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Fundamentals: Grease and Lubrication (2/3)

We had a lengthy commentary on screws and drivers on the previous post and the next important subject to consider is lubrication. If you have read any of Nikon’s repair manuals you will see that Nikon uses different types of lubricants on different parts of their lenses and cameras. While this is the best practice in camera manufacturing, it is not practical for DIY lens restoration for a lot of reasons, some of which are:

  • It is expensive to keep an inventory of various lubricants.
  • It is not cost effective if you are just fixing your own stuff.
  • You may accidentally mix lubricants.

With the above considerations outlined, we will now start discussing about the most important lubricant in manual focus lenses and how to properly replace them.

Prep:

Before applying any fresh grease to your helicoids you will definitely need to clean the helicoids first and remove the old, dirty or dried grease.

IMG_1129Just take a look, looks like the grease has not been replaced since 1959!

To clean your helicoids, first you will need to dismantle the lens. Store them somewhere so that the grooves will not get damaged accidentally. Next, you will need to have these ready:

  • stiff bristled toothbrush (not for personal use!)
  • lighter fluid (for petrol-based grease)
  • lens wipes or Kleenex
  • denatured alcohol in a deep container (alcohol bath)
  • sharp toothpick (for picking out hardened grime)
  • Dremel with nylon brush tip (optional)
  • bulb blower

Next, go to a place where it is OK to create a mess on the floor. You would also like to work on one helicoid at a time. First thing, you would need to apply liberal amounts of lighter fluid to one of your helicoids and then use a toothbrush to mechanically remove the old grease. Go along the grain of the helicoid, this will remove the bulk of the old grease. This will leave a mess so be sure you are prepared for it.

Next, apply lighter fluid again to the threads of your helicoid and then use lens tissue or Kleenex to wipe the helicoid clean. You do not want to leave any of the old grease behind to contaminate your new grease so be careful. From time to time you will find that nasty bit of solidified grease and the only way to remove it is to use your fingernail or the tip of a toothpick.

I also encountered a lens that is so badly stored that the grease are so hard that I needed a Dremel with a nylon brush to remove the solidified grime. I suspect that the previous owner poured lighter fluid or other solvents into it, hoping that it will soften up the grease because the lens smelled funny when I got it (smelled like gutta percha). Contaminating your grease with solvents or a different type or brand of grease will change it’s chemistry so avoid it at all cost.

When you are sure that the helicoid is free and clean from the old grease, you will need to soak them in a deep plastic bottle filled with denatured alcohol. Doing so will remove any residue left by the lighter fluid and any grime left behind by the previous process. This will also soften up any glue marks as well as the parts that are held by weaker adhesives or are stuck by the grime that it had accumulated throughout the years. I usually leave them soaked in the bath for around 30min. or less. For really dirty lenses, I will need to leave these overnight just to give the alcohol some time to work into the crevices & seams. The metal distance sleeve of many older Nikkors are glued in place and the easiest way to get them free is to soak them for long periods of time and they will come off easily the next time you try to remove them.

You can air dry your helicoids after the bath or wipe them dry with a clean and lint-free wipe such as lens tissues. Be sure to blow them dry with your bulb blower to remove any residue or droplets left in the helicoids before you start lubricating them with fresh grease.

Grease:

There are a variety of greases available for you to use but only a handful is suitable for our purpose. Some people are actually using the common red bicycle grease for their helicoids with success but we want something that is made specifically for our needs and the qualities we are looking for are:

  • Temperature resistance (to prevent running or solidifying).
  • Consistency (should have the right resistance).
  • Longevity (will not change properties over time).
  • Cost (reasonably affordable).
  • Stability (no tendency to migrate).
  • Non-evaporating type (or else it will stain your glass)

Luckily, in recent years greases with all of the above mentioned properties can be had for little money through the internet and they come in various types like silicon or lithium. It is said that the grease that Nikon currently uses is NPC’s FC-4. You can Google it and look for repacked sellers since these are usually sold to industrial clients and workshops by the bucket or tub, that is definitely more than a lifetime’s worth of grease if all you are doing is restoring your own lenses or just want to fix that lens that you got from online auctions with dishonest sellers like Yahoo! Auctions Japan.

IMG_1489My small tub of S-10 helicoid grease.

