How to maintain & restore M Vulcanite body covers
Leica Vulcanite Introduction
"Vulcanite" is the black rubberised, textured material used to cover Leica camera bodies prior to the 1980s. It actually was made of vulcanised rubber (hence the name) and remains much loved by photographers due to its solid, sure grip.
Beginning with the M4-P in the mid 1980s, Leica stopped using vulcanite and instead substituted vinyl "leatherette". Not only was this a cost-saving measure, but vinyl is also more chemically stable, easier to replace when worn or damaged, and doesn't smell like an old developer tray after a couple of decades.
Rubber Chemistry 101
As far as I can tell, Leica "vulcanite" is made from vulcanised rubber. This is where natural rubber (latex) is mixed with sulphur, and then subjected to heat and pressure to force the sulphur plus polyisoprene chains to cross-link. A small amount of carbon black is also added, mainly to improve traction and also give the final product a more pleasing matt-black colour and sheen.
Due to the sulphur bridges between the polyisoprene chains, vulcanised rubber is far more chemically and mechanically stable than latex. Hence its use in car tyres, bumper bars, shoe soles etc. Latex on theother hand is only useful for low-wear and disposable usage, such as disposable gloves or prophylactics.
So although latex and vulcanised rubber both contain polyisoprene, they otherwise have nothing in common. Despite both being called "rubber", they look, feel and even smell different, mainly due to their completely dissimilar chemical structure. This means they will respond differently when exposed to treatments, oxidants or solvents (keep this in mind below).
Repairing large areas of Vulcanite
Can you repair Leica vulcanite?
No. Attack by UV and natural oxidation over decades can result in chemical deterioration and the material becoming brittle and crumbly. This is mainly due to chemical attack on the carbon-sulphur inter-links, which are essential for the rubber's mechanical and chemical integrity. Once it starts there is no way to reverse it. All you can do is scrape the rubber off and start again.
Can you "re-vulcanise" your camera?
Prior to Q2 2004, the answer was "no". The rubber was originally attached to the camera by baking it directly onto the body shell using high pressure and heat. To replace it you would thus have to scrape off the old material, completely disassemble the camera, "re-vulcanise" the empty shell under heat and pressure, and then rebuild and re-calibrate the camera from scratch. Leica hasn't offered a service to do this for decades and generally speaking neither did anyone else.
Until 2004 that is, when CRR Luton (UK) began offering the world's only camera re-vulcanisation service! See the link on their website for more details:
Although it appears from the URL that only LTM cameras can be done (for £65), subsequent emails indicate that non-metered Ms (M3 to M4-P) can also be re-vulcanized, for £85. In June 2004 Emanuel Lowi, sent me the following details:
[…] Peter [of CRR Luton] confirmed by e-mail that he does M but hasn't yet prepared patterns for the metered Leicas (where the back doors have slightly different dimensions because of the ASA dials, and the body screws are concealed underneath the leatherette, not exposed through like on vulcanite covered Ms, so there is a thickness difference too). Here's what he wrote me:
"The back door could also be done . The original vulcanite is rubber based ,and the rubber is 'vulcanised' ( made harder ) by the addition of sulphur and other chemicals.
"Pipes , for smoking , book covers , ornaments and jewellery have been made of vulcanite since the 1880's , and the material is brittle at room temperature. My modern version of vulcanite has similar properties and the exact pattern as used on early M cameras. It is brittle when cold and has to be heated to allow it to be wrapped around the body shell.
"It should last longer than the original Leitz material as the resin has long chain molecules and is less likely to chip and split, but as I have only just had this manufactured in the last year, there has been no long term testing . The first camera I fitted the 'new vulcanite' to was done a year ago. It is still intact and looks the same as it did when initially fitted."
He says in a later e-mail that he'd charge 85 pounds to re-cover a meter-less M. […]
£85 is pretty steep — more than double the price of the self-adhesive pre-cut vinyl alternatives — so it's not something you want done to all of your cameras. But if you are restoring a one-off "collectable", then it may be worth it.
Replacing vulcanite - camera cover options
Aside from re-vulcanisation by CRR Luton, the other practical solution is to scrape all the damaged vulcanite off the camera, and then re-cover it yourself using a vinyl or leather substitute.
Currently the best DIY options are provided by:
Both offer a wide range of pre-cut, self-adhesive vinyl and leather substitutes which work well for most Leica M models — see this topic elsewhere in the FAQ.
Wondering how to get the vulcanite off your camera and affix the new self-adhesive cover? As you can imagine the first part isn't easy. The following page by David Krauss gives detailed instructions with close-up photos:
Patching small vulcanite holes
But what if the bulk of the covering is okay and just a little patch has flaked off, can this be plugged or patched? Yes it can. There are two general approaches:
Liquid Electical tape
The easiest way is to use small amounts of Liquid Electrical Tape to plug the hole(s). LET is a viscous black liquid which dries rapidly to give rubber-like solid. The best way to use it is to apply small amounts at a time with a toothpick. Don't worry if you make a mistake - just wait for it to dry, scrape it off and start again.
