in the bottle? Don't know? Throw it out! And label
it next time!
"A house is a machine
for living."--Le Corbusier
Any machine needs maintenance.
Here's how I maintain my darkroom: a "strip, clean, and
overhaul" in engineering terms, or a tune-up in automobile terms.
Every 600 prints, or six months... Well, it's not that regular,
but you know what I mean. Do it now, before the winter darkroom season
First, get rid of all the clutter. As you do this, try to work out how
to stop it from cluttering the darkroom up again. This doesn't
necessarily mean throwing it away. How could you make it easier to store?
How can you get it out of the way? Is there another way of doing it?
This may ultimately result in your redesigning the darkroom completely--which
isn't necessarily bad--but it may equally amount to no more
than buying some new folders or archival boxes, or putting in a few
shelves. It might even be as simple as screwing in half a dozen cup
Check all chemicals, discarding as necessary. Half-used bottles of muddy-looking
developer; unlabeled bottles that you think are toner, but aren't
sure; stuff you haven't used for months, and are unlikely ever
to be used again--throw them out. Follow all local and federal
directions for the disposal of hazardous chemicals when doing so. Make
a list at the same time of things that you need: more silver nitrate,
Farmer's reducer, or whatever.
It is a good idea to wear thin ("surgical") latex gloves
while you are handling these chemicals and many others. I buy these
in packets of 100 from specialist darkroom suppliers or companies who
cater to minilabs. Check your local yellow pages or call the suppliers
listed at the end of this article. Throw your darkroom towels and lab
coats or aprons into the washing machine. This is also the time to disconnect
all darkroom electrical equipment, if you have not done so already.
Once you have the clutter out of the way, wipe everything down with
a damp, lint-free cloth. Do not forget such things as the top of the
enlarger, any wall-mounted clocks or timers, and the top of the paper
towel dispenser (these are not expensive and make it much easier to
keep the darkroom clean). Wipe the electrical cables: it is suprising
how dirty they can get. Wipe down the walls if feasible. Do the floor
A J-Cloth or similar non-woven fabric square is ideal, but any lint-free
cloth will do. Change it as soon as it begins to show dirt. Don't
leave things too wet: a "wet" darkroom should always be
as dry as possible, paradoxical though this may seem.
Get rid of as much dust as you can before you start taking anything
apart: you can always do another wipe down later. Vacuum cleaners can
be useful, but you need one with a long hose so that you can leave the
cleaner itself outside the darkroom. The cleaner should have dust filters
on the vent side: the amount of dust that a vacuum cleaner can kick
up is alarming.
Failing the right sort of vacuum cleaner, use a damp sponge-mop: low
tech, but reliable. Squeeze it out frequently, and (once again) keep
it as dry as possible. Muck out all cupboards: this is also a part of
the great Used Chemical Hunt, as described earlier. Clean shelves with
a damp cloth.
And Now, The Gear...
Once you are reasonably certain that you have eliminated as much dust
as possible, and that the room is clean, you can start on the specific
pieces of equipment. The enlarger is the obvious place to start. How
far you can strip it down will depend on the design of the enlarger
and your own confidence, but this is what I do:
Clean all lenses, using the same care you would with camera lenses.
Enlarger lenses lead a hard life in a hostile environment and should
be stored somewhere dry and clean if possible. This may be a counsel
of perfection but your lenses will last longer if you do. At the very
least, store them in their "bubbles," preferably with a
silica gel sachet. Make sure the "bubbles" are clean first.
Reactivate old silica gel sachets by heating them for half an hour or
more in an electric oven on an iron plate. Let them cool before using
them! Clean the lens panels, too (with a damp cloth, Swiffer, or similar
The negative carrier comes next. Use a brush--ideally a StaticWisk
antistatic brush, as made by Kinetronics--and a microfiber cleaning
cloth. Store unused negative carriers in Zip Loc or similar self-sealing
With diffuser enlargers, remove the mixing chamber. Brush it off. Inspect
for yellowing or other discoloration: most are replaceable. A new mixing
chamber can halve your exposure times and remove unexpected unevenness
With condenser enlargers, remove and clean the condensers. Windex or
a similar product, applied with a well-washed soft cloth such as an
old T-shirt, is as good as anything.
