Recovery part I – bags and cases

Genetics affects people in many way, physically and mentally. Some are refined and others rough, some are thin and others heavyset. Some could beautifully draw, while others swim as dolphins. Some need incessant company and do not shut up, where others are happy to be left alone. Some cannot do much so write 3000 words about cleaning camera bags.

Here we deal with a specific gene –  the one responsible to addictions. Not addiction to substance or gambling, but a harmless – collecting. Our forefathers being hunters / gatherers are not to be blamed, as collecting has nothing to do with survival, it is mere nuisance. Save for collecting high ticket items – artwork, or unique vintage cameras – no collection carries a real value, let alone appreciating.

Collection subjects vary. Some collect spoons or matchboxes, postal stamps or die cast cars, wine, dead insects, old books, LP’s and 45’s. Others collect money, which society approve by calling it saving. You name an object and there are so many to line up and collect it. Often collectors venture into several avenues, remotely associated with each other. The sad part is that collectors’ interest is personal, and when he / she has to move on, to seniors’ home or more permanent location, their lifelong praised collection becomes a liability to the family.  Rarely it carries a tangible value, and even if so it takes efforts and costs to have it materialize. Furthermore, collecting is egoistical. Save for the satisfaction of having it, there is no benefit to self or others.

The collecting alter ego is hoarding. Hoarding is a fear of loosing an object that may come to a good use or be needed later. And from these sad notes we begin.

Old cameras come in as bare bones, but every now and then as a camera bag full of goodies – lenses, light meters, timers, manuals and so on as a bonus. The bags themselves could be plain, cheap junk or leather masterpieces, with anything in between. So, a new camera to my collection gets the welcome treatment, quick cleaning, and set aside for further attention. The camera case, if clean, neat and intact stays with the camera. If neither, it gets tagged and goes to a large plastic bin. When it fills up, to a second large plastic bin, and to a third, and so on.

bins1Nobody collects camera bags, at least that I am aware of; neither am I. But, as noted above, the hoarding gene kicks in. So more large plastic bins are called for duty. All pile up at a corner, hidden behind more important items till time will come, meaning never.

Than it stinks. Literally. Camera cases and bags come with sweat, grime and whatnot absorbed into it, so all became one happy stinky family.

It does not smell like a chemistry class or a bad egg. It is slight offending stench, like stepping out from a plain in a tropical country. Mix of organic rot with sweat and old cloths. I dealt with the smell in a most manly fashion – just ignored it. When it didn’t go away, opened a window which was fine in spring, but with summer heat the central AC delivered the scent all over the house. At this stage lady of the house asked if I have noticed any odd smell, which I categorically denied. It was time to get proactive, so I added a can of air freshener. Now the room smelled liked a perfumed wet dog. So, I went high-tech and bought a $400 Oreck XL Professional air purifier, nothing but the best. It has four positions: off, I & II, which do nothing, and III that makes a hell of a racket and spreads the air evenly all-over the room. The odour, however, seemed to be hard of hearing and undeterred by the noise, kept lingering on.

So time had come to attend to the camera bags and cases.

The stage of weeding out the really bad bags was easy. I wasn’t sure why I kept some of them to begin with, guess genetics. Separated the synthetics away from the leather which sounds easy, but is not. Some leather looks as artificial as plastic, while nice vinyl bags look leathery to a fault. When all failed I asked the lady of the house for help. Women are (genetically?) programmed to define between fake and real at a glance. Men will never understand this.

First I loaded the washing machine with the small synthetic bags. Gentle cycle is all to it. Which was what I thought. Lo and behold, one bag had crumbled, and filled the tub with lint and fluff, as if a dawn pillow had exploded. Now I was in trouble, had tidy up the crime scene before the authorities arrive. It became like the Hydra; the more I cleaned, more lint appeared. I think I ended with a vacuum canister full of fluff. Flufffull. Same fluff attached itself to the other camera cases, and stubbornly stayed there even after drying up. Vacuum didn’t do much, so lint roll removed the rest.

Next were larger syntactic camera cases, trusting it will be trouble free. It wasn’t. Plan was to set shop at back yard, using a brush and household detergent to scrub the dirt away, rinse with a garden hose and let it dry. Brushes proved to be unsuitable, coarse brush ripped through the inner lining, and a soft one had no effect. So I retorted with a damp rag that was perfect for the job.

Till I got to the East German and Soviet camera cases.

trebantBack in East Germany, the Trabant was the pride of the motorcar industry. The car was once described as the worse ever made, not the least of which attributed to the body material – cotton waste held together with glue. I am not making it up. I wonder what glue had they used, but if anything close to the glue used for their camera bags, it was sure a sorry motorcar.

The communist camera bags were glued with a spit and a prayer, that stood no chance against my capitalist garden hose. All came apart even before drying. It was well stitched, where the stitches just dissipated. Moreover, I learned too late that some of the camera cases were made of cardboard core sandwiched between two thin vinyl layers, and cardboard swells when wet, and disintegrates upon drying. So much for the Soviet industrial might.

This were the camera cases. Now the synthetic camera bags, made different types of vinyl. Judging by the contents of the bags I had gone through, it seems that users intended to leave time capsules behind. One expects to find there some filters, lenses, cleaning material, some flash bulbs and a roll of film. Found more than that. From old maps to personal notes, coins of various origins, cigarettes and lighters, receipts for purchases dated back to the 50’s, to name just a few.

