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Repair: Nikon SP 1/3

Hello, everybody! It’s getting really cold here in Tokyo and I have a whole week’s worth of vacation so I decided to write this! There aren’t many things on the internet about this topic so I hope that I can help shed some light on this. Please enjoy this new series.

Introduction:

We’re going to talk about the awesome Nikon SP! This is Nikon’s best rangefinder camera and it represented the ultimate development in Nikon’s rangefinder camera system. The Nikon S4 came after this but it was a derivative of the Nikon S3 and it was made with cost in mind so a few things were omitted. There were prototypes made that will surpass the Nikon SP but none went into production so we can consider this to be the last of its kind. The rangefinder camera system (35mm format) that had so far dominated the market in the years leading to 1960 was met with a big challenge in the form of the Nikon F and the SLR system quickly overtook rangefinder camera sales until it became the the dominant system in 35mm photography. This spelled the end for the Nikon SP but many people still use them well into the ’80s and up til today because of its nice handling and reliability. It was then reissued in 2005 together with the W-Nikkor.C 3.5cm f/1.8 as a kit for a limited time. You can still find the original and reissued ones for sale online and these are never sold cheap and will appreciate in price in the coming decades. The Nikon SP came out in 1957 when Elvis Presley was topping the charts and the Beatles weren’t even a thing!

IMG_4193The Nikon SP is a very handsome camera and many photographers consider it to be the Cadillac of Nikon’s rangefinder system. It’s truly a fine machine but acquiring one in nice shape can be a bit difficult these days but you can get lucky. They do not cost as much as Leicas so their prices are still realistic and within-reach for most photographers.

The handling of the Nikon SP is so good because it was the basis for the Nikon S3 and the Nikon F was heavily-based on the Nikon SP chassis so if you’re familiar with using older Nikon SLR cameras then transitioning to the Nikon SP should be very easy for you.

What makes the Nikon SP such a wonderful camera to use is its revolutionary viewfinder and how it can display 4 different frame lines. It also has parallax-correction to help you accurately compose your frame. If you thought that this was boring then wait till you see what’s beside the main viewfinder, the Nikon SP has a smaller 2nd viewfinder where the 35mm frame lines are and the whole area of that mini viewfinder represents 28mm. You have a total of 6 separate frame representations in one camera! No other camera did this and it took Leica many years to match this while Canon took a couple of years to get that in their rangefinder system.

(Click to enlarge)

This is a representation of the Nikon SP’s viewfinder. The frame lines are additive and it’s always the inner frame line that’s the active one. You change frame lines by turning that big dial just below the rewind crank. Take note that the pictures are just copied from the user manual and the actual frame lines are colour-coded so you won’t get confused. I like these subtleties that Nikon makes and that sets them apart from other manufacturers. It’s also parallax-corrected for more accurate framing and composition.

sp35.pngThis is a representation of the Nikon SP’s wide finder. The frame line at the center is the 35mm frame line and the inset is used for parallax compensation. The entire border of its frame represents 28mm. This is a very unique concept and it was very difficult to achieve this in production. I will show you how delicate this is in part 3 of this article.

IMG_4327.JPGThe Nikon SP’s exceptional rangefinder was also regarded to be very accurate and when Nikon’s staff reverse-engineered the Nikon SP for the 2005 reissue, they were impressed at how accurate the rangefinder is and marveled at how the people at the factory did this in the late ’50s using manual methods! This is important when using longer lenses or fast lenses with thin DOF. Nikon made some of the fastest lenses for the rangefinder systems (Nikon S-mount, Contax, M-39) so it should have an accurate rangefinder patch to match.

The Nikon SP is also the first Nikon to come equipped with Nikon’s famously reliable and tough titanium shutter curtains (late models). This made it immune to burn-holes but it also made the shutter a bit noisier and accidentally jabbing it with a thumb can crumple it and affect its operation. Despite this, the titanium shutters would stay with Nikon until the Nikon F3 more than 20 years after it was implemented.

IMG_4354.JPGIn a time where many cameras have their slow and fast speeds set using 2 separate dials, the Nikon SP only has 1 dial to set all of its speeds from 1s to 1/1000s. The frame counter also automatically resets each time you open the film chamber. These were great and the Nikon S2 never had these refinements. The mechanisms are also refined and smooth that comparing the Nikon SP with other Japanese cameras of the time is like comparing a nice bottle of gin to cheap moonshine booze. Japan has never made anything like this before.

