How A Unique Photography Gift Came to Be
A Chance Encounter
The story of the 35mm Wood Camera began over a year ago, in the fall of 2016. I was at a local craft fair here in Philadelphia, wandering around casually looking at all the interesting items. By chance, I came across a unique table manned by an old fellow by the name of George. He was selling his hand-made wooden crafts, and they immediately drew my eye.
They were some of the most intricate, detailed wooden objects I had ever seen. Beautifully adorned, precisely carved and fitted, and made of multiple contrasting types of wood, they had a soft satin-like finish that captured and reflected the light gorgeously.
His table held jewelry boxes of various sizes, snuff boxes, statuettes, carvings and more, all clearly hand-crafted through hours and hours of careful, detailed work.
I asked George how long he had been making these, and he laughed. “I was a furniture maker for 40 years before I retired. Now I make these for fun.”
His white hair stuck out from under his conductor cap, and he wore a comfortable-looking wool suit with no tie.
I picked up one of the pieces and examined it more closely, opening the drawers to check smoothness and turning it over to see if it was coated all over.
It all made sense. This level of woodcraft mastery was obviously something that had taken years to attain. And as he got older, being able to work with wood on a smaller scale allowed George to keep doing what he had spent his whole life doing.
I looked across the table at the dozens of multi-colored artifacts, each a completely unique design, and remarked how incredible it was that he had made so many different pieces. It must take hours and hours just to make each one.
“Days,” he said. “Days, not hours.”
I nodded knowingly, even though I’ve never spent days making something like that in my life.
An Unexpected Turn
Suddenly, an idea popped into my head. It was a bit risky to be so presumptuous with someone I’d just met, but I figured I’d go for it.
“We should make a new design together,” I said. “I have an idea”.
Instead of looking annoyed, he seemed intrigued. I continued.
“We should design and make a hand-crafted wooden camera. It would be beautiful.”
He cocked his head slightly to the side and closed one eye, as if to try to envision the final product.
“Ok…” he said slowly, waiting for me to tell him more.
“I’m a photographer,” I continued, emboldened by his unexpected patience. I’ve been taking photos since I was a kid, and I think we should make a fine wooden camera to celebrate the craft of photography.
“It’ll be absolutely gorgeous. We can use contrasting types of wood, and design it to look just like a real 35mm film camera,” I continued as a vision of the final piece of art crystallized in my head.
“Would it have drawers?” He asked, pointing to the rest of his arsenal of handmade wonders, each of which had multiple tiny drawers to hold jewelry. He looked skeptical.
“Even better,” I said. “It will have room inside to store my film canisters.”
He laughed. The kind of surprised, knowing laugh that said “Aha, maybe you’re onto something here.”
As we continued, I got more and more excited, and so did he. Eventually, after standing at the table and talking to him for an hour, we parted ways. We had agreed that I would follow up with him so we could sit down and start designing this imaginary wooden camera I had dreamt up.
I thought about it all that day, and the next.
The Long Neglect
Then, of course, life happened.
TogTees was just starting to take off, and things got busy. Over the next several months, we launched 20 new tee designs, made our first hoodies, and started shipping internationally. We got our first wholesale orders (someone wanted 100 tees!), and even got featured in a couple of big online photography blogs.
Life became consumed with working on new designs, managing manufacturing, setting up quality control systems, handling customer service, designing new packaging and all the other million little details that go along with launching and running a new enterprise.
Before I knew it, six months had passed, then nine... then almost a year.
One day, I was going through a pile of business cards trying to clean off my desk (a never-ending battle), and I came across George’s card. It was a simple card – not fancy at all - but it brought back the memory of how impressed I was with his work seeing it firsthand, and all the excitement that we had created about our as-of-yet unrealized concept.
I stared at it for a minute or two (or three). Things had finally calmed down a bit and I had a little time to work on this “passion project” and see if we could make something happen. But I didn’t know if George would still be open to it, or even want to talk to me after me being MIA for so long.
Finally, I said out loud “It’s now or never.” I picked up my phone and dialed the number.
“George, it’s me Pano. We met at the craft fair last year. I was the one who told you about making the camera – the photographer. You remember me?”
A moment of silence. For a second, I wasn’t sure if he had hung up on me.
Finally, he spoke.
“What happened? You disappeared.”
“I know, I’m sorry –“
“Are we going to make that camera?”
I couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year and he still remembered it. Not only did he remember it, he had been waiting for me to call so we could make it.
Now I really felt bad for letting it slip. I vowed to make up for it.
“Let’s meet and get started,” I said with conviction. “When is a good time?”
Doing the Work
Two days later I was sitting in George’s garage, which is also his workshop, while he showed me some of his favorite pieces, and told me about the various types of wood he uses to make them.
We looked at them in detail, analyzing how they had been made, piece by piece, how they had been put together, why he chose different wood for each piece, why this piece required more coats than this piece, how this hinge was made in a particular way that was much more difficult but would last longer, and so on and so on.
Before I knew it, we had spent 2 hours talking about types of wood, grain, piece size, joinery, finishing methods and more.
“Ok, let’s get started on the camera,” he said.
We spent the next 2 hours drawing, erasing, putting pieces together, selecting different types of wood, figuring out how large each piece would be, how they would fit together, what color each part would be, what size the shutter button and hot shoe would be, where the viewfinder would go, and so on and so on.
We changed our minds a hundred times, but as the camera morphed from a general idea into a concrete thing – the tangible product of 2 design minds at work – we both could tell we were going to end up with something great.
