Homemade Underwater Video Housing

Since taking up diving I'd always thought it would be nice to show the rest of my family what it was like where I went. I already had a Sea & Sea MotorMarine II still camera but you can't beat moving pictures to really give people a feel for the underwater world.

With Robot Wars out of the way (see other links) I found myself with some free time and decided that an underwater video housing would make a nice project. I set about doing some research on the internet and found quite a few sites that sold housings but not much on how to build one. However it seemed that a simple cylinder with clear ends would be pretty easy to build. The original plan was to just switch the camera on and put it in the housing, film everything then edit it on the surface.

So the Mark I housing was born.

Mk I prior to painting - note blocks for clips and squashed piping for handles

Quadring seal cross section

I had been practising my negotiating skills for three years obtaining bits for Robot Wars so it was fairly easy to convince the local air ducting installer to let me have a few off-cuts of piping and a couple of flanges. He also had some polycarbonate sheet which was also donated for the end plates. The piping was cut to length and one piece glued inside the other to give it a bit of strength. At this stage I wasn't totally sure how much pressure the tube would stand. I had seen a commercial housing that used quad ring seals and these looked a good idea. Basically they are like an 'O' ring but have an X cross section so seal on two points on each side, if one seal started to leak hopefully the other one on that edge wouldn't. I found a supplier and bought a couple (£8.90 each) the right size.

I also had a good look at the spec sheet to get the grooves the right size. This is quite critical as for a good seal the ring must fit accurately into the groove. The grooves were then machined into the flanges and these were glued onto the ends of the pipe.

So far so good. The end plates were then machined to fit the flanges. Next I needed a way to hold the end plates on. Protex fasteners had a good range and I ordered eight clips at a cost of about £20.

To get the clips to line up with the edge of the flange I glued some blocks onto the flange. Handles were made from plumbing pipe - the larger bit was made by heating a round pipe in the oven then squashing it to the right shape - cheap and effective. The camera was an old one my Dad had in his attic, he had upgraded to digital.

The design worked fine down to a depth of 28 metres but at this stage the water pressure started to take it's toll and the end plates started to bend and leak a little. We later calculated that the 10mm thick ends had about 450 pounds of pressure on them !

OK, so back to the drawing board. 28 metres wasn't bad for a first attempt but I wanted at least 40 metres. The overall design was flawed as it was just not strong enough. I also learned that it's best not to paint anything until you are sure it will work - I got carried away when it worked on an 18 metre dive !

Enter the Mark II

Back to the web to search for some hefty pipe. Glynwed pipe systems the makers of durapipe had something that looked just the job, the only down side was that it costs 90 quid a metre and you have to buy 6 metre lengths - no chance. However after a chat with their rep he said he would see if he could find me an off-cut from one of the wholesalers, sure enough one of them had and he said I could have it for free, they would even post it to me. I couldn't believe my luck. This pipe has a nice thick wall - it's rated at about 300 psi - so I could machine the quad ring groove straight into the end of it - much better. Next for the end plates, 10mm was no good so I rang the local plastics supplier, two 8 inch square off-cuts of perspex 20mm thick sounded just the job, mine for 15 quid.

I had a few bits of pipe left so made the handles out of that - Bolt on this time so they could be removed for transit and I could take them off if I needed to put the housing back in a lathe later on. Then I took it for a dive with some lead in it to see if it leaked. At just under 40 metres I reached the bottom of the lake the seals were crushed so tight I could actually undo all of the clips and I couldn't move the end plates, and not a drop of water to be seen inside....success.

Then I thought..... wouldn't it be nice to control the camera. The old one was pretty poor quality so my wife bought me a better one for Christmas and it had infra red remote control. I ripped the controller to bits and soldered a couple of reed switches where the push buttons connected to the controller. Now by moving magnets around on the outside of the housing I could control the camera without drilling holes in the housing.

Click this image to enlarge

The only problem was that if the camera was left in pause mode too long it would go to sleep and it couldn't be woken up by the infra red remote. I got around this by using the same method to control a 12 volt solenoid. This operated the record on/off button and would allow the camera to be woken up if it switched off. The spring loaded levers just above the handles on each side control the on/off and zoom functions. Other functions can be added at a later date if required.

Infra red controller for zoom control

Solenoid operated record on/off

Camera out of housing

Camera in housing - lead for buoyancy adjustment
goes in space under camera mounting plate

In theory the end plates should have a curve to make the lens on the camera focus properly however in practice the images are pretty good. I'm not a professional videographer and a commercial housing will normally cost upwards of £1000. Mine cost me about £50 !

You want to build one ? Take a look here for more construction details including scale plans.

I have a selection of movie clips from Stoney Cove, these were taken without a filter or lights and are reasonable - they are compressed heavily so take a look at the other clips I have done at scapa, lanzarote and Mexico (at the bottom) for better quality. The lake is very green at this time of year, hopefully a filter will bring up the other colours.

The Viscount - 7 Metres 1.2MB
The Hydrobox - 32 Metres 920K
A Fish - 10 Metres 428K

Scapa Flow movies with the MK II here

Update - MK II Housing went to a new record of 42 metres at Scapa Flow with a camera inside it and no leaks !!!

Smaller is better - the Mark III

Having convinced my wife that I was getting quite good at doing this without trashing cameras I managed to persuade her to let me build a housing for our new Sony digital camera. The Mark II worked well but was a bit on the large side (and heavy with all that lead) - no problem in the UK but taking it on a plane was a problem. The Sony was very small and I thought that if I made it a tight fit in the housing I could keep the size down and reduce the amount of lead required to make it neutral. Well here are the results.

The housing has one end fixed and the other end sealed with a standard O ring - these are cheap compared with £9 each for the Quad Rings used in the Mark II. The handle on the right side is velcro and wraps around my hand - adjustable for gloves in cold water if required. The lanyard keeps it all safely connected to me. The spring clips have security retainer clips on them just in case - I don't want them to come undone - the wife will kill me. Very little machining required - just turn the ends of the tube square, turn the top hat shape into the end piece and turn the other end and glue to the tube. I did glue extra pieces onto the tube where the clips are to give a bit more material to screw into. There is a small piece of lead under the shelf that the camera sits on to make the whole thing neutral in the water.
So far the housing has been tested to 35 metres without problems. I have no doubt it will go a lot deeper than this. I made a canister light for a friend and the battery holder was almost identical to this housing - so far it's been down to 82 metres without leaking !

I was asked how deep one of my housing could go before it failed. I said I didn't know. The chap who asked said he could test one for me in a very deep flooded mine shaft, so I said I'd send him my own unit (shown above) to test. It managed a couple of dives to 100 metres (yes, metres NOT feet) with no leaks. Then he tried it to 150 metres. It got to 146.3 before the load on the end cap caused it to crack, a computer placed inside the housing recorded the exact depth. That's around 230 PSI, which I calculated put around 1.4 tons on the end plate - pretty impressive and it surprised me it got that deep. The tube was fine and the end plate did not break completely but just cracked where the o ring groove is - see the picture right. This was caused by the load in the middle of the end plate trying to break the lip at the edge off. I made a new end plate and the housing is back in use. I'm now working on a modified version that we will test to 200 metres.

You want to build one ? Take a look here for more construction details including scale plans.

You want to buy one ? Take a look here. I have refined the design of the Mk III and you can now buy one.

Lanzarote Movies with the Mk III here

Still clips from video of Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico. Movies coming soon.

Looking for a stills camera housing ? Take a look at Tim O'Brien's home made housing

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