What Is Balsam Separation And Can A Lens Be Repaired?

Balsam separation is when lens elements that have been epoxied together started to delaminate. The description was originally specific to Canada balsam. However, this also applies to modern lenses that use various epoxies.

What balsam separation looks like will depend on the lens coatings. For older lenses without any or early coatings, the lens elements can look milky or powdery white.

With lenses from the 1970’s and newer, the delamination looks like a white or reflected rainbow halo around the problem area. This will usually be along the outer edge of the elements, but can occur in other areas.

You will be able to see the separation more easily than a small amount of haze or fungus.

Abies Balsamea Tree
Abies Balsamea Tree

Canada balsam is turpentine made from balsam fir tree resin. The resin is dissolved in oil, which allows it to be applied to lens optics.

It is important because it has a refractive index that is similar to crown glass and is invisible when dry. In addition to cementing lens elements, it was also used for mounting microscope slides.

Once dried, the balsam is amorphous, meaning it does not have a crystalline structure. This is desirable because the optical properties will not degrade over time.

Unfortunately, Canada balsam is not resistant to temperature extremes or solvents. This is why care should be taken if you are cleaning or removing fungus/haze from an older lens.

During World War II, epoxy, polyester, and urethane-based adhesives replaced balsam. Modern lenses use UV-cured epoxies to cement lens elements together.

Camera Lens Delamination
Camera Lens Delamination

A small amount of separation along the edges of the lens group will have little effect on image quality. As the separation gets worse you can encounter:

  • A decrease in contrast. Similar to what you would see in a lens with haze.
  • More flare and ghosting.
  • Softer corners and a loss of sharpness over the frame.
  • Focusing may become difficult.
  • “Dust spots” on the images from remnants of the adhesive used to bond the elements.

If the elements come completely apart, the lens will be unusable.

There are several options for repair. Finding someone to re-cement the lens elements is difficult.

If you are able to find someone that can do the repair, it is unlikely to be worth the cost for many common lenses.

That leaves you with DIY options.

By far the easiest option is to buy a damaged donor lens. Lenses that need repairs sell for much less than fully functional lenses.

All you need is a damaged lens where the lens group you need is undamaged.

This has the added advantage of giving you some practice on disassembling the lens. That should make replacing the lens group easier.

Canada Balsam Fir Essential Oil
Canada Balsam Fir Essential Oil

If you’re feeling bold you can try to re-cement the elements that are separating.

I have not done this and I don’t recommend trying to. It is going to be expensive, time-consuming, and you’re likely to end up with poor results.

SK Grimes also has a short tutorial on the process.

Here’s a YouTube video that shows the process with a helpful writeup in the video description:

First, you’re going to have to remove the lens group from the lens.

Depending on the construction of the lens, getting the bare elements can be difficult. On newer designs, the elements can be epoxied into metal or plastic.

Any additional parts epoxies to the elements will get in the way of scribing the edges of the elements so they can be properly aligned when cemented back together.

If the elements are not properly aligned, you’ll end up with a lens that is decentered. This will cause the focal plane to no longer be flat.

Before you separate the elements you need to scribe an alignment mark on the edges of the elements. You’ll need some sort of diamond-tipped tool to scratch the glass.

If this is not done, you’ll need access to expensive optical alignment equipment. At that point, buying a new copy of the lens would be cheaper.

In order to separate the elements, you can use heat or a solvent.

Canada balsam will be the easiest to work with. Newer epoxies will be more difficult.

Acetone or isopropyl alcohol are solvents you can try. Place the elements into a container, and cover with acetone.

Use a container with a lid in a well-vented area, as acetone and isopropyl alcohol will produce harmful fumes. Both are also highly flammable.

For heat, you can try using an oven. Place the lens group on a cookie sheet and one side up so the elements can slide apart.

Start at a temperature of 100° F or 38° C. Increase the temperature 25°F or 14° C every 30-60 minutes until the elements come apart.

If you use heat, you’re still going to need to use a solvent to clean the epoxy off.

To re-cement the elements back together, you’ll need some optical UV epoxy, a proper UV light source. You can get some from Thorlabs or Edmund Optics.

You need to thoroughly clean both elements and make sure there is no dust on them. Ideally, you would do this process in a laminar flow cabinet to ensure dust-free working conditions.

Apply a small drop of UV epoxy and use the scribe mark to align the elements.

Once everything is correctly aligned, use a UV light source to cure the epoxy.