Respooling 120 film onto 620 spools for use in older cameras
All photos and text © 2000 Glenn E. Stewart. All rights reserved.
This page last updated: 01/23/2000
So you found an old camera while cleaning out Grandma's attic. Does it still work? If the shutter operates smoothly, chances are you can still take photos with it, and surprisingly good ones, at that. The two biggest problems you'll encounter are finding film for it and getting the film processed once you've exposed a roll.Some of the older cameras take 120 film which is readily available in camera stores that serve professionals as a large segment of their clientele. Some of the older film formats are discontinued and not available anywhere. Others, such as 620 and 127 are available... at a price. 127 is a unique size and can't readily be respooled from another currently available film format, but 620 is almost identical to currently manufactured 120. The only difference is the spools on which the films are wound. If you can find a supply of 620 spools, you can make your own 620 rolls from 120 rolls with just a little bit of work You may want to practice this technique in the light with a 'sacrificed' or 'dummy' roll of film before starting on one you want to use in the camera.
On the left side of the above photo, note that the end flange of the 620 spool is much thinner than the one on the 120 spool. Also note that the axle of the 620 spool is much smaller in diameter than the axle of the 120 spool. This will cause a small length mismatch when winding the 120 film onto the 620 spool. A technique for dealing with this mismatch will be illustrated later. The distance between the flanges is the same, so there will not be any light leaks around the edges of the film if the respooling is done correctly.
The drive hole in the end of the 620 spool is quite a bit smaller than the one in the 120 spool. If the 120 film is loaded directly onto a 620 camera, this may cause the spool to lean sideways and jam, or it may cause the film not to wind correctly in some cameras. Respooling isn't very hard. It's better to go ahead and respool, rather than chancing malfunctions from using the wrong kind of spool in your camera. 620 spools can be found at yard sales ($2 for the old Brownie and the spools inside it), on the internet or at camera shows. You might ask a local lab that handles larger film sizes to save some for you. A last resort is to buy a couple of rolls from one of the outfits that specializes in film for old cameras. Once you have the spools, you can respool any type of 120 film onto them. This gives you a very wide variety of choices: Color or black and white negative film and color transparencies (slides) can all be had for standard prices, instead of the inflated prices charged for specialty 620 film.
120 spools have the same size slot through the axle when viewed from either side. 620 spools, above, have a long, narrow slot in one side and a short, wide slot in the other side. This dictates which direction the paper backing is inserted into the spool. You'll need to be able to feel the spool and distinguish the difference in the dark.
You'll need an absolutely DARK room for the remainder of the job. An interior bathroom without windows, a closet or a basement room can be used, but it must be DARK!! Any light that can be seen after a few minutes inside with the lights turned off can damage your film and must be blocked off.
Start by cutting the wrap tape at the start of the 120 roll, remove it and discard it.
Start unrolling the backing paper and let it curl up neatly in your other hand.
As you unroll the backing paper, you will soon feel the start of the film. Those who do their own medium format (another name for this size film) darkroom work will know that it is taped to the backing paper. This is easy to feel in the dark. Let it pass and continue to roll the paper and film from the spool to your other hand.
After some distance (about 3 feet (1m)), you will feel the end of the film. This end is not taped. Continue to roll up the film until it is off the 120 spool and in your other hand. Set aside the 120 spool.
Pick up the 620 spool and feel the axle to find the long, narrow slot. This the side where you'll start to insert the backing paper.
Push the paper all the way through the spool until it protrudes from the short, wide slot. Note the taper of the paper. This is why the slots are different lengths.
Be careful to center the paper between the spool flanges.A bad start here will cause BIG problems later. If the paper is crooked or offset to one side, it won't spool correctly and you'll have difficulty getting the entire roll on the spool. You'll also get light leaks.
Shortly after you begin rolling the paper onto the 620 spool, you'll have to tuck the tail end of the film between the paper and the spool. be aware of this and feel for it. If you miss it, the film will end up outside the paper.
After you get the film tucked in between the paper and the spool, the next 3 feet of spooling will go quite rapidly. Be careful to keep the paper centered between the spool flanges and keep it tight. Note that the frame numbers on the backing paper are the same as those on 620 film. The frame numbers will appear in the little red window on the back of many old cameras. Since the 120 and 620 films are nearly identical, you won't need to make any corrections for framing with your respooled film. Operate the camera just as you would with factory-produced 620 film. The numbers at the top (12 and 13 here) are for cameras that shoot a 6x4.5cm (2 1/4 x 1 3/4 inches) format, the ones in the middle (9 and 10) are for cameras that shoot 6x6cm (2 1/4 x 2 1/4 in) format and the ones at the bottom (6 and 7) are for 6x9cm (2 1/4 x 3 1/4) format cameras.
This is where the job gets a bit tricky. Since the 620 spool is smaller in diameter than the 120 spool, the paper and film don't wind up at the same rate. This causes a mismatch in winding that appears as a hump in the film.
If you continue to wind the film without removing the hump, the tape will kink. When you put the film in your camera, this kink can catch inside the camera, jamming the film advance.
To get rid of the hump and prevent the tape kink, carefully untape the film from the backing paper, but leave the tape attached to the film.
Now you can roll up the remainder of the paper which will automatically cause the start of the film to be retaped to the backing paper in the correct position. Remember to keep the paper tight on the 620 spool as you respool it.
Using a piece of cellophane tape, secure the end of the respooled roll. The cellophane tape replaces the paper tape you removed and discarded when you unspooled the film from the 120 spool. This step can be omitted if you want to immediately place the film in your camera.
If you won't be using the film immediately, it's a good idea to mark it with the film type. Kodak uses the same backing paper for many film types and only identifies it on the paper band you removed from the original 120 spool.
You're finished! Now you have the vast array of 120 film emulsions from which to choose and you can put that old camera back into action. Those who process film at home will take care of themselves with respect to development, others can take their film to a lab that processes medium format film. It can also be sent to Kodak or other labs by using pre-paid mailers Either way, be sure to request that the 620 spool be returned to you for future respooling. This is easier when taking the film to a lab than when using mailers.