A Wooden 4x5 View Camera
First of all, I wanted the camera to look good. This meant that I was not going to skimp on the materials. I figured that the cost of the materials would not be a significant factor since the bellows and the lens would be the biggest pies on the cake. I'll explain my choice of materials, where I got them and at the end present the summary of the cost of all the parts needed for the camera.
I called around the local lumber yards and asked what kind of hardwood they have. I found out that almost everyone had oak readily available and with a reasonable price. So I figured oak it would be. Once I visited a hardware store to buy some screws for the camera and even they had oak there. I looked at the oak boards and realized that I didn't like the wood. The color and grain were too dull-looking for my taste.
So I decided to go along with something more exotic. Browsing around the net to see what other people had used (e.g. Gamogli cameras) I decided mahogany it was going to be. This was a respected old hardwood which has a nice color and appearance. The local hardwood supplier had this available and I bought one big board to satisfy the wood demand of the camera. Here's a sample of the surface grain.
Sample of the mahogany surface grain
Other wooden parts of the camera (e.g. lensboard and spring back) are plain plywood for the convenience of having larger pieces without the need for glueing boards together. For those who are interested, I got the wood from a Finnish "de facto" lumber supplier, Puukeskus Oy.
The wood cost me about $60 ($30 for the wood itself and $30 for the carpenter to saw and plane it to the basic measurements).
The metal parts are made out of brass. This is because brass has a nice color and shine and goes well with the dark reddish wood. Brass is also easy to work with. It so soft that I was able to shape all the tricky metal parts with a mediocre metal saw, quality metal file and some sanding paper. The downside is that the parts wear easily. Scrathes and fingerprints are a constant problem. To get away with that I convinced myself that the signs of wear on this kind of a camera is part of the game and only make the camera look more authentic. Below is a photo of some of the brass parts after I have shaped them according to the plans (I apologize for the lousy image quality. I used a crummy digital camera).
Brass parts after sawing and filing
I bought the brass from a small local ironmonger who also cut the pieces to rectangular shapes which covered each part. The brass and labor was about $45.
My initial idea was to make the bellows myself as well, but later thought it wasn't worth the trouble. So I ordered a custom bellows from the English company called Camera Bellows. They were very helpful and the bellows arrived in less than two weeks. It's excellent quality and made exactly to my specifications (which weren't unfortenately precise enough. I ended up placing the bellows flush with the front and rear frame, instead of installing the bellows inside the frames as is the custom. Read more about this mishap on the design page). The maximum extension of it is 42cm and hopefully is enough to satisfy any close-up photography needs I might have. There's a photo of the bellows in the Building process page.
The bellows cost $140 (including shipping).
Knobs and Miscellaneous Hardware
There's not much hardware involved, aside from the major brass parts. I bought about 150 or so brass screws of different length and base (sp?) shape. I also bought a handful of spring wires from a local spring metal supplier. The only challenging hardware was the locking knobs for the standards and the tripod block. I found suitable plastic knobs (from an electronics component company called Yleiselektroniikka Oy), which were discreet enough to suit the design. In addition I bought a 1m long threaded steel rod (6mm diameter) and threaded inserts that can be installed into the wood. The whole construction is as follows: The steel rod is cut to suitable length (e.g. 3cm) and inserted inside the knob. The knob is fastened and it tightens itself around the rod. Then the knob-rod combination is screwed into the threaded insert, which is installed in the wood. The diagram and photo below depict the arrangement.
Control knobs to lock front&rear frames, standards and tripod block in place
The knobs were rather expensive (costing about $2.3 a piece) and the total for the hardware was $30.
Optical Bench Rail
I got really lucky with the optical bench rail. At first my idea was to go and find a 3x3cm aluminium bar to make the optical bench rail. The thing that troubled me was the fact that aluminium is grayish where as all the rest of the camera is either black (knobs and bellows), reddish wood or shining brass. I didn't want to have one part that would be of different color than the other parts. I could try and paint the aluminium bar black but that wouldn't probably be feasible since I'll keep sliding and tightening the sliders along it several times. Then I considered to use the same mahogany wood for the optical bench but I wasn't really confident about the rigidity and strength of the wood.
Just to have an idea of possible other alternatives I called a company that manufactures ski sticks out of carbon fiber. It just so happened that they had a sample piece of carbon fibre rod (600mm * 16mm * 26mm) that was ideal for my needs. This stuff is more rigid than steel and has a nice, black surface finish. It's also rather light, weighing about the same as an equivalent piece of wood. The best part is that the person I called said about the price of the piece: "Well, normally this kind of a thing costs around $70 but since it's a sample piece, I'll give it to you for free. But you'll have to come and get it yourself." So now I'm the happy owner of an ultimate optical bench rail which can support more than 500lbs without bending and has virtually zero heat expansion factor.
The ground glass is definitely the part I'm most proud of. I went to local glazier's and he cut me a plane glass piece (3mm thick) with corners cut for less than $7. He also gave me big piece of a thick glass for the same price to grind the ground glass on. I then went to a small company that imports telescopes and related equipment and bought a small bottle of aluminium oxide, grit size 20 microns.
The grinding was extremely simple. I put the base glass on a level table, put half teaspoon of aluminium oxide on it, a teaspoon of water, mixed the two together and placed the ground glass on top of it. Then I ground the glass in varying circular motions for about 5-7 minutes and that was it. The ground surface of the glass was very evenly dimmed and the whole thing was ready. It took about 10 minutes total and cost me less than $10. Below is a photo of it, before I've drawn the grid lines.
Self-made ground glass
Lens and a Film Magazine
The most important part of the view camera is the lens. All rest is there just to enable you to modify the relative orientation and distance between the lens and the film magazine in a light tight manner. Since I'm new to large format photography, I thought the safest way to start would be to get a good quality normal lens (e.g. 150mm for the 4x5 format). I found a used one for sale at the rec.photo.equipment.large-format newsgroup. The lens (a Rodenstock Sironar-N 150mm f/5.6) was in excellent condition and, to my limited knowledge, was reasonably priced. It cost me $325 (with shipping) and makes up roughly half of the total cost of my camera.
A 150mm Rodenstock Sironar-N f/5.6 lens
I also bought one standard film magazine (Fidelity Elite) to be able to design and construct the spring back precisely. It takes two films (one on each side) so I'll probably buy more of them later on. The magazine was from a local camera shop and cost $20. Standard film magazines can be found just about anywhere and shouldn't be too expensive.
I decided to be truthful to myself and write down all the expenses as they came along. This way I was going to really see whether it's worth the trouble to do the camera yourself and not buy a new or used camera instead. Below you see a chart listing all the expenses I had for a totally functional 4x5 view camera. The only expenses I have omitted are the general purpose tools I needed to buy (e.g. a metal file and corner clamps). I figured these I would use later on on different projects and they really weren't bought for the camera's sake alone. The original prices were in Finnish marks but I've converted them to dollars so a wider audience can evaluate them.
The total cost for a functional hand-made 4x5 view camera was in my case $670 (of which $290 was for the body).
So was it worth it? If you compare to a used 4x5 camera, certainly not but if you compare to a new 4x5 monorail camera, it certainly was worth it. And a self-made camera is a new camera (with a life-time warranty ;o}.
The expenses were divided according to the chart below.
(c) Mikko Oksalahti, 2000