In 2023, a very curious vintage camera landed in my collection – a Conway Deluxe box camera. My partner bought it as a gift for me, drawn by its unique looks and the listed price of £50 at a Camden Street shop in London. She didn’t know much about the camera or how it worked. She knew I’d obviously figure it out. The shop suggested adding a fresh roll of Ilford HP5 120 film and weeks later I had the package.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CONWAY DELUXE CAMERA
The Conway Deluxe is a simple box camera, manufactured between 1952 and 1955 by the Birmingham-based Standard Cameras Ltd company. They resemble the more popular Coronet series, which may or may not have been inspired by or produced at the same factory. Dodgy history often dog cameras this old.
The Conway line of cheap cameras has no manual controls or frills. It is literally a black box which shoots 120 film in 6x9 cm size using a fixed focus meniscus lens, a fixed 1/30th shutter, and a supposed f:14 aperture built into the shutter assembly.
These cameras are simply a cardboard box that holds a metal film transport chamber and a Bakelite frame that holds a few pieces of metal and springs to create the parts required for the aperture and shutter. A sliding green filter is built-in and so is a basic timer which, I feel, is best left alone. Two viewfinders show you what you are shooting in horizontal and vertical positions. Everything is held together with tiny rivets, glue, cardboard and even stapler pins!
The Conway Deluxe model is the “premium” version of the Conway Popular – the only difference being its Art Deco front plate with no screws visible anywhere on the body.
So before using the Conway Deluxe in India, when a mishap tore off the film holder from the Bakelite frame, this was an embarrassing repair best done at home. My partner knew I’d figure out how to work it but now I also had to learn how to fix it.
The best part about this project was that the Conway camera’s simplicity makes it perfect for home repairs. A few common household tools are all you need.
I had ripped the cardboard sheet off the Bakelite frame held by the film transport chamber. The two viewfinder mirrors also had fallen off because the glue had dried after 70 years of manufacture. One of the mirrors had gotten lodged in the spring on the shutter mechanism, bending the spring in the process.
Firstly, the shutter spring had to be returned to its original state. Next, both viewfinder mirrors had to be glued onto the Bakelite frame. The bigger challenge was to measure and replace the card sheet which held the film transport chamber against the Bakelite frame. And lastly, all parts had to be cleaned, oiled, and put back properly to make the camera as good as new.
Photographers don’t just take a picture and leave. They are also ace problem-solvers and idea generators. Despite all the planning in the world, many things can (and often do) go wrong on a shoot. A professional has no excuse to fall back when a client’s money and time is on the line. This is exactly why a good puzzle always allures me - even after 15+ years in the pro business.
GETTING INSIDE THE CONWAY DELUXE
Opening the Conway Deluxe to access the shutter assembly was a perplexing task. Since there are no screws on the faceplate, it baffled me (and Reddit! 😑) for an entire day. Like the saying goes: the best solution to a problem is always one that’s right in front of us but we somehow miss seeing it in a crisis!
The faceplate on the Conway Deluxe camera is simply held together by weak glue. You have to pry along the edges with a plastic knife or blunt tool and loosen the plate to access the shutter assembly. It’s straightforward. Take care not to damage the cardboard edges as you need to glue the plate back when you’re finished with all the repairs.
First, I cleaned the viewfinder mirrors and glued them on the Bakelite frame. This is easy. The rectangular mirrors go into an angled slot under each viewfinder. They only sit flush in one way, so you cannot get it wrong even if you try.
To straighten the shutter spring, I used a rubber band to tightly wrap the spring coil around a screwdriver at the right position. I kept this wrapped for 4-5 days so the coil would take its natural position once again. This tiny spring is not available as a spare part, unless I bought another box camera to maul, which I didn’t want to do. Repairing it was the best option.
REBUILDING THE FILM CHAMBER BOARD
Replacing the entire cardboard which hooked onto the film chamber required forward thinking. The Conway Deluxe originally had a 2mm thick piece of flimsy cardboard. I wanted to replace it with something sturdier. After charting a plan, I bought a 2mm thick sheet of MDF board, some black paint, a ruler, geometric compass, and a pen knife from my local stationery shop.
First, I measured the exact dimensions of the camera on the inside edge. Based on this, I drew out a rectangle on the MDF. With the film chamber out, I cut the board to the exact size, so it’d fit snugly inside the camera. Once this is done, the next step is to cut eight grooves for the hooks (from the film chamber) to pass through the new board. This is tricky as the outside 4 grooves are angled and not parallel to each other. My advice is to align the new board with the hooks, mark the positions loosely with a pencil, and cut precise grooves using a punch/flat screwdriver head. Be patient, this will take time. I destroyed two measured boards before getting these grooves absolutely perfect, but it didn’t matter as I had a large A3 sheet at my disposal.
Next, I cut the 4 grooves in the center (around the aperture). This becomes simple using the same method above – mark rough positions and fine tune slowly.
The next part of the process is cutting out a round hole in the exact center of board to create the hole through which light will pass, exposing the film in the camera. One way to do this is to simply trace the circle from the film chamber side and cut the board. The second way is to measure the film chamber hole’s diameter and widen it a little bit – which is what I went with initially. School-level geometry really helped here in getting the exact radius and circumference of a circle, using a rough square created by the inside hooks of the film chamber. With the circle outlined, I punched and cut the board to form a rough circle – filing it down for a better finish with a nail file later.
Once I was satisfied with the board and how it fit onto the film chamber, I painted it with black acrylic paint to shield the film chamber (and camera) from any internal light reflections. All cameras are built this way so nothing different here.
The metal hooks on the film chamber went in just fine. The film chamber also has a perfect hole cut so it doesn’t make any difference if the hole on the board is slightly larger. Finally, I glued the board back into the Bakelite frame as that’s the way to light-seal the entire camera.
CLEANING THE SHUTTER AND FINAL STEPS
Remove the two screws holding the shutter assembly to the Bakelite frame. You will have to slightly tilt and jiggle it till it comes off. Take care not to bend the levers which work the in-built filter and timer.
Once the shutter came out, I couldn’t help marvelling at the fingerprints all over it. They belonged to one or two workers at the Standard Cameras factory in Birmingham, back in the ‘50s. After 70-odd years, my human hands had touched the shutter – across the world in India. 😁 A lot of time and human history had passed between these two events.
Using rubbing alcohol and an earbud, I wiped the shutter and cleaned the old oil and dust on it. I added a small amount of machine oil to the shutter’s centre and spread it by turning the metal plate. This helped get the oil onto the shutter completely. Don’t soak it in oil, just a tiny drop will do to help the shutter glide smoothly. Any excess oil can be soaked up with a clean earbud. Similarly, oil the spring on the left side with an old toothbrush.
Lastly, I hooked up the wire spring to the shutter assembly, tested it a few times and everything worked fine.
It is easy to repair a non-working Conway Deluxe camera at home with just a few tools. The camera is entirely mechanical and simple. So, you have no electronics or soldering to worry about. While I haven’t yet exposed a roll of film in it, I’m happy to have resurrected this old analog film camera back to a proper working state.
Waiting to see what kind of pictures the Conway Deluxe produces now. Once I get a roll of film, I’ll take this camera along on my next trip and see what comes out of it. Stay tuned for more updates here.