Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Adventures on Rolleiflex repair

On March 2015 I got a Rolleiflex, an early Automat (2nd Model, K4B build 631), built around 1938.

Compared to its predecessor (the Rolleiflex Old Standard), the Automat introduced a number of crucial improvements that enabled photographers a much faster workflow. After loading film and closing the camera, one just needs to slowly wind the film and the camera stops automatically at the first frame (no need to check first frame alignment with a red window as in the Old Standard, and pretty much every other camera at the time). Shared with the Old Standard is the film transport through a crank lever with an automatic stop for the next frame; new was that this same crank lever turn tensions the shutter as well. Double and blank exposure prevention were too introduced.

rolleiflex automat 631

When I tested my Rolleiflex with film I noticed many problems. Although the film counter started running correctly after 5 or 6 turns of the crank, the film advance did not stop at the first frame. If the lever was in the "ready" position (at an angle around 1 o'clock), the shutter could be released and a picture could be taken. The usual crank movement for Rolleiflex film transport (turn the crank clockwise until it stops to advance to the next frame, turn it counter clockwise again to return it to the "ready" position) did not stop at all: you could turn the crank freely until after the whole film was wound on the take up spool! The counter clockwise turn did not stop at the one o'clock position either.

There were some issues with focusing as well. The front standard traveled smoothly across the close focusing range, but there was a definitely noticeable resistance to reach the infinity position, where the standard is closest to the camera body. The taking lens, in fact, was not able to focus at infinity at all.

Oh, and yes, the slow speeds of the Compur Rapid shutter were dead, too, but this is something that I already knew from many of the prewar cameras that I have.

Soon I got the nerve to open the camera to take a look at what was going on inside.


Symptom: free turning of the film advance crank lever. It should lock on the ready-to-shoot position. After taking a picture, a clockwise turn should stop after advancing exactly one frame, and then a counter clockwise turn should stop again at the ready-to-shoot position.

Rolleiflex Automat 631 - film transport

Diagnostic: missing dowel actuating as cam follower. There is a large cam that turns with the crank lever. A lever with a hole on its tip was bent down and made friction against the base plate, which prevented its free movement. If this lever was held in a definite position, the film advance blocking mechanism was activated and the clockwise turn of the crank lever was correctly blocked after advancing exactly one frame. I assumed that the hole was supposed to contain something, a little rod, a dowel, that held the lever exactly on this position as the crank lever started its film advance. The counter clockwise turn of the crank lever should be blocked by this same missing dowel making contact with an obvious metal stop on the cam.

Very probably, someone forced the crank lever backwards too violently past this stop, separating the dowel from the lever and bending the lever down. I was able to reproduce the proper film advance stops by holding a screwdriver in place of the missing cam follower.

As a temporary solution to be able to use the camera, I blocked the free movement of the lever with a toothpick tip to allow free turning with no stops. I could "simulate" the film advance manually by aligning the next frame number in the film counter, as if it was a red window.

At this point, I tried to imagine ways to build myself a replacement for the missing cam follower.


How did it happen? My flickr friend Hans Kerensky pointed me to a couple of pictures from Gustavo Vasquez, who seemed to have faced a similar problem. In his case, the dowel got caught in the gears of the film transport, blocked everything and did a lot of damage. By forcing a locked crank lever backwards, one could break or at least dislodge the dowel. This seems to be a design weakness in early Automats that was addressed in later versions.

If in Gustavo's Automat the dowel was found inside the camera, I started wondering if the dowel in mine could have stayed inside as well. One day, then, it struck down on me. Was it possible that both issues (film advance and focus at infinity) were linked? Was it possible that it was precisely the missing dowel what was preventing the front standard to reach infinity focus position?


A boring train ride back to Vienna, the Automat and a screwdriver.

I removed the front fascia by carefully removing the leatherette on the front to reveal four screws. As I was expecting, the front standard, without the fascia, reached infinity focus precisely and smoothly. The problem, thus, had to be somewhere in the front fascia!

