Leica needs a new dress: leather replacement made easy

A Leica IIIc arrived from the United States. It was a late wartime camera, likely produced between May 1945 and June 1946. And, all vulcanite came off in bits at the very moment I unpacked it. Camera leather replacement made easy in this how-to article!

Many old cameras have either vinyl that shrinks (most notorious are the Contax SLRs and my Chinon Memotron CE-II cameras) or crumbling vulcanite (that would be a typical Leica thing). The vinyl is easily peeled off and residue glue can be removed with chemicals but be careful of the paint on your camera. Vulcanite however comes in two ‘varieties’, it either falls off by itself (happens on Leicas but never on their Russian copies like the Zorki and the FED) or is still stuck to the camera body and needs to be taken off with a bit of persuasion. People are known to chip the vulcanite off but it’s potentially damaging to the camera shell, I recommend removing the shell from the Leica (that takes some skills but can be learned online on YouTube) and gradually heating it in water until the vulcanite releases. In case you wondered, Russian vulcanite won’t even come off with a blow torch…

Anyway, my Leica IIIc left a trail of vulcanite scraps right from the box. Apart from some other issues, this one needed to be remedied of course! I decided to write a little how-to so you can do this at home yourself. It’s pretty easy once you know how to go about it!

Requirements for re-covering your camera

  • 1 uncovered camera, glue residue removed
  • simple paper masking tape, used to mask off windows when painting the house
  • really sharp hobby knife
  • cutting mat
  • Duct tape
  • hole punch
  • metal ruler with a cutting side
  • a well lit work place, preferably with two lights to get rid of shadows etc
  • lock pets in the attic. Send the kids to granma or the arcade hall. Send the spouse to do that one thing that always makes her/him come home later than planned.

I start by wrapping the whole camera in a single layer of masking tape. I make sure it overlaps, and I use small pieces to come around corners etc. Use your nails or a smooth small metal object to drive the tape into hooks and corners, and then cut the excess tape away with the hobby knife. Make sure not to scratch the chrome or paint with the knife! Use a table mounted loupe with inbuild lighting if you can’t see up close. Or glasses. Or both.

By the time you’re done, your camera should resemble an Egyptian mummy.

Leica vulcanite replacement

Now, start reinforcing the tape with more layers. For each of them, cut any excess tape away with the hobby knife like you did before. Be as precise as you can. Your tape project needs to be sufficiently solid to be peeled off of the body in one piece, it’s going to be a cutting template!

I have not put any tape into the small area between the slow speed dial and the ‘prongs’ on the top plate front, the part that extends down to the lens mount. It’s just too fiddly to get tape into and it will tear once you remove the tape template. I’ll cut that part a bit wide from the final metarial and cut it to size on the body. It’s going to take a lot of minute cutting to size on the body anyway, so you’d better pour a drink if you have to.

Stripping the camera nekkid once more

Once you’re satisfied with the tape template, remove the bottom plate of your Leica, and cut the part underneath the lens vertically. This is the place where the original vulcanite ends also met. Now, use the tip of the knife to lift the tape template and carefully remove it from the body!

I stuck my tape template to the table, like this:

Leica IIIc with tape template

As you can tell, the hole for the slow speeds dial (right top side) isn’t particularly perfect. But, by this time you’ll be so engulfed in the project that you’ll know which line of the edge the correct one is. At least, I usually am…

I stuck my tape template to the table because it’s still pretty feeble and needs some more reinforcing. Enter stage three, the Duct tape.

Leica tape template reinforced with Duct tape

Now I peel it off the table, and put it sticky side up on my cutting mat.

The edges of the lens mount contour I cut about a millimeter wide, by hand. So I’ll have some wiggle room, later on. One tip: if you need to cut this Duct tape or the final material (which will be vinyl for this camera), never cut from the edge of the tape or material, but stick the blade point in the material and cut towards the edge. Way easier, your knife will cut from the very beginning while cutting from the edge will sometimes make the tape or material curl up in front of the blade!

