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Observations on the demise of the black paint Leica


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In the first 8 years of the Leica camera, aside from a few Gold plated cameras, black paint was the only finish available. Camera "hardware" such as knobs, dials, shutter button and lenses were nickle plated. Leitz had been using nickle plating for microscopes and other products for many years. The match of the black lacquer paint and the bright nickle was quite beautiful.

Chrome plating became commercially available in the mid to late 1920.  A detailed history is easily found on the internet. The perception that chrome was high quality and the definite improvement in wear properties convinced Leitz to offer chrome plating in 1933. Begining with the Model II at serial 99132,the Model III at 111501, and the Standard at 105201 cameras were produced in "all" chrome. Often chrome cameras with lower serial numbers are found, but in most cases these are chrome replated versions of original black cameras. Chrome plating was also used on many accessories.  At a slightly lower cost, the black paint cameras with nickle hardware continued until 1936.  Then Leitz started using the chrome hardware on the black cameras The customer demand for all chrome cameras had a dramatic effect. The new Models IIIa and IIIb were nearly exclusively all chrome. Factory data suggests that 800 black IIIa's were made, but only a few have been noted making this unlikely. Reportedly 5 Model IIIb cameras were finished in black for test purposes.

By 1935, only 34% of all camera production was black paint, the following years:  1936---20%, 1937--6.9%, 1938--4.4%, and finally 1939--3.9%.  By 1936, Leitz began replacing the nickle hardware with chrome, and the so-called Black and Chrome cameras were made until the war. Then, only all chrome (IIIc) and some gray paint cameras were made. The Black  and Chrome Leicas have become somewhat collectible.

This chart shows the number of black paint cameras produced in the four years before the war. The black/cjhrome Standard maintained sales a little better than the delux ( II and III) cameras as the market for the Standard was primarily scientific/microscope applications and the extra cost of all chrome was a factor. The transition from paint facalities to chrom plating must have been quite a factory undertaking.

From 1939 onward, black paint models were limited.  The black MP, M3 M2 , M4 and Leicaflexes' were a  relatively small percentage of production. A new finish of Black Chrome anodize was introduced on some lenses and the M5 in 1971.  

I have always sought to collect the pre-war black and chrome Leica's, and have more than 40.  Here is a poor photo of some of them in the display case. The lowest Black/Chrome camera I have recorded is 193358 and the highest is 330247.

 

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Thanks Alan. Just a few additions. There was a short run of ‘bright chrome’ cameras just after the introduction of the III around1933. I have one ( I am sure you have many) and it looks like it had just come out of the factory yesterday, unlike the ‘ normal chrome’ models which always have wear and tear marks. Have you any idea as to why this change was made so rapidly?
 

I don’t think that the Leica Archives have an example of a black IIIb. When we were there in 2018, we were told that they thought there might be one in the Rolf Fricke collection, which they had just acquired, but alas there was not.

William 

Edited by willeica
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 The issue of the "Bright" all chrome cameras is interesting.  My Bright cameras are both model II's, serials 108365 and 108584, shown below.  All of the Bright cameras I have seen are near to these serials and are Model II's.  I have recorded the following other bright chrome cameras:

108235, 108252, 108293, 108831. I also have 108166 but it has been upgraded to a IIF.

Prior to these cameras, chrome cameras had been built in small lots of 20 or so. Perhaps this was the first attempt at a larger mass production. Also, in the early days (1933) there were various forms of chrome plating process, trivalent, hexavalent that may have resulted in some experimentation at Letiz. Certainly, looking at chrome cameras just above this group, shows Leitz must have reached a consistant process that then lasted for decades.  Or at least until the post war Ic plating debacle. Again, as Leitz serials are not sequential, maybe 108xxx was the very first batch.

Exactly how did Leitz achieve that "matte" look finish we almost always see instead of the Bright smooth chrome? Stories abound of a light bombardment of the  brass surface with rice hulls, or some other relative soft media. It would be interesting to know if they are true or just guessing. The British Intelligence report that documented what they found at Wetzlar in Nov.46, in terms of Leica manufacturing processes, does mention "sandblasting" prior to the first wash and acid dip..

