Drying prints in the darkroom…a little history on how we did it back in the day.

Article Dedication

in Honor of

Alfred Eisenstaedt & Andreas Feininger


On one of the photo forums a poor film photog was complaining his prints were sticking to the blotter and the image was getting marred. On another forum a member found a bunch of old ferrotype plates and asked what they were used for.

Look at what this member on that forum said a ferrotype plate is used for…

Terri wrote:

Ferrotypes is a wet-plate darkroom process. You can still do them today, I’ve never done one though. I believe you simply coat the plate with liquid emulsion and expose it, develop it and fix in a regular darkroom. I believe the plates are made of baked tin, but honestly I don’t know details. It’s one of those things considered an “alternative photographic process” that is really just an old-timey darkroom process. They can look beautiful.

Goddamn, some of these camera fondlers on the forums don’t know their ass from the proverbial hole in the ground…do they. Let me give you a little history on how we did it back in the day when it came to print drying in the wet darkroom…

When I was a kid the first prints I made were dried on an indoor clothesline with clothespins. The prints dried crinkled up and with a imperfection where they were held by the clothespin. When many of us first started doing darkroom prints back in the 60’s we got mesmerized how we could get glossy prints by ferrotyping them. So  I soon saved up some money to buy a basic flat heated ferrotype unit.


I think the basic flat heated ferrotype units were $22.95 back then. Plain ferrotype plates were just a few dollars each. I was always in a hurry so I did not use unheated ferrotype plates all that much. If I had the odd print or two and didn’t care if they dried fast I would squeegee them onto a flat ferrotype plate and let them dry overnight. In the morning the prints had popped off the plates. They also had a good curl to them and had to be pressed to make them flat. If you want you can try using Photo-flo on the prints for ferrotyping. It helps with the small pinhole imperfections on the gloss.

When I got a few more bucks I advanced on to  a drum roller heated ferrotype machines to pop prints out fairly quick. Although if we rushed the drying too much we would get ‘clamshell’ breaks in the emulsion from the prints being forced to peel off the plate before it was ready. Another problem was contaminating the canvas backing on the drum or flat dryer. If we rushed our washing or it picked up chemicals in the darkroom it could get fouled.

When I was broke and had to sell my gear to get to get by I would use old broken window glass to ferrotype on. Actually the glass worked fantastic. It was not subject to all the scratches and pitting the ferrotype plates would get with wear and tear. But, there were a couple of problems with the glass. One time I knocked a glass plate over in the dark and it shattered all over the darkroom. I would also cut my hand on the sharp edges every so often.

After I got sick of ferrotyped shinny gloss prints I went to air dried ‘F’ surface prints looking for a more refined ‘artsy’ look. For this I would use print blotters. To use a print blotter correctly you can’t throw a sopping wet print in it and press it down to dry with a heavy weight. You will ruin the print, the emulsion will stick as it is gelatin.

What you camera fondlers need to do is to have a few clean dishrags that have a very fine weave to them. Keep them clean and wash them without dryer chemicals. Put the wet prints in between the towels and dry them off by lightly pressing. After a few minutes being pressed lightly between the towels you can transfer the prints to the blotter book.

If you don’t have dishrags then have 3 or 4 blotter books. Use blotter books to progressively dry the prints so the final book is where the prints will end up in until they are done. The prints should look dryish when they come out from between the towels – but they still should be like a limp, wet noodle. You put them face up to the release paper with their backs on the blotter paper.

If you want a little extra drying before you close the book you can put the emulsion face to face with the blotter paper and very lightly press them for a 5 to 10 minutes before you open up the book to put the prints into final formation.

A telltale sign your prints are too wet for the blotter is if the blotter and release paper start to get warped and buckled. Once you buckle the cover sheets they may leave ridges on your prints. If you screw up your blotter book this way they use it for the rough drying where you are sopping up lots of water. Don’t use it for final drying.

If  your blotter book is ruined by you putting in sopping wet prints and warping the release paper, you can still use it. Just rip out the thin release paper and just keep the heavy blotter paper in the book. You can use it with the heavy paper only but the prints have to be near dry when you put them in the book or they may stick to the blotter paper. Don’t put a heavy weight on the blotter book if you have removed the release paper. Experiment with your crap prints so you can determine best what the moisture content of the print should be. Another trick is to rotate the prints in the book a third of the way into their drying time. Set a timer and move the prints around to a new page – this helps with any sticking.

After all this rigmarole, I went over to archival processing and started to air dry the prints on simple screens in a cabinet. The prints took on a terrible curl as well as crinkle set to them. Since I was going to dry mount them or at the very least press them flat in the dry mount press, all this distortion was not a big deal to me. You can try sandwiching the prints between 2 screens with a little gap between them. It helps with controlling curl.

Nowadays I seldom do any wet printing, although I still deal with some aspects of it for maintaining my large archival collection of found vintage photography.

Vintage 1973 Agfa Brovira print left – 2012 Hahnemühle  Inkjet print right.

'Left Silver Gelatin Print - Right Hahnemuehle Ink Jet Print' Copyright 2013 Daniel Teoli Jr. mr