A SMALLER Darkroom

By Chris Woodhouse Back to

Woodhouse_MA_2009_1

A common dilemma facing the amateur printer is creating a dedicated darkroom space within the domestic environment. Like many amateurs, I initially used a spare bedroom, hastily converted, with a simple work surface suspended between bedside cabinets, trays, buckets, and a nearby bathroom for washing. The inevitable family expansion prompted a re-think. This article looks at my two successive solutions, which provide a permanent space dedicated to computer and photographic work. The first solution combined office and darkroom equipment in a loft conversion over my garage. This 8×8-foot space contained a full wet darkroom, a computer system, and storage for bulky photographic lighting equipment. The high density and the unusual sloping walls of the garage loft caused a considerable amount of head banging (literally) during the planning stage. A subsequent solution relocated the darkroom into the back of the garage and made the loft conversion into a full digital darkroom and office. In these small spaces, maximum usage is only obtained by designing the units carefully and selecting your equipment with care.

Loft conversion

Most UK garages are small affairs, hardly wide enough for modern cars, let alone SUVs. In my case, an adjoining garage yielded an 8×8-foot loft space with 45° sloping walls on two sides to the floor, a door at one end from the bedroom and a triangular wall at the other. The finished room has hot and cold plumbing as well as electrical outlets at f loor and worktop level. The f loor was insulated from the unheated garage below with thick cork tiles and finished with several coats of waterproof varnish to keep dust to a minimum and avoid static.

Figure 1. The loft conversion with the enlarger at the roof apex, with office to the right, and sink, slot processor, and developing equipment to the left. This compact space is very efficient, with considerable storage under the worktops for lighting equipment, tripods and such.

The room has two safelights, wired in behind the plasterboard, coming to a socket on the wall close by the enlarger. These are controlled by the enlarger timer, so that they were automatically extinguished during measurement and printing. The safelights were positioned on the wall above key work areas to ensure good illumination at all times. Two additional separate room lights were fitted; a conventional tungsten bulb and a 100-watt daylight- simulation bulb, placed so that they do not reflect in the computer display. A portable oil-filled immersion heater, rather than a dust-disturbing fan heater, supplies winter warmth. The building work concluded with a dormer window and an extractor fan above the sink. The empty room was finally painted—black above and behind the enlarger, white for the side walls and finished off with an acrylic varnish around the sink area to give some water protection to the painted surface. The dormer window was made light proof with heavy-duty blackout cloth, fastened with black Velcro to the wooden surround.

Garage conversion

A second computer user and an upgrade to large format prompted further changes. Second time around, I was able to create a purpose-built darkroom within half the garage space, otherwise destined as a junk-store. Within a similar floor space, a full wet darkroom is combined with a work area for matting, framing, and storage for photographic and framing materials. Upstairs, the off ice was extended to accommodate a second computer and inkjet printers simply by creating a mirror image of the prior off ice side with filing cabinets and kitchen worktops.

Figure 2. The garage darkroom, taken from the doorway, with the mounting table extended on the right.

The garage conversion uses half a single-width garage. The single brick walls were insulated and finished off with painted chipboard. This sandwich provides effective insulation as well as easy fixing for shelves, an enlarger column, and cabinets. Similarly, the garage floor was lined with insulating polystyrene underneath a painted chipboard covering. The new installation has an additional cold-water outlet, dedicated to an archival washer and uses push-fit garden hose couplings on taps and hoses for quick changeovers. Luckily, the water quality in my area is excellent and does not require softening or filtration.

As before, I added strategically placed ground- and work-surface- level power outlets, protected by a sensitive earth leakage current breaker at the nearby fuse box. The three safelights, controlled by the enlarger transformer, are mounted to the wall by the sink, enlarger, and worktop area. Two 60-watt tungsten lights are fitted to the ceiling, ideal for general lighting and print evaluation, with an essential pull-cord actuation. A slightly larger oil-filled immersion heater of 1.5kW was required for winter heating.

The plastic sink, worktop section, and base units were redeployed from the loft conversion and installed downstairs. A bathroom extractor fan, with a lightproof muffler, made from black-painted elbow bends was inserted in the dividing wall for ventilation. A ventilation grille was set into the base of the door and a folded, lightproof air path attached to the inside surface. The solitary window in the door was blacked out with heavy-duty blackout cloth fastened with black Velcro tape. Although the initial adhesion of self-adhesive Velcro tape is high, I find that, over time, it degrades and peels. So this time I also stapled the tape to the wooden framework and blackout cloth at regular intervals. This room requires three 15-watt Photax VF safelights, positioned above key work areas. As before, the walls and ceiling close to the enlarger were painted black to reduce reflections and acrylic varnish applied around the sink area. A luminous clock is positioned above the sink and luminous stickers mark out strategic switches and controls in the dark.

Figure 3. The dry side, with mounting press, shelves to store the unused mount cutter, drying racks and cooling press. The freezers hold f ilm, food, and beer—the necessities of life.