The bags I saved were really nice and well kept, only not too clean. Decades of dust, dirt and grime had accumulated in and out. At first tried to vacuum inside the bags, to no avail. So, at the same session with the camera bags, using diluted cleaning solution and a rag, I gave it the garden hose treatment. This ended even worse. Apparently, similar to vinyl camera cases, most vinyl bags were made of thick cardboard core, that expanded to biblical proportions, snapping at the seams. Once dried it was a caricature of its early glory. Sort of a slim actor wearing fat suit.

clamped-leatherI was determined so salvage some, just about face. So the few least damaged bags, with least bloated cardboard, were in for a treatment. First I shaved away some of the cardboard using a long blade box cutter, then injected glue into it – good liquid household glue is just fine; and clamped it along the opening with spring clamps. The next day it looked decent, some did.


Leather camera bagThe camera bags that gave the least trouble were the newer, woven type, what Samsonite calls Ballistic material – probably for the price. After been washed and well rinsed, these bags came out in flying colours. Only if I had a use for them.

Time for leather bags. Thought leather by any other name would be leather – there is more to it. There is real leather, which is the lowliest of the family, then corrected leather and split leather. Thereafter comes top grain leather, followed by full grain leather. To add to that there are patent, nobuk, napa, chrome and so many other finishes. Which is which and which is best – much depends on whom you ask. I couldn’t tell the difference till researching it. What I learned from the cleaning affair, in an organised manner:

  • If leather is dead, which is clearly seen, there is now way to being it back.
  • Dry leather is very brittle, will crack at slight mishandling.
  • Leather does not play well with water.
  • Use of leather cleaning wipes made for furniture or car seats is futile. Wipes are good only for legacy dirt, meaning generated by self. Global dirt, meaning dirt by others, such as the type we deal with here, requires tough cleaner.
  • Tough cleaner is no good for leather.
  • If it is badly soiled throw it away.
  • Using domestic detergent, diluted or otherwise, won’t do.
  • Using mink oil in paste form is a waste of time.

Camera bag dead leather

Dead leather

Camera bag very dead leather

Get saddle soap and liquid mink oil. You may get it at your shoemaker, hardware store, tack shop or online. I didn’t know what tack shop is, till I learned there is one within ten minutes’ drive. Alternatively, you could use neatsfoot oil. Both oils are made of dead animal’s body parts. If you are a vegan and prefer synthetic conditioner, there are equivalents but cost five times more. Also, I paid $13 for liquid mink oil bottle at the shoemaker, where I later found exactly the same at the tack shop for $4. See Fiebing for available material, trust there are other as good.


For badly soiled leather, if you haven’t thrown it away as yet, begin with wiping away the dirt with a damp cloth. Remove as much grime as you can and now throw it away. Don’t use steam gun – you’ll risk a burn and will damage the leather even further. If it is badly soiled it is hopeless.

For modest dirt, use cloth soaked with saddle soap, rub the leather and than wipe it off with damp cloth. Do small areas at a time so the dirt will not dry up. Do inside and outside, repeat as needed. You may find stretches of leather and vinyl stitched together, as well as cloth for the lining. For vinyl use mild detergent. For lining, best I found is foaming car carpet aerosol cleaner. The detergent, not the car. It is fastest, easiest and most efficient. Spray inside, once it foams remove it with a damp cloth and it is done.

Now to the messy part. Using a small sponge cut-off, about 1.5” x 1.5”, generously apply mink oil or neatsfoot oil everywhere there is exposed leather, in and out. If leather absorbs it immediately add more.  Caution – some leather types will get darker. Could not tell which will darken and which won’t till I applied it. Assume it depends on the mode the leather is processed. The synthetic conditioner is said to darken it less, so you may try either. At any event, I believe that clean and supple darker leather beats light coloured but stiff.

Let it stay for a day or two, till it is dry on touch. If needed apply a second coat. Leave it in a ventilated place for a week or so else it will acquire a new stench.

If the leather is very dry and feels like burnt toast, saturate it with mink oil, warm (not heat) it with hairdryer and let it sit for 24 hours. If it gets some life give it a second and third rounds. Else discard it, it’s a goner.

You will be left with detached lining patches. Get cloth glue at a craft store, apply and gently set in place. Cloth glue is said not to shrink the cloth. Do not use fingers press to press it in– it will leave blotches where you touched. Best to position it in place and cover with a soft bag of marbles. If it is inside the camera case, just fill it with marbles. Marbles will follow the areas shape and apply even pressure. If you wish to get better and even spread, use steel air gun pellets.


  • To differentiate between leather and vinyl – rub it with some oil and wait couple of hours. If the oil is absorbed, it is leather.
  • before throwing camera bags away, remove the nameplates, buckles, grommets and bottom mounting screws, as well as other metal parts. Either for hoarding’s sake, or it may be handy later.
  • The oil process is messy, so get a shallow pale to hold the cases while cleaning. I use a cat litter box – cheap, large enough and shallow.
  • To give all a fancy touch, lightly spray the lining and untreated leather with Fabreeze or other deodorizer.

Now we have nice an clean camera cases and bags. Trust the vinyl ones are all intact, as you’ve thrown away the torn. With the leather bags and cases, you kept some that need a touch of glue or stitch here and there, or redoing the lining. More on that to come.

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