Twenty Questions with Eric Hendrickson

An interview with a master Pentax repairman

By K David in Columns on Jan 28, 2016
Twenty Questions with Eric Hendrickson

Editor's note: Today we're happy to present an exclusive interview with Eric Hendrickson, an extremely talented Pentax repairman with decades of experience servicing Pentax cameras and lenses.  He's gained a reputation on the forum as the go-to person for vintage Pentax SLR repairs and more.

Autumn in Knoxville, Tennessee, defines itself with a color-abundance that fills the area with postcard-grade sights of tree-arched roadways . Knoxville fills the space between summer and winter with an antebellum love letter in color accompanied by the scents of fallen leaves, rain-washed air, and a slight chill in the air that makes a cup of coffee feel especially warm beneath fingertips. Pentax Forums traveled to Knoxville in such an autumn for an in-person interview with Eric Hendrickson, whose reputation here needs no introduction.

Knoxville's airport greets visitors, after passing from the gate area, with an indoor water feature, a raised creek set among stones and passengers waiting in line for security. I arrived in Knoxville after a longer-than-hoped, earlier-than-wanted flight to learn that the standard car I had rented was not available but that I could have the last car on the lot. The car was a Dodge Ram 2500 quad cab will full bed and was, by at least six feet, the longest single-vehicle I had ever driven. By a liter, it was the largest engine I had driven and exhaling on the gas pedal caused the truck to lunge forward with a roar straight from a monster movie.

I drove the Ram on tree-shrouded Southern roads, yellow leaves falling from the canopy in front of and around me, spinning as they fell, slowly working through the air like a drill through wood. On more than one occasion, the Ram, too wide for the Knoxville country roads, needed its mirrors folded in to let other cars pass. But it's hard to remember anything other than the roadsides, lined with a thin layer of golden leaves, gilded like the outside faces of Bible pages.

Eric lives in a small home at the end of a side street that branches off another side street that starts at a residential road that connects to a small, local thoroughfare. The setting is quiet, feeling ideal for the detailed, focused work of removing tiny screws, adjusting gears, and cleaning dust-solidified lubricants from inside clockwork camera mechanisms.

Gone are the days on the Hendrickson farm, the outbuilding dedicated to camera repair and the walls of shelves of spare cameras, parts bodies, and the largest Pentax spares stockpile assembled outside of a Pentax factory. Eric's shop now is a single room with essential equipment, a small stockpile of common replacement pieces, and a well lit and tidily organized roll-top desk.

Hay Bales on the Old Farm

Eric greeted me warmly, as we have talked often for the last four years about cameras, dogs, and other things. He welcomed me into his home with a coffee and a strong, I-would-vote-for-this-guy-grade handshake. We sat on his couch and started our much-delayed interview for Pentax Forums.

Eric: [responding to the MP3 recorder] I don't talk very loud.

Eric Hendrickson | K David

PF: Really quickly, before we get started, you probably haven't had a camera hand-delivered  in a while.

Eric: No.[Looking at the Pentax Spotmatic ESII] Oh my.

PF: This is the one with the broken switch inside.

Eric: If that's all that's wrong, this might be an okay repair. I might find an eyepiece for you, too. This one has some coating separation.

View from the Old Farm | Eric Hendrickson

PF: So let's get into the questions?

Eric: [laughing] You didn't send me the questions.

PF: On purpose. You know, I posted a thread on Pentax Forums, 'what questions would you guys like to ask?' I posted four of my own as starters and then the response was huge. Literally, the first weekend we were supposed to have the interview, after Cheever tore his ACL and I had to postpone, someone posted and asked if this interview was ever going to happen.

Eric: I know. I had a few calls about it.

PF: So before we get started, tell me a bit about your repair process when you get a camera in.

Spares | K David

Eric: Well, a long time ago Pentax closed down their Chicago office and I had to go out on my own. And I started repairing all the different models and brands. And I worked with another guy. Then I moved down here and I thought 'well, I can't do all of them', but I can do just Pentax. So I started going on eBay advertising for Pentax repairs, and then the Forum picked it up and that was a life-saver for me, the Forum, because they send and refer me a lot of cameras.

