A Restorer’s Journey

written for the stereosite by Pascal Martiné, Germany

One essen­tial part of becom­ing a seri­ous col­lec­tor is fre­quent research from dif­fer­ent online sources such as eBay, plat­forms of tra­di­tion­al auc­tion­eers, etc. For fur­ther infor­ma­tion, I rec­om­mend the arti­cle Col­lect­ing Stere­o­scopes by André Ruiter. Most often, you only find par­tic­u­lar items or pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions, but you nev­er know where a spe­cif­ic view­er orig­i­nal­ly came from.

Thus said, there are some for­tu­nate excep­tions. One is the so called vide de gre­nier in France which means ‘emp­ty­ing of the attic’. This can sim­ply hap­pen like a tra­di­tion­al flea mar­ket with items from one sin­gle house­hold. Such sales are typ­i­cal­ly done by heirs after a bereave­ment. But the heirs could also hire a pro­fes­sion­al and the vide de gre­nier becomes a pro­fes­sion­al auc­tion held on site — and nowa­days some­times streamed online.

That way, you will get a glimpse of the indi­vid­ual his­to­ry of your trea­sure and know where it was stored, wether it was looked after or long for­got­ten, if the own­er was well sit­u­at­ed or not, etc. For me, these sto­ries are invalu­able and add a more per­son­al aspect to a col­lectible. This counts even more because those stere­o­scopes will usu­al­ly con­tain pho­tos that tell even more about their past.

As a pas­sion­ate restor­er, I espe­cial­ly appre­ci­ate view­ers that have remained untouched since their last use. I care­ful­ly remove the dust of decades to reveal the orig­i­nal beau­ty of a stere­o­scope. Being the first one to do so feels almost like get­ting in touch with those who bought it a cen­tu­ry ago. I want to take you to one of those journeys.

A vide de gre­nier took place on Sep­tem­ber 30, 2021 in Abbeville in the north-west of France near the coast. As usu­al­ly, you could take a look at the loca­tion online a few weeks in advance. Between fur­ni­ture, knick­knacks and rub­bish — all tagged on with a lit­tle num­ber — I spot­ted a table­top stere­o­scope care­less­ly placed in a closet:

Orig­i­nal pho­to pro­vid­ed in the online catalogue.

The large black knob on the site of the device iden­ti­fies it as a revolv­ing stere­o­scope (for addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion on this type see the arti­cle A Mul­ti­view Stere­o­scope Com­par­i­son). Fur­ther­more, the lit­tle key­hole and the and the indis­tinct hor­i­zon­tal line above tell that you can flip back the top to replace the whole chain. Indeed, on the left of the view­er you can see a sec­ond chain includ­ing stereo pho­tos. I eas­i­ly recalled the mod­el. This type of view­er was only man­u­fac­tured by Mat­tey both for the 8.5x17 and the 6x13 for­mat. If you used card board frames it was also suit­able for the 45x107 for­mat intro­duced by Jules Richard in 1893 (for back­ground infor­ma­tion see the arti­cle Le Tax­iphote). Once again, André Ruiter has writ­ten an inter­est­ing arti­cle about exact­ly this type, the Mat­tey Revolv­ing Stere­o­scope. While he has one of the rare deluxe mod­els, this one is the more com­mon mahogany stan­dard ver­sion. Nonethe­less, the exchange­able chain makes it one of the more advanced view­ers of that time.

So, I sub­scribed to the auc­tion and logged in live at Sep­tem­ber 30. As you may have already guessed, I won it for a good price, and after the nor­mal process I received the stere­o­scope a few weeks later.

Accord­ing to my request, they had removed the chain to pre­vent unwant­ed move­ment dur­ing the trans­port. So I was not able to tell which series of stereo pho­tos was inside the view­er most recent­ly. One con­sist­ed of fam­i­ly and trav­el pho­tos, one of a mix of pro­fes­sion­al and ama­teur slides depict­ing the first World War. What I could tell was that the lat­ter was used a lot more fre­quent­ly — the black paint on the right turn­ing knob was almost com­plete­ly worn down. Also, this one is the orig­i­nal chain that came with the view­er. Both bear the ser­i­al num­ber 1213. The addi­tion­al chain has the num­ber 1220. So I can assume that it was bought at the same time or only slight­ly later.

Mat­tey pro­duced this view­er mod­el for quite a long time with­out any remark­able changes. So how can I tell if my view­er is an ear­ly mod­el from short­ly before 1900 or a late mod­el from around 1920? As far as I know there is no ref­er­ence to the ser­i­al num­bers and a low four dig­it num­ber is nei­ther def­i­nite­ly ear­li­er nor later.