That’s the way it usually is – by the way – according to my experience. While you never know what you’re going to end up with when you start, you can always tell when you’re finally onto something well before it’s even close to being done. Then, all you have to do is change it another fifty times until it’s just perfect and exactly what you wanted. That’s the design process. At least according to me, a non-designer.
The First Iteration
Four days later, George called me up. “It’s ready – come and see it.”
I hopped in my car and drove up to Northeast Philly and found him in his garage. He handed me the camera. Or what would be the camera. For now, it was unfinished raw wood, and something about it was off.
I looked at it closely, turning it over and over in my hands. It was a beautifully made prototype, but it wasn’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
He looked at me in anticipation, waiting for my reaction.
I tried to break the news to him gently. “The hotshoe is too big relative to the camera body. It’s gotta be at least ¼” shorter and the feet have to be 1/8” narrower if it’s going to look realistic.”
He nodded. “Ok…”
I continued. “The camera walls are great, but the bottom panel is too tall and the top panel is too short.”
“The camera is too deep – a real camera wouldn’t be that thick.”
“And the body is too narrow. It doesn’t look like it could hold a roll of film in there properly.”
I stopped and looked at him, waiting to see how he’d take it.
“You see, this is why I have you – the photographer – to help me design the camera. I didn’t know any of those things. But now that you say it, I see that you’re right.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ok, so tell me exactly how you want to fix this to make it just like a real camera…”
We spent the next hour writing down the exact changes we needed, comparing the mock up the entire time to the Canonet QL17 GIII I had brought with me. It’s one of the most beautiful small 35mm cameras ever made, which is why I chose it as our model.
We changed some of the wood type, adjusted the dimensions, swapped out the shutter button and rewind crank for a different color, switched the colors on the lens, made the camera shorter, wider and less deep, and made sure that the internal compartment was at least as wide as a roll of film.
At the end of it, he looked at me exhausted and said “Ok, I think I can make what you’re asking for. Give me a couple weeks and we’ll talk again.”
The Final Product
Two weeks later, George called me up again. “Ok, they’re done.”
I drove back up to see him on a bright sunny fall day.
I parked in front of his garage and he came out smiling and shook my hand. He pointed to a box on one of his saw tables.
“Take a look in there.”
I reached in and took out a package wrapped in protective foam. I unwrapped it carefully and pulled it out of the sleeve.
It was stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. I hadn’t see a finished, fully coated one before, because hey, it hadn’t existed before today.
I turned it over and over in my hands, and carefully opened the lid on top. The hinges gleamed at me as they silently swung open.
“Don’t worry, you’re not going to break it. I made this to last.”
I ran my fingers over the hand-smoothed edges, shimmering with the soft silk finish that brought out all of the natural grain in the wood.
Turning it back over, I looked at the front straight on. Yup, it looked like a camera. The real deal. It was perfect.
I held it in my right hand and pretended I was taking a photo of him. George laughed.
It was amazing how it felt just like a real camera when you held it like one.
I smiled and said to him, proudly “You did it.”
“We did it,” he replied. “It was both of us.”
“How long did this take to make?” I asked curiously.
“About 12 hours for each one.”
“That’s why I’m only making 10. That’s it, no more.”
I nodded in understanding and shook his hand.
“These are absolutely gorgeous. I’m so glad we did this.”
“Me too. Now leave me alone until next year.”
And with that, I got back in my car and drove home to make photographs of what is probably the most beautiful wooden camera in the world.
You can purchase a 35mm Wood Camera, assuming they have not all been sold yet.
About the Wooden Camera
The 35mm Wood Camera is an exclusive Limited Edition item. Only 10 of these cameras were made. Each one is numbered out of 10.
The 35mm Wood Camera is made entirely by hand right here in Philadelphia. It is made by George, a retired wood furniture maker and master craftsman.
Over 12 hours of work goes into each and every one. The Camera is made in George’s workshop, using simple electric and hand tools for cutting, joining and finishing the wood. There are 20 different individual pieces that come together to make each Camera.
5 different types of wood – both domestic and exotic – are used. The top plate and top portions of the sides of the camera are Oak. The bottom portions of the camera body and the focusing ring on the lens are made of African Walnut. The hot shoe, base of the lens, the shutter button and the front lens element are Maple. The round dials on the top of the camera are Mahogany. The viewfinder and rangefinder are Bloodwood veneer.
All pieces of the 35mm Wood Camera are individually sanded and coated with 5 layers of ultra-thin satin finish. This finish will protect the wood for years, while allowing the natural beauty of the grain to shine through fully.
Features include a fully opening top lid that swings open 180 degrees, matching interior/exterior wood panels, a natural bare interior floor (no felting), and durable brass hinges.
Length: 4.5” / 11.5cm
Height: 3.0” / 7.5cm
Width: 3.0” / 7.5cm (including lens)
Length: 4 1/8” (10.5cm)
Height: 2.0” (5.25cm)
Width: 1.5” (3.75cm)
With proper care, your 35mm Wood Camera should last a lifetime, and beyond. Avoid liquids around this natural wood item. Do not use any chemical cleaners or solvents on your Camera. If needed, gently wipe clean with a damp cloth.
Get A 35mm Wood Camera
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Wish I could afford one, but the price is well less than I even expected for such a gorgeous piece! What a lovely story of good old fashioned hard work and patience. Just lovely.
In today’s crazy, distorted-morals world where saying what you want and doing likewise — without regard to other people’s freedoms and sensitivities, not to mention legal rights — it is heart warming to read a nice piece about caring people who collaborated on a creative, rewarding project and made something good for the world. Well done.
What an amazing story. These wooden cameras are beautiful!
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