Adding or Replacing a Tripod Quick Release Clamp, Part 1
More than likely, if you own a Markins, Arca Swiss, Kirk Enterprises or compatible tripod ball head, it came with a quick release clamp fastened on top. These days though, several companies sell replacement clamps in various styles, and Markins even sells ball heads with no clamp at all for the do-it-yourselfer. If this gets you thinking about customizing your setup, you may find some helpful tips in this, the first of a two-part article on adding or replacing your quick release clamp. This week, I'll look at how to get your old clamp off, and next week I'll discuss how to attach the new one.
If your current ball head already has a clamp, the biggest challenge you will face in trying to replace it is getting the existing clamp off. You will find that the darned thing is fastened on quite well indeed. Typically, most ball head manufacturers use Loctite or a similar thread-locking compound to prevent the clamp from working lose during normal use. Defeating this well-intentioned design decision of theirs requires a procedure not necessarily for the faint of heart, but not overly difficult if you are up for it.
First, take your blowtorch....
Yes, I'm serious. After bonding a joint with a thread locker such as Loctite, it doesn't so much as dry as it does cure. Its chemical structure changes and the only way to undo the resulting bond is by the application of heat. Most people that I know who have done this have used a propane torch, available in the plumbing section of a regular hardware store. But it may also be possible to do this with a heat gun or even a soldering iron if it can get up to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. If you use a torch, be sure it is propane and not MAPP gas since MAPP gas (Methyl Acetylene-Propadiene) burns much too hot for the task at hand.
You will also need some means of getting sufficient torque. After heating the joint, the chemical bonds in the Loctite will be broken, but if allowed to cool as is, they will reform almost completely leaving your clamp just as stuck as it was before you heated it. You need to be able to forcefully attempt to unscrew the clamp while the joint is still hot. I have a long Arca-Swiss compatible focusing rail from Really Right Stuff that naturally fits the clamp itself and works great for this purpose, but many other things can be used for a "cheater bar." Rummage around in your garage or closet and you should be able to turn up something that will work. Your solution needn't be elegant, so long as it provides you with a longer lever arm for turning the clamp.
To hold things in place while you work, mount the head on your tripod legs. Rotate the clamp so the stem of the ball is in the drop notch of the ball head and tighten it firmly. Also tighten the screw for the panning base on the head. You want both tight, but don't go getting out a pair of pliers or anything. You can damage internal parts in the ball head if you over tighten. Firm, hand tightening should suffice. Remember, it is a combination of heat and torque that will get the job done. Don't even try to do this with muscle power alone.
Your aim is to heat the compound on the screw threads, not the entire ball head. Indeed, the Delrin® or other synthetic bushing parts inside the ball housing will become deformed and cause your ball to stick if overheated. Unless you are an experience hand with a propane torch, it can be a good idea to wet an old washcloth or towel and wrap it around the exposed top of the ball, leaving only the clamp exposed. This will provide you with a heat sink to keep the ball from getting too hot while you work.
So, to repeat one more time before we go any further: don't over tighten, and don't overheat.
When you are ready to start, adjust the flame on the propane torch so it is about two inches long and allow it to touch the exposed top of the clamp in the center where the screw thread joint is. Move it in a circular fashion for about 30 seconds then turn the torch off, grab your cheater bar and see if you can get the clamp to turn. If the ball itself turns, stop applying torque. Don't force it. If the clamp won't turn on the screw threads, the bonds in the Loctite haven't been broken yet. Try heating the threads for 45 seconds and see what you can make happen. If you still can't break the bonds, try heating for a full minute, and so on.
If you still can't unscrew the clamp after a few tries, even with progressively longer heating periods, stop and allow the ball to cool completely before continuing. If you were to continue trying you will end up heating the ball head through and through, something you want to avoid. Think about cooking food in an oven. If cooked at an appropriate temperature for long enough, it will cook through and through. If instead you turn the temperature dial way up and cook for a shorter period of time it will be burned on top but still raw in the middle. When cooking your tripod ball head with a propane torch, your aim is to burn it on top but keep it still raw in the middle.
After letting things cool off, just resume heating as before, and after a while you should achieve victory over the bonds of Loctite. When hot enough, the thread-locker compound will start to soften and you will be able to turn the clamp without turning the entire ball. As you start to break the chemical bonds, the compound will go from being solid as a rock to a sort of taffy-like consistency. You probably won't get the clamp to unscrew all in one clean movement since the Loctite will harden again as it starts to cool. But once you've gotten it to turn even a little bit, it won't re-bond as solidly as it was to begin with since the rotation will have left gaps and air pockets in the compound. Loctite works by wicking to fill the gap between the threads, creating an uninterrupted surface contact with the parts being joined. Once you've broken that contact some, it won't be able to reform as perfectly as it did when in its original liquid state. Eventually, the stuff will seem to almost crumble as it re-hardens attached to nothing but itself.
Just keep alternately reheating and turning and you will soon get the clamp off. Remember though to stop after each few attempts to let the whole thing cool down so you don't cook the insides of the ball head itself. This whole removal operation requires a bit of nerve and a great deal of patience. Don't rush things.
Once the clamp is off, you will probably find at least a little bit of the Loctite compound left on the threads. This should be fairly easy to clean up with an X-acto® knife or even a wire brush. Test fit your new clamp and clean until it goes on the now exposed threads smoothly.
You can now relax, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and take it easy until next week when I will discuss how to mount a new clamp. Of course if you want to use your tripod in the intervening days, you have my permission to not start disassembly until you have read both halves of the article.
As a footnote, if after reading all this, you decide not to attempt brain surgery on your ball head, you can buy a Markins ball head without any clamp through the Nikonians Pro Shop. Also, Kirk Enterprises offers a clamp replacement service for a fee for owners of their heads who want to get one of their newer model clamps. And Precision Camera Works in Niles, Illinois is an authorized repair center for Arca-Swiss and can perform clamp replacement. There are probably other repair services that will as well.