Araldite & carbon black
A more fiddly but durable solution is to mix together some epoxy resin (eg: Araldite) and carbon black (use finely ground activated-carbon from aquarium filter pellets), and then dab this into any small holes. You could also use 2-minute super glue instead of epoxy. After a few minutes this will set and indeed grip your camera more securely than the original vulcanite!
Note: For either method, "dimple" the hardening (LET or Araldite) patch with a spatula to give it the same surface texture as the rest of the vulcanite. Fussy perfectionists can first make an impression of the vulcanite surface-pattern using modelling clay. The idea is to create a "negative" mould which you can then press onto the setting LET or Epoxy to give the new patch a more authentic looking surface texture. Of course don't forget to finely dust the mould with talc first, otherwise it will adhere to your new patch!
How do you maintain vulcanite and keep it looking like new? As I note above you cannot actually reverse any chemical degradation, but you can apply rubber treatments which prolong the vulcanite's life and help maintain its rubbery feel.
There are two broad approaches - high & low tech:
High tech - automobile rubber treatments
- Mothers "Reflections Advanced Tire Care"
(#10324 $US 9 - 24 ounces)
- Mothers "Tire & Rubber Cleaner"
(#06822 $US 6.50 - 22 ounces)
- Zymol "Tyre Preserve concentrate"
($US 25 - 8.5 ounces)
Either of these are professional rubber treatments used by car detailers to preserve and restore car tyres. They are specifically designed to work safely on vulcanised rubber and are highly recommended by detailers for their effectiveness and ease of use.
Mechanics I spoke to also recommended Mothers Back-to-Black or Preserve. Indeed if you look at the product labels on the bottles, both are claimed to work well on rubber. On the Mothers www site however, the manufacturer specifically warns against using either on rubber(!)
Which goes to show there is a lot of voodoo chemistry in this area, with everyone contradicting everyone else, and each having their own favourite product for their own favourite reasons. YMMV.
There is general agreement however that you should avoid using Armour All Shine protectants. Not only do they leave a permanently greasy and slippery finish — the last thing you want — but there is also anecdotal evidence that instead of protecting rubber, they may actually hasten its deterioration (!)
Low tech — natural 'plasticisers'
- Neat's Foot oil
- Lanolin cream
- Bees wax (used for waterproofing leather hiking boots)
Here we apply innocuous compounds to keep the rubber supple and prevent it from becoming brittle. That's all. No fancy restorative compounds, no UV filters, no bells, ribbons or party whistles.
In which case it doesn't matter which one you use. For a while I actually used Baby Oil, but after researching Car Detailing websites in Sept 2003, I switched to Glycerine as an equally inexpensive (but less controversial) alternative.
The trick with using any of these things is to only apply them lightly and sparingly with a Q-tip, once or at most twice a year.
Won't these treatments damage rubber?
No. The "high tech" solutions are specially formulated to treat vulcanised rubber and are used by car-detailers every day to preserve & restore car tyres. If you don't believe this, contact the manufacturers directly (which is why I provide the URL links). The "low tech" alternatives are OTOH all-natural compounds which contain natural emollients and plasticisers to soften the rubber slightly without breaking it down.
In any case, so long as you avoid using any product which contains formaldehyde, silicones, ammonia, mineral acids or petroleum-based solvents, you run little risk of causing any damage.
You may have heard certain oil-based lubricants might damage rubber. Indeed they may, but be cautious when people quote as evidence the destructive effects on condoms(!) These are actually made from latex, which is — as I note above — chemically different to vulcanised rubber. This makes them irrelevant for comparison as their chemical properties are vastly dissimilar.
You may also hear claims that only those treatments which contain UV filters are worthwhile. Frankly, this only makes sense if you store your camera out in the sun. Although ultraviolet radiation can severely affect polymer life, it is obviously not as threatening to cameras as it is to garden furniture. After all, your camera is only exposed to the sun for a few hours a week, and even then it's mostly covered by your hands.
Finally, apply a little common sense here. No one is trying to force anyone to use these things. If you don't care what your vulcanite looks like, or are worried about the possibility of causing irreparable damage — fine. Feel free to ignore the "controversial" and "outright dangerous" advice on this page =)
For the record, I am a qualified Industrial Chemist (BSc Hons), who did his honours thesis on (cis) 1-4 polybutadiene, the artificial rubber used in truck tyres. Since 2009 I also work as a Science teacher in a selective high-school. Consequently, the remarks on this page are based on years of actual experience in practical chemistry, and not the usual internet hearsay :?)