Which finish for my restored/repainted Leica?
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Painting or 'repainting' as it has become known, is a way improving the look of your Leica camera. In some cases, the condition of a chrome camera can become dull, worn and generally tired looking. There may be dents and dings that could be fixed but this is impossible on a chrome camera. It could also be that the owner would really prefer to own a black Leica M2 or M3 but the premium on original versions is very high. In our opinion, a painted camera is warmer to the touch than chrome and depending on the finish, can become much more 'tactile', which is useful in terms of daily use. Some would argue that it is better that a camera show its age, along with all of the battle scars of its history but this is a personal choice and an argument that I don't intend to get into here.
So, what choice of finish? We offer a variety of non-standard finishes in a variety of paint systems but for now I want to clarify things from a historical perspective. Most of the black painted cameras up until the 1940s were painted in a version of japan black lacquer. This is a special type of paint based upon bitumen. This is an extremely hard wearing finish that once cured is capable of a beautiful lustre and is very nice to touch. This finish is also extremely resistant against moisture and chemicals, including most solvents. Early black cameras were engraved after painting and the engravings were filled wit 'wismut', a low temperature alloy. These cameras when new, with the glistening wismut engravings and nickel plate would have looked very beautiful.
In the early days of japan black, cameras were painted directly onto brass and japanning was particularly effective for this as it requires no primer and adheres very well to sheet metal – Henry Ford used a very similar finish on the Model T. By the late 1940s, Leitz had started to use a variety of synthetic gloss enamel paints and this too was painted directly onto brass. This is surprising since brass is one of the most difficult metals to paint reliably. Even after acid etching, paint can become porous, allowing the metal surface to oxidise and in turn, loosening the paint further. By the time the M3 was on the market, many complaints were made to Leitz about the durability, or lack of, on such an expensive camera. This was rectified to some extent by the mid 1950s, when much better paint systems became available. They were used on all but the earliest M3s, and through to the M4. It was considered a gloss paint but in appearance more of a satin sheen. It is much more recognisable as a modern camera finish. Not only was the new paint much more durable than the old but was less likely to show fingerprints which the old gloss was well known for.
At cameraworks-uk, we endeavour to match these finishes. While there are a number of technical gloss coatings on the market, including those aimed at the firearms market, the only way to achieve the correct kind of gloss finish used on the very early M3 cameras, is to use the same type of paint system. It is a thin coating and is the least durable of all of the finishes we do. The paint will continue to cure for several months after a repaint, before reaching maximum hardness. This type of paint is probably better for cameras that are handworked with some brassing or for certain early lenses, notably early Summicron M lenses.
Unless you really wish to match the old gloss finish, we strongly recommend the use of the satin gloss finish as used on later M3 and M2/M4 cameras. Because of the troubles with the quality of the original black gloss paint, Leitz often upgraded older cameras with new top and bottom plates, finished in the later paint, so it is not out of the question for an early M3 to be finished in the later paint. This later paint can also be hand finished although original examples are usually never quite as badly brassed as the early gloss cameras. For this we use a chemical cure modern paint that is extremely durable but maintains an authentic look. If you are looking for authenticity, this is the finish for you.
It is worth also considering some of the other finishes that are available. We now use Cerakote as a standard finish on cameras. Cerakote is a thin film ceramic coating and is available in a wide range of colours. It really is the ultimate paint finish. Our type II semi-gloss uses black Cerakote Elite, which offers the very best protection for your camera. The look mimics extremely closely the finish used by Leica on their later M3, M2, M4 etc models.
There are other options available too such as grey and metallics. We can do a very convincing titanium finish in Cerakote which is extremely tough, chemical resistant, temperature resistant up to 1400 degrees F. You can always speak to us if you have any ideas. You don't need to be restricted by any conventions if you are looking to create something original.
To summarise. We can paint your very early Leica M3 in a classic gloss if you like (we call it classic type 1 gloss). It will brass relatively easily so for practicality we do recommend the later type gloss (we call this classic type 2 gloss), as used on later M3 and onwards cameras as it has better durability. The type 2 gloss has more of a satin sheen and is very tough. These finishes are termed 'classic' because they aim to emulate the original factory finishes.
Cerakote can be used on any camera. It has a much more contemporary appearance and will look very good on even the oldest M3 and has the affect of bringing it more up to date. It is ideal for low-key street shooting as it has very low reflectivity thus less likely to attract attention. Tactical black can also be used with almost zero reflectivity.
If you have any questions, please send us an email or use the information request form that you can find at the foot of our home page.
Alan & James