I recently switched from using resin coated printing paper in the darkroom to fiber based. The discussion of resin coated versus fiber based papers is one for another tutorial. But for all of its benefits, one of the downsides of fiber based paper is the relatively long wash time it requires. Depending on your wash sequence, recommended wash times range between 30 minutes to over an hour, and when you are rinsing more than one print it can be tedious to wash them one at a time. I looked into some archival print washers on the market, but I didn’t have several hundred dollars to invest in one. Below is the solution I came up with: a homemade DIY print washer, all parts bought at a local hardware store for about $70 total.
The Basics of a Darkroom Print Washer
The science of print washing is pretty simple: clean, chemical free water needs to be washed over the prints to rinse them properly. Since the chemicals being rinsed from the paper are being mixed with the clean water, there needs to be a complete water change over every 5 minutes. This DIY print washer works by running water into the washer through pipes at the top of the bin and siphoning the contaminated water through the bottom. The logic being that the chemicals are heavier than water and will sink to the bottom of the bin.
Step 1: Take your plastic bin and, on one of the small sides, drill 2 holes an inch or so below the top of the bin. The holes should be about the same diameter as your plastic pipe. Drill them near the right and left corners of one of the small sides of the bin. One hole is for the clean water inflow pipe; the other will be for the siphon that filters contaminated water out.
Step 2: Cut a small section of plastic pipe and feed it through one of the holes. Put one of your 90 degree elbow joints on the end of the pipe inside the bin.
Step 3: Now, you are going to measure four lengths of pipe that will line the top inside rim of your bin. Starting at the end of the elbow joint you just put on, measure your first length to just shy of the length of the short side of the bin.
Measure three more lengths of pipe that will fit around the other three sides of the bin. Before attaching them, take your drill and (using a small bit) drill holes along one side of the pipe about 2 inches apart.
Now, you can attach the pipes with elbow joints so that it makes a rectangle lining the top of your bin. I couldn’t get the pipes to stay up without drooping, so I drilled some screws into the side of the bin that hold it up.
Step 4: Now for the siphon. Cut another short length of pipe and put it through the second hole you drilled at the top of the bin. Put an elbow joint on both ends, and point them downwards.
Cut a length of pipe that will sit just above the bottom of the bin when fit into the joint. Cut another length of pipe the same length and attach it to the elbow joint on the outside of the bin, also pointing downwards.
Step 5: Take your rubber hosing and cut a length at about 2 or 3 feet, and push it over the end of the pipe where water will flow into your washer. At this point you’ll need to check the taps where you will be setting up your print washer. If your tap is like mine you can just push end of the rubber hose onto the faucet. If not, you might have to find hose with an attachment that will fit the tap. Cut another shorter length of hosing and push it over the end of the siphon pipe on the outside of the washer.
Step 6: With your silicone, seal up the holes where the pipes go through the side of the washer. This is necessary for the siphon to work. Depending on how much space there is around the pipe you may need to cut a piece of plastic (e.g. from a bottle) to cover the holes you cut.
Step 7: At this point, your print washer should be ready to go. All that’s left is to push the hose end over your tap and start filling it up. Once it’s full, you might have to adjust the flow so that water is coming in as fast as it is being siphoned out.
Also, it’s important to make sure the bottom of the siphon hose is LOWER than the bottom of your print washer. Otherwise, it won’t work (something to do with gravity and science :)).
Once the water gets close to the top of the bin, the water should start flowing out through the siphon. Make sure that the siphon hose is pointing into a drain so you don’t flood your house!
Step 8: The last thing you’ll need is to find some way of holding your prints in the washer. There are plastic print drying racks on the market that would work fine if you can find them for cheap, but new they are pretty expensive. I went to my local office supply store and bought two metal desk organizers for $10, and they work just fine.
So if you’re looking for an alternative to washing your darkroom prints in the kitchen sink, and don’t have the money to spend on an archival print washer, hopefully these steps help you make a washer that’s cheap and efficient!
Thank you so much, James! James is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here. You can also check out James’s work on his website and Instagram.
Leave your questions about building a darkroom print washer below in the comments!