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Old Tuesday 11th December 2018, 14:59   #1
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Interviews with Optics Repairers: Tony Kay of Optrep

Who am I?
I am Tony Kay and I have been in the business of repairing optical instruments since 1960. I was born before World War 2 in Dulwich, S.E. London. During that war I was bombed-out three times in the London Blitz, survived the Liverpool Blitz and, back in London, narrowly escaped a V1 flying bomb attack.

In 1951 I attended Wimbledon Technical School and then Wimbledon Technical College and studied mechanical engineering in theory and practice. In 1954 I entered into a five year apprenticeship at British Rototherm Company (Merton) making precision instruments. This apprenticeship was most valuable in honing my skills in the use of workshop machines and tools, and also in workshop practice. My studies were then done at night school. Following the apprenticeship I worked for two years at Wellman Crane and Machine Company (London) in a team designing cranes and heavy machinery for steelworks.

My hobbies include reading (I have a large library), writing (six historo-technical books about aircraft and engines published), listening to music and flying (I have a pilot’s licence). I was married in 1959 and my wife Pam and I live in West Sussex, and have 3 children plus grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My repair business.

I have always enjoyed repairing all manner of things and, from time to time, I was asked to repair a binocular. This was the beginning of a very long learning curve and I decided that there was a demand for binocular and telescope repairing. I knew that if there was a demand for a service, and it was done well and if the right price was charged, then a business had every chance of thriving. From 1960 I began repairing binoculars commercially but part-time, and then the following year, I took a chance, left Wellman’s, and started up Kay Binocular Repairs in Morden, Surrey. The business was later named Kay Optical to reflect the greater range of optical equipment handled.

This business took off straight away and, although cash flow was poor at one stage, a friendly bank manager told me to carry on. In the beginning, we bought a lot of military binoculars from Government auctions, overhauled and sold them. Later, the servicing and repair of ophthalmic instruments for opticians was added to the work and this also grew rapidly. With the advent of the Japanese invasion of good binoculars and telescopes in the late 1960s a lot of extra work was available, much of it repairing in-transit damage.

The process of learning all the features of a huge range of equipment was achieved empirically by careful study of each new binocular or instrument as it came into the workshop, and creating, for the more complex types, a file of sketches, notes and photos thereby making the next job of that type easier. Such files were added-to as more information became available, but they are very rarely referred to now. There was virtually no help from companies or published material.

Around 1985, I began retailing binoculars and telescopes, particularly to bird- watchers, and this too was an immediate success. On 24 April 1988 our first Field Day was pioneered by Kay Optical, allowing customers to test equipment under field conditions. This event was at Pagham Harbour Local Nature Reserve and its success was soon followed by other retailers putting on their own Field Days. Eventually, Bird Fairs followed. Some astronomy Field Days were also organised.

In 1985 my second son (also named Tony, but blame my wife for this) joined the business, mainly to handle sales. In 2002 I had the present workshop built in Selsey and continued repairing under the company name of Optrep Optical Repairs. By 2012 young Tony had become very ill and Kay Optical collapsed (he is OK now). Optrep is a family-run business manned by three people, namely myself, my wife and my daughter.

Customer Service.

Most jobs come to Optrep by post or carrier, many of them from abroad, but customers are welcome to call in by appointment. A repair is usually carried out within two weeks but, if a delay is caused by waiting for a spare part, the customer is informed. Sometimes the customer is loaned a binocular or telescope. Urgent jobs are treated sympathetically.

Binoculars and Telescopes that Optrep repair.

Optrep repairs most makes of binoculars and telescopes but not when the instrument has been bonded or glued together such as Steiner or compass binoculars. Some of these are made by robots and are not amenable to human repair. A great deal of Optrep’s work involves overhauling military binoculars for collectors, but Optrep is conversant with the needs of birdwatchers, naturalists, gamekeepers, mariners, astronomers, collectors and aircraft spotters. Even where an instrument is covered by a warranty people still use Optrep to save time.
For an overview of the work carried out see the website

Repairing binoculars and telescopes.

