Building a traditional 'wet' darkroom is a lot easier than most people imagine. You don't need running water; you don't need much space; and with the Gadarene rush to digital, there are endless quantities of darkroom equipment on the market at rock-bottom prices -- often, indeed, free for the asking. We hope that this module will help you design your darkroom and help you avoid some of the mistakes we have made over the years. It's also an unashamed plug for the Nova darkroom tent, which we have now used in three houses, in three countries, and for Nova deep-slot tanks.
Roger had his first full-time darkroom in 1966; he was on to his fourth by the time he met Frances, so 'his' darkroom became 'ours'. Since then the darkroom has become increasingly Frances's: she refers to our current one (seventh, eighth or ninth, depending on how you count) as hers.The point of this rather long-winded anecdote is that for the best part of the last 40 years, Roger has had access to a more-or-less permanent darkroom -- in other words, one that didn't have to be set up and taken down each time he wanted to use it -- and Frances has had one ever since she got serious about photography. As a result we have learned a bit about darkroom design. But there is always more to learn. Even our present darkroom is some way from perfect.
The first was in Roger's parents' Royal Navy married quarters in Bermuda. It was nominally a second 'half bath' (loo, shower, handbasin), but when he was home from boarding school in England it was pretty much a full-time darkroom.
The second was in a steel-walled bomb shelter under a Georgian granite house belonging to his girlfriend's parents (her father was a very generous man). No drain or running water, though.
The third was combined with a laundry and store room in Scotland, again at his parents' married quarters. Drain and running water.
The fourth was in his own first house in Bristol from 1974 to 1987, which was where Frances learned to print. This was the first of our darkrooms, as distinct from Roger's. No drain or running water.
The fifth, 1987-1992, was in the garage of his parents-in-law in Guadalupe, California. At first we blacked out the whole garage but then we installed a Nova tent. No drain or running water.
The sixth (or possibly still the fifth, but in a different place) was back in the Nova tent again while we built the seventh (or sixth). In 1992 we bought a huge Victorian terraced house in Birchington, Kent. The Nova Tent moved from room to room as we carried out renovations, including building the darkroom in the former dining room. The house had been half-converted to flats so we had running water and drainage (including a toilet, which was soon removed) in the dining room when we bought the house. We sold it a decade later.
The eighth (or possibly back to the fifth) was the Nova Tent again, now somewhat modified with an internal skeleton, in a little house that we borrowed for six months while we were looking for somewhere to buy in France. Once again, no running water or drainage.
The ninth (or possibly seventh), the present version, is in the former wine cellar of our house in France, which we bought in March 2003. By now, the darkroom is not so much 'Roger's' or even 'ours': Frances refers to it quite automatically as 'mine'.
We make no apology for starting here. Many photographers develop horrible hacking smokers' coughs without ever having smoked in their lives. Only a few photographic chemicals are noticeably irritating to the lungs, and quite a lot are harmless, but there are still plenty that are low-grade irritants. We generally prefer positive-pressure ventilation from a light-trapped fan blowing into the darkroom -- that way, less dust is sucked in -- but in our present darkroom we have both an impeller (from a light-trapped plenum open to the outside) and an extractor (into the roof-space beneath the floor above). We normally use both, except in very cold weather, when we use only the extractor instead of blowing in icy air from the exterior.
running water and sink
Running water is by no means essential; of the nine darkrooms listed above, five didn't have it (counting the three generations of the Nova tent as three darkrooms). But it does make life an awful lot easier if you don't have to leave the darkroom to wash your pictures. What we did in the Nova tent was used a big cooker -- one of those insulated ice-bucket things designed for picnics -- as a holding tank for fixed prints, washing them in batches. The print washers we use or have used are a Paterson vertical tank (tricky to set up but economical), a Nova vertical tank (archival excellence) and a Paterson flat-bed (quite wasteful of water but highly convenient).
In the Birchington darkroom, the sink was too small (an ordinary stainless steel kitchen sink) and the taps were too low: we couldn't get tall graduates under them, or wash trays conveniently. Also, having only one cold tap is limiting: you have to disconnect the washer to wash off the Nova clips, and so forth. This is why in our current darkroom we have two cold taps and one hot, all with Hozelock quick-connectors on them.
This is the first darkroom where we have a proper darkroom sink (De Ville), and we did not install it quite right: there is no fall. The corner farthest from the drain should really be about 3 or 4cm (an inch and a half) higher than the drain corner. Otherwise water puddles in it.
film processing equipment
It's hard to have too much storage space. We underestimated what we would need in our latest darkroom and have had to resort to extra shelves and cupboards in the auxiliary darkroom (the stone flag room) outside.
equipment drying space
paper and film dryers
floor, walls and ceiling
When we bought the house, the wine cellar that is now our darkroom was impossibly basic: stone walls, an earth floor, and a ceiling composed partly of wood nailed to the joists of the floor above and partly of cardboard stapled in place.
The floor is now tile over concrete slabs, and the walls and ceiling are hollow plastic tongue-and-groove 'lambris' glued to rot-treated uprights with ventilation spaces between the inner and outer walls. The plastic wall material is waterproof; an excellent insulator in its own right; easy to keep clean; attracts dust, by virtue of a slight static charge (Swiffers or similar cleaning cloths are ideal for cleaning it); and is sealed at all joints with silicone rubber to keep dust at bay, though ventilators were deliberately installed at intervals. The only real drawback, as noted above, was that we didn't allow enough uprights to fix more shelves, which would have been a good idea.
Tile is unforgiving if you drop things, but very easy to clean and of course waterproof.
the bottom line
A darkroom is a luxury, it's true, but it is also a haven from the outside world and the best route to ultimate quality -- and you could even set up a Nova tent in a garage. If you really want the best from silver halide photography, or even from a hybrid set-up where you scan silver halide images, you need to take control of as much of your processing as you can.
manufacturers' web sites
De Vere -- www.odyssey-sales.com
De Ville -- www.argentic.com
Nova -- www.novadarkroom.com
Paterson -- www.patersonphotographic.com
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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks