Platinum and Other Alternative Processes – Equipment and Materials Required to Make the Fine Print

This article discusses quite in detail what is needed, from a beginner point of view, to make contact prints in platinum-palladium with a particular emphasis on digital negatives. We will also see what is needed to present the fine print, i.e. spotting and mounting. Finally, how you can prepare your own chemicals and, since some equipment can be home built, DIY instructions are also included.

Equipment and parts required and where to get them.

Making the negatives:
Computer w/Photoshop………………………………………………you probably already have it
Ink-jet printer………………………………………………………….you probably already have it

Darkroom/Printing:
UV unit……………………………………………………………………DIY / electrical materials suppliers
Contact printing frame………………………………………………..DIY
1,5″ Wash brush (best quality not cheap)…………………………art shop or online
Short glass, 2ml syringes…………………………………………….hardware shop / chemist
Amber bottles with dropper………………………………………….Bostick&Sullivan
Dryer……………………………………………………………………..hardware shop + DIY
Blotting paper…………………………………………………………..local art shop
Electronic Timer………………………………………………………..shops /online
Mechanical timer……………………………………………………….darkroom equip. supplier / online
5 Trays, 2 tongs………………………………………………………..darkroom equip. supplier
Drying rack………………………………………………………………DIY
Scales…………………………………………………………………….eBay / shops

Hot air heater……………………………………………………………bathroom furniture supplier
Press………………………………………………………………………DIY / hardware store

Spotting:
Scalpel (good quality)………………………………………………….framing equip. supplier
Loupe (large size)………………………………………………………photo equip. supplier
0000 brush (good quality)…………………………………………….art shop

Mounting:
Mount cutter………………………………………………………………framing equip. supplier

As you can see nothing too difficult to find. If you do not have Photoshop (you do not need the latest version of course, any version will be sufficient) there are several other graphic programs which cost less or are even free. To print, I would say that any modern ink-jet will be up to the job. Since Epson printers are very diffused we will discuss a curve that should work on any Epson model with ultrachrome inks (starting with the economic Epson R 800/1800).

Supposing then that you already have a computer dropshipping with Photoshop and a printer, the next most expensive item is the UV unit. This is easy to make and it took me less than one weekend to build it. I made a simple wooden frame, and then I used 10 x 450mm Philips UV lamps connected each with ballast and a starter, which is the minimum to make 8×10″ prints. When ordering these materials also get some electrical leads for the wiring, a switch, a few fans big and small (like those inside a PC, from the power supply and from the CPU) and the plastic fitting for the bulbs. The fans are recommended but not mandatory.

There is very little if nothing to solder and the schematics are very simple. Here is the detailed list of the parts:

10 Lamp 15W 450mm length (or more) 1″ diameter 365nm wavelength G13 cap
10 Ballast 15W (also called switch start/choke)
10 Starter for fluorescent lamp
10 Starter holders
20 Lamp holders
1 Switch
1 Computer power supply fan 110/220V
2 CPU fans 12V
1 Power supply 12V
1 Electrical leads for fluorescent wiring

These lamps are often called insects lamps, or black light lamps. Just make sure the wavelength is around 350/365nm. I am not sure whether tanning lamps are good for us since they are around 300nm.

The wiring is very easy. Connect the starter to two of the pins at the extremity of the tube. Of the remaining two free pins, one goes directly to the power (N), the other goes to the ballast and then to the power (H). So, just an easy wiring to be repeated for ten times. Please note that double-ballasts that feed two lamps exist, so you would need only five of them. However, I tried and they did not work for me, so I would stick to one ballast per lamp.

The cabinet is made from two separate pieces, made with MDF. The bottom part, with a sliding tray and just three vertical frames, and a hinged front to allow access. The upper part, which contains on one side the lamps and on the other the “electronics”, snugs into the bottom part from above. I can put spacers, to move the lamps higher, or I can remove some wood to lower them. As it is, the distance between the lamps (15W x 10 = 150W) is 4 inches which gives me the exposure time I want (~4 minutes).

In the upper part there is a small power supply which feeds a couple of 12V CPU fans in the top to take the heat off the ballasts. In the lower part there is a larger 110/220V fan because there is heat there too. The entire unit is indeed quite heavy. One thing that I did not do is to paint the inside white, but as said I was happy with my exposure time as it was. The lamps are quite close (5mm gap). In many years of use I have never replaced a lamp or any other component and, despite the “homemade” look, a basic unit like this one will serve you well.

Next thing to build ourselves is the contact printing frame, which is simply a wooden plate covered with a rubber sheet and a glass on top. To avoid uneven pressure, use a heavy glass (the heaviest you can find) secured with eight strong giant paper clips all around. There is no need to purchase one of those expensive “alternative process” center hinged contact frames, those are to inspect the print under the sun. Avoid side hinges and anything fancy or you will discover maybe at you 25th print that in the center (or in other parts) your prints are not sharp. Remember one of the beauties of contact printing is sharpness, even though pt-pd print can not exhibit the same sharpness as contact prints in silver, because of the paper. Before printing in platinum I was used to contact prints in silver, and Newton rings have always been an issue. Since I switched to platinum, the problem has disappeared, probably because of the rough paper I guess. Anyway, I believe there is no need to buy expensive anti-Newton glass.

The rest of the equipment needed in the darkroom is pretty much straightforward; an important item is the brush. I like the Grumbacher Golden Edge (size 1,5 inch) which is perfect for coating from 4×5 to 11×14 and larger. This brush has metal parts which will corrode. In my case I have been using mine for almost three years. I would not recommend either a cheap wash brush (too thin), and those Japanese brushes that seem appealing because not expensive and without metal parts, but in fact, they do not work and also leave tons of bristles. Finally, my advice about glass coating rods is: do not buy them, just use a brush.

