A lengthly reflection on rebuilding a B&J 8x10

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A few years ago, I picked up a Burke and James 8x10 wooden camera in an auction. I got it with a bunch of other decrepit photo stuff, so it was practically free. It was in less than stellar condition. The chrome plating was all pitted, the mechanics were stiff, and the red bellows was so dry that it cracked when I tried to flex it. It was, of course, covered in that glorious B&J Army-surplus paint (blue, in this case). I stuck it in the closet and forgot about it.

Fast forward a few years. I've done a good bit of furniture refinishing, and was looking for a new project. I'd thought about the camera, of course, but the paint bothered me for two reasons. First, getting rid of paint is, pardon me, a real bitch. Removing the first 95% is easy; removing the last 5% can take the rest of your life. Second, I'd learned that that if the manufacturer has applied paint, it probably wasn't because he wanted to hide the antique American cherry underneath. I expected the woodworker's equivalent of Cheese Whiz, or to twist the metaphor through a right angle, Yanni (right now, one of you is eating Cheese Whiz out of the can and listing to "Yanni Live at The Acropolis", and I just lost you. Sorry, man).

A few warnings: if you're going to take one of these apart, consider taking some "before" pics to help you reassemble it. GENTLY remove all the metal-to-wood screws (as not to strip them) and place them near the metal parts from which they came. This is painful wisdom gained from having parts missing or left over when putting things back together. If you can keep the piles away from cats and tiny hands, all the better. Even after being careful, I stripped one of the screws securing a gear track and had to drill it out. I didn't replace it. This might be an ambitious project for a first timer, but hey, if I can do it, anyone can.

I used Kutzit to strip the paint, and, surprise #1, it worked pretty well. NOTE: This is NASTY stuff; wear HEAVY gloves, if they tear, get a new pair. Donít let it touch your skin. They were using this stuff as a neurotoxin long before they found out it would strip paint. Let the chemistry soak in, and use a scraper to get the goo off. When you get to the last little bits of paint in the corners, use a SOFT wire brush and gently rub it out. If you're careful and persistent, you'll never know it was painted.

Surprise #2, there was some fairly nice maple underneath that dingy blue paint! After I got the paint off, I sanded it lightly with #80 and then (I think) #120 sandpaper. I used a palm sander for the flat parts and did the rest by hand. I wiped it down with mineral spirits (to get all the dust) and let it dry. I then applied some oil based American cherry stain. By the third or fourth "coat", the wood was starting to look pretty good. I applied all the stain the grain would hold.

The bellows was smoked, of course. Unfortunately, there aren't bellows vendors on every street corner, and even the ones I could find didn't stock a natty red replacement. Looks like it would have to be black. I ordered one from Flexible Products in Clearwater, Fl (www.flexproducts.com; they advertise in Shutterbug). You send them the old one, and they send you a direct replacement. The guy on the phone said that they used to manufacture bellows for B&J, back in the day. Two weeks and $150, delivered to your door.

I finished the wood with about twenty coats of very nice orange shellac. Yes twenty coats. Shellac isn't like urethane (if you choose to smother your camera in urethane, please don't tell me). This turned out to be a good choice, as the shellac added a richness that had been lacking.

Some of the interior parts of the camera need to be sprayed flat black. They were black to start with. If you do this (I recommend it), don't be cheap with the tape. You'll curse as you try to remove black spray paint from your beautiful new finish.

I made a few lensboards out of 1/4" plywood. I painted them flat black on one side and finished them the same as the camera on the other. I had to mill the edges down to 3/16" or thereabouts because the stock was too thick to fit in the holder. I used a friend's table saw. You can buy lensboards if you have to. I've got a 12" Commercial Ektar, but I haven't mounted it yet.

I shined up the metal by rubbing it with fine steel wool. I used #0000 most of the time, and #00 when there was lots of corrosion. Most of it cleaned up rather well, but the chrome plating was just worn off in some places. Anyone know where to get plating re-applied? Is it expensive? Never had it done before.