Luck­i­ly, restora­tion always requires a real­ly close look. The small­er turn­ing knobs that let you adjust the ocu­lars are made of wood and have a nar­row notch. Actu­al­ly, that notch is the rea­son why I am famil­iar with this kind of knob: it’s ter­ri­bly annoy­ing to clean it per­fect­ly. It seems that most man­u­fac­tur­ers, despite all com­pe­ti­tion, used the same focus­ing knobs. That’s why I’ve come across this type many times. But only on ear­ly view­ers! They all seem to have changed to bake­lite knobs at some point. More pre­cise­ly, Richard already start­ed to use bake­lite knobs with the intro­duc­tion of the Stéréo-Classeur in 1900, while the chain-oper­at­ed pre­de­ces­sor still used these wood­en knobs.

Anoth­er piece of evi­dence is that my sim­i­lar 8.5x17 Mat­tey view­er has also wood­en knobs and bears the ser­i­al num­ber 891 which is only a lit­tle ear­li­er than 1213. On the oth­er hand, two lat­er Mat­tey mod­els have also changed to bake­lite knobs but it seems that Mat­tey dis­con­tin­ued using ser­i­al num­bers so this ref­er­ence is unavail­able. Nev­er­the­less, it seems rea­son­able for me to con­clude that I got an ear­ly mod­el from around 1900.

After this lit­tle digres­sion about dat­ing the view­er, let’s return and take a clos­er look. Did I say that I enjoy remov­ing dust from an untouched view­er? I have to clar­i­fy that I was talk­ing about gen­tly blow­ing or wip­ing it of. This time it would be hard work.

This view­er was extra­or­di­nary dirty and made me doubt if I could reach a sat­is­fy­ing result. There was some sort of grey pow­der every­where, even on the inside and on every sin­gle stereo pho­to. So I did a clean­ing of the out­side with a damp sponge before I tried to dis­as­sem­ble as much parts as possible. 

I then applied a water based liq­uid includ­ing abra­sives that sand­ed off the remain­ing dirt and smoothed the shel­lac. For a more detailed descrip­tion see my arti­cle about Restor­ing Stereo­scop­ic Antiques. I had already seen that there was a flaw in the top trim, but with the dirt gone I dis­cov­ered even more scratch­es espe­cial­ly on the top, but also here and there on the base. For­tu­nate­ly, front, back and the sides were not affect­ed at all. Still, before I could do the fin­ish­ing I would have to do an addi­tion­al step.

Whether you use shel­lac, oil or wax, each will change the col­or of the wood in dif­fer­ent ways. For that rea­son, you may indeed apply dif­fer­ent lay­ers one after anoth­er, but you have to build up the sur­face the same way on every part. In this case, a thin lay­er of lin­seed oil var­nish would bring back the typ­i­cal shine on pol­ished shel­lac. But if there’s a scratch down to the wood oil will pen­e­trate through it and this part of the wood would become much dark­er than the sur­round­ing areas. I like vis­i­ble scratch­es as a part of the pati­na, but they don’t need to be high­light­ed. To pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing, I would need to retouch the scratch­es with shel­lac first. I only dabbed a lit­tle bit of shel­lac into the scratch­es with a cot­ton swab and repeat­ed the treat­ment with the pol­ish­ing liq­uid. I fin­ished the wood work­ing with a lay­er of shel­lac on the trims because these parts are gen­er­al­ly worn and I want­ed to bring back an over­all shiny effect.

Even though I think that the han­dles were orig­i­nal­ly bur­nished and not brass col­ored I had to grind them off with steel wool to remove all signs of cor­ro­sion and make them shine again. By leav­ing out the deep­er lying areas I still achieved a nice antique effect.

I also used my pol­ish­ing liq­uid for the black paint­ed met­al ocu­lars and steel wool for screw heads, etc. Final­ly, I put on a thin lay­er of lin­seed oil var­nish on all wood­en or paint­ed parts and pen­e­trat­ing oil on met­al parts to pro­tect them from fur­ther cor­ro­sion. I also cleaned the inside and the chain with a soft brush and applied only a lit­tle lin­seed oil var­nish to increase the sat­u­ra­tion of the black paint. A lit­tle oil on all mov­ing parts and that’s it.

I think it was good that the stere­o­scope was hid­den in a clos­et and the sun could not bleach the wood. Though, if you have a stere­o­scope that looks pale on the side that stood towards a win­dow for years, this is not always prob­lem. For exam­ple, if you have a waxed sur­face you can sim­ply wash it off. After you applied oil to the wood the col­or will most­ly come back. But this is always a prob­lem with shel­lac. Oil can not pen­e­trate the wood through it and you don’t want to remove the orig­i­nal shel­lac because you will always be able to dis­tin­guish between old and new shel­lac. But that’s anoth­er story.

So, over­all I’m real­ly hap­py how it turned out and I hope you enjoyed this time trav­el back to the orig­i­nal look of this stere­o­scope as much as I did dur­ing the process. Yes, this is real­ly the same viewer.

After this res­ur­rec­tion, it was, of course, not dif­fi­cult to find a nice place on my shelf, where it is sur­round­ed by com­rades made by Richard, Bize, Zeiss and others. 

Pascal Martiné (Mainz, Germany)

Pas­sion­ate about stere­oscopy as a col­lec­tor and pho­tog­ra­ph­er since 2016. Admin of the stere­osite. More on About me.