I found a few things that may have been causing problems:
(1) Whoever put the lens cell together last didn’t pay any attention at all to the little registration marks that the maker had carefully placed on the edges of the lenses, to show how they were supposed to be aligned with each other. I fixed that, as you see in the photo below. The reason this is probably important is that the lenses are probably not completely symmetrical around their central axes, and the maker ‘figured’ (polished away small amounts of glass) them so that if you lined them up the way he planned it, the images would be good; otherwise, they would probably not work well at all and could very well be causing the poor star test images we saw.
2. The previous assembler also put eleven little tape spacers around the edges, between the two pieces of glass. More is apparently not better; experts say you should have three spacers, each 120 degrees apart from the other two. Done.
3. The bottom (or ‘flint’) element is slightly smaller than the other one (the ‘crown’), so it probably shifted sideways. That alone would be enough to mess up the star tests in the way that we saw. So I wrapped two thicknesses of blue painter’s tape around the outside of the flint, and put some three cardboard shims between the edges of the ‘crown’ and the aluminum cell.
4. There were no shims at all between the flint and the aluminum ring that holds it in place underneath. This caused some small scratches on the glass, and might have been warping the glass. I put in three small shims of the same type of blue painter’s tape, lined up with the other spacers.
We will see if these improvements help. I really don’t want to haul this all the way out to Hopewell Observatory and struggle with putting it back on the mount for a star test. That was just way too much work, much more than I expected! The next test will be with an optical flat placed in front of the lenses, and a Ronchi grating.
I would like to thank Bart Fried, Dave Groski, and several other people on the Antique Telescope Society website for their advice.
By the way, these photos show how we held the refractor on the mounting plate for the Ealing mount at Hopewell Observatory.