I put it all back together and darn if it didn't look pretty good. Brushed aluminum isn't my first choice to go with maple-stained-cherry, but I'm beginning to like it. Was it "worth it"? I won't pretend to debate the question. Sure it was. Is it the lightest, sexiest camera ever built? Nah. But, from a purely practical stand point, for a total investment of under $250 (not counting the lens and a substantial chunk of time), I now have a working 8x10 with 31" bellows and all the movements a guy could want. From an aesthetic and pride-of-workmanship standpoint, I'm in love, like I am with all the furniture I've refinished.

I've posted some pics. They're pretty big, so be patient. I tossed them up out on my AOL member home page. It's completely lame, but it's the best I can do right now. Look at the camera, not the crummy page!


Thanks for listening, everyone! Let me know what you think! I'll be happy to answer questions, too.

-- Kevin Bourque (skygzr@aol.com), February 02, 2001


Have you thought about writing this up in a more detailed fashion and asking Tuan to post it to the main page?


WIth your prose, I'm surprised your last name isn't spelled Baroque.

-- Sean yates (yatescats@yahoo.com), February 02, 2001.


Looks like you did a fine job of it. I have done this several times, with good results. I have found that the best answer for me, regarding the toxic-waste paint strippers (and a guilt-driven desire to avoid them) is to use 3M "Safest Stripper". It is relatively non-toxic, and you don't even need gloves unless you (to use 3M's words) expect "long-term exposure". There are no fumes, it's non-flammable, and can be used without ventilation worries. Contact time is longer (of course), something like 2 hours, but it really works and paper towels, rags, etc. can be disposed of in regular trash. It comes as a paste, and is brushed on - scraped off. A damp, fine "stipping pad" will remove any residue (or a plastic "pot scrubber-type pad"). One other thing to keep in mind for anyone wishing to try their hand at a restoration, is that these cameras were made in the days when nearly all paint contained various amounts of lead (some EXTREME amounts). So it is not wise to remove this paint with sanding, particularly indoors. Especially if there are children about! When sanding, fine particles remain air-borne and can be ingested, inhaled, and carried into the home on clothing. Repeated exposures can have an effect on the nervous system, and is especially hazardous to developing young bodies.

I am employed at a research university, in the Environmental Health Office, where we have devices for determining lead content of materials. I tested a paint sample from a Kieth Portrait camera that I was about to restore (c. 1950), with the "battleship gray" paint. It tested out at nearly 38% lead!

So be warned, and take appropriate precautions.

-- Matt O. (mojo@moscow.com), February 03, 2001.

Geez, I just had the old grey paint matched at a good paint store and then put a nice new red bellows on it, but what do I know, I like grey. Otherwise, I agree with the 000 steel wool, great stuff for all sorts of polishing. My only gripe with the otherwise good camera is the way the back standard locks down, sorty cheesy.

-- bill zelinski (willy226@yahoo.com), February 03, 2001.

Beautiful camera!

As for keeping small parts from getting lost - I bought a clear plastic tackle box insert. I numbered all the bins with a permanent marker. As I disassemble a camera, I make a diagram and indicate on the diagram which bins the parts are in, and, of course, put the parts in those numbered bins.

Ed Romney uses double-sided tape on a diagram to tape the parts to the diagram, but I found most didn't hold that well, and you are still at risk of flinging all your parts all over the house.

-- John H. Henderson (jhende03@harris.com), February 05, 2001.

I wonder if your shiny parts were nickled or chromed? Anyway, most large cities will have a metal shop that specializes in re-chroming auto and motorcycle parts. I had a number of parts for my motorcycle rechromed when I restored it. For the size parts you have, I doubt it would cost more than $100 to have them done. There is usually a 30- day wait here in Austin (there is only one place in town) but I get much faster (and cheaper) service in San Antonio or Fort Worth.

-- Ed Buffaloe (edb@unblinkingeye.com), February 05, 2001.

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