A Wooden 4x5 View Camera
In order to see how big the task was going to be and what phases lay ahead, I drew some simple sketches to outline the whole building process. I ended up with 38 steps in 5 major building phases. The sketches don't include every single thing I had to make to build the camera. I've omitted stuff like shaping the brass parts and finishing touches. Anyway, since I prefer pictures to textual information, I hope the sketches help you in understanding the size of the work involved, as they did for me. After each building phase I've added comments describing experiences related to those steps.
I started the process by grinding the ground class. It took about 10 minutes. Then I sawed and filed the brass parts. That took about 10 hours. You can see pictures of both of these on the Materials and parts page. Then I moved on to the wooden parts.
Phase 1: Front and Rear Frames
The original idea was to make dovetail cuts to the outer frame strips, but when I realized how small they would need to be I changed them to mitered joints instead. The construction of the frames was pretty straightforward and took about three nights. At this point I realized that even slightest deviations from the planned measurements was going to affect several steps that followed: Instead of the inner measurement of the frames being 160mm as they should have been, they ended up being approx. 158.5mm-159.5mm and I had to adjust the bellows frame to accomodate this. Also the mitered joints didn't came out as tight as I would have wanted. Small cracks here and there remained. Well, this was the best I could do with the hand tools I had and I figured after final sanding and finishing they would look acceptable. Here's a photograph showing the freshly made frames and my neat workspace (a corner of our kitchen floor) in due order.
Freshly made camera frames
(also appearing in the photo, from left to right:
empty red wine glass, grinding glass, bellows frames being glued,
sanding block, part of a wine bottle cork, glue, iron saw, pencil,
mat knife, swiss army knife, ruler, eraser, spare wood strip,
another ruler, corner clamp, pocket knife and legs of a chair)
Phase 2: Bellows Attachment
Since my custom made bellows didn't include any attachment frame, I had to make it myself. It was a simple wooden frame that would fit the inside of the front and rear frames and keep the bellows flush with them. The frames took about 2 nights to finish and I was very pleased with them. They fit so nicely inside the camera frames that I don't need the brass bellows retainers shown in phase 1, step 7 above. Instead I just use two screws on each side to attach the bellows frames to the camera frames. Below is a photo of the bellows frame being glued.
Glueing the bellows frames
With the frames ready and the bellows attached to them, for the first time the construction started to look a little like a camera. At this point I realized a major flaw with my bellows attachment. When the bellows is fully contracted, the distance from the lensboard to the film plane is about 13cm and this leaves no room for camera movements when I'm using a 150mm lens focused at infinity. I think I'll have to make a bag bellows which I'll use when I need more camera movements and when I'm using shorter focal length lenses. I also decided to modify the camera back attachment to shorten the distance between the back and the lensboard (more about that in phase 4).
Phase 3: Standards
The standards and frame connectors were supposed to be simple and easy to make but I ended up working on them for 3-4 nights. In the frame connectors I had to carve a slot for the threaded inserts with a little knife and that took some time. The standards themselves were simple to make but the dovetail cuts required a lot of attention, since they would affect how precisely the front and rear frames would be in correct orientation. I got the stardards straight enough but was forced to leave some gaps in the dovetails. They also look a bit bulky (see the photo below). I have an idea for an alternative design and might redesign the standards later to make the camera more compact.
Phase 4: Lensboard and Spring Back
The spring back is the most exiting part in Jon's design. It was also fun to build because it combines many materials (wood, brass parts of three different thickness, screws, ground glass and steel springs) and looks very technical when its finished. I used the film magazine I had to check the measurements and to ensure it would fit nicely in the back. My initial intention was to follow Jon's plan exactly where the spring back's outer dimensions are equal to the rear frame and there is a light trap in the back that fits the rabbet in the rear frame. But due to my bellows arrangement I wanted to make the lensboard to film distance as short as possible so I made the back smaller to fit right into the rear frame rabbet without the light trap. This way the back is a bit lighter and more compact and it is 6mm closer to the lensboard. I'll just have to make sure I'll have no light leakage problems due to this. The back and lensboard took one weekend to build.