These early bright cameras all seem to have the large (15.5mm), recessed speed dial. In the photo, camera 108584, is listed in Band I as a black paint camera.  So, I suspose it could be an early replate camera. If the repair experts could give advice on exactly how to determine refinished cameras, it would be of great assitance. So often it is obvious, but other times more difficult. I also wonder if any tolerances had to be altered in the camera, as the paint was probably thicker than chrome.

The Black IIIb's were 295301-305, I have never seen one.

In the above post of mine, I did not mention the limited  black IIIf and IIIg's made for the Swedish military;  and a few post-war black Model IIIc's at serial 517xxx that Leitz may have used for internal purposes

My Black/Chrome cameras were acquired in the 1980 up time frame in the US, from the usual sources of the time: Leica Catalog, Shutterbug Ads,  well-know dealers and camera shows. None directly from European auction sources. The late 1930''s in the US had moved out of the depression, and one assumes money was available for the wondorus Leica and significant numbers were imported.

 

 

 

Edited by alan mcfall
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Here is my 1933 Bright Chrome III which is from the first batch of chrome IIIs starting with 116001. So, at least 800 were made. The chrome on this 87 year old camera looks better than the chrome on my 3 year old M10.

There must have been a reason why Leica dropped such a magnificent finish that appears to last for ever.

William

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On 7/14/2020 at 5:57 AM, willeica said:

Here is my 1933 Bright Chrome III which is from the first batch of chrome IIIs starting with 116001. So, at least 800 were made. The chrome on this 87 year old camera looks better than the chrome on my 3 year old M10.

There must have been a reason why Leica dropped such a magnificent finish that appears to last for ever.

William

Hello William 

I would suspect that the coming world war had something to do with this period being that with some of the best chrome plating Leica had done. Hard chrome plating is superior to the previous nickel plating. In fact nickel plating is an intermediate step to chrome plating. Chrome plating is necessary for many weapons, and is considered a strategic asset. I’m not sure if the raw materials for chrome plating were imported into Germany, but later cameras like the gray IIIcK were painted, not chromed except for the “furniture” on the camera. Chrome plating was reserved for critical military applications, which cameras were not considered to be. Cameras made in the immediate post-was period, such as the shark skin models had inferior plating. Obviously, some component for good chrome plating was lacking. By the time the M3 came out, the chrome plating at Leitz was on a par again with the pre-war cameras.

I remember very distinctly that when I toured the Leitz factory for the first time in 1972, and later twice in the mid-80’s, Leitz was still chrome plating components in the Wetzlar main factory. The smell took your breath away, and I’m sure it was not very environmentally friendly given the acid baths, etc. Nasty stuff! Today, you will not see any plating being done in Wetzlar, and I’m sure it is subcontracted out to a third party, probably not even in Germany.

It’s also interesting to note that the chrome plating on lenses never seemed to suffer the inferior plating that the cameras did in the immediate post-war period.

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As well as being more durable I understand that the change from black to chrome was in line with the Art Deco fashion for chrome in the 1930’s. Black was old fashioned, chrome was in fashion.

thinking more about this, at the start of photography cameras were made by carpenters/cabinet makers, as the village carpenter made Fox Talbot’s “mousetraps” and finished in traditional wood finishes like varnish and French Polish. Then by the time of the Kodak and other portable hand cameras in the 1890’s the finish turned to black paint. As cameras become smaller by the 1920’s they were made more of metal than wood and chrome became an option, just in time for Art Deco chrome. By the second half of the twentieth century plastics came in with the option of other colours being formed during the plastic production process. Now in recent years black has become desirable in the expensive end of the market, led by enthusiasts’ wishes to be associated with famous photo journalists who used black cameras to avoid becoming targets in wars or just to be inconspicuous.

Time to go back to wood.

Edited by Pyrogallol
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4 hours ago, derleicaman said:

Hello William 

I would suspect that the coming world war had something to do with this period being that with some of the best chrome plating Leica had done. Hard chrome plating is superior to the previous nickel plating. In fact nickel plating is an intermediate step to chrome plating. Chrome plating is necessary for many weapons, and is considered a strategic asset. I’m not sure if the raw materials for chrome plating were imported into Germany, but later cameras like the gray IIIcK were painted, not chromed except for the “furniture” on the camera. Chrome plating was reserved for critical military applications, which cameras were not considered to be. Cameras made in the immediate post-was period, such as the shark skin models had inferior plating. Obviously, some component for good chrome plating was lacking. By the time the M3 came out, the chrome plating at Leitz was on a par again with the pre-war cameras.

