The Paint Process

Things have changed quite a bit since I last wrote about our Leica repainting process. I thought I should update this page. My first camera paint project was actually back in 1972. I used to sell Soviet Zenit B and E cameras in a camera shop called Godleys in Manchester. Those cameras at the time were only available in chrome but about one in twenty five were black paint versions, and very nice they were too. My own camera was a Zenit B, which I duly painted using black car spray paint. It looked great for a while. I didn't know how to prepare such a thing and of course, paint doesn't adhere to chrome for very long! With age comes experience and wisdom I guess.

 

Our first commercial repaint would have been 2013 or so. It was my own camera – this time a Leica IIIg. After a show and tell on Facebook, I started to get commissions and so it started from there. I don't think I would have done any more repaints if it wasn't for the fact that I was already involved with Leica repairs. Right from the start, I understood that most of the finish is in the preparation and correct preparation means absolutely no painting around parts or masking-off areas to save time. The goal has always been to make the camera look as if it left the factory like a painted version. That means removing all traces of chrome and nickel, leaving no sanding marks and not painting over anything that wouldn't have been painted over at the factory. This becomes quite a labour-intensive process. We only repaint Leica too – we don't do what we don't know.

 

Many parts on a Leica can be dismantled reasonably easily but other parts require special tools and knowledge. On an M3 for instance, the frame counter window should be removed so that the bezel can be painted separately. Once removed, the small delicate lens then has to be removed from the bezel without damaging it, so that it can be properly processed and painted. Some repainters find it much easier to leave the bezel in-situ, put a bit of masking tape over the lens and do it like that. That isn't how we do things.

 

The ASA reminder is also another component that can give trouble. In order to paint the film door properly, the ASA dial and associated components as well as the pressure plate parts have to be removed so that the plating can be removed from the ASA dial parts before painting. These parts are riveted to the film door under a section of vulcanite. There is also a spring-loaded plunger and on early M3 double-stroke, bearing catches. Again, we always remove these parts. We never mask and paint over.

 

After we remove the old electro-plating we set about fixing dings and dents. These mainly affect the top and bottom plates. We have various methods of doing this but we don't hack at the camera with sandpaper. We have seen evidence of this when rectifying other's paint jobs.

 

Some of the cameras we get have had a hard life in the hands of a professional photographer/s and may have sustained many knocks and drops over the years. Trying to make such cameras look perfect isn't always a practical proposition. Each ding or dent stretches the metal a little. As they are straightened out, ripples in the metal may form. In such cases, better that we fix the worst but work with the general condition of the camera. In other cases, if the damage is minor, we can greatly improve the cosmetic appearance of the camera and in some cases, depending on where the damage is, and the nature of the damage, we can often make it look new.

 

We don't use fillers, only hard or soft solders or brazing. We may also anneal local areas using heat before working the metal. Once we are satisfied with the condition of the metal parts, we use a fine media blasting process to key the surfaces. After this, the parts go through a degreasing and cleaning process, then we bake out and de-gas. We are now ready for the paint.

 

These days, there are two types of paint that we use. The first is what we call the classic black gloss, which is one of the most popular finishes. The paint is an alkyd enamel that we developed to closely match the original black paint used on the M3 and also visually matches the black paint used on the screw-mount Leica's of the past. It is an old-school paint technology but somewhat superior to Leica's original M3 black gloss paint. It has a warmth to the touch and I think much better than tired old chrome.

 

The second type of paint we use (not really paint as such), is Cerakote, a very hard wearing and contemporary looking ceramic coating. It is available in a wide variety of colours and to some extent, textures.

 

Cerakote finishes do vary a bit in 'feel'. Our Type 2 black finish (late M3/M2 factory finish style) is smooth to the touch, although other colours have a little more surface texture, maybe something to consider. We can also apply Cerakote in such a way where the texture is increased, to enhance grip for example. Please ask if you need this type of thing.

 

So, what's the story with black paint Leicas M3 and M2?

 

It wasn't until the early 1930s that chrome plating became available for Leica. The screwmount black finish was actually japan black, an asphaltum based finish, not unlike the paint used on the Model T Ford. This paint was highly durable, leading to a fine gloss finish and of course available in any colour as long as it was black!

 

When Leica originally produced the M3 in black, they used a conventional black gloss paint finish. The paint wasn't very good, especially when compared to the earlier japanned cameras that everybody were used to, so as soon as the paint started to wear and brass, Leica was inundated with complaints. The concept of 'patina' wasn't appreciated at the time by those who had invested a great deal of money for a quality camera.

 

Leica eventually found a satin black instrument paint, much more suitable for the purpose and was quite hard-wearing. Many cameras were repainted with the new paint by Leica and their service centres. This was somewhat akin to the M9 sensor replacement programme. They weren't really repainted though. New black parts were fitted and the serial number was transferred to the new black top plate before the camera was returned to the customer.