All of this may sound trivial to you but if you put everything into context and think about when the Nikon SP was introduced and which cameras were competing against it at that time then that will give you an idea about how revolutionary the Nikon SP was!

Having mentioned all of the the above, it comes as no surprise that the Nikon SP is a very complicated machine! Of all the Nikon rangefinders that I had opened, this thing is by far the most complicated and there are so many things crammed inside such a small space. I cannot imagine how complicated it was to design such a camera let alone manufacture it at the rate that Nikon did. This is a modern marvel of camera manufacturing.

I’m done with the introduction, I am now going to show you how I cleaned and restored my Nikon SP back to working order. I got this as a junk with a couple of problems but I’m thankful that nothing was beyond my abilities. This is going to be a long and detailed one so it makes sense to separate this article into 3 parts in order for me to keep up or else I’ll just get burnt-out. This is also going to be the most complete resource online (as of now) for the Nikon SP despite me not showing how to completely dismantle one. I can if I must but it doesn’t make sense for me to fix something that’s not broken. I was also lucky that I have a Japanese repair guide available and without that, I would never dare open this. It is not a cheap camera for me to experiment and I just cannot afford to mess this one up. I am very much aware that this is no Nikkormat so you can bet you $1 that I was sweating my nuts when I was working on this camera. One mistake is all it takes to ruin the job! If you are inexperienced with working with cameras then I will just ask you to kindly give this to an experienced repairman or to a reputable shop like Kiitos to service. This is the best way to do it and since there aren’t many of these around, you are also doing us all a big favor by not diminishing what’s left! There will come a time when there will be none of these for sale! Just give it a couple of more decades and you won’t see these anymore. Let’s now begin with the meat of the article!

Before We Begin:

If this is the first attempt at opening a lens then I suggest that you read my previous posts regarding screws & driversgrease and other things. Also read regarding the tools that you will need in order to fix your Nikkors.

I highly suggest that you read these primers before you begin (for beginners):

Reading these primers should lessen the chance of ruining your lens if you are a beginner. Also before opening up any lens, always look for other people who have done so in Youtube and the internet. Information is scarce, vague and scattered (that is why I started this) but you can still find some information if you search carefully.

I highly recommend that you also read my working with helicoids post because this is very important and getting it wrong can ruin your day. If I can force you to read this, I would. It is that important!

For more advanced topics, you can read my fungus removal post as a start. This post has a lot of useful information here and there and it will be beneficial for you to read this.

About Me:

I am a photographer based in Tokyo who scours the junk section of the camera shops here on a regular basis. I started this hobby of fixing old lenses and cameras because I kept on getting scammed before when I purchase online. This turned out to be a blessing because I now buy junk lenses for a fraction of the price and then fix them to add to my now-growing collection. This allowed me to buy gear that were otherwise off-limits to me if I were to get them in better condition.

I was a scale modeller before who built models for other collectors for a very longtime, got an education as a dental prosthodontist (but didn’t pursue dentistry) and growing up in a watch repair shop gave me the useful skills that would help me in this craft. Fixing my car also contributed some know-how.

Having mentioned the above, I will tell you now that I am not a professional repairman! So please take what I do with a grain of salt and I will never be held responsible for anything wrong that will happen to you and your project. I hope that the pros would guide and teach us but nobody is writing anything.

As my collection of repair notes grew, I get requests from people with similar interests and from professionals who just needed some notes just in case. Now, I am sharing my library with you for your entertainment and reference. I hope that you find my work useful.

Disassembly:

This is not an easy thing to do but if you must, do yourself a favor and buy slotted drivers in various sizes and widths. Also have a metal file handy because you’ll need to file down some of the drivers’ tips in order to make them precisely fit the slots that they need to be used on. Screwdrivers are cheaper these days so don’t be cheap when buying them.

Make sure that you use the correct screwdrivers for this. They should fit the slot properly and the width of the driver should almost be as wide as the screw head. If the driver’s tip is too wide, it may scar the surrounding metal. If it’s too small, the driver will likely strip the slot and damage the screws. Remember that these screws are a prominent feature in the camera so make sure not to damages these!

