No matter how careful you might be with your cameras, sooner or later something is bound to break, bind up, or otherwise fail. With modern cameras, this generally means that the smoke comes out of some expensive circuit board and you go spend some money on a replacement. With old mechanical film cameras, however, there’s just a bunch of gears, levers, springs and other goodness crammed into a tiny space that probably hasn’t seen the light of day since the Johnson administration. The passage of decades is not often kind to lubricants and springs, not to mention plastics. Something’s bound to give, and probably at an inconvenient time.
My Rollei 35, which has previously given no trouble whatsoever, decided to start ripping film in half while it was being rewound. Lots of tension would build by about halfway through the roll, and then SNAP. Very annoying.
There’s no way I am going to carry around a camera that’s going to threaten to break every roll of film I put through it, so something had to be done. After extricating the broken roll and securing it in a light-tight container, I set about taking the camera apart.
Let me take a moment here to explain something about Your Humble Filmosaur. I have always had a tendency to disassemble first and ask questions later. This has often gotten me in trouble – how was this supposed to fit together again? – but it is also a very effective way to learn how mechanical things work. Sometimes it ends up biting you, sometimes you discover it’s just broken, but occasionally you actually learn something and manage to effect the repair.
The Rollei 35 is notoriously complex. This is necessitated by the tiny package into which all the moving parts have to be fitted. It is also necessitated by German engineers having to adhere to a design ethic that demands that things fit together only one way. When so fitted, they form a mechanism that is as close to perfect as human ingenuity will permit; when they are not, it is because you (a non-German, non-engineer) have failed to appreciate the beauty of the mechanical creation. In other words, the mechanism is not complex; you are simple.
With the imagined glares of a room full of stern Teutonic men whose names all begin with Dr. Ing., I set about cracking open their creation to see what makes it tick. The 35 has a removable back, which includes the lower cover. The top cover comes off conventionally, meaning a few screws and the various controls located there have to be removed. The 35 is convenient in this regard, as all the exposure controls are on the front panel, so it’s just the wind lever, rewind unlock lever, and lens release button.
Once the cover’s off one is confronted with a bunch of gears on the left side and the guts of the meter on the right. The gears drive the transport mechanism; a large metal one driven directly by the wind lever turns a secondary shaft that contains the advance lock. This then drives two other shafts: the sprocket drive and the take-up shaft. The latter, it turns out, also cocks the shutter by means of a cam located at the bottom of the shaft. This is a very space-efficient but rather complex arrangement (big surprise…).
Nothing looked overtly bad. All the gears turned when they should, no missing screws or broken bits of plastic rattling around. The rewind unlock worked as it should, releasing the sprockets to turn freely in either direction. The advance and cocking mechanisms did their respective jobs. I decided to dig further; in retrospect this was probably ill-advised.
Removing the large primary advance gear releases the tension on the rest of the advance and cocking drivetrain, which throws the whole thing out of sync. It took me quite a while to figure out how to remedy this (it involves lifting up the secondary gear that contains the advance lock so that the shaft driving the cocking cam can be turned independently to the proper position). In the meantime, I pulled out the viewfinder, which has always been hazy, and cleaned it; this is no small feat, given that it is essentially contained in a single closed piece of plastic (I can hear the designers now: “Our viewfinders do not need to be serviced, as they do not get dirty if the camera is properly maintained.”). I also used a bit of lighter fluid to wash down the gears and lever pivots that I could get to, and to clean up the electrical contacts for the meter. A little bit of lubrication was added where appropriate.
With it all back together and working properly, I put in a test roll and advanced it through with no problem, but then the advance wasn’t the issue. When I went to rewind it, the same problem occurred – I could feel the film binding. I manually removed it and checked each component again, now having a better understanding of what did what. The problem was quickly isolated as being the take-up spool. This spool runs on a shaft to which it is friction-fitted. I don’t know what sort of lubrication, if any, was originally used between the two pieces, but the level of friction between them now was far too high. This was not an issue when advancing the film, as the film advance drivetrain actuates the inner shaft positively by turning the upper gear, but when rewinding the outer spool spins while the inner shaft remains stationary, held in place by the other gears in the drivetrain. Too much friction means the spool was binding against the inner shaft.
The fix? A few drops of light oil into the bushings at the top and bottom of the shaft. Turning the spool by hand immediately showed a considerable reduction in friction, and this was borne out by advancing and rewinding the test roll without incident. Lubricant was applied with the tip of a tiny screwdriver, and excess carefully wiped away. I did this several times, rotating the spool between applications by hand to ensure the lubricant was well-distributed (spin the notched wheel at the base of the spool in the opposite direction to the arrows).
You might think, then, that all that disassembly was ultimately unnecessary, but it really wasn’t. Without taking the camera apart, I wouldn’t have been able to understand how the pieces fit together, and thus been able to diagnose the actual problem. Plus the viewfinder is now clear and the meter works better, and I have a much better understanding of just how this particular camera works. Just another step on my path toward becoming Herr Dr. Ing. Filmosaur.