February 28, 2010

Power to the darkroom!

I’m referring to electrical power, of course.

The good news is that the outlets in the upstairs darkroom are already on a separate breaker from the downstairs shop. The lights are not, but they are going to be redone anyway. At least I can shut off the breaker to the outlets and still have light to work for now. In any event, the darkroom will untimately be on its own circuits.

The bad news is that I am going to make changes and tracing the wiring is going to be a bit of a challenge. But, I’m up to it. I have enough experience at this sort of thing and know where to find out what I don’t know. I won’t be starting any electrical fires. After the mess with the floor, working on the electrical will be almost a break.

Right now, the outlets are at the usual 16-18” off the floor, and spaced out about 12’ apart – all to code. In addition to moving half of the existing outlets, I’ll add a few more. (Almost can’t have too many.) I’ll put the new and relocated outlets about 4’ off the floor, so that they will be above countertops and sinks, much as in a kitchen.

Lighting - safe and otherwise - is still in the design stage. And speaking of the design, here’s the current working drawing:

EDIT: (3/18/10) The door will open to the outside.

EDIT: (3/29/10) Or, maybe not.

February 21, 2010


One of the first steps in the darkroom construction was to pull up the carpet. I mean, who has carpet in a chemical darkroom? (I’m sure someone does …)

I haven’t gotten much work done on the project since the blog was started due to other priorities. I won’t elaborate here, just take my word for it. Anyway, I had set aside today to pull up the carpet. Pulling up carpet is pretty straightforward. Make some cuts so that it can be rolled up in manageable strips, and roll up the strips. The hard part is pulling up the tack strips if you’re not putting down new carpet. I was prepared for this since I’ve done it before.

So, I make the first cut and attempt to pull up a corner. Oh … my … god! It’s glued down! Who glues carpet to a floor? (I’m sure someone does …) I got it up, but I had to develop a technique that involved cutting much smaller strips. A lot more cutting, and a lot more work. This one hour job ended up taking about 5 hours!

And, on top of that, now I will have to put something down over the sub-floor, since I will never scrape all the glue up. If I decide on tile, no problem. I’ll just put the backer board down over the glue. But, I was thinking of sheet vinyl – the “no glue” type. May have to re-think. Stay tuned.

February 18, 2010

Hot Water

I’m not sure what to do about hot water.

If anything.

I’m in Texas. The problem here is that the tap water is often too hot, rarely too cold. I was fortunate at the old house to never have the water coming out of the tap at such a temperature that it would reticulate film, but I have heard such tales. I must have been far enough from the water tower that the water cooled running underground to the house. I expect much the same in the new house.

My prior darkrooms had not had any heated water until this last one. When I built it 12 or so years ago, I installed one of those two gallon (yes, 2) little water heaters that plugs into 110V. It quickly proved to be useless. Maybe it was too small, or maybe it suffered from only being turned on intermittently, but it was disappointing. Eventually, an old microwave made its way to the darkroom and served very well for heating water to mix chemicals.

So, is hot water needed? Not always needed, but helpful when it is needed. (Such as for cleaning up.) It has been suggested in a comment to a prior post to use an immersion heater for making enough water for mixing chemistry. The microwave takes care of that. It is also been suggested to get a standard tank heater and that is a very practical approach. This time I would put in a 20 gallon, however, now that there’s room and I can get 220V to it. The other alternative is a point of use heater. This would not store and maintain hot water when I wasn’t using it.

The point of use option is the most expensive, but if I could find the right unit, it could be the most efficient and effective. I say “could” since I have heard both good and bad things about them, so I need to do more research.

But, I have made an interim decision: I am going to “plan for” a hot water side when laying out the plumbing, but I will not install a heater, yet. At a later date, I can put in a tank or tankless, or do nothing and be cold only.

February 15, 2010

Where to start?

The start of any project is the planning. This plan starts with getting to know the space.

In back of our house is another building that is essentially a garage. The roof is pitched at 45 degrees and has a semi finished attic. The footprint of the garage is 18 x 22 feet. Because of the pitch of the roof, the attic is very tall and fortunately built with no rafters in the way. Two knee walls narrow the useful area to about 12 x 22, and with the stairwell taken out of that, the darkroom ends up being about 12 x 18, or 216 square feet. Considering that my prior darkroom was 7 x 9 (63 sqft), this is over triple the area!

The previous owner (or builder) had started finishing the space, as it was obviously built to be finished out, rather than as a standard attic. For one thing, there is a floor. If this had been intended strictly as a garage, shop or storage building, there would have no doubt been open rafters. So, the space is floored, and an actual stairwell up to it. And, there’s a window. The window is not a plus for a darkroom, but it will be dealt with. I suppose the intention of the builder could have been simply for second floor storage, but it just seems too well done for that.

There is some insulation, some drywall, (both unfinished) knee walls that are only framed and some really awful carpeting. There is a window air conditioner. The room had exercise equipment when we viewed the house while it was on the market. It was maybe a “man cave”, but no evidence of cable TV.

Of course, the gym gear is gone. I had hoped to leave the space empty until I got to work on it, but I had too much darkroom gear, including sinks and the like, so some of it ended up there for storage. It will all come out once actual construction starts.

The givens are that the carpet comes out, and the knee walls will be properly insulated, sheetrocked and painted. The lighting and the electrical will have to be re-done. The window unit will, at least, be replaced with one that both heats and cools; and depending on budget, I may get something fancier than a window unit. I know that a lot of darkrooms are not climate controlled and the users make do and just work when it’s tolerable. But, I have found that never having to worry about temperature and being able to use the darkroom comfortably at any time is as much a luxury as just having a darkroom.