At this point before starting buying and building you need to make your mind on what size you are going to print. Many books recommend 4×5″ to beginners, this is to me not a good advice, for you can not assess small prints easily. Personally I find small prints even more difficult to make than large prints. From a marketing point of view, and generally speaking, not only 4×5″ prints are more often ignored, but many collectors find 8×10″ the minimum size to make a purchase. So, I would go straight to 8×10″ and stay there even when you will be printing “professionally”, or at least until you are a real master. It is a convenient size, it does not require much coating, and it is perfect to be mounted either to 13×15″ or 16×20″ and hence sold mail order. It is also a good compromise between size and cost of the print and mounting board. With a standard sheet of mounting board you will be able to make either three 13×15″ mounts or two 16×20″ mounts (with over mount) with little waste. If you go for 8×10″ you will need slightly larger trays, but not too much: I print my 8×10″ images on 10×12″ paper or less, there is no need to leave a large border around the image which will be matted anyway. No doubt that big 10×20″ or 11×14″ platinum prints are something to behold, so for this reason, one thing that I would build oversized is the UV unit. Longer lamps do not cost much more and if in the future you really would like to try larger prints you will have just to buy new trays and make a new contact printing frame.

The five trays in the shopping list are for developer, clearing baths (3 trays) and the fifth is for a washing tray. This will be larger than the others (however, you will always wash one print at time). It is easy to make: at the end, make one hole on each vertical side, one in front of the other, just below the upper edge. Slide through the holes a rigid plastic pipe (I used one from a toy) which you will have previously provided with equally spaced (1/2″) holes. Connect a tube from the tap to one side of the pipe. Close the other side with a cork. You have got your cheap washer.

You will need to make a drying unit for the coated sheets (not for the final prints, which will be left to air dry overnight). I simply purchased one of those hot air heaters for bathrooms, which I mounted on top of a simple home made wooden box. The box has one side hinged and the bottom will be meshed to allow air and moisture to escape. I just lay the freshly coated paper at the bottom and the hot air will dry it up in a couple of minutes or less. Do not use hair dryers, for their heat is too concentrated and also they tend to spit particles (from the motor) on the paper. Drying the final prints is not a problem. With some more plastic mesh (purchased from a garden center, they also have sheets of rubber to pad the contact printing frame) I made four or five very basic drying frames, stacked one on top of the other and spaced about 8 inch.

Last thing in the list is a cold press to flatten the prints. Leaving the prints to flat under a bunch of books is not very professional! I used a large sheet of thick MDF for the base, then I made a sort of large flat box the same size of the base with two handles at the top, inside the box I fitted several sheets of lead (purchased from builders or roofing suppliers) which will make for a heavy top indeed. Between top and base, 5 or 6 sheets of acid free mount board same size of the base/lid will allow to flatten up to 15-20 prints at a time. One night is sufficient to make the prints sufficiently flat, two days is even better (which is important because we are going to mount them with corner tabs, i.e. not glued of course).

There are two timers in the list. I normally use a digital one (with alarm) for exposing the print (so I can do something else when exposing) and a traditional one (analogue) in the wet part of the darkroom to check developing and clearing/washing times.

In the darkroom you do not need the normal red or amber silver gelatin darkroom lights. I use two 40 Watt tungsten bulbs, one normal, and the other one blue. I use two separate switches so I can check the color of the print in daylight-like conditions (blue bulb) or any combination/strength of the two. Finally assessment of the print can not be made, however, when is wet.

You do not need a densitometer or a step wedge (unless you want to print traditional negatives).

Purchase some dark brown bottles from B&S, I would buy six 100ml with normal cap and 12 small 25ml bottles with dropper caps. You will be using seven small “working” bottles (pd, pt, sensitizer, Na2 x 4) when printing, and the others will serve to store the mixed solutions used to replenish the working bottles.

The scale should be quite accurate; I use a 50 grams digital scale to prepare the metals, and one larger and not so precise for mixing the developer chemicals.

Spotting is done with a good scalpel (such as Swann-Morton with flat handle ‘3’ and C10 blades) and a good quality small brush. The loupe should be large enough to allow you to work with both eyes open.

You will need a mount cutter. I use a Logan, nothing fancy but it does the job flawlessly. I bought the ‘intermediate’ model many years ago and then I made several modifications to enhance it (such as stops etc.). Store it vertically or flat otherwise it will warp. I use a new blade for almost each mounting session. Before being discarded, the used blades are recycled for a while into the Logan utility knife (inexpensive to buy) which is used to cut the full size boards. To do this, you will either need a straight edge (expensive) or you can use the same mount cutter, which I recommend. In this case purchase a mount cutter wide enough to cut full sheets.

Many beginners usually consider leaving the mounting job to a local framer: please do not do this. They are very expensive and what is worse, they often do not do a good job, let alone the annoyance to get them the prints, collect the work later etc. Also the work has to be very accurate because if you sell mounted prints (i.e. not framed), people will hold them in their hands and will see every flaw. I also recommend purchasing an inexpensive ‘burnishing bone’ used to flatten down the raised edges all around the mount, so your customers will not feel them with their fingers when holding the mounted print. Last reason to mount yourself is that if you follow my advice elsewhere in the articles about covering the black brush strokes with the over mount, you can use the bevel window to make some late minute adjustment to the cropping of the image. See Part 6 for detail about mounting.

One last thing you will need: relax! Especially if you come from printing in silver, you will enjoy the switch. Printing in platinum is much more natural and sort of laid back. After many years of traditional printing in silver (enlarging and then contact) I have found that a printing session in platinum is generally more enjoyable. Another great advantage when printing from digital negatives is that you can be almost sure, even before you step into the darkroom, that the print will be OK and only minor tweaks will be required.

Materials required.

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