So they will send the camera to me, and they'll put their e-mail and their address, sometimes. Sometimes I get a camera with nothing in it and I can't read the label on the box. But once I get the camera I'll estimate it, send them an e-mail, tell them how much the repair is, and they'll send me a PayPal or a check, and I'll put it in line with all the other cameras, and then I'll do the repair and ship it back to them.

PF: So when you do the estimate do you have to take the camera apart to do the estimate?

Eric: You know, after 46 years, I can just pick up a camera, go like this [motions actuating the shutter and advancing the film advance lever], just advance it, and know what it needs. So I don't tear it down. You just know the feel of a Spotmatic. You just know the feel of an MX.


Spares in the Old Farm | Eric Hendrickson

PF: That MX I sent you must have been shocking.

Eric: I scrubbed on that top cover for a long time and then said 'I give up.' I couldn't clean it!

PF: I got that MX for $10, with a lens. I mean, phenomenal deal.

Eric: Yeah, that's good.

PF: Part of the problem was that the lens had corroded to the flange.

Eric: [Laughing] No kidding.

PF: So to get that lens off, I had to get a vice grip and a ball peen hammer

Eric: [Laughing] That's why the lens board was out of alignment.

PF: And that's why the lens flange was so bad. It was leaving lines on the back of the other lenses.

Eric: I think I've gotten twenty-two or twenty-three cameras of yours.

PF: Don't tell my wife that. But I think I have three cameras I haven't sent you, one of them is my original Electro-Spotmatic.

Pentax Electro Spotmatic

Eric: Yeah, I just can't do anything with the original Electro-Spotmatic. I just don't have the boards for those. I can still fix the ES and ESII, though. And a lot of people still want their old cameras repaired. Just the 35mm repairs keeps me busy. I have about 15 cameras in rotation for repair at any time. God's blessed me with not overwhelming me but not having me starve.

PF: So this is a question that a lot of people had: Do you take photos as well as repairing cameras?

Eric: Yes I do.

PF: And can you share some of them?

Eric: Oh, I can do that.

Reggie | Eric Hendrickson

PF: A lot of people wanted to know about your relationship with cameras aside from fixing them.

Eric: The first time I picked up a camera I had a flash on it and there was an auto-exposure meter inside it and I was going to take some pictures. So I took a bunch of pictures in auto mode and I messed up every one of them. Then I bought a Konica TL, and it was my first interchangeable-lens SLR. It failed. The mirror would go up and stay and I tried to get it to release. I didn't know anything about camera repair then, and I sent it in to Konica and they sent it back to me a month later and it did the same thing again. So I said what the heck, I'll take it apart. I took the top off, I took the mirror box out, and then I put it in a plastic bag and threw it away. That was my first experience with repairs.

PF: Not successful.

Eric: So I said I'm gonna do it one of these days. And then I got hooked up with Honeywell. I went in for an interview. I saw an ad in the paper for flash repair and the interviewer asked me if I knew anything about schematics and I said I didn't, and he said I wasn't qualified. So about two weeks later there was an ad for a shipper at Honeywell, same office I went to. So I worked as a shipper for about six months and I went into flash repair from there. And camera repair from there. That was a long time ago.

Eric's First Painting | K David

PF: Yeah, Honeywell is a name for history, unfortunately.

Eric: They closed their photographic division and I was out of a job again. But Pentax liked me enough that they picked me up to start their office in Itasca, Illinois. So I hired a few techs and we took it from there.

PF: So since you've used a lot of cameras, obviously, a lot of people wanted to know what your favorite camera and lens to use are.

Eric: Well, I switched to digital. It's a Pentax K-x. The red one. Everyone comments on it, so I just carry it around for the comments [laughing].

Eric's Red K-x | K David

PF: No one ever comments on my camera unless it's a film camera.

Eric: Yeah, I enjoy doing camera repair. I have my place right here and I get up and I do as much work as I feel like doing that day, so it's a good situation. And I'm doing something that I like and enjoy, and I have contact with my customers. We e-mail back and forth. I get about ten, fifteen e-mails a day. And, almost on a personal, level, and it says 'thanks, Dave.' 'Where's my camera now, Jim.' You know, I used to know a lot of people in the industry, but they've all closed up or retired.

PF: So I ordered these questions, roughly, by how many people asked them. The next-most-asked was: are you training anyone to take over when you decide to retire?