When an instrument is received into the workshop, experience makes it a simple matter to quickly assess the damage and quote a price for the work. Of course, if there is more wrong with the instrument than discerned by the owner the quotation will cover all the work. The quotation has also to take into account the value of a replacement instrument.

Up to approximately one third of the instruments received have been tampered with by someone unqualified. Some owners discover external adjustments on their binoculars and proceed to ‘collimate’ them. This is incorrect in two ways: firstly, the original fault or faults (usually internal) have not been repaired and, secondly, exact collimation can only be achieved if a collimator is used. If one isn’t used the collimation can often be slightly out, and when the owner uses the binocular this will cause the eye muscles to attempt collimation of the eye/binocular system resulting in eyestrain or a headache. It is better if the collimation is a long way out then the user will not be tempted to use the binocular until it is repaired.

The most frequent faults needing attention are:

Double vision following a blow.
A build-up of dirt and haze on the optics.
Jammed or broken mechanisms.
Unsynchronised focusing between the two sides.
Dioptre adjustment broken due to being forced.
Oil introduced into an instrument by the owner.

Some of the most difficult jobs are military binoculars which are heavily sealed and built to be ‘soldier-proof’. However, on the civilian front some of the most difficult binoculars to repair include the latest Zeiss models which require special tools to dismantle them, but which are not seen often enough to warrant making such tools. On the other hand, much cheaper binoculars (but up to say £500) have ‘weak links’ such as small plastic parts in the internal focusing mechanisms and poorly assembled roof prism units. Small plastic parts often break down under the action of the lubricant. Such binoculars often have nice, heavy rubber coverings which have to be stripped off to get inside the binocular. A binocular may only retail for £100/150 but take an uneconomic time to repair. Binoculars with these design and manufactured faults could be named but this would be unfair when the maker may be in the process of improving them. Remember, older instruments and some of faulty design come into the workshop in greater numbers than new ones. Binoculars with these weaknesses are largely similar to the earlier excellent Zeiss (West) 8x30 and 10x40 Dialyt models but Zeiss used good quality steel and brass in their mechanisms.

Focus free-play in an instrument can usually be eliminated and many binoculars can be modified to focus closer. A different problem is when the lubricant in older instruments becomes more viscous with age which increases friction and puts a strain on mechanisms. Some owners mistakenly use penetrating oil such as WD40 to free mechanisms which doesn’t work. Old lubricant has to be replaced. If the penetrating oil gets on to the optics it can double the work and the cost of an overhaul.

We usually purge sealed instruments of any type with nitrogen even if the instrument was made before this process was introduced (by Steiner in 1971). We also stock many spare parts, including lenses and prisms, but parts are rarely sourced from outside due to the time and cost involved. Instead, new parts are available in the workshop or can be adapted. Redundant binoculars and telescopes are a good source of spare parts. Scratched lenses can only be put right by resurfacing, polishing and recoating, a completely uneconomic process. Modern coatings are not easily damaged (unlike early, soft coatings) and only get damaged by faulty cleaning technique. In the field, too many people scrub away with a handkerchief without removing dust and grit from a lens. Cleaning should be minimised.

Mechanically, European and Japanese instruments are superior to Chinese, Malayan, etc. but Chinese optics are usually good and overall quality is getting better all the time. Faults are usually down to poor design and bad practice rather than manufacture.

Finally, bear in mind that all repairs have to be accomplished within a time limit in order to be economically viable for the business and customer alike.

The Future.

Now that I am getting on in age customers ask who will replace me. First of all I have no intention of retiring until Nature makes me. I am still working full time and do not believe in retirement, especially as I am lucky enough to have a job that is enjoyable and fulfilling. Unfortunately, nobody satisfactory has been found as an apprentice. There used to be many repairers but only a handful of these survive in the world. Why is it that, to a great extent, new repairers are not coming along? I believe that most people today are not interested or not capable of working with their hands and prefer working with push-button electronics. Young people grow up from the earliest age using computers and rarely, as in my case, using Meccano and building working models which teach hand/eye skills. I am working on a repair manual which I hope will help future repair aspirants. People often try to repair their optical equipment but, sadly, many of our repair jobs are the result of amateurs having a go, and many others instruments, bought on E-Bay, require repairing.

Tony’s website:

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