Repairing My Victorian Telescope – A Lesson in Persistence…and patience!

“It’s broken. I can’t get it to work…”

I hear this a lot in flea-markets, antiques fairs, and antiques shops. Or something like it. “It jams”, “It’s very stiff”, “It won’t turn”, “It rattles”, “This thing won’t stay still”, “It doesn’t move like it’s supposed to, see?”

Because of this, a lot of antiques are sold as being ‘broken’, or in ‘original condition’, which is a euphemistic way of saying: “It’s stuffed and I can’t be arsed fixing it because I don’t know how!”

Both online and in real life, I’ve heard loads of people howl and bitch and whine and cry about heathens like myself, who go around cleaning, restoring and breathing new life into an object, erroneously claiming that doing so ‘destroys the originality’ of a piece and therefore ‘makes it worthless’!

That said, restoring antiques is the only way that they ever survive. Repairing them, cleaning them, and overhauling them is how we ensure that they’ll exist in a working state, well into the future, and that they won’t be damaged beyond repair by someone who didn’t know any better, because they tried to force something to work that can’t, for any number of reasons.

Such was the case with the massive, brass telescope I bought for my birthday. When I got my hands on it, although it was cosmetically in great condition, its actual operation left MUCH to be desired. The lenses were filthy, the draw-tubes were clogged with so much grime they wouldn’t even open properly, and the threads on one of the coupling-rings were worn down, meaning that they wouldn’t screw in properly…and if something doesn’t screw, then it doesn’t hold, which means the whole thing can fall apart at a moment’s notice!

Not fun!

Disassembling the Telescope

Having decided that the telescope was something with which I stood a reasonable amount of success in restoring, I haggled down the price and bought it.

The first step was to clean the lenses. As far as restoring this telescope went, that was the easy part!

To clean the lenses properly, the telescope has to be pulled apart. There’s simply no other way to do it. The objective lens housing at the front of the barrel has to be screwed off, and entirely disassembled. The relay lenses in the middle of the draw-tubes has to be removed and entirely disassembled, and the eyepiece lens also has to be removed and disassembled.

Pulling apart my telescope. From left to right is one of the brass collars, the objective lens and its housing, the eyepiece shutter, the eyepiece lens, the two relay-lenses and their housing, and one of the draw-tubes.

Although all the components of the telescope look like they screw in nice and neat and tight and flush, the reality is that an impossible amount of dust and grit does manage to find its way inside the telescope, through the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes. Over the course of several decades, this dust and grit builds up to intolerable levels, and it eventually dries and crusts over, and even though it’s barely a milimeter thick, it’s enough to jam the telescope – and any attempts to operate it will likely cause irreparable damage. All this accumulated grit also makes it impossible to focus the telescope, or see anything through the lenses, hence the absolute necessity for cleaning.

The achromatic (two-part) objective lens in its housing. It is actually possible to unscrew the lens-frame entirely, and for the glass lenses to drop out of their frame by removing the retaining ring. This allows for really good cleaning and dust-removal…Just don’t cut your fingers on the edge of the glass!

Unscrewing the lenses can be really easy, or it can be really hard. Fortunately for me, most of my restorations of this kind have been pretty easy – a firm grip and the right sort of pressure will unscrew  most lenses with minimal problems. Just make sure that you wash out the threads (both sets of threads!) with oil, before you screw the components back together – because…y’know…dust, which causes threads to jam. Yes, it even gets in there!

Once the majority of the grime was removed from the lenses, and I was able to see that the telescope would be capable of functionality once it was working, I moved onto the next step: Cleaning.

Cleaning the Telescope

Cleaning this telescope was a real lesson in patience. Oh God, was it ever a lesson in patience!

As I said before, massive amounts of dust and grit get inside the telescope, through the joints between the draw-tubes. This causes a buildup of friction between the sliding parts, and this causes jamming. If you get a bit too enthusiastic trying to open the telescope tor viewing, it results in dents, warping, jamming, and if you’re really energetic – complete destruction of the connecting-rings between the draw-tubes… not fun.

The two relay-lenses and the tube they screw into.

To clean out 150 years’ worth of grime, I used WD-40, sewing machine oil, and enough tissues to fill a bathtub! Cleaning out loads of grime came down to spraying or dripping oil liberally over the draw-tubes, and snapping them shut, twisting them around, and opening and closing them hundreds and thousands of times, to flush out all the gunk, grime and grit trapped inside. This had to be done countless times to loosen up and wash out all the crud trapped within. It wasn’t pleasant!