Eric: Yes I am. As a matter of fact, I just did a training with her yesterday. We went through the K1000. You can tell right away if someone can do it. I remember one guy who tried to do it and he wouldn't hold the equipment right, and it was pretty clear he wouldn't work out. But this girl yesterday, she picked up the screwdriver and right away it was clear she knew what she was doing.

PF: That's good. I've been asked that question a lot of time, and I didn't know.

Eric: I hope that her and I can work well together. It takes a long time to learn one camera, let alone the other 20 you gotta know.

Spares for Repairs | K David

PF: So are they all different inside? I always just figured all the Spotmatics would be the same.

Eric: The Spotmatics, K1000, and even MX are similar inside, as far as the gears and working with the transport and cocking the mirror, they all work pretty much the same, but the parts are a little different, that's all.

PF: So I've sent you some pretty old cameras, back to the Asahiflexes.

Eric: Oh yeah.

PF: So can you see a progression in the engineering over time?

Eric: Yes, because they put in more and more stuff as the models progressed. The K [1958] model, that has three gears attached to the winding system to cock everything, to move the curtains and all the components. So it's very simplified and it's very early, and it's easy to work on. But on the main wind shaft on those, sometimes that shaft gets grease on it, so it doesn't work, and I can't do anything with that. I've tried to modify parts, but I can't. Once a part is gone, that's it.

Pentax K from 1958

PF: Where, overseas, do you get a lot of cameras from?

ERic: All over the world. I get a lot from Canada, quite a bit from France, too, England, South America.

PF: One of our Forum members from Australia wanted me to ask specifically if you take cameras from Australia.

Eric: I got about 18 cameras in there from a guy in Australia; he sends them in batches. I guess the currency exchange down there is bad. I do take overseas cameras, but overseas work has slowed down a lot.

PF: Where do you get your parts from?

Eric: I'll go on eBay, as-is type things. If it wasn't for eBay and Pentax Forums, I don't know what I'd be doing right now.

PF: Do you do all your work yourself?

Eric: Yes, I do. When I started getting them in for repair I could get them repaired. But then they modified some parts and there was no help available to understand how to install the modified parts, so I stopped taking them in. I had some units holding for six months or longer.

PF: So there's the Electro-Spotmatic and the 6X7II, are there any other models you don't work on?

Eric: Well, I [temporarily] stopped working on the SDM lenses, the DA*s, because I couldn't get parts. They would sit in here for six months, but then the parts started coming through from Ricoh, so I'm repairing those again now. But I'll take in most any camera and give it a try.

Eric's Kyoristu Shutter Tester | K David

PF: Well, you've had some pretty obscure cameras from me.

Eric: [laughing] Well, I've even taken in some Sears lenses and Tamrons, and if I can't fix it, I'll just send it back.

PF: Well, it's like when I sent you the Repronar.

Eric: I said, 'What is David sending me this for?' At Honeywell, I used to repair those all the time, and the base units. Sometimes I'll get a camera that I'm not familiar with. And I have a little video camera set up on the desk. I'll take a video of the repair so I can put it all back together again.

PF: So how has the camera industry changed over the last 46 years?

Eric: Well, it was abrupt with digital coming in. The magazine I used to read had everything in it for the 35. And then all the sudden overnight everything in it was digital and nothing's mentioned about the 35. And a lot of people still want to use the 35 but they can't find film, it's not really available for them.

PF: It's much more available than it was two years ago.

Eric: Yeah, it's coming back. I've noticed I'm getting a lot more 35s in.

Sunset at the Old Farm | Eric Hendrickson

PF: I've noticed that your invoice numbers have increased, the number span between them when I send you cameras has increased.

Eric: Well, when you started we were around 600. But the industry, it's narrowed down in terms of people who own film cameras. People don't go out trying to buy 35s any more. People who already had them want to develop their inventory. I get a lot of repeat customers, like yourself. I don't know if they collect them or resell them, but I have a feeling they collect them. So I try to do the best job I can for them, internally and externally.

PF: For me, it has to work. I know there are people who buy them and don't care if it works, just want it to look nice on the outside so that it looks good on the shelf.

Eric: I got a Spotmatic F the other day, not a smudge mark on it. It was perfect. Right out of the box. It still had the original wrapping on it. I had to replace the seals and clean the finder, adjust the speeds, but it was perfect. You know, those are the hardest ones to work on because you don't want to scratch it. You take your ring off, make sure the tools are good, clean it, those are really hard to work on.