IMG_4194First, begin by removing these 3 screws from the front bezel. These screws vary in length and size so make sure that you remember which one came from which hole. I tape these to a piece of paper in the orientation that they came off to help remind me where each of these came from. While screwing these things back, do not force them into their holes or else you will stress the bezel and their threads. Another way is to just screw them back to their own holes right after the bezel is gone. This way, you won’t have to deal with loose screws hanging around in your work desk or screws organizer.

IMG_4195This is the last screw that you will have to remove.

IMG_4196You can now carefully lift the bezel from the bottom and be careful not to warp the bezel or put a ding on it. The bezel is made of thin-gauge metal and the top part slides between the top panel and the body casting and applying too much force will easily bend it. You’ll also need to feel for it carefully because the focusing wheel and its lock slides into a slot on top of the bezel. You will need to play around with the focusing wheel and its lock to help you free the bezel. It may take time so just be patient. I never get this on the first try.

IMG_4197And off goes the bezel. You can see the slot for the focusing wheel on the left-hand corner of the bezel (facing right in this picture). See how delicate it is? If you bent the bezel you will end up with an ugly camera. Around each window, you will find strips foam seals to help shield the viewfinder and rangefinder window from dust and moisture. Mine is too old and it looks like it was never replaced. You can replace yours with 1mm foam strips.

IMG_4198To open the frame for the viewfinder window, you should first remove these 3 screws. If I’m not mistaken, these screws are also of varying sizes so be careful to put them back in the correct position later to prevent it from stripping its own thread.

IMG_4199This is the last screw. Ideally, you would want to remove the top panel before removing it but it’s possible to remove it while the top panel is installed by carefully unscrewing it. It is very important to remember not to scar the metal on the top panel. Putting this back is a bit tricky but it’s possible. If I’m correct, this is the smallest screw of the 4.

IMG_4200The frame should come-off just like this. You can then clean the glass and remove fungus or dirt that has accumulated here. The baffle is very thin and you should be very careful when handling this. If you bent yours then say goodbye to it!

The rangefinder window is the biggest window at the center and the wide-finder sits just beside it and is the smallest one. Only clean these 2 windows. I use alcohol and naphtha to remove any oil or dirt. Just gently wipe then with a lintless tissue and blow it with air from a bulb blower. Never use canned air for this because the pressure is too strong. Do not use excessive pressure when wiping these or you may nudge them out of alignment.

IMG_4201The frame for the rangefinder window can be removed by unscrewing 3 screws. There is also a baffle/light shield for this just like the one in the rangefinder window. I won’t clean the rangefinder window directly unless I need to. If yours is dirty, just clean it the same way you cleaned the rangefinder window but this time, apply way less pressure and use more care dealing with it. The rangefinder is a very delicate and precise assembly.

IMG_4202Now that the windows are clean, I put the frames and baffles back and screw them back into place to protect them from damage and dust. Leaving them exposed is a bad idea.

To remove the helicoid, simply unscrew these 3 screws. These can be hard to remove and if yours is stuck, just heat them up with a soldering iron and unscrew them while it’s hot. Do it one a time and you should be OK.

When doing this, make sure that the camera is facing the ceiling mount-up. Be careful or you will drop the shims under each screw to the floor and lose them forever! You’ll also need to remember which shim should go where that’s why I am advising you to have the camera face the ceiling when you do this.

Once the screws are gone, carefully life the whole helicoid assembly from the camera. It’s going to be stuck because part of the lever for the lock is under the focusing wheel! Press on the lock and carefully separate the helicoid assembly from the camera. Again, do this while the camera is facing the ceiling. Remember the shims!

IMG_4203Look around the mount and you will find 1 shim on top of each screw hole. These shims are used to fine-tune your camera’s flange distance. These are very tiny and you should never lose any of them. They are also unique to each hole so mark them properly. I mark them by drawing dots on them, one dot for the top-most and 2 dots for the next one. You get the idea. Just do what makes sense to you. I use a permanent marker like Sharpie due to its ink. A paint marker will leave a thicker mark and a difference of a few tenths of a millimeter is enough to upset the balance so be careful.

