1-Nov-2010, 08:04
Lexol was one of the solutions that was suggested to me that actually sounded viable. I checked it out and it looks like a very good leather cleaner/conditioner. Some people complain that the conditioner leaves a film on the leather but I don't know I've never used it. As you say the only problem is that it can't clean the fabric inside, and I wouldn't suggest rubbing the inside fabric with anything seeming it's more delicate than the leather.

I think you're on the right track though, cleaning old bellows can be tricky.