Double Rainbow at the New House | Eric Hendrickson

PF: What do you think of the way that camera technology has changed?

Eric: Well, you're still talking about digital now. And I don't know that much about it. I don't get into the digital part of it. What was the last 35 made?

PF: Nikon farmed out the FM-10 to Chinon, which is the Olympus OM-20 and a whole bunch of others. Nikon makes the F6 in Japan. Leica and Voigtlander.

Eric: But as far as Pentax?

PF: There was the MZ series. So one of the questions was about the MZ-S. People wanted to know if it was plastic on the inside like the rest.

Eric: I’ve only worked on two of them and it was only minor problems. They are a lot of camera for being a 35mm.

Pentax MZ-S

PF: It blows my mind that there's all these sixties, seventies, and eighties cameras and they all work reasonably to very well still. And then you get to this point where, all of a sudden, there's just nothing you can buy in this age range that's worth having, from the late eighties until the late nineties. Speaking of the sixties, what did you do before repairing cameras?

Eric: I spent two years in Japan. That was an experience, near Tokyo. That was another lifetime ago. I was in the military then, the Air Force. This was back in '64. I was drafted. I got the draft letter in the mail so I went down to the recruiter's office and I took the test. And I walked back to my car, which was parked in front of an Air Force recruiter. I walked in there and I was gone the next day.

PF: How long were you in the Air Force?

Eric: Just the four years.

Bass Fishing | Eric Hendrickson

PF: So we have this huge block of questions about gear. So why did you choose to repair Pentaxes instead of Rolleis, Nikons, or another brand?

Eric: Well, I used to repair all those. Minoltas, OM-1s AE-1s, and all that. But trying to get parts for all of those is difficult. You can have a camera that needs multiple parts and it will be out there a long time. So I went to Pentax because I can get the parts and the volume of work keeps me busy. And I just don't need the other volume of work.

PF: It seems that there's one person who does each of the major brands really well.

Eric: Yeah, and if you do that you can do a better job, too, because if you run into a problem and you can't really figure out the cause, you can remember it from another repair. But if you do all of them, you're only going to be able to do a certain job; you're not going to do a complete job. And when I do a camera repair, I want everything to work. It's not like when you take a car in for new brakes and it has a squeaky something else and they don't fix the squeaky something else. So I make sure that everything works and functions on a camera when I repair it. And when you know the camera really well, it helps the customer, and it helps me to specialize in one maker.

Winter at the Old Farm | Eric Hendrickson

PF: How many cameras do you work on each year?

Eric: Well, the other day I figured that up. And from 1972 to present, if I average three cameras a day, that's just over 40,000 cameras. And I think that's probably pretty close to how many I've done.

PF: Do you ever see a camera that you've worked on before?

Eric: We used to put stickers in them, and once in a while I'll see one come through. A friend of mine, Gary, he did a lot of the Spotmatics at that time. And I replaced curtains in the S and H models, that's all I did at the time, and sometimes I see one of his come around.

PF: I always thought it was interesting that you don't put a sticker inside cameras you repair.

Eric: A lot of people don't like that, so I don't. I put a pencil mark on the inside in the bottom. And I do have a computer system where I can look up any serial number. And I get a lot questions when people buy a camera off eBay and ask me to verify that I repaired it.

PF: So your favorite camera to work on is the 6x7?

Eric: Yes, 6x7s, Spotmatics, and the K1000.

Pentax 6x7

PF: Your favorite camera to use?

Eric: You know, I haven't used a 6x7. I haven't loaded one and shot film on one of those.

PF: [surprised stammering.] I gotta say that is really surprising to hear.

Eric: I had an ME Super for a long time that I used. That was a good camera. I had a motor drive winder with that. That was a good system.

PF: Those are good cameras. Aside from the MX, they're the best of the M line.

Eric: But they're not the easiest to repair, unfortunately. They have all these sticky bumpers and you have to take the shutter apart to clean them out.

Pentax ME Super

PF: Have you worked with Ricoh at all to get parts from them and how has that worked?

Eric: Yes. Parts are starting to come through pretty well. Once in a while there's a backorder part that takes a month or so. These are for the lenses, the DA stars and so on.