“Why can’t you just put oil on it, lubricate it and leave it like that?” I might hear you ask.

Well…You could! You could just coat it in oil, and that would make the telescope easier to open and close…but it would also make it impossible to hold from how greasy it is! It would also turn your hands black from the grime. Oiling the telescope doesn’t remove the problem, it only masks it, and once the oil dries up, you’re left right back where you’re started…and probably even worse! Because oil attracts dust!

Eyepiece lens and the shutter that screws over the top to prevent dust and damage.

Nope! The only way was persistence, flushing, oil, lubrication, and just working the oil through the telescope, over and over again, to loosen up and wash out as much crud as possible. And this was a process which took a week of almost nonstop, daily cleaning…hey, it is 150 years’ worth of gunk, after all. It was never going to be done in a hurry!

Repairing the Telescope

While I cleaned the telescope, I became acutely aware of another one of its flaws. It wasn’t just grimy and dusty and jammed with filth, it was also broken! The thread which screwed the largest coupling-ring into the barrel, and connected the draw-tubes to the front of the telescope was completely worn down. Or at least partially so.

No amount of tightening and screwing and cleaning would induce the thread to bite, and hold the telescope together. All it took was one good, firm pull (which was necessary because of how stiff everything was!) to completely pull the telescope in half!

Taping the threads to stop them coming apart.

After extensive cleaning, I fixed this problem using ordinary, white masking tape. Once around the threads, and pressing it in with my fingers, and then screwing the components back together fixed the problem. The tape built up the layer of thickness which was necessary for the threads to grip and bite, and now all the components screw in and out, and hold, as they should!

Polishing the Brass

The final step in cleaning the telescope, after cleaning and tightening the lenses, washing out loads of grit and grime with loads of oil and WD-40, and taping up the threads to make them grip properly, was the polishing of the brass!

Before Polishing

From what I’ve seen on a lot of antiques websites, polishing up brass telescopes is an accepted and acceptable practice. And since I like polishing brass anyway, who am I to argue with the experts? Out came the Brasso, and I started polishing away furiously! It took a whole day to do it, but I did get it done in the end.

After polishing!

Polishing the brass does a number of things: One, it makes the telescope look SO much nicer!…Two, it makes it look much more cleaner, and three, it removes even MORE of the grime that was on the draw-tubes, which means that it will operate even better!

One thing about brass is that it never stays ultra-shiny for long. It only takes a small amount of handling for brass to start tarnishing again (which is why polishing brass was such a preoccupation back in the Victorian era, when this telescope was made), but this property suits me just fine, since it gives the telescope a clean, but aged look, all at the same time. This way, it doesn’t look entirely brand-new, and it doesn’t look like I dug it out of the ground this morning.

All up, a very satisfying little birthday project for myself 🙂


7 thoughts on “Repairing My Victorian Telescope – A Lesson in Persistence…and patience!

  1. Sandra Di Francesco says:

    As usual Shahan another great and informative post. I really agree with your point about preserving and restoring antiques for them to survive. Cool telescope too!

  2. Nathan Chisholm says:

    Personally I wouldn’t off polished the brass you have rubbed all the history off! The patina adds too the scope

    • Scheong says:

      I’ve seen loads of people polish them, so I see no reason why I shouldn’t. At any rate, if it lasts another 150 years, the patina will have returned by then. It’s already started.

  3. Natalie says:

    How would I or where would I go to replace a lens?
    I found one at “shipwreck” days inour hometown made in Japan. It has an etching of a comet soaring in the sky and says the return of haleys comet 1985-1986. It has 30X40mm. It was purchased purposely for enjoyment and it looks cool.
    Thank you

    • Scheong says:

      To replace a lens you’d need a glass-grinder or optician who would be willing to make you a new one, or you can wait and see if you can buy a damaged telescope and use it for parts, but that could take years.

  4. Rosina Buckland says:

    Really useful article. I’m inspired to have a go myself. I have an early C19 telescope but 25 years ago someone did a hatchet job replacing the lens, and I’m trying to work out how much of the original is missing. In your second image, the left-hand part is the end brass part, isn’t it? I think my telescope is missing only the right-hand part, the lens in its retaining ring.

    • Scheong says:

      The brass collar on the left is what screws into the barrel. The lens-rim on the right is what holds the lenses in place and screws into the collar.


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