Darkroom layout

In both cases, the darkroom furniture was made from recycled and adapted kitchen units, worktops and doors, made easier by ensuring the unit widths were in multiples of 10cm. In the case of the loft conversion, the work-surface height and depth was determined after carefully considering the maximum height of the enlarger, the depth of the sink, and most importantly, how close I could stand to the sloping walls without banging my head. Having positioned this in space, the units underneath were designed according to their individual storage needs.

This is a compact darkroom. The worktop length is just eight feet in both darkrooms and is insufficient for tray-processing large f iber prints. Tray-processing large prints also quickly creates a stale atmosphere within a small space. The perfect solution is to develop prints in Nova vertical slot processors and wash prints in an archival print washer. Their footprints are minimal, they are temperature controlled, quick to deploy, quicker to wrap-up, and, with care, the chemistry can be reused. When not in use, simple lids reduce oxidation and vapors to a minimum. In the loft conversion, I used 12×6-inch models and in the case of the current darkroom, upgraded them to 16×20-inch versions.

In both cases, the Nova units are supported on reinforced extensions, to improve the ergonomics (and clearance) of pulling prints out of the slots. I standardize on 24°C, using the four slots for developer, stop bath, fix 1, and fix 2. When not in use, the Nova units are pushed back against the wall. To make this easy and avoid spills, the rubber feet are fitted with shiny plastic spacers, so that their heavy mass glides around with a slight push. All my prints are fiber- based, normally on my dwindling stock of Agfa Multicontrast Classic. (I’m hoping Adox launches its replacement product before I run out). After experimenting with four or five different paper developers, I returned to Agfa Neutol WA, for its excellent blacks and keeping properties. I replenish the developer with 300 ml of new solution with each session and as the developer ages, factorial development, calculated by a RH Designs process timer, ensures print consistency. From cold, this darkroom is ready to go within an hour. The stop bath is a weak citric acid solution and the two-bath fixer uses the alkali TF-3 recipe from The Darkroom Cookbook. The first fixer solution is regularly checked for silver content and discarded when the archival limit is reached. It is then substituted with the second fixer solution and fresh chemistry used for the second fixer bath. Compared to conventional acidic rapid fixers, an alkali fixer needs half the wash time to reduce the thiosulfate levels to archival levels and does not cause early precipitation in selenium or gold toners. The splash risk from the proximity of the Nova units to the enlarger has not been an issue. The only care required is to ensure that backwards contamination, arising from fixer draining off the print, do not fall into the developing slot.

To the left of the Nova unit, a 24×32-inch plastic sink is set into the worktop. This is just big enough to accommodate two 16×20-inch trays for toning and after-treatments. The one exception is sulf ide toning, which requires an open field and a favorable wind. Above the sink, a shower accessory serves as a mini drying rack. The consistency of film development is improved by repeatable agitation and temperature. A used Jobo CPE-2 processor provides both. I discarded the original developing tanks in favor of the latest models, which fill and empty more quickly, while film slides more easily into the white spools. Horizontal rotation is also very economical, and one can use as little as 300 ml of chemistry to develop two roll films at the same time. For C41, the automatic agitation and temperature control also reduces the likelihood of streaks and color-casts and allows inexpensive, rapid proof processing (through digital scanning and printing). By chance, the Jobo unit just fits across the moulded plastic darkroom sink.

Beneath the Nova, a custom built trolley on castors, similar in concept to a librarian’s, carries all the chemicals. This double-sided unit was made from spare pieces of chipboard and allows easy access to more than 40 bottles, yet pushes away out of sight and little fingers. Various shelves and cabinets under the worktops hide all the paraphernalia of a working darkroom. A 100-cm-wide paper safe is installed directly beneath the enlarger; with internal shelves and partitions it swallows an indecent amount of paper. Its design is a scaled up version of the classical drawer-in-a-sleeve design with light traps around the front housing, waxed runners for smooth operation, and ventilation to allow the air to escape. Thankfully, the effort to overcome the inertia of the drawer is greater than

the strength of small children. I resist explaining its construction further, since although its function is fine, it is not a project I could recommend. Taking into account the time it took to construct and for the fogged paper arising from formaldehyde fumes, I believe a purchased unit makes more sense. The shelves beneath are wide enough to hold extra 12×16-inch paper boxes, files, small easels or digital scanners, and A3+ inkjet printers behind doors.

Mounting and framing

The mounting and framing work-area was initially located randomly in the back of the bare garage. It is now installed opposite the darkroom equipment. The workflow progresses from left to right. A kitchen worktop extends across the width of the garage with another hinged along the front edge as a fold out flap. When not in use, this folds down to enclose the conservation board, glass and framing materials. Folded out, it is supported by two drop- down legs, and offers a work area deep enough to accept a 42-inch matt cutter. Dry-mounting is accomplished with a used Seal dry-mount press. I prefer this mounting technique for f iber paper but the heat destroys RC prints and glossy inkjet papers. I also find the press quickly

flattens fiber-base prints after drying. To keep freshly mounted prints flat, a home-made press, fabricated from two squares of 40mm worktop, clamps the mounted print flat whilst it cools. It sits conveniently on top of the freezer. The insulation and environmental control of this garage space approximates to the domestic environment, and in practice I find mount board is about the right moisture level for dry-mounting.