I remember very distinctly that when I toured the Leitz factory for the first time in 1972, and later twice in the mid-80’s, Leitz was still chrome plating components in the Wetzlar main factory. The smell took your breath away, and I’m sure it was not very environmentally friendly given the acid baths, etc. Nasty stuff! Today, you will not see any plating being done in Wetzlar, and I’m sure it is subcontracted out to a third party, probably not even in Germany.

It’s also interesting to note that the chrome plating on lenses never seemed to suffer the inferior plating that the cameras did in the immediate post-war period.

Thanks Bill. I am talking about something much more specific and short lived. I know my photo above does not do it justice but seen 'in the flesh' it is almost mirror-like compared to the other chrome Leicas we are familiar with. It appears in some cameras, IIs and IIIs, made in 1933, but it was gone forever by 1934 for some reason. This would seem to be too early for World War II to have been a reason. I will quote our mutual friend Jim Lager on this from page 34 of his book on Leica cameras, 'The earliest chrome plated models (1933) exhibit a bright, shiny lustre that is decidedly different from the later subdued chrome finish'.

When chrome models appeared on this side of the Atlantic they were more expensive than the black and nickel models, but today the black and nickel cameras from the 1920s and 1930s, which are some of the nicest cameras ever made by Leica (even nicer than the BP Ms in my opinion), fetch higher prices than their chrome counterparts. I don't think this has anything to do with professional or stealth use, but is down to collectors liking the finish.

You are right about the grey paint models resulting from shortage of chrome and not from any military use. I have 2 grey models, a IIIc and a IIIcK. The Leica Archives had one down as a military camera because of its grey paint, but having discussed this with Jim Lager, we both concluded that it was not military, but might have been owned by a wealthy person or a high official. 

I recall being brought as a child to the Ford Factory in Cork City (Henry Ford's father, William Ford, came from nearby Ballinascarthy in County Cork) and I can still remember the unholy smell emanating from the chroming department.

Finally, to Pyrogallol's point about wooden cameras, I absolutely love them. I (along with fellow Leica Forum member pgk) collect brass lenses made in Dublin by Thomas and Howard Grubb during the 19th Century and I would love to have a genuine 19th Century wooden camera to go with them . The best I have so far is a wooden tailboard 'Reisenkamera' made by ICA in Dresden in the early 1900s or 1910s. I'm not sure about wood on modern digital cameras, though. I seem to recall something wooden coming from Hasselblad some years ago which was not a commercial success, but which will probably be sought by collectors for ever.

William

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Leica has made high quality chrome-plated cameras, but other manufacturers have done so long before. A rare chromed photosphere from 1888, a very rare hundred views of Mollier from 1924 chromed... finally a Dubroni camera, made of wood with a bit of chrome! for William! These so-called "tropicalized" cameras were able, thanks to their chrome coating, to withstand the heat and humidity of African climates...in the 19th century! Maybe Leica used this experience?

Hello guest! Hallo Gast!

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There were a lot of tropicalised cameras around up to about 1930 eg some Contessa /Zeiss Tropical models. Some of them even have chrome struts, so the metal parts were probably considered to be at risk in tropical climes. Black and nickel cameras were common in the late 1920s and early 1930s. I have examples from other German manufacturers other than Leica including Zeiss, Nagel (with Leitz Elmar lens) and Welta. These more or less disappeared together around the mid 1930s. I have been told that nickel was 'dangerous', but I am not sure if this related to the manufacture or use of nickel. The only 1930s tropical product from Leica, that I am aware of, was the 'Tropen Summar' with a slightly longer barrel than normal. There are also the Leica 'Tropical Keepers' for lenses made out of soft aluminium. I have one that came with a 9cm Elmar. It is probably the rarest item in my Leica collection, but not the most expensive. They are very hard to find, though. Discussions, photos and comments are here 

 

William

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4 minutes ago, wizard said:

I don't. I accept it, but no more. It is certainly not my intention to offend anyone, but in my view to love brassing is equivalent to saying that an old car should have scratches, dents and worn seats.

