Slow or Stuck Shutter Repair for Amateurs

So you got yourself an old camera, old like from the mechanical camera age, not old like from the battery-powered point-and-shoot era. It’s made of metal, not plastic and if the wrap’s intact it looks like leather ‘cause it is. You probably have a lever that cocks the shutter and something that orbits the lens to change the aperture. More than likely you’ll find the camera isn’t operating at full capacity. I put such cameras into one of three groups (always three).

Group One: it basically works. You can focus, set the aperture, cock the fire the shutter, and wind the film on for the next shoot. If you got low standards and can put up with some unpredictable behavior you could go out and have a great time.

Group Two: something doesn’t work. Maybe the focus is so stiff you just always shoot things from 15 feet out. Could be the shutter fires but is like seriously slow, or doesn’t manage to close unless you take your finger off the release even when it’s on 1/50th instead of B. It might have been a whizz-bang tack sharp beauty, but these days it’s got that Lomography aesthetic in spades.

Group Three: it’s a camera shaped paperweight. Someone sold this as a décor item but you were feeling lucky. It may be haunted by the ghost of George Eastman.

A professional could put in the time with their specialist tools and rarefied skills to get any of the above restored. You, like me, do not have those tools or skills and are not willing to leave the trail of bodies in your wake that it’ll take to try and acquire them. Stripped screws, lost springs, gouged metal, and a box of “parts” is all that’s in the cards for any camera with the misfortune to become an attempted aspirational repair. Good news, we’re not doing that. We don’t need any special tools and even if we fail we’re not ending up with a pile of parts that’ll never be a camera again. So what do you need? Patience and heat.

Camera people talk about getting a camera CLA’d. Cleaned, Lubricated, and Adjusted. The important word there is lubricated. Cameras have metal moving parts. Metal on metal is pretty much always lubricated. As with mechanical watches, mechanical cameras tend to use very thin and light lubricant. Thin and light lubricant tends to get thick and tacky after fifty or more years collecting dust. So let’s open it up and spray on the contact cleaner, right? Oh goodness no, that sounds hard. Let’s watch a movie instead.

We Are Now Camera Technicians

If you have a group one camera, put on a movie, or sit down for a couple episodes of some soon-to-be-canceled Netflix series or ultra-niche podcast. Set a speed, cock the shutter and fire. Then do it again, repeatedly, for every speed, again and again until you run out of media to consume or the will to sit still. Slide the aperture ring back and forth again and again. Focus from one extreme to the other. Get a rhythm going and keep at it. Friction turns to heat that slowly but surely leads to a softening of old lubricant and often it’s enough to clean out the cobwebs so to say and you end up with a reliable camera.

If you have a group two or three camera you’ll be doing the mindless zombie cock-and-fire, twist-and-turn, television session as well. Before you give that a try though, you’ll be baking your camera. If you’re camera’s a folder, open it up. Open the film door too. Now apply heat. If you have a sunny window, push the sleepy cat aside (but apologize with some treats and a dime bag of catnip) and stick your camera in that sunbeam. Hopefully for at least an hour. If it’s overcast, if there’s a draft, or a sunny window is otherwise not an option try putting it in a pot on a radiator. Or preheat your oven at its lowest setting for a good twenty minutes, turn it off, and then pop the camera in for a half hour or more like you’re waiting for bread dough to rise. Like with the radiator though, don’t just sit it on the rack, stick it on a baking sheet or something. With the radiator you want something heavy to help diffuse the heat. In the oven it’s more about keeping it stable on a wire rack.

Remove your camera from whatever heat source you used while it’s still warm. It should be warm, not uncomfortable to hold but more than body temperature. Now go through the motions, adjust the focus and aperture, cock and fire the shutter on all the speeds. You’ll probably find things that were frozen in place before move at least a little now. If you made noticeable improvements, repeat the heating cycle and have another go. If you don’t see any change, well, that’s unfortunate. More heat is not the answer.