PF: That's good. A lot of people seemed worried about that because there seem to be this whole line of lenses where the SDM motors failed.

Eric: Those motors are really made well. They work well and they're silent. I think that the new parts are going to hold up. I haven't gotten anything back yet that I've repaired with the new motors.

PF: You said that you look for a lot of the parts on eBay. So I assume it's not easy to find the replacement part that you need.

Eric: Well, usually the replacement part that I'm looking for is also broken in the camera I'm bidding on. Like MX screens, I need a lot of those, so I look for bodies that have screens that aren't smudged or scratched. 6X7 clutch springs are another difficult part. I found a guy who could manufacture  the clutch springs, so I had him make a bunch of those. I can't get all the parts for the old cameras from Ricoh any more, so I have a bunch of parts bodies back there now.

PF: Have you ever tried 3-D printing to make replacement parts?

Eric: I haven't, but it might work for a lever or something like that, but maybe not for gearing.

PF: A lot of people wanted to know how your spares situation is, but it sounds like you can get parts on an as-needed basis now.

Eric: Yes, and they're shipping now.

The Old Camera Repair Shop on the Farm | Eric Hendrickson

PF: Are you accepting broken cameras for parts or repair credit?

Eric: I'd like to. Sometimes I feel like I should go up to the Forum and ask for some K1000s. I'm training this gal on the K1000, and she's really good, really talented. I'd like to keep her busy. But the new ones, the prisms are deteriorating. They have this tape on them that eats through the silver material.

PF: What was the most challenging repair you ever did?

Eric: Well, there was one repair I didn't want to touch. A guy said his dog peed on it. So I got rubber gloves out, and I sterilized everything, and the camera insides were corroded everywhere. I took it completely apart and just had the shell left. Everything else had to be thrown away. So I re-assembled everything, from donor cameras, into the original body. It was a week-long project. But it was a challenge, so I said I'm gonna do it!

PF: What repair or restoration are you most proud of?

Eric: There was this original, with the flip-up viewfinder, the Asahiflex with the 50mm f/3.5. I rebuilt the whole camera, new curtains and everything, cleaned the lens, and it came out perfectly. So that was it.

Restored Asahiflex

PF: What is the most expensive camera you've ever worked on? A gold LX or an LX titanium?

Eric: No. I wouldn't touch those anyway. If someone pays $5,000 for a camera, I'm not touching it. I have repaired two Noctas. The first one I got, I said 'this isn't a Spotmatic. It doesn't even have a name on it. Who made this?' Now everyone probably wants one. And the 100mm f/2. A couple have come through. I don't know of any other rare lenses.

Takumar 100mm f/2

PF: Are there any new types of repairs you're seeing now?

Eric: A lot of the Limited lenses are failing; the focusing mechanisms are coming apart. As people turn it, the mechanism get looser and looser and finally they come apart. Also, there's a fungus out there that I can't clean off now. It's on the 50mm f/1.7 lenses. It's only on those lenses. It's on the rear element and it's underneath the front element, on the outside of the rear element and the underside of the front group. It's not etching the coatings, but it leaves a smear. That's new.

PF: What would be your advice for someone looking to buy a vintage camera?

Eric: Make sure it works. A lot of times I'll estimate an ME Super and people will ask why the repair costs twice what they can buy one for on eBay. And with an eBay camera, they'll probably still have to replace the sticky bumpers and may have other problems. Open the back door, make sure that the curtains look halfway decent.

Eric: I hope this doesn't offend anyone but I have to give God all the credit for where I am right now. The move from Chicago to Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, then being out with cancer and radiation treatment, and then the move to Knoxville. Now I have the shop in my home and get to keep these old 35mm units working. I am truly blessed.

Eric and I wrapped up our interview with a tour of his shop. He repairs all our cameras on a small, roll-top desk set inside a study. On the sidewall is a glass-doored secretary with donor parts and the orange K-x. On he far wall, cabinets with a Kyoritsu shutter tester, a new painting, and some of your cameras waiting for repair and return shipping.

Pentax Repair Central | K David

If you'd like to send Eric a camera or lens for repair, you can find him at www.pentaxs.com. He also sells repairs and repaired cameras on eBay under user PentaxRepairs.

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