Repairing bellows pinholes in folding cameras

A common malady among old folding cameras is pinholes in the corners of the bellows. These little holes will leak light onto your film. Some photographers embrace the look, but I’m not one of them.

I learned a simple way to repair bellows pinholes from Mike Connealy’s blog. It’s not a permanent solution, but it will last a good long while and let you shoot with an otherwise functional old folder.

To check for pinholes, take the camera into a dark room, open the back, and shine a very bright flashlight around inside the bellows. I did this with my recently acquired Ansco Viking Readyset, and it lit up like a Christmas tree. Light came through every single corner.

I use a small, very bright LED flashlight that I bought from Amazon here. It fits inside a bellows with a little room to spare, so I can move the flashlight around and get into the bellows’ far reaches.

You can repair the pinholes with black fabric paint. I use Tulip brand, which I buy from Amazon here. The bottle’s tiny tip works great for applying a couple drops of paint to a pinhole. Just make sure the pinhole is completely covered.

I’m not great at fine work, mostly because I’m impatient with it. As you can see below, I globbed too much fabric paint on some of the pinholes. The paint I use has a gloss finish that makes my sloppy work very noticeable on the matte bellows. If you are careful with the paint, you will get a more cosmetically pleasing repair. Tulip also makes this paint with a matte finish.

After you apply the paint, keep the camera open and let it dry for at least four hours. I generally let it dry overnight. Then take the camera back into a dark room with a flashlight and make sure you didn’t miss any holes.

Fabric paint is flexible and hardy. The bottle says the stuff is machine washable! You will be able to open and close the camera a number of times without cracking the paint. I’m sure that the paint will eventually wear out, but cameras I repaired this way several years ago are still light tight.

A bottle of fabric paint lasts a very long time. My bottle is five years old now. I’ve repaired about a half-dozen old folders with it and the bottle is still 99% full. With the cap screwed on tight, this paint doesn’t dry out in the bottle.

The best repair is to replace the bellows entirely, but you can’t order fresh bellows from the factory anymore. A vanishingly small number of people make custom bellows — I know only of Jurgen Kreckel and Sandeha Lynch. Jurgen fits his custom bellows as part of his complete repair service for folding cameras. Sanheda will send you instructions so you can fit his bellows yourself, but offers bellows only for a few Agfa and Agfa-made Ansco cameras. Fortunately, he makes bellows for the Ansco Viking cameras for £48 plus postage, if I ever want to fully restore my Viking Readyset.

You have to decide whether an old folder you own is worth that investment. Meanwhile, a little black fabric paint will cover your pinholes and let you use your camera.

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18 responses to “Repairing bellows pinholes in folding cameras”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Excellent idea with the fabric paint! I used to use black rubber caulk on my 8X10 cameras with holes at the edges (altho not a big problem in a professional photo studio to just throw a black cloth over the whole thing). I know I mentioned on here before that it wasn’t all that long ago where these bellows were an “off the shelf” item; easily found repair people that could replace these back in the 90’s. Gone now…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I love easy and inexpensive solutions like this. Someday I’m sure the holes will crack back open, but I suppose I can just apply more paint then.

    2. DavidA Avatar

      I have heard good things about GB brand Liquid Electrical Tape from a photog in NYC. Used it on a bellows cam from early 90’s successfully (M. 67?). Those bellows didn’t look like cloth fiber – or was just not as old as a Vigilant 616 which feels like old cloth. So many pin holes. Maybe I’ll do Tulip first and Liquid E.T. a few cots later . . .

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        Good tip, thank you!

  2. Gert-Jan Avatar

    Hi Jim, Sandeha (not Sanheda :) does create other bellows besides the ones you mentioned. I once sent him the old bellows from another 6×6 folder so that he could choose the right material (thickness) for the replacement.

    No affiliation, just a happy customer.

    Personally, I have replaced the bellows on my folders (I only have a handful). Yes it is not cheap, but it’s easy to do and it gives me peace of mind as I don’t need to worry about old or new pinholes for many years to come.
    I tend to think that new bellows will also result in a better resale value later, but I have yet to verify that assumption :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks for letting us all know! And I fixed his name in the text.

      Most of the folding cameras I’ve owned have been basic, like the Ansco Viking Readyset I mention in the text. I have so far not been willing to invest what a new bellows costs for a camera that has such a low value on the market anyway.

  3. Mike Connealy Avatar

    I’ve used Tulip fabric paint to repair quite a few old folders. A couple of the repaired bellows have held up well for about fifteen years. I try to remember to check for new leaks before I use the cameras, but I also store them open on a shelf in a glass-front cabinet so as not to stress the repairs. I have also used the fabric paint to repair pinholes in cloth shutter curtains and those repairs have also been very durable.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      15 years! That’s a good run. Storing the cameras open is a good idea, especially when you keep them in a cabinet, which keeps dust accumulation down.

  4. tbm3fan Avatar

    Generally I have been lucky with my 120 folding cameras for the most part. I did replace three bellows on three Kodak 120 6×9 folders though. Sometime back a fellow on eBay was selling original replacement NOS Kodak bellows identified by a number only. The chore was to figure out which ones you needed as Kodak used tons of different ones and finding a complete list was near impossible. Another chore was getting access to all those metal tabs that held the base of the folder in.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’d say three out of four of the 120/620 folders I’ve owned have had pinholes. I’ve always assumed that bellows replacement, if you had a new bellows to install, was a pain and best left to the professionals!

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Great post! I keep considering getting a folder. I’m sure I would eventually send it off to be CLA’d, but now I know what to do about bellows leaks in the interim.
    I think that the really difficult part for me is deciding which folding camera, there are just so many choices!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It is challenging to choose! My recommendation is to find one with some level of focus, aperture, and shutter-speed control; those generally have far better lenses than the fixed-focus, fixed-exposure ones.

  6. arhphotographic Avatar

    Thank you for the practical tips. Good to know that there are ways to keep these great cameras producing great images.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What I love most about this is that it is an inexpensive solution that pretty much anybody can do.

  7. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Thanks Jim! I wound up getting an old Kodak Hawkeye No.2, it’s a pretty low end camera, but this one is in basically new condition, and it was quite inexpensive. I didn’t realize how fragile the plastic over the red window had become, I broke it straight away.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I had a red window fall out of a camera I own. I glued it back in.

      I wonder if you can find red translucent tape to cover the hole with.

  8. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    I didn’t think of that! I ordered a couple sheets of red gel (for lighting), it should be red enough but easy to see into as well (I hope!), that could probably fix 500 camera windows.

  9. […] the bellows. Luckily I had just read about a quick and dirty bellows fix on Jim Grey’s excellent Down the Road blog. It was an easy fix and now the camera is virtually perfect. It’s simple as can be, one […]

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