Then there’s the plumbing. No plumbing in this building. Getting water to it is not a large issue, I can “tee” off an outside faucet and run a line underground. It’s the drain that is the problem to solve. In the old house, the darkroom was also in a separate building behind our house that was not plumbed (sound familiar?) Again, running a water line from an outside faucet was no problem. I ended up running the sink drain into a stock tank located under the building. Periodically, I drained the tank and used the grey water on the lawn. Not ideal, but there was no easy (or cheap) way to get to an actual drain, so this worked.

A similar arrangement will be used at this parallel situation at the new house. The only difference is that I won’t have the holding tank under the building since it is a slab. It will be to the back side (out of sight) and look like a rain barrel. It may, in fact, be a rain barrel. Fortunately, the new darkroom is on the second floor. At the old house, it was on the first floor, so having the tank under the floor was a plus.

Other than these things, the planning is still on-going. I tried making a floor plan and scale cut-outs of all the fixtures: sinks, enlarger tables, etc., and doing a “plan” this way. But, it was just too hard to visualize. So, I’m working full size and 3-D. At this point, I have the sinks set up and the biggest enlarger set up temporarily to decide the layout. This has been beneficial in a number of ways: not the least of which is I was able to confirm that my idea for running the drain outside to the rain barrel is feasible. I also discovered that because of the slope of the ceiling, placement of the enlargers needs to be considered from a vertical standpoint, too. Would have never known this from a floor plan. Still undecided on heated water. That one decision is enough for a later blog.

Why blog this?

I initially decided to blog the construction of my new darkroom simply to record the process in case the information and my experience could be useful to someone else.

I frequent three different photography web forums which all have discussions of darkroom related matters to varying degrees. One, APUG (Analog Photography Users Group) http://www.apug.org/forums/home.php, is devoted entirely to analog photography. APUG has a thread with pictures of different members’ darkrooms. This thread has proved valuable to some when contemplating creating their own darkrooms. Doing this blog takes that a step further by documenting the whole process.

Lately, though, it’s taken on a new, personal motivation. We moved into this house last April. It’s February and so almost ten months have passed and I have yet to really start on the work. First, we had to move and get the new house up and running. Then, I changed jobs in August – same employer, but slightly different duties and much more travel. Then, after adjustment to the new job settled down, it got to be late Fall and now Winter and it’s just too unpleasant to work in a raw space.

Well, it’s time! Not only have I not had the darkroom to work in, but I have taken very few pictures in the interim and the black and white film I have shot is sitting unprocessed on my desk. I’ve got to get back to photographing. I could set up a temporary way to work in one of the bathrooms, but I made a deliberate decision not to do that because I feared it would delay the permanent space that much more. My fear goes back to something my father always said, and I agree: “there is nothing more permanent than a temporary” solution.

At this point I may have to compromise (with myself) and at least process film, but not print. Also, I am going to get back to shooting more color, which will be processed by the lab, anyway. We’ll see.

In any event, I have vowed to get to working on the darkroom and will use the blog to keep myself motivated. No one wants to read a blog that hasn’t been updated in months!

Atrum Cella Novus

This is a blog to record the building of my new darkroom.

Now, as everyone knows, film is dead. Everybody is digital. This has been widely reported on the internet and in the newspapers. Not unlike the fact that barbershop singing, tube amps, and V-8 engines no longer exist.

Professional photographers who have not already converted to digital are dismantling their chemical darkrooms faster than high-schoolers are learning to text while driving. Amateurs, or at least casual shooters, no longer have the need to develop and print their own pictures. In fact, the do-it-yourself market probably peaked decades ago about the time one hour labs appeared in every drug and grocery store.

Also dead are camera stores. The few remaining ones can hardly compete with the electronic big boxes and other stores that sell digital cameras alongside the computers, printers, and plasma TVs. Besides, most camera stores made their money on processing and printing film, and that has all but gone away.

None the less, and to the astonishment of many, (including a huge proportion of camera salespeople) photo chemicals are still made and sold. Film and paper is still available, and so are tons of used (and new) cameras and darkroom equipment. Everything a film photographer needs is available through the digital instantness of the internet. No irony there.

So, what about this darkroom business? Why would one bother with the time and trouble and the smelly chemicals? There are those of us who remain in the darkroom for a number of reasons, but the main one has to be that we simply enjoy it and prefer the process over others. Nothing against the new technology (“some of my best friends …”)

Here’s the deal: we have moved into a new house and I am faced with the prospect of “having” to build a new darkroom.

I have had a number of dedicated darkrooms in my life, and the usual number of temp set-ups in bathrooms, laundries and kitchens. The first real darkroom was just after I got out of college and I rented a house that actually had a darkroom. However, it had no plumbing, heat, or AC. It was, however, a small, windowless room with no other purpose. Well, the heat and AC was easy. I added a heater and an air conditioner. The room shared a common wall with the laundry, so putting in a sink was easy, too. My landlord, who had built the darkroom, was more than happy to let me spend my money to do this.

Another rent house, after I got married, had a storeroom that was like-wise converted, but then un-converted when we moved out.

I built a darkroom for my employer at one point, and I then did the in-house photographic services for the company for a few years. It was spartan and had many compromises, but it worked and was a refuge for me since no one else dared go in there.

About 12 years ago, I got to build the home darkroom. We were going to add on to the house to give my wife, the artist, some studio space, and me getting a darkroom in the process was part of the deal. Great. We’re also now a bit older and “have more insurance” as they say, as well as a bit of disposable income, so I did it right. Real darkroom sink, central heating and AC, the whole banana. Except that I made it too small. 7 x 9 feet. Oh, well.

But, we have sold that house. (Another darkroom un-converted.) One of the reasons we bought the new house was because there was a perfect room for my wife to have an even bigger and better lighted studio, and a space where I could do whatever I wanted to. Ta Da – a new darkroom.