Re-finishing older wood cameras : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

A friend recently broke the back of an old Burke & James wooden camera. It was one of the basic gray models. He had his brother in law repair it & in the process the relative took off all the gray paint & refinished the natural wood. Looks like ash and is stunning. Anyone else out there taken the old paints off these and found beautiful surprises waiting? If so, is one method better than another to remove the paint? Is there any finish that will last better than another? Is there a preferred method of preservation of the newly revealed beauty? Thanks.

-- Dan Smith (, April 08, 1999


I have wantd to do this Dan, but so far my "experience" is from refinishing furniture and from reading.

paint strippers are available at hardware stores, home centers and the large discount retailers with -mart in their names. They run the range from being less-environmentally friendly, and more caustic and quicker acting, to the more environmentally friendly but slower working (usually, more coats necessary). One simply brushes the stuff on, waits 10-30 minutes, and scrapes it off.

There is some concern that one might harm some woods (either through the coating that one doesn't remove with the water, or through the water that is used to remove the remnants!) I would not hesitate to do this to an old B&J, but I would do it on a B&J before, say, a Deardorff. I am happy with the furniture that I have worked on.

As for finishing, I simply report Ron Wisner's comments on on 6.9.98:

" We chose oil varnish years ago because it is designed to expand and contract with the wood so it will never crack. It was designed for boats, where the rigors are greater. Furthermore, polyurethane cannot be refinished over itself because of its hardness. It polymerizes almost completely, whereas oil varnish takes years and therefore cures very slowly. Oil varnish, which we use, can be revarnished over itself many times as a result as long as it is sanded proberly. This means that it can be repaired in case of accident."

-- paul parker (, April 08, 1999.

Formby's Refinisher might be a good choice for plain oil varnish finishes. It is not a harsh stripper. Rather, it re-liquefies the old varnish, floats off the dirt, and lets you steel wool it down again, to be followed by a coat or two nf new varnish. It doesnt lose the patina and natural aging colors. Wont work on the urethane finishes, for the reasons Wisner mentions. I wouldn't hesitate to use it on a vintage Deardorff. Personally, I favor beeswax or beeswax/carnuba wax for just about everything I build. Maybe over a light stain. All oil based. You can also rub a bit on the focussing rails.

-- Tony Brent (, April 09, 1999.

I've wanted a larger format camera for my living room for some time. So, I bought a Century Grand sr (built between 1904 - 1907). Under the leatherette I found beautiful wood that finished nicely with a mahogany gel stain from Minwax. After the staining, I used 5 coats of spar varnish (Schooner brand). Initially, I sanded with 220 between coats. Once I had the 5 coats of varnish on, I began using "Micro Mesh" wet. Using all the steps I ended up with a finish that is fine furniture quality. It has a deep gloss look but not like a polyurethane (even though that is what it is ).

The stripper used was the environmentally friendly type. While not as fast acting, I could console myself to the fact that I wasn't hurting local ecology.

I'm finishing up soon and am very pleased so far. I can heartily recommend Micro-Mesh. Buy the kit - it will probably last a life

-- Mike Long (, April 09, 1999.

often the best way to clean off stuff from that era is with a mixture of 1/2 paint thinner and 1/2 lacqure thinner. soak the mixture up in a rag and lay it on the wood. it will become obvious when the old finish is soft, and at that point to can often wipe the old stuff off with steal wool - if indeed you want to remove the old finish. to make it easier, you can pick up a small Red Deil scraper, it's about four inches long and about 3/4 wide. file the corners off the scraper blade, use it on a piece of wood and make sure it doesn't gouge; then sharpen the scraper again and the process will go very fast. Melt, scrape, and clean up with steal wool. sometimes, you can just restore the old finish by melting it. anyway, once the finish is off, if you want a natural finish, IMHO there is a product called Floorfin, this is made by the Seafin company. This is a very clear and very tough oil finish, easy to use. but, before you begin this ordeal, remember, as long as it takes to refinish this camera you won't be out taking pictures with it.

-- david clark (, April 09, 1999.

I refinished my Deardorff by first sanding (yes, sanding) the whole thing down with 100-150-200 grit paper in succession. Then I used Minwax water-based polyurethane (I like the water-based stuff because there is virtually no odor and cleanup is easy.) to coat the bare wood. It turned out beautifully. The tone is much lighter than the original varnished look.

-- Chad Jarvis (, April 09, 1999.

Take the camera completely apart..remove all hardware (and of course the bellows)...Use the stripper of your choice..the paint is probably an oil based enamel..with lead (or possibly a production laquer). Use a narrow chisel, or even a scratch awl to carefully get into the crevices (without cutting or scratching the wood). Once the old finish is off, check carefully for cracks, breaks, splits, etc which can be carefully re-glued..use tape for clamps (if you have no clamps. This is the time to consider re-plating the hardware..either nickel, or even silver..look in the yellow pages for a metal plater, or re-finisher. It's probably solid it can be cleaned, and re-laquered, too..or left natural, if you like. If there's missing can be matched, re-fitted and carefully re-glued. Then sand carefully, starting with 120 to 240 to 400 grit. To re finish the wood..use Watco Danish oil..several coats per instructions. This will enhance the beauty of the natural wood and allow it to breathe..expand and contract. Carefully rub down between coats, and after the final coat (after completely dry) with 0000 steel woool. You might want to consider a light coat of good paste wax (Minwax is good), rubbed out with cheese cloth at the end, too. Shellac ,in several layers, and rubbed with 0000 steel wool between each coat will work well, too. Use compressed air to completely blow off all dust and steel wool residue before applying any finish coats. Don't reccomend you use varnish or polyurethane. When you re-assemble might carefully fill each of the screw holes with a wooden matchstick, trimmed to fit, and carefully glued in. Use a fine drill bit and drill a pilot hole in each. This way the screws will hold tightly. If you need to replace screws (they are probably solid brass, too) these can usually be found to match in better hardware stores

-- C Matter (, April 09, 1999.

The gray paint was covering Maple wood on my camera. I stripped the paint and then varnished the whole thing. So far so good been about 10 years.

-- Lee Carmichael (, April 09, 1999.

View Camera magazine had a terrific article in the March/April 1995 issue on refinishing wooden cameras, with an emphasis on B&J

-- Jim McDonough (, April 12, 1999.

I've had a couple of B+J 5x7's with finish removed....seems to be quite popular...they are made of maple.

-- Quentin Molyn (, August 28, 1999.

Shooter, listen to C Matter. I used to make high dollar furniture for a living (till my divorce took my shop). Anyway he has told you exactly what it takes. "Do not use a scraper" to "scraaaapppppeee" off the finish. Don't sand like hell either. Softly, slowly use your choice of stripper and steel wool to get the old finish off. These cameras are worth all the time you can invest in them. I refinished an old Korona 4x5 made of Mahogony. It was painted grey. It took me a week to strip it to the wood. I took the whole thing apart and refilled all the holes with wood putty I dyed to match the color of the wood after I had stained it just before applying spar varnish to it. I was going to just use carnuba wax but decided it wouldn't hold up to the environments that I subject my equipment to on a normal basis. I bought new slightly longer screws for it's rebuild and buffed up the plated metal hardware. When I was done it was beautiful. Alas I ended up trading it for a ton of 4x5 polaroid film I desparately needed at the time. The guy probably sold it for a good price. I even put friction washers in the controls to make it better at holding the settings I used. Take your time and do a good job. They can be works of art and I am sure they will deliver better images afterwards. Luck, James from the Left Coast.

-- james (, August 28, 1999.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