The main cog for the focusing wheel is now visible in front of you. You will need to open the front panel in order to completely clean the assembly but that’s too much work so we just clean it by flushing it with naphtha and wiping it clean with a lintless tissue. Repeat until you’re satisfied. Finally, lightly oil this with high-quality watch oil. You don’t want to overdo the lubrication on this or else the excess oil will end up elsewhere.

You should wipe away any grime you see at this point. Just use a Q-tip saturated with any solvent that you want like naphtha and just do it the old way. A soft toothbrush is also a good tool to scrub away any stubborn dirt.

IMG_4204Here is the back of the helicoid assembly. These 2 screws hold the stop for the helicoid. It is there so your helicoid won’t turn past its range and undo itself. They are locked at the factory with lacquer so you must dissolve them first with MEK before you unscrew them. I remember that the screws are not the same so be careful. If they’re still hard to undo, it still needs to be softened with solvent or heat them up with a soldering iron.

IMG_4205Once the stop is gone, just depress the lock or press on that conical thing to lift it and you should be able to separate the helicoids. As with all helicoids with multiple entry points, remember where they separated! If you got it wrong then good luck putting it back again and don’t message me how to do it. Mine separated around here. See the fine teeth? They mesh with the focusing wheel and they are very delicate so make sure you don’t damage it. Handle this with care because they’re made of brass and brass can be soft at times.

I cleaned mine by rinsing it with benzine and dunking them in an alcohol bath after. Use a toothbrush to scrub it and make sure that there’s not hardened gunk left in them. Don’t lubricate any of the helicoids, they’re designed to run dry. They are lubricated by using a lot of graphite powder. Lubricating them with anything only makes it prone to squeaking or seizing later when the lubricant gets contaminated with dirt.

If you must lubricate yours, just use the lightest grease available to you and only apply a very thin film of grease. I will admit that I grease some of my rangefinder cameras and I will tell you that this is more of an educated decision and I did it knowing the risks that it brings. Lubricating them will only make your focusing heavier when you use a lens with a built-in helicoid. It may be nice to use with the 50mm lenses that don’t have a helicoid but it can be hell to focus for those that have the helicoids as the resistance add-up and it ends up being heavier than desired.

Before I forget to tell you, be careful while cleaning the helicoids because the lettering is just painted-over and if you used a strong solvent, the lettering might get dissolved! Use a soft paint brush to clean the lettering as a toothbrush is stiff enough to brush it off!

Calibration:

The Nikon SP’s focusing patch is the most difficult to calibrate because they’re not so easy to access. The space is so cramped and you may end up pushing something else and do a botched job instead of fixing it. The good thing is that the steps aren’t too different from the other Nikon rangefinders and you can read my old article about how I calibrated my Nikon S2 because most of what I said there is going to be relevant here. I also don’t want to repeat things that I have discussed elsewhere and I want to focus on bigger things.

IMG_4212This is the grub screw that secures the vertical adjuster. You don’t have to loosen this too much and never over-tighten this. It’s a very delicate thing and it can be brittle due to its age. Once you have loosened this screw a bit, you  can then adjust the large gear just left of it. Use a plastic toothpick to nudge it up and down a bit. Remember to  make small and precise turns with this. Turning it too much is not good and this is also the reason why it is a good idea to never loosen the locking screw too much, just make sure that it is loose enough for you to move the gear without it coming into contact with the grub screw.

Before I forget, it’s best to adjust this while the frame for the rangefinder window is off. I took my pictures with them installed so please remember that. I wasn’t thinking about it when I took these pictures so please forgive me.

IMG_4321b.JPGHere’s a clearer view so you can see what’s happening. I took this picture when I took the rangefinder assembly out for cleaning. The locking screw is basically a small grub screw. Just immediately to its right (left in this picture) is a serrated wheel and that is what you should be adjusting and nothing else. They are best accessed when everything is exposed in front of you. If not, then just carefully probe for the wheel. Remember, only use a soft plastic toothpick for this or a precision screwdriver that’s wrapped in rubber. To do this, get some heat-shrinking rubber insulator for electronics and then cover the tip of your precision screwdriver with it. Heat it using a hairdryer and it should cover the tip snugly.

IMG_4213This is the horizontal adjuster and it’s easier to access. Just adjust it gently with a driver, it should turn the focusing patch left or right. Again, small increments are best when you are adjusting this.