Personally, I use the readily available and affordable S-10 & S-30 helicoid grease that can be bought in most camera sections of larger camera shops here in Japan. The S-10 grease is for general lubrication while the S-30 has more resistance and thus, better suited for lenses that need more damping like the Nikon 200mm f/4 Ai-S. You do not want to use the wrong type of grease that is why you need to think about which type to use beforehand by determining if you want more damp or not.

IMG_1454

Application of the lubricant should be done with a wide flat brush for even coating and we only want to coat each contact surface with a thin film of grease. Putting too much of it will result in the focusing to be too heavily damped due to all of the helicoids’ resistance adding up. Putting too little with result in rough feeling helicoids.

IMG_1564

Adding too much grease will also result in oil seepage/migration since all that excess grease has to go somewhere. Just look at the picture above and you will see what I mean. Not a pretty sight at all and this is probably the reason why you wanted to clean your helicoids anyway.

IMG_1587

The most obvious result of grease migration is oily aperture blades. Simply cleaning the aperture blades alone is not going to be enough since the real cause is not taken cared of. If you see a lens with oily aperture blades, then be prepared to overhaul the whole lens as well.

It is also very important that you lubricate any part that comes in contact with another part to reduce friction such as:

  • the aperture ring’s backside.
  • the aperture clicking slots inside the aperture ring.
  • the sides of the helicoid keys and it’s slot.
  • zoom mechanisms.

Before lubricating these parts, you should also take care to remove any old lubricants in them. If you have dismantled your lens to this point anyway chances are you have cleaned them up as well. If you have failed to do this then all that friction will cause early wear to the parts involved and it will also make your lens feel rough and dry every time you turn your aperture ring or zoom in and out. Also, avoid lubricating anything that is related or close to the aperture blades. These things do not need any lubrication and will function fine without them. Try to use the same grease you have used for your helicoids to lubricate these parts to ensure that there will never be any chance of contaminating the helicoid grease with another type of grease.

Storage:

Store your tiny pots of grease in room temperature and keep them away from direct sunlight. You would also need to place them inside separate plastic bags so that they do not contaminate each other. Any of tools that you have used to handle or apply the grease has to be stored separate from each other as well for the same reason. Always have separate brushes for each type of grease that you have. What I do is I store the grease’s tub and brush together in a plastic bag. Since I only have 2 types of grease to think about, I only have 2 plastic bags, each containing the grease and the brush that I apply it with. Never leave the grease’s tub open and exposed as pets or pests might get into contact with it. You also do not want any children or your wife to get a hold of it mistaking it for something else. Some types actually smell quite pleasant and can be mistaken for cold cream or food.

to be continued…

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70 Comments (+add yours?)

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  5. Charlie
    Jun 03, 2016 @ 09:01:50

    I used molycote DX grease for helicoids on Nikkor Micro 55 f/3.5.
    No oil separation or any other issues after 1 year of use.

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Jun 03, 2016 @ 09:08:23

      Hi, Charlie! I will look that up on the net, see if it is lithium or silica type. Many use the ones for fishing and bicycle gears with success and they are cheap so the repair shops use them. I am not recommending it, just saying that some people use it as I cannot recommend something that I have not tried yet for myself. Cheers!

      Reply

  6. Charlie
    Jun 04, 2016 @ 13:50:10

    Molykote DX is lithium based, here is a datasheet http://www.dagmita.lt/uploads/file/Tepalai_en/Pastos_en/DX%20TDS.pdf

    Silica greases are good for static o-rings, but they are unacceptable for moving components

    Reply

  7. Charlie
    Jun 09, 2016 @ 16:51:00

    Silica and bentonite thickened greases usually have worse wear and oil separation properties, they are typically used for high temperature applications, where other thickeners fail.

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Jun 10, 2016 @ 03:31:43

      Hi, Charlie. If you get the chance buy the NPC brand grease that I mentioned in the blog. that is what Canon and Nikon uses. I am trying to find one in small volumes.

      Reply

  8. Charlie
    Jun 10, 2016 @ 10:37:37

    At the moment of repair, i already had a tube of molykote from my other hobby, watchmaking.

    Reply

    • richardhaw
      Jun 10, 2016 @ 14:50:51

      I see. I used to apprentice for the family’s watch repair shop. going back to the grease, my silicon grease is the thick one so the consistency will prevent it from migrating. i am more concerned at the vehicle as it tends to separate when left at the same position for a long time.

      Reply

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