Andy

We'll have to agree to differ on that. I don't agree with deliberately brassing new cameras like that piece on nonsense that emanated from Wetzlar some years ago. With old cars it somehow seems right to take out dents, bumps and scratches, but an 80 or 90 year old camera that has been redone like it just came out of the factory yesterday just seems wrong. What I meant by mentioning loving brassing was liking the brassing that is there, not adding to that. Although, I do have one I Model A that I like which has been completely brassed by a previous owner. The other 6 or 7 I Model As that I have still have their paint, except for one that has been nickel plated (again by a previous owner) which is a whole other discussion. I would never have a camera repainted and I only believe in mechanical repairs. I would not even touch that adding 6 bit code nonsense. Chacun a son gout etc.

William

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vor einer Stunde schrieb willeica:

What I meant by mentioning loving brassing was liking the brassing that is there, not adding to that.

I fully understand, and brassing a brand new camera is beyond me (as is putting lots of holes in brand new blue jeans even before selling them 😁), but let's be honest, brassing is mostly proof of a somewhat careless behaviour of a camera owner or, if due care was in fact exercised, a sign of unsuitable materials used by the manufacturer. And that is precisely the reason why I do not like brassing. I do however like materials such as leather, stone, wood or steel to develop a patina, as that is a sign of those materials ageing gracefully, whereas brassing is simply wear that should have been avoided in the first place, either by the customer or by the manufacturer. But our world would be boring if we would all have the same opinion.

Cheers,

Andy

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2 hours ago, wizard said:

I don't. I accept it, but no more. It is certainly not my intention to offend anyone, but in my view to love brassing is equivalent to saying that an old car should have scratches, dents and worn seats.

Andy

Are you suggesting people can't love it's history, whether a car or a camera? To much history and culture has been trashed for the sake of something new and shiny, you only have to look at over restored historic cars that have been put under the cosh of chrome plating and the blandness of modern paintwork as examples. And you know what, when I buy my next Rembrandt I hope it does have the cracks of age in the paint.

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1 hour ago, wizard said:

but let's be honest, brassing is mostly proof of a somewhat careless behaviour of a camera owner or, if due care was in fact exercised, a sign of unsuitable materials used by the manufacturer.

Are you joking? It is a sign that camera has been used. Who would buy a camera that belonged to a famous professional or war photographer that looked like it had just come out of a box? As a collector, an old camera that looks pristine almost screams 'fake'.

We'll have to continue to differ on this one.

William

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vor 14 Stunden schrieb 250swb:

... you only have to look at over restored historic cars that have been put under the cosh of chrome plating and the blandness of modern paintwork as examples.

I was not talking about restoring at all, but about original condition. And original condition does not necessarily imply that there must be dents, scratches etc.. I own various items such as cameras, cars, bicycles, binoculars that I have bought new and intensively used for many, many years (some of those items I have used for decades) and they still look almost like new. It is all a matter of how you treat things that are not disposable items, but have some value.

 

vor 14 Stunden schrieb willeica:

Who would buy a camera that belonged to a famous professional or war photographer that looked like it had just come out of a box?

That's another thing I have so far failed to understand. While I do appreciate that many a professional photographer will use his/her cameras differently than you and me, resulting in much more wear and tear, why would someone spend extra money, and I mean a lot of extra money, to buy a beaten up camera just because it was formerly used by some well known person? I'd rather buy a well kept camera for 10% of what you would have to pay for the famous person's camera, as it will take exactly the same pictures under my ownership as the "famous" camera. But that's just me and I am not trying to convince anyone here.

Cheers,

Andy

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2 minutes ago, wizard said:

That's another thing I have so far failed to understand. While I do appreciate that many a professional photographer will use his/her cameras differently than you and me, resulting in much more wear and tear, why would someone spend extra money, and I mean a lot of extra money, to buy a beaten up camera just because it was formerly used by some well known person? I'd rather buy a well kept camera for 10% of what you would have to pay for the famous person's camera, as it will take exactly the same pictures under my ownership as the "famous" camera. But that's just me and I am not trying to convince anyone here.

 

I take it that you are not a collector, just a conserver. There are many things more important than condition when it comes to collecting old cameras, but if I have to explain then you obviously don't get it. And I'm not just talking about cameras owned by famous people.

William

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