If at all possible, remove the bellows. Blow out any dust (outside the
darkroom!). If you cannot remove the bellows, extend them fully and
wipe lightly and carefully with a damp cloth, Swiffer, or similar.
Check all shiny metal surfaces, including the column, bellows rails,
etc. Wipe with a very lightly oiled rag, then wipe again with a clean
rag to remove any surplus oil. Check all bearing surfaces, racks and
pinions, etc., and (if appropriate) lubricate very lightly with Vaseline
or other petroleum jelly. Check ll electrical connections, especially
If anything is badly worn, consider replacing it. This is one of the
great advantages of having an enlarger by someone like Beseler or De
Vere, who can supply parts even for very old enlargers.
Wipe down all enlarging easels/masking frames, taking particular care
on the one hand to remove all dust from crevices and on the other not
to bend anything. Wipe the baseboard again before you re-assemble the
enlarger, to pick up any dust that has gotten away.
And The Wet Side,
Wash all graduates and trays. I always use a very weak detergent solution,
with a mild, pure detergent. In the US I use Joy, which is (or was--I
have not tested it lately, but have no reason to believe that it has
changed) so mild that I used to use it for cleaning contact lenses,
well diluted of course. Use a sponge or "shark-skin" scouring
pad, according to your estimate of the durability of the surfaces you
are cleaning. Steel wool and wire scouring pads are not recommended!
Rinse very well afterward: I generally hose things off in the back yard,
using generous quantities of water. If possible, let them dry outside
the darkroom (to keep humidity down).
Drain all processors--Nova, Jobo, etc.--and clean in a similar
way, using a bottle brush if necessary. Nova's "Tar Buster"
is invaluable for removing stains from Lucite and other acrylics. Another
cleaning product I use a good deal in the darkroom is CHEM-KWIK by Seneca
Tec in (unsurprisingly) Seneca, New York: it is particularly good for
removing chemical stains, not only on darkroom surfaces, but also on
your lab coat or whatever else you wear in the darkroom.
For dried-on, crusty deposits (which of course should never happen)
use PHOTOFINISH (by Photographic Solutions, Inc.) which is also very
good for stainless steel sinks. These and other lab cleaning products
are available from the companies that supply minilab users. All of those
listed at the end of this article have told me that they are willing
to deal direct with Shutterbug readers and take credit card orders.
With all cleaning materials, follow the manufacturers' instructions.
If you have an RC print dryer, wipe out the interior carefully with
a damp cloth. Use a dab of silicone putty--the sort of thing that
students use to secure posters to walls--to pull dust and navel
lint out of the corners. Wipe screen-type dryers for FB prints with
a (clean) damp cloth--gently!
If you have an analytical balance--which really should not live
in your darkroom--then clean this, too, paying particular attention
to the weights, which can grow scabby and nasty.
Clean the sink out thoroughly; give another wipe down, including another
once-over for the floor; and put
everything back together. This is also a good time to check safelights,
to make sure that they are actually safe: use the time-honored coin
test, preferably with pre-flashed paper.
All of this can easily take half a day, or at least a whole evening,
but once you have done it, you will soon recoup the time expended because
you will be working in a much better organized darkroom. You should
also see the benefit in cleaner prints (less time spent spotting) and
a generally more relaxed attitude to working in the darkroom. Everything
will be so much easier that you vow to keep it this way. Which you will--until
the time comes for the next overhaul...
Base-Line Inc. (Minilab
(800) 872-0075; (253) 852-6681
fax: (253) 852-6796
Crown Photo Systems (Minilab
(800) 228-1518; (360) 653-0300
fax: (360) 659-0671
Jobo Fototechnic Inc. (Nova)
fax: (734) 677-6963
Kinetronics Corporation (Darkroom
(800) 624-3204; (941) 951-2432
fax: (941) 955-5992
Liberty Photo Products (Minilab
(800) 572-3600; (949) 361-1100
fax: (949) 498-4441
Loon Photographic Inc. (Minilab
(800) 367-9298 (Midwest); (800)
662-7448 (West); (800) 860-5666
fax: (800) 566-6123 (Midwest);
(209) 832-5094 (West); (770) 447-
Minilab Supply Store (Minilab
fax: (763) 404-0048
Photographic Solutions, Inc.
(800) 637-3212; (508) 759-2322
fax: (508) 759-9699
Seneca Tec (CHEM-KWIK)
(800) 666-2645; (716) 381-2645