After you’re satisfied with your work, you can seal the locking screw with lacquer just to make sure that it stays that way. You can apply it with a sharp brush. Nail polish will also do if you don’t have access to lacquer. Remember not to put too much of it, a little blob is more than enough!

Remember, just go about it slowly and use very small but deliberate increments. This is a fine precision machine so treat it as such. This is not an old VW Beetle, this is a Nikon SP!

Bonus:

Here are some things that I usually do to my rangefinder cameras and I’m sharing these to you. You can check your camera and see if you need to do these or not. If not then just enjoy reading the rest of the article.

IMG_4247This is bent at the factory if I am not mistaken but it can wear-out with regular use. Just bend it down to adjust how tight you want the lock to be. Make sure that you make small adjustments and not over-bend this part. The proper tool for this is a sheet bender and it is easy to fabricate. I will show you how to make one in the future.

IMG_4248These can sometimes be bent so carefully bend them back to your desired tolerance. I’m OK with mine but these things can easily be bent from regular use or if the idiot who had this camera forced this back cover when he wants to put it back to the camera but forgot to turn the locks underneath. Yes, there are people like that! That’s why if things don’t go as smooth as it should, make sure to check first before using your strength!

IMG_4323The viewfinder window was also tinted. I do this since Nikon’s rangefinder patches are a bit of a pain to view unlike Leica or Contax patches because they have feathered edges. It can be difficult to view depending on the light angle and brightness. Sure, the clarity of a rangefinder patch has more to do with the materials used and how clean it is but this is a good hack to make you see it better. This mod makes a whole world of difference.

Just like with my Nikon S2, I went ahead and tinted my viewfinder to help me see the tiny patch better. If I’m not mistaken, I learned this trick from Jon who’s a smart guy in every thing rangefinder related. I was about to cut a real glass filter and replace the protective glass on the rangefinder window with it when I got this idea from him. It sure saved me a lot of time and I should buy him a beer next time we meet. I saw some people here use glass filters that were cut to shape to do the same thing. The glass filter is good because it is coated and clearer but this is almost just as good for a lot less effort.

I basically just cut a piece of gel filter and placed that between the glass protector and the rangefinder window. Just make sure that you cut it about 4mm bigger on each edge. Keep it between the rangefinder window and the glass protector and trim down any excess so it will not show-through or cover up another window. Just leave it there and don’t bother to use any adhesives, the window should be enough to press it in-place.

That’s all for this section. I hope that you enjoyed this!

Conclusion:

That’s all for part 1! Make sure that you go about each step carefully. This is not an easy task and a Nikon SP is not something that you should mess around with. It demands your respect and if you’re not sure about things just send yours to somebody who knows their thing! Better safe than sorry and always remember that the cheap guy pays twice!

In the next part, I will show you guys how to partially strip your Nikon SP and it’s going to be exciting so just come back again to see if I uploaded something new! Thank you for following my blog and as always, if you love my work please share it with your friends at social media and if you really love my work then don’t hesitate to buy me a roll of film or a burger by donating to this blog. Thank you again and see part 2 for more exciting stuff. Have a great and prosperous 2018, Ric.

Help Support this Blog:

Maintaining this blog requires money to operate. If you think that this site has helped you or you want to show your support by helping with the upkeep of this site, you can simple make a small donation to my paypal.com account (richardHaw888@gmail.com). Money is not my prime motivation for this blog and I believe that I have enough to run this but you can help me make this site (and the companion facebook page) grow.

 

Buy me a roll of film or a burger?

Thank you very much for your continued support!

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Helping support this site will ensure that this will be kept going as long as I have the time and energy for this. I would appreciate it if you just leave out your name or details like your country and other information so that the donations will totally be anonymous it is at all possible. This is a labor of love and I intend to keep it that way for as long as I can. Ric.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Repair: Nikon SP 2/3 | Richard Haw's Nikon Maintenance Site
  2. Trackback: Repair: Nikon SP 3/3 | Richard Haw's Nikon Maintenance Site
  3. Trackback: Repair: Nikkor-Q.C 13.5cm f3.5 RF | Richard Haw's Nikon Maintenance Site
  4. Trackback: Repair: Nicca 3S (part 1) | Richard Haw's Nikon Maintenance Site

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