Violence. Violence is the answer. Gentle violence. Yes really. If the cameras a folder close it all up and give it a few hammers into your open palm. Don’t do it so hard that you’ll hurt your hand and you can be sure it won’t be so hard as to hurt the camera. Now try that stuck shutter again. If you made a little progress, try a heat cycle again. Then try working all the movements again.

There’s a limit to how much good you can do without taking things apart or spending the money on a professional. If something is genuinely mechanically busted you won’t fix it with a touch of heat, but you won’t turn a mostly working camera into a pile of unusable parts either. I can tell you though, that first time you start with a seized up shutter and come away with a working camera it’s a great feeling.

Copal SV & Copal MXV Shutter Repair


If the Copal SV and MXV shutters in your camera (seen in Yashica TLR’s, among others) doesn’t fire, fires but is sticky on slow speeds, or has otherwise broken, chances are it’s a fault in the self timer. Thankfully there’s a easy fix; just take the self timer out. Unless you know what your doing, in which case you wouldn’t bother reading this post, it’s not worth the effort to try and fix and given the frequency with which the self timer jams you shouldn’t be using it anyway.

Required Tools

Small flathead screwdriver set, 1 cotton swab, patience, PVA glue (to re-attach the camera wrap).

How To

Step 1

Peel the leatherette off the front focus assembly. Don’t pry against the edge of the frame or you’ll scratch and ding the lightweight metal. Just wedge the tip of a broad thin screwdriver under one edge and once there’s enough worked up to grab onto pull it up carefully with your fingers.

Step 2

Remove the four largest screws. Once those are out you can lift off the front assembly all in one unit. You can leave those screws for later and work with the camera body attached but it’s easier to lose screws if they drop to the table from the extra two inches or so the body adds. Once it’s off put the body aside. (I didn’t do this but I’ve no fear of losing screws).

Step 3

Now remove the little screws that hold the front focus assembly cover, the ones on the outside edge of the unit. Once those are off you may lift off the thing metal trim piece.

Step 4

Now remove the even smaller screws that hold the bay 1 lens covers and aperture and shutter speed knobs. Lift that off to expose the shutter and lens assembly.

Step 5

Carefully twist off and set aside the tacking lens. This is actually only one half of the tacking lens, the rest is on the underside below the shutter blades. The lower (film-side) taking lens elements can be left in place.

Step 6

Copal-MXV on Yashica-Mat EM

Give the small silver retaining screw that was hidden under the front element of the taking lens a half screw so that it no longer keeps the scalloped retaining ring locked. Once thats done take and pull off the fuzzy end of your cotton swab so that you have a blunt, paper stick. Push the blunt end into one of the scallops, with a little pressure you should be able to unscrew the retaining ring without scratching or bending anything.

Retaining ring removed

Step 7

Pull off the marked speed and aperture ring. Once thats out of the way you can lift off the speed cam. Getting it off is a bit easier if you open the aperture up all the way.

Step 8

Removed lever and lock ring

First pull off the spring arm that rests on top of the self timer escapement, its on the right side. Then locate the small black post with a lock ring on it, Place your finger lightly over it and carefully pry it off with a small screwdriver. Finally check to see if your shutter has a lock-screw holding the self timer escapement in place, if it does it will be at the far left of the escapement, on the inside near the lens mount. If you see a screw there, give it a quarter turn to release the self timer.

Step 9

Removed self timer casement with lever set to position necessary for removal.

Slowly and carefully remove the self timer escapement from the shutter assembly. It will lift straight up. When it catches on the threaded lens mount cock the self timer lever until it’s toothed gear presents it’s flat side to the lens mount, that will free it up to lift out.

Step 10

Use the lever that projects straight down from the rear of the shutter to cock it and test the shutter a few times. If it all goes well place the speed cam back on and hold it in place while testing the other speeds, they should all fire without lag but the timing accuracy is dependent on the springs strength. If all goes well re-assemble the shutter and reinstall the whole unit.

Revealed speed cam, place back after self timer removed.