I had bought spring wire to be used in the spring back to press the ground glass frame in place. The wire was about 2mm thick and felt suitable when I tried to bent it in the spring store I got it from. But much to my surprise it turned out to be much too stiff for my purpose. It held the ground glass frame in place all right, but I was unable to lift it to insert the film magazine. So I went back to the spring store and bought some flat steel springs of two sizes. The other was 6mm wide and 0.6mm thick and the other was also 6mm wide but 0.4mm thick. The 0.6mm thick spring was almost ideal but it felt a bit too strong still. The 0.4mm thick spring was too weak (when holding the back upside down, the ground glass frame wasn't pressed firmly against the back). Eventually I placed two 0.4mm springs on top of each other and that felt just about right. I guess a flat steel spring which is 6mm wide and 0.5mm thick would be ideal for this kind of back design. Belows is a photo of the original version of the back with spring wires.
Spring back inserted into the rear frame (spring wire version)
Phase 5: Sliders and Final Assembly
To make the sliders and tripod block tight-fitting, I always had the optical bench rail inserted into them when I pressed the parts together for glueing. This was a good idea and ensured that the sliders have no gap in them. When making the tripod block, my tools were not sophisticated enough to make proper holes in the brass plate for the countersunk head screws and they ended up protruding slightly off the plate. I tested it and screw the tripod block on a tripod and noticed that the protruding screws scratched the cork surface of the tripod severely. So I used a file and sanding paper to smooth the tripod block plate even. It does not look good and since a filed most of the screw heads away, I won't be able to remove the brass plate later. But now it works well and I can screw it on the tripod tightly without having to fear it gets scratched. Since it was very hard to find a threaded insert for the tripod mount, I used a tripod mount from an old Exacta II Ihagee-Dresden 35mm camera (see photo below).
The tripod block: last part built
I drilled the lens hole with a fret-saw and finalized it with sanding paper. This way it was rather easy to get a snug fit.
For the wood finishing I used a vegetable oil based wood wax. I applied it with pieces of cotton from an old t-shirt and it gave a nice shiny finish, enhanced the wood grain and darkened the color of the wood. The camera is still rather light colored, but everyone assured me that the mahogany would darken more as it gets older.
My biggest mistake in the whole project happened right at the finishing line. I was anxious to get the camera finished and late friday night went to a hardware store to get black matt paint. They only had one that sounded about right and I took it. I painted the insides of the camera with it and it looked all right, but it had a tendency to get a little lumpy. The package said it would be dry enough to repaint in 1/2 hours and completely dry in 2-3 hours. I decided to wait for 24 hours before trying to fit the parts together. After 24 hours, the paint was still very slightly soft or flexible and the parts would stick into each other when I tried to put them together. The type of the paint seems to be such (it says "special latex paint" on the package) that the paint surface remains a little soft even when the paint has dried up completely. Add to that that the paint surface is thicker here and there and you got problems with getting the formely nicely fitting parts to fit into each other again. I know that I'll be having problems removing the lensboard and bellows later on, but scrathing the paint off and repainting with a different kind of paint just seems too big a job right now. So I'll see how it goes.
Phase 5 was done in two weekends.
In the design page I mentioned that the camera I was going to make should be good-looking and functional. I have to admit that it didn't end up exactly so good-looking and functional that I had in mind when I started but I know every single part of the camera very intimately and the whole building process was very rewarding. Since this was the first camera I ever built (apart from a single-use pinhole camera out of cardboard I made few years ago), I'm happy with the results. I believe I'll be making another camera some day and I'll be able to use the experiences I got from this project.
The biggest lessons I learned were the following (no big revelations here, these are pretty basic truths):
(c) Mikko Oksalahti, 2000