On closer inspection I found something, what seemed to be a tiny metal piece, caught in the lower crate, obstructing the last half millimeter of travel needed to reach infinity focus. I got my tweezers, my hands almost trembling with excitement, and took it out of the place where it had rested for at least the last 40 years. It was the missing dowel, yes.

Rolleiflex Automat 631 - missing dowel


Well, now I was quite happy because I got everything that I needed to fix the camera. But how to reattach the dowel?

The thing is really tiny (less than 1 mm in diameter, around 3 mm long) and the violence of the blow had left its traces in both the dowel and the hole where it was supposed to be attached. After some failed attempts at just pressing the dowel into the hole, I gave up. It wouldn't go.

I packed everything carefully and reattached the toothpick tip to block the lever, so that the camera could be used without automatic stops. Using the frame counter as a "red window" I could manually advance the film to the next frame. It was of course not as comfortable as the true Automat function, but at least I could use the camera.

In fact, I shot 13 rolls of film with the Automat in this way. And, as it was with the Old Standard, the pictures that this camera was able to produce surpassed my expectations by large every time. If I have learned something about Rollei TLRs is that they never ever disappoint.


For one reason or another, I was scared of this repair. In fact, it took me almost one year and a half to gather the courage to open up again the right side of the Automat.

Last week, finally, I got the courage to delve into its guts and, once again, marveled at its ingenious yet simple mechanics. I guessed that the violence of the shearing had deformed the hole a little bit, elongating it to an ellipse. I got a very tiny file and tried to file a little into the hole to make it broad enough to replace the dowel. I filed the edges of the dowel, too, so that it could more easily be reattached into to its hole.

A little filing, then one attempt. It wouldn't go. More filing, second attempt. It still wouldn't go. I realized that I would need to apply the pressure to reattach the dowel with a tool. I got pointed pliers and tried to get the dowel just enough into the hole so that it would not fall. Then I applied uniform pressure to the tip of the dowel and to the lever with the pliers and I realized that the dowel was in fact very slowly going into the hole. At the end I applied a few tiny drops of instant glue to not let it fall again.

Rolleiflex Automat 631 - Dowel in place

The dowel was again where it was supposed to be. I loaded my "Automat test film" into the camera. This is just the protective paper of a 120 film with a short length of film carefully taped into it where the film start is supposed to be, so that the automatic film start feeler could be "cheated". I closed the camera and slowly turned the crank lever clockwise. The dowel ran smoothly below the cam, through a "passage" at the right place to hold the crank lever free. Then a little resistance needed to be overcome and I heard the distinctive click as the frame counter was engaged. Sure enough, the frame counter wheel started turning slowly, and the lever with the dowel changed its angle minutely. As the frame number 1 reached its proper position on the film gate, the powerful film advance lock mechanism stopped the crank lever clockwise turn. The crank lever could now be turned counter clockwise. The dowel ran above the cam until it blocked its movement as it made contact with the metal stop on the cam (if done very brutally, this could dislodge the dowel again!). After releasing the shutter for the first frame, the film could be advanced again until frame 2 and then the crank lever turned counter clockwise to the ready position at one o'clock. This way, I was able to reproduce the proper Automat film advance.

My Automat, as it seems, is now ready to be used as it was meant. I am eager to shoot a roll of film with it.

PS: The previous owner of my Rolleiflex, who was as well the one that bought it new in 1938 or early 1939, was a merchant from Gmunden in Upper Austria. He was born in 1904 and died in 1981. As his grandson told me, he was a passionate mountain climber, especially on the Dolomites, and he used this same camera to take many pictures of his endeavors.

Rolleiflex Automat 631
My Rolleiflex Automat 631 flickr set

Maker Franke & Heidecke
Model Rolleiflex Automat K4B build 631
Type twin-lens reflex camera
Viewing Lens Heidoscop Anastigmat 75mm f/2.8
Taking Lens Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 75mm f/3.5 (No. 2416597, 1938)
Shutter Compur Rapid, 1 - 1/500 + B + T
Film type 120 6x6
Year January 1938 - March 1939
Country Germany

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