If you've ever used a Mamiya or a Hasselblad medium format SLR, you notice quickly that the camera isn't particularly ergonomic. Due to the nature of the film transport mechanism, having a 35mm-style grip would add unnecessary size to the camera. SLRs with a waste-level finder are easier to use without a grip since the camera is cradled in your hand at your waist, but with a pentaprism attached there is no easy way to hold it to your face. The last thing you want to happen is to drop your camera because you can't hold it properly.
Grips are available, but they are expensive, hard to find and ugly. I'm going to show you how you can make your own with some common tools (and maybe a few uncommon ones.)
Step 1: Tools and Materials
- Shutter release cable, approx 12" long
- 2" diameter Poplar dowel, approx. 1 foot length
- 3/4" aluminum rod, approx 4"
- 1/8" thick, 1.5" wide, 8" long aluminum bar
- 4x 4-40 3/8" flat head socket screws
- 2x 8-32 3/4" button head socket screws
- 1x 1/4-20 1/4" flat head socket screw
- Cork gasket material
- Wood stain
- Lacquer or polyurethane
- Bandsaw (optional)
- Round file
- Sanding block
- Drill press
- Drill bits
- Countersink bit
- Hole tapping set
- Wood chisel
- Various files
- Lathe (optional)
- Mill (optional)
- Belt sander (optional)
Step 2: Carving the Handle
Carving the handle is a really fun part of this project. As a starting point, take a piece of paper and trace the outline of the hand you are going to use the camera with. The hand you use should be based on the design of the camera. In the case of the Mamiya M645, the film advance crank is on the right hand side of the camera, so putting the grip on that side would impede its use.
Once your hand is traced you can sketch a profile of the handle. This part isn't too important because as you carve you can test the feel.
Start out with the sides of the handle since they will be flat. Mark two straight lines on the end of the wood about 1" apart and each a 1/2" from the center. Use a band saw (or hacksaw) to cut into the end of the wood along those lines and down the length of the wood about 7". Cut in from the side enough to remove the section of wood.
Tape your handle template to one of the flat sides and grip the handle in a vice using the remaining uncut part of the wood. Now you can begin cutting and filing and chiseling with various tools in various ways to remove the excess wood to make finger grooves and a spot for the crux of your thumb. A belt sander might help to speed up some of this process.
Periodically test the fit to see how you like it in your hand.
Once the lower part is done, the handle can be cut from the remaining dowel. The top can be cut and formed to hold the shutter release. First, I drilled a hole through the handle lengthwise large enough to accommodate the end of my shutter release cable. I used a chisel and a thin round file to remove the material to allow the unmodified shutter release to fit snugly into the handle.
Step 3: Handle Reinforcement
To make the handle strong enough that the camera can hand with its weight from the handle, the wood needs to be very firmly attached to the bar that holds it to the camera. For this reason, I did not use screws into the wood. Instead, I prepared a 3/4" diameter aluminum plug to be inserted into the wood and epoxied in place to ensure a strong connection which is also removable.
First the aluminum was drilled through the center to allow the shutter release cable through. Then a short slot was milled into the one end to allow the cable to come out the side. To attach the handle to the bar, four #4-40 holes were drilled and tapped into the rim of the plug. The exterior of the plug was knurled on the lathe to give the glue the best grip possible.
The handle was drilled with a 3/4" forstner bit to the same depth as the length of the plug. Forstner bits allow for a flat-bottomed hole so this is the ideal drilling tool. A matching slot was cut in the wood for the cable to pass through.
The plug and the handle should have a tight fit so that any pressure placed on the two will be evenly distributed on the wood.
Step 4: Handle Finishing
The handle should be finished with stain and laquer. I used Minwax wood conditioner because poplar is a softwood which may absorb stain unevenly, so the wood conditioner helps fill open pores and make the stain darken evenly. I used Minwax Red Mahogany stain because it leaves a very nice dark golden brown colour when finished.
I applied six coats of a spray-on clear lacquer for a smooth glossy finish.
Step 5: The Bar
Making the bar is fairly simple. It is made of some 1/8" extruded aluminum cut 1.5" wide and 8" long, approximately. The length will depend on the camera and the preference of the maker.
The handle attaches with four #4-40 screws so 7/64" clearance holes in the same pattern must be drilled and countersunk to accommodate the flat heads. Then the grip must be mocked up so that the comfortable distance from the camera can be determined. Then the pattern of guide pin holes and the tripod mount must be measured off the bottom of the camera body and marked on the material.
For guide pins, I was originally going to use roll pins but the holes in the Mamiya were slightly smaller than 1/8" so I couldn't find a roll pin size which would work. I ended up using two #8-32 screws which I filed down except for the thread right below the head; this way when they are screwed into the bar they will be firmly held, but still removable, and smooth on the camera side of the bar.
The 1/4-20 flat head screw for the tripod mount had to be so deeply countersunk that the hole diameter became very large. To accommodate the excess screw sticking out of the camera side of the bar, some cork was added in between the bar and the camera. This protects the camera and gives some compression material to aid in getting a tight connection between the grip and the camera.
Step 6: Assembly
First, the plug needs to be glued into the handle with epoxy. Simply mix some epoxy, apply to the entire inside of the handle, and insert the plug until it is flush with the bottom of the handle. Rotate the plug about 20 degrees counterclockwise (viewed from the bottom) for a more comfortable wrist angle. Wait until it cures before handling extensively.
Insert the shutter release cable into the handle.
Screw the handle to the bar using the four #4-40 screws.
Screw the guide pins tight into their holes.
Cut a rectangle of cork gasket material and press it over the guide pins as shown in the pictures below. Cut a spot out for the 1/4"-20 screw.
Attach the grip to the camera by aligning the guide pins with their respective holes and tightening into place with the 1/4"-20 screw.
To test the strength of your grip to make sure it is reliable, I recommend holding the camera's strap in one hand and the grip in the other, loosely keeping a leash on the camera with the strap and shaking the camera aggressively with the grip. If it doesn't fail then, then it will be strong enough to trust. Last thing you want is to drop your camera because the grip fell off.
Step 7: Finished
- A fairly straightforward mechanical mechanism could do away with the shutter release cable to press the shutter button like the original Mamiya accessory grip, but it would be difficult to do without it being just as large and ugly.
- An epoxy based finish might stand the test of time better.
- A slightly thicker bar might help remove the very small amount of flex that is apparent when the camera is tilted forward and back.