Figure 4. The wet side, with three taps, plastic sink, film and print processors, darkroom timers, enlarger, easel, and papersafe. Everything is within easy reach and important controls are marked with luminous stickers. Penline masks are on top of the custom paper safe.

Equipment

In the loft conversion, an LPL enlarger was positioned at the apex of the roof to allow for maximum headroom. In the latest darkroom, a Devere 504 enlarger replaces the LPL, which is able to reach its full height in its new home. After using the adjusting screws to level the frame, base, lens stage and head in both axes, the column was stabilized by means of a simple wooden bracket screwed to the wall. A final check, using a homemade laser alignment jig, described in my book Way Beyond Monochrome, ensures prints are sharp corner to corner.

The Devere 504 is fitted with an Ilford Multigrade 500 head. It is easy to forget that the original unit was designed and calibrated to work with Multigrade II paper and it’s not so surprising to f ind that it is unable to produce the softest grades with some modern papers. To overcome this limitation, I replaced the green dichroic filter with a yellow one, robbed from a color head. I also modified the mixing boxes, replacing the clear diffusers with white diffusers, to reduce the light output by a few stops. This extends the printing times into the 10-30–second range, a more practical proposition when dodging and burning.

The head is connected to its substantial transformer, which also powers the cooling fans and safelights. This transformer also connects to a RH Designs Analyser 500, which replaces and improves upon the venerable Ilford 500 CPM control unit. This combined meter and ƒ-stop timer is specifically designed to measure and control print exposure and contrast, in fractions of ƒ-stops and to 1/10 grade. I don’t have a standard printing time, since I use many papers, films, formats, and enlargement sizes.

I prefer to set the enlarging lens to its optimum aperture and simply change the exposure time to alter the print exposure. I find, with a few well-chosen readings, the Analyser predicts an excellent straight print on its first attempt. From this starting point a test strip, in small exposure increments around the metered exposure, determines any fine exposure adjustments or allowances for processing or material variances. In this latest unit, the light ratio between the green and blue exposures is controlled to 1/100 second and is calibrated for each paper, so, when switching papers, it is able to reproduce the exact same effective print contrast and by changing both lamp exposures independently. Unlike the Ilford unit, which controls the intensity of the two bulbs and switches them on coincidentally for the full exposure time, this design forms the exposure from sequenced “soft” and “hard” exposures. This allows creative dodging and burning techniques during the consecutive exposures, making use of the benef its of split-grade printing. Print tools, lenses, magnets, and accessories are on shelves adjacent to the enlarger.

The easel is a substantial 24×24 inch Quadro pen-line magnetic easel, sadly no longer in production. The principal of the two masks is deceptively simple. An opaque plastic sheet has an oblong shape, the size of the image, cut from its center, to form an outer frame. The cut out is trimmed by 1 mm along two adjacent edges and retained. In practice, the image is exposed with the frame clamped on top of the paper and the pen-line is burned in with a torch or flasher, with the central cut out positioned centrally in the frame. One only realizes the required accuracy and durability, when you try to make one. I f ind most of my printing needs are met with four formats, (1:2, 2:3, 4:5, and 1:1) in three sizes. standardizing print and frame sizes does allow me visual consistency between prints, as well as allowing mats, over-mats and frames to be cut and stored in bulk for later convenient deployment.

I refrain from using heated print dryers in a small space, instead prefering to squeegee the excess water off my prints and negatives and allow them to slowly air-dry. The darkroom surfaces are wiped over frequently with a damp cloth and whilst negatives are drying, I vacate the darkroom, close the door behind me and take a break, to prevent stirring up unnecessary dust. When not in use, I cover the enlarger head with a plastic bag. It is worth the effort, since I rarely need to spot prints. Lastly, no darkroom is complete without music. Listening to music in the dark is a tonic by itself and when lith-printing, with its prolonged exposure and development cycles, it is essential. An old amplifier, MP3 player and two old Realistic metal cased speakers complete the inner sanctum. A cordless phone and a remote doorbell keep me in contact with the outside world and f inally, to keep me and the darkroom as fragrant as possible, a small fan, f itted with a perfumed carbon filter is turned on during printing and toning sessions. It is my computer-free home-from-home.


About the Author

Chris Woodhouse
CWoodhouse
Chris Woodhouse ARPS, is an English electronic engineer and photographer, who designs f/stop timers and enlarger meters. He is the co-author of Way Beyond Monochrome. This article is a revised and shortened version of a new chapter that will appear in the second edition, which is due for completion this year. www.beyondmonochrome.co.uk