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The Problems With Agfa Cameras

Although beautifully designed, well-engineered cameras fitted with excellent lenses, in their old age Agfa cameras suffer from two serious faults. First there's Agfa's green grease used on the focussing. This, with age, hardens like Araldite leaving the focussing seized. This is not quite the problem it first seems as, fortunately for us, unlike Araldite, it will soften when heated.

As well as this, the Isolettes and Records of the fifties were fitted with a plastic bellows. No doubt a lower cost alternative to leather intended to give a competitive edge. Perhaps, in the new age of plastics, marketed as a modern desirable feature. And whilst they were satisfactory when new, they are now the bane of collectors - in particular those of us who want to use these fine cameras. And they continue to shine like new ever since. So much so that many unknowing camera sellers mistakenly describe them as being in 'mint' condition.

(scroll down for the plastic bellows problem)



Freeing an Agfa Standard's seized focussing

(although equally applicable to the later Billys, Isolettes and Records)

Equipment needed: HAIRDRYER and (possibly) a can of WD40.

The design of the 'Standard' dictates that, in order that the lens assembly can be pushed back into the body, the focussing lever has to be raised such that the lens is set to infinity focus. Hence the first task is to free it with gentle heat using a hairdryer and so be able to move the lever fully down. This extends the lens such that it can then be lubricated.

(As I wrote that I realised, for the first time, why the focussing lever was bent on my Trilinear/Compur example. The  camera must have been used with focus set to 9m, the setting for maximum depth of field (post-war this would be shown in red on Isolettes and Records) and there it had seized. The owner must have deliberately bent the lever to get the lens assembly back into the body!) 

Agfa Standard front with focussing lever ringed

the Standard's focussing lever - when up like this it is set to infinity and the lens is retracted

Stage 1:  Apply heat evenly to the metal housing for several minutes or as long as it takes. Avoiding direct heat onto the lens glass may be wise. To protect your hand from the prolonged heat put the camera on a tripod but, if no tripod, cover your hand with a tea-towel. Try the Standard's focussing lever from time to time, until eventually it moves. No need to force it. Heat will eventually reach the grease and it will soften. Slowly and patiently is the order of the day.

hairdryer applying heat to Agfa Billy focussing

With Billys (seen in these photos) and later Records and Isolettes the front focussing ring must be turned. Be aware that, by the time the grease has become fluid, the ring will be too hot to touch. Be sure to use protection!

cloth as heat protection to turn Agfa Billy focussing

This was sufficient for the Isolette I first did, providing that, subsequently, I remembered to periodically turn the focussing ring to keep it free. Every couple of months was enough. However, the two-decades-earlier Standards seized up again within a few weeks. Something else was needed for them. And so to Stage 2 .........

 Stage 2: With the lens out you can now direct a short squirt of WD40 onto the lens barrel. Then work the lever up and down to distribute it.  Stand the camera on its back and leave to 15 mins (as one does with WD40). Then work the lever up and down again. Repeat if necessary. You will most likely find the result is a bit jerky (alternately very loose then stiff). Nevertheless it does work.

applying WD40 to Agfa Billy focussing

Be careful: the main constituent of WD40 is fish oil so you don't want to risk it going anywhere it shouldn't. The safe alternative to direct application is to squirt into a container then carry the fluid over on the tube, as a chemist would with a pipette. Alternatively use a cotton bud/Q-tip.

(Note that, due to the design of the later '50's models Isolettes and Records, application of WD40 is impossible due to the bezel surrounding the lens and so should not be attempted.)

~ ~ ~

 I can report that I have WD40'd three Standards, my Billy 127 and an old model Isolette with success.

early Isolette with Compur Rapid shutter

A year on and the Isolette and Billy 127 are stiff, but remain moveable and so usable. The Trilinear/Compur Standard has improved and become smooth to operate. Perhaps even as it would have been when new.

The Standard Deluxe continues to stick in the closed position when first opened, but a little pressure releases it. The remainder of the travel is very loose. The Standard 116 has seized again (it was the worst of the set, needing a very long heat treatment). Clearly it needs to be done again, although perhaps it is so bad that a proper clean and re-greasing is the only solution.

As always with these things: you do this at your own risk. As I did! 

(Since doing this I have read the suggestion to use "a few drops of alcohol". I'll have to try that on the next one.  Hopefully he doesn't mean the Glenmorangie ........! ) 

~ ~ ~ 




Those '50s Plastic Bellows

Unfortunately plastic hardens with age. We now know that 'plastic' have a chemical 'plasticiser' in them to keep them plastic (i.e. non-hardening). But at the time these cameras were made plastics were new and manufacturing had little or no experience working with them. Had they understood the problem would they have fitted them? We can never know. But decades later it's we collectors that have to live with the consequences.

With hardening comes splits and holes in the corners of the bellows. These result in fogged film and, so, ruined pictures. No doubt many of these cameras went out of use because of it.  So, as restorer Jurgen Kreckel (certo6) says: "When buying an Isolette, you must be prepared to replace the bellows as almost every one has a bad bellows."  "If the seller claims the bellows are fine and light tight, donít believe it!"

close-up of Agfa shiny bellows with pinholes ringed in red

In this example the typical splits in the front corners of the bellows can be clearly seen.

Many folk on their websites suggest various methods to plug the holes. I once even tried the well-recommended engine gasket sealant which assured success. (Who is the greater fool: the fool or the fool who follows?) But in reality it was too difficult to apply and it set rock hard after a very short time. Not to mention the exceedingly high cost of a tube of the stuff in the first place. All very well if you're a mechanic and keep some in the workshop, but not a wise choice for the rest of us. (I got a teaspoonful of the stuff from my mechanic!) In fact it was the antithesis of what we need. What we need has to be cheap, readily available and easy to apply, especially bearing in mind that it will most likely need to be re-applied regularly.

So, the solution? Well, the best I can come up with is the thing you probably first thought of. Black shoe polish! Warm the bellows and the polish so that it's easy to work into the holes. You can see in the example shown above that typically it's the front two folds that have the problem, so be sure not to miss the ones on the underside, where the struts make access difficult. Although, curiously, it invariably seems to be the top ones that go.

But, most of all, remember that this is a temporary fix and will need regular re-doing. Certainly, to be on the safe side, before each new film. And a word of caution: I would even do the treatment on a bellows that looks okay. I've had bellows that have no visible holes, yet leak. And others with obvious holes that don't. A case of: what you can see may not be what you're gonna get!

Better still buy one from certo6 (or a resale of one of his - they're rare, but they do turn up from time to time) or buy a late model with a leather bellows (they too are rare, but they do exist - I have two!). Or simply do the right thing and fit a new bellows. The cost of film and processing being what it is, it makes sense.

However, this page was supposed to deal with the other problem: the seized focussing. Which, whilst common amongst the '50's Isolettes, is also found in the Standards from the twenties. It seems they were using this dreadful stuff for something like thirty years!



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