A 5×7 film back

A few months ago, I got the bug to try large format photography again. Don’t ask why—just see the title of this blog. I had played around with 4×5 for quite a while in college and beyond, but ended up selling all my equipment. Big mistake! It just leads to buying more later. Anyway, for whatever reason, it struck me that 5×7 would be a fun format to try. Perhaps it was the lack of availability of film and accessories, the near extinction of film as a popular medium, or just being ornery about everybody doing digital now.

I purchased a 5×7 camera on eBay that looked like it needed some TLC. I’m reasonably handy, and figured I could handle a new bellows, ground glass, and whatever other little problems it might have. The hardware looked in good shape generally. Having been successful with that auction, I promptly picked up some 5×7 film holders and a very nice 210mm Baush and Lomb lens. Imagine my surprise when the camera, a Burke and James, arrived with a 4×5 back!

My first thought was that the camera was, in fact, a 4×5, and I had been hoodwinked by the seller. The seller claimed that the person who sold it to him said it was 5×7, and he just didn’t know better. So, I took a second look and realized that it probably was a 5×7, but with a 4×5 back. I found a copy of a 1942 Burke and James catalog at Orphancameras.com that showed my very camera, which confirmed it. (That site is great. They also had a manual for an old Capital spot meter I had picked up, so I sent them a few bucks.) Surprisingly, 70 years later, I only paid about twice the original price.

My camera's catalog page

My camera's 1942 Burke and James catalog page

I figured it was time either to give up on 5×7 or fabricate another back. Fabricating one seemed overly complicated, so naturally that’s the route I took. Fortunately, Santa brought me a very nice planer/jointer, just the tool I was missing, so I started construction.

frame parts

Outer frame parts

This first step was to fabricate a new outer frame and rails. This is the part that would fit into the rear standard of the camera (basically a box with a light trap), and provide the resting surface for the film holder. The dimensions of these rails aren’t terribly critical, so a router took care of the film holder bed. I used a bandsaw to make the tongue-and-groove joints for the frame, and held it all together with Titebond. The frame I made of poplar that was lying around, and the rails were maple, also lying around. (I would have made them out of matching wood, but I didn’t have enough of any one thing.)

fitting the holder rails

Fitting the holder rails

Here are the parts laid out, and being dry-fit.

Dry fitting

Dry fitting the rails

Gluing the frame

Gluing it all together

Here it is all glued up.

glued up frame

Glued-up frame

Yes, that’s a camera strap in the photo. Ironic, no? I’m not a very good photographer…

The next step was the ground glass frame. I used the same basic construction technique as for the holder rails, but here the depth of the rabbet is critical, because the ground glass must be held at exactly the same level that the film emulsion is going to be when the film holder is in place. Fortunately, a) there are specs for that dimension, and b) I have a small metalworking mill. Using the mill, I was able to keep the rabbet withing 0.003″ or so of the desired dimension. (Hey, it’s wood; you can only be so precise!)

ground glass frame

Ground glass frame

Ground glass frame in place

Ground glass frame in place

The tricky part was the hardware. I first thought about re-purposing the original 4×5 back’s hardware, but I really didn’t want to lose that capability, and I also wasn’t persuaded it was strong enough. Fortunately, I found a seller on eBay who sells original Deardorff hardware, so I was able to buy shackles and springs for a decent price. They also had the pins for the back frame, so I was able to get a pretty complete package. By the time I decided to go this route, I had already fabricated ground glass clips from the same material I made the ground glass frame out of, so I didn’t bother with those.

A few coats of stain and some clear coat, and it was time to install the hardware. The ground glass came from Surplus Shed as an 8×10, and I cut it down to size.

Back with hardware

Back with hardware and ground glass

One thing that I had fretted about was the positioning of the light trap groove on the bed. However, upon sliding in a film holder for the first time, I got a very satisfying little snap as it settled into place.

Back with a film holder

Back with a film holder

Finally, here it is mounted to the rear standard.

Frame mounted in the rear standard

Frame mounted in the rear standard

Note that I don’t have the standard mounted to the bed or anything. Unfortunately, I wasn’t thinking ahead and didn’t take a picture of the camera as it arrived, nor did I document its disassembly. (Not to worry, it’s not particularly complicated!)

Next step, replace the bellows!