Volume 28 - Autumn 2009


Restoration of a Reversible Back Premo... or ....Bringing an American beauty back to life!

by Craig Supplee

Just about the end of February I was cruising on everyone's favourite auction site when I came across a listing for what was described as a Rochester Optical 5x7 Wooden Plate Camera. After looking at the pictures for awhile, I noticed that there were a lot of folds in the bellows for a standard case style camera. I did a little research, and good fortune was with me the final day of the auction, as I won the camera without any other bids. I now know I got a good deal on it and my suspicions were correct, as it turned out to be a Reversible Back Premo by the Rochester Optical Co., c1898.

As you can see from the photos, the leather was in very bad condition, and basically was crumbling off in my hands. There was no way I was going to display that in my Living Room looking like that with leather bits falling to the floor every time I turned around. The brass was also tarnished and the scratches had rusted. As is often the case with old cameras, somebody along the way got to it that didn't quite know what they were doing. There was a broken guide, and the back was jammed inside off the track. Luckily this was minor damage. The good thing is that the interior wood was in very good shape, and the bellows was sound. It just needed a cleaning. The wood received a coat of my favourite Butchers Paste wax. The smell of this stuff is heaven!

I consider myself a fairly good tracker of information online, but I was having a very hard time trying to find a leather source for a larger piece, as I wanted to wrap the whole case without any visible seams. I finally came across the J. Hewit & Sons Ltd. website. They are based in Scotland, and cater mostly to the Bookbinding industry. This company was my saving grace. They have numerous styles of leather skins. I chose an Embossed Skiver in the Morocco pattern. This sheepskin was plenty big enough to do what I wanted. The staff at J. Hewit was very helpful and supportive of my numerous questions about the product, how to glue it on, thoughts on blind tooling the line work, etc. Roger Barlee and David Lanning of J. Hewit & Sons deserve a special mention here. If anyone were contemplating recovering a large camera, I would definitely talk to them. They are top shelf and professional all the way.

I used a carbide scraper and sandpaper on a cork block to remove all the old leather. This was the hardest part of the whole restoration. Probably the messiest too. Lots of leather dust flying around the shop. Care has to be taken here, as Mahogany is a fairly soft wood. You have to go easy on the sanding.

After much more research with regard to the best glue to use, I ended up going with Roman's Golden Harvest Wallpaper and Border Paste. I used this so that in another 100 years, someone else might decide to change the leather and I wanted it to be strippable. I just used a cheap "genuine bristle" brush, and brushed it onto a section at a time. It worked great. The Skiver leather is only 0.4mm thick, but I didn't want to have any overlaps that would show a bump, so I cut the leather on the doors and bottom so that the seams would be at one of the tooled line locations. This worked out very well. You have to be accurate with your cuts though, as this leather does not want to stretch much. I was pleased to see that it didn't shrink at all after drying. I have to add here that working with this fresh leather smell was very intoxicating. I might just think of a career change, and go into Bookbinding.

I used Brasso to clean all the various brass parts and pieces, and I have never seen a camera with more brass on it in all my life. Imagine trying to hold onto and clean the heads of #1x1/4" flat head screws. I am a much more patient person as a result of this project. In cleaning the brass, I also had to clean the brass hinges, which ultimately took off the black finish they had on them. To get them back to an antique black colour, I used a product called Brass Black by the Birchwood Casey Co. This is commonly used in the gunsmith world. It gave the hinge barrels a great look.

The new carry handle on top spent part of its former life as a black belt (no, not Karate). I found it hanging around in a Salvation Army store. It was about the same thickness as the original, and was solid leather. After cutting it out, I heated the edges with my soldering iron to darken them up a bit.

Speaking of a soldering iron, this item was perfect for a DIY tool to reproduce the blind-tooled lines you see on this and all those old cameras. Naturally in production, they would use special hot tools. You work with what you have though. I have a larger iron that has a 3/8" tip that I ground special for this job. I also used a heat control to turn the heat way down. I then used a metal straight edge as a guide, and ran the iron slowly alongside this to burn in the lines. The leather I used has a resin finish on it, so the heat from the iron made the lines dull. To rectify this, I cleaned the leather after I was done with a leather conditioner. This brought back a subtle sheen to the lines.

I was missing several of the #1 screws I mentioned earlier, and this was another battle trying to find them. Greenboatstuff.com came to the rescue. The only other part missing from the camera was the rear slide lock. Rob Niederman came to my rescue this time. He sent me pictures of another Rev Back lock, and so I cobbled up something pretty close that actually works. Rob has a great website, and a nice write-up on the Rev Back Premo. His is a 61/2 x 81/2.

All in all, it was a very rewarding experience, and it went back together with very little yelling. I look forward to doing it again. Rob Niederman said it best: "The highly polished wood interior, brass trim, and maroon bellows makes this one of the most beautiful American folding plate cameras." My camera now has a place of honour in my Living Room, and I am glad I could bring this American beauty back to life. All I am waiting on is an appropriate wood tripod to complete the picture. Ebay, here we come!

Thanks for your time.


Skin Deep - Volume 28 - Autumn 2009

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