 

The original M3 gloss paint became somewhat more matt in appearance as time passed, this is because of oxidation plus tiny bubbles could form on the surface caused by outgassing of the brass. Of course, this is a highly sought after look today. The satin black paint was eventually used for late M3's and the M2 can end up looking somewhat more glossy than they originally did when they left the factory. This idea of the gloss cameras becoming less glossy and the satin gloss camera appearing more glossy over time can cause a lot of confusion. What you see today is not how they really looked when they left the factory. This is because any matt paint or any paint with a flattening agent (to make it look less glossy), over time will be polished by the action of handling it. The skin actually burnishes the surface and it can end up looking quite glossy.

 

Anyway...

If you want a classic look that will gently wear and brass over time, our classic black gloss is a great choice. The paint is, as Leica put it, “less robust compared to modern equivalents”. “It will wear and brass over time, creating its own individual patina”.

 

If you have a late M3 or M2/M4 and want it to have more of an accurate factory look – more like it would have appeared when it was new, we recommend our type 2 finish – a satin gloss. For this, we generally use Cerakote, a hard-wearing thin film ceramic coating. Cerakote will retain its look for much longer and will not brass as easily as our classic gloss. If you want to retain a smart contemporary look and for it to last longer, Cerakote is the way to go. This type of finish is less prone to being burnished to a polish by handling too and offers the ultimate protection for your camera. It is completely resistant to any kind of solvent, paint stripper, saltwater etc and is classified for military applications.

 

When we first started painting cameras, we used a little desktop spray booth and something like a modelmakers airbrush. We obtained great results of course but these days we use a full flow professional spray booth setup and Anest Iwata spray equipment to achieve a fine finish. Even so, if the work isn't up to James's standards, it'll be done again until he's happy. Both types of paint technologies (classic gloss and type 2 satin Cerakote), are oven-cured before re-glazing and reassembly take place. A great deal of care is taken so that we don't mar any surfaces during reassembly and we then we infill the engravings. For this, we usually use a slightly off-white colour but the choice is yours, including a faux wismut (like the screwmount silver engravings) style, or even gold or bronze.

 

We never use any kind of primer. Leica didn't and we don't. If the paint wears off, you'll see brass. We will also attend to the camera shell. Those little bars on each side of the film door are re-finished with wrinkle paint. The inside of the bottom plate is also painted with wrinkle finish, which looks better and is more durable than the standard matt black.

 

Other things to think about are which parts you wish to have painted. You can have a black camera with original chrome levers – or the other way around. You may or may not want the shutter button painting or the surround of the shutter button. On an M3, the guard around the lens release button and the lens release button itself may or may not be painted. It's up to you. Frame counters can be black or left as chrome. If you want specific numbers on the frame counter or even the speed dial to be colour-coded, we can do that too. Unless you tell us otherwise, we don't paint the bottom plate release catch on the M2/M3. These were usually left chrome until the M4 was released. If you have a stealth look in mind, we can actually use a low reflective Cerakote and also Cerakote the lens mount black, using a special low friction material. It is a thin-film coating that replaces about the same thickness of material lost when removing the chrome and nickel.

 

We've also invested in a sophisticated fibre laser system, so soon, we'll be able to offer an engraving service, so you'll be able to have your name, logo, family cartouch etc engraved onto the camera and we should be able to replicate Leica style fonts.

 

In reality, either of our finishes (classic black gloss enamel or type 2 satin gloss Cerakote), can completely transform the look or feel of your camera. We've broken the rules and done double-stroke M3's in non-standard contemporary Cerakote finishes such as grey, OD green, even titanium and they've looked great. We've painted M10 top and bottom plates in classic black gloss and they looked great too. We recently repainted a double-stroke M3 in a finish inspired by the new Leica MP grey anthracite (bottom picture). I suppose it all depends on whether you are more conservative in your taste or prefer to create a working tool to suit your needs or simply something that stands out from the crowd. Get in touch if you need any advice.

 

When you send your camera in, don't forget to specify which parts you wish to be painted or link us to a picture on a website. Leica once did a chrome M6 with black levers. That is known as the 'panda' look. A black camera with chrome levers etc we would call a 'reverse panda' look. If we're in doubt, we'll always check with you before we do any work plus you can change your mind about the finish after sending the camera to us.

 

To sum up, we do two basic paint systems.

 

An old-school paint that we call 'Classic Gloss Black'. Similar to the old Barnack style black and what the very first M3's would have originally looked like. Some of the later cameras that were originally painted with satin paint also look like this now because years of handling have burnished the paint to make it look quite glossy. It is a relatively soft paint that will naturally brass and develop a unique patina.

 

A more contemporary paint system called Cerakote, a black finish that looks like the original paint used on late M3's and M2's – as they would have looked when new – a satin or 'semi-gloss' black. We have always called this 'Type 2' because it is very close to the second type of black paint Leica used after the introduction of the M system. Cerakote is a very tough military-grade finish that is less likely to age or brass. The ultimate protection for your Leica.

 

There are 100 other colours available in the Cerakote range, including military and metallics. As already mentioned, surface textures can vary a little, depending on the colour. This texture ranges from smooth, as in our type 2 black as discussed in the previous paragraph, to what could be best described as an eggshell texture for the metallic based colours. Some of our customers like the texture as it gives them a reassuring grip and it looks good too. We can also use Cerakote clear to provide a completely smooth finish if required.