As you can tell I had not yet cut out the screw holes and the lug mounts here. And, I should have left it that way. But instead I used the hole punch to punch out the screw holes and it turned out later that one hole was misaligned. The only little foul-up on this project and you wouldn’t have known had I not told you, it’s not very obvious in the final result.

The lug mount holes are bigger than my hole punch can cut in one go, so I’m creating holes large enough for the lug mounts by combining a bunch of smaller holes. As a benefit, it’s not very hard to make them fit perfectly. I snip away fractions of millimeters until I’m where I need to be. How to test fit them without sticking them to the body all the time? Simple, I test fit them inside out, the left hole on the right lug mount and vice versa!

What’s the case with this vinyl here?

Or may that should have read, what’s the vinyl with this case here? Haha!

I got a very old beauty case from a thrift store, that I used to cut the vinyl from. That’s mainly for two reasons, I like to recycle things and of course it’s also less expensive than getting something new.

But, there is a different reason. Thing is, you need to find a material that isn’t too stretchy. Because a stretchy material will drive you nuts. No matter how hard you push down on it, it will still stretch when you cut it and your result will be more difficult to fit as a result. Lots of goodlooking materials shown online have other purposes, like clothing fabrics or upholstery fabrics. And those materials have different properties to make them suited for their purpose. Being stretchy often is one of them and it might disqualify as a camera cover because of that. Best way to tell is to have the material at hand and simply feel how sturdy it is. It imporoves on the grippyness if it’s slightly soft, but stretchy is not a good quality.

I have used some real leathers in the past, also faux leathers from furniture. And ladies purses, handbags, old jackets and vinyl cases et cetera, even a suitcase once. Just because the material was usable. Nice to the touch, good sheen and correct thickness are also important properties.

Thicker isn’t always better

Correct thickness is especially important with Barnack Leicas. Why so? Well, the length of the material on the Barnack bodies exceeds 30cms ever so slightly, that’s over 12 inches. That’s all in one piece since there’s no back door like on the M series of Leicas. Here’s what makes all the cutting to size particularly necessary for Barnack bodies: the thicker the material, the more increase on the length of the material’s top side you see because of the two full 180 degrees curved corners of the body! This is where the inside and outside of the material start to get ‘out of sync’ due to the rounding. Hard to fathom? Think of it this way, is the inside of a soccer ball circumference exactly as long as the outside? It isn’t, right? And that too increases when the soccer ball is made from thicker material!

Cutting something to size that is thicker than the edge of the Leica bottom plate is a real pain because of the dimensions of the camera. That’s why you need to cut a little wide in the areas around the lens, and you need to cut the screw holes and lug mount holes while fitting the material to the body.

Allright, back to the project.

Once the template is ready, I stick it onto the material without stretching it and start cutting! Remember that I added about half a millimeter to the template already when I cut the lens mount curves, and I haven’t punched the screw holes yet, and the area that I start is the front side where the slow times dial is. That’s where the most ‘obstacles’ are located, the other end is easiest to cut to size perfectly once I’ve made everything match.

Use the cutting mat and the metal ruler for the long straight edges. For the smaller and curvy parts, it’s all you and the hobby knife. Remember to cut towards the edges, it’s particularly important here or you will overshoot a cut and will have to start all your work from the beginning if your template is also destroyed…

I fold the material on the camera when it is cut, and push it down on the parts that still need cutting. So that they leave an imprint on the material and I can see where to cut. From the amount of small snippets on my cutting mat you can see that it’s a very small scaled operation. As it should be, I’d rather cut five slivers off the vinyl than one piece that’s too big, causing me to have to start over again…

The final result

Gotta admit I don’t do this often enough to ever get really prolific at it but the results usually turn out pretty nice. Over time I re-covered several Chinon Memotron CE-II cameras, several Leicas including a Leica III in genuine snake leather, an Olympus Trip in bright blue faux leather from a hand bag, I did a Mamiya Six (the old folder model) in bright red, and there’s gotta be a few more I cannot recall right now.

All it ever takes is a few bucks for the right material, and a few afternoon hours.

Leica IIIc in red vinyl with Jupiter-3+ lens

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