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When you grow up in a house full of cameras and electronic equipment as I did, something is bound to rub off. Having an engineer for a father and a pharmacist for a mother exposed me to all the toys of a scientist; oscilloscopes, reel-to-reel tape decks, microphone stands, camera equipment, enlargers, graph paper! We even had to do our math homework on graph paper! My father was always recording, photographing or testing something. And as a child I always got to help him carry his equipment.

By the time I was in high school he had let me try several different cameras and light meters. I had earned a little money and wanted to buy one like his, a black Nikon F2 Photomic. Well, what I didn’t realize then was how expensive they were. So between the guy at the camera store and my father, I ended up with a Nikkormat and a 35mm lens. This was the first of my SLRs.

After twenty five years of using a Nikkormat I finally had the opportunity to use a ‘real’ camera. I had taken my Nikkormat in for cleaning and needed to borrow one temporarily. My father let me use his Nikon F2 and I became hooked. I bought my first zoom lens and took my first good sunset pictures. I quickly became hooked on Kodachrome and started chasing sunsets. After a few years of shooting sunsets and lighthouses, I got bored. I wanted more. I loved the photographs I saw and wanted to make my own. I started reading about Ansel Adams and some of the other great photographers. I joined the local camera club and saw what other people were doing in black and white. I quickly learned that if you want to shoot in black and white, you have to process your own film and make your own prints. I found out why all my black and white pictures that I had taken over the years always looked flat and gray. All those years I just thought it was because I was doing something wrong. I learned that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. So I took my first class in darkroom techniques and was really excited about it. I wanted my own darkroom! For the first time I saw what was possible if you know what you are doing and have a reasonable amount of control over the outcome. When my parents decided to move to a retirement community, my father offered me his darkroom equipment. There wasn’t room in their new house so I agreed. In all the years growing up and being surrounded by camera and darkroom equipment, I never dreamed of having my own.

Determining Layout
I knew I wanted a darkroom. Now all I had to do is figure out how to go about doing it with the least amount of help. I knew from reading books that I needed to have a wet-side, a dry-side, running water, electrical outlets, and ventilation. I also knew that I had a limited amount of space due to the layout of my basement. So I made a list of everything that I would need; a table for the enlargers, a sink for the trays, space between the two and running water.

Determining Size
Having a basic layout in my mind, I had to determine the actual amount of space available, the equipment that would be used and the need for convenience. This would include actual measurements of work benches, tables, sinks and cabinets, a sink for running water etc. The resulting location/placement was then determined by the placement of permanent structures such as the water heater, support columns, chimneys, furnace, washer & dryer, sink etc. To simplify the setup, I decided not to have running water inside the darkroom.

Basic Materials & Assembly
With the layout and dimensions now on paper, the actual building could begin. Because standard ‘pressboard’ comes in 4×8 sheets, the studs needed to be 4’ apart. I assembled the frame on the floor, securing the header & footer to the vertical studs. Assembled and secured with nails, I raised it and attached it to the ceiling (beams), then anchored the footer to the floor with 3/8” x 3” lag-screws. For drilling into concrete, I used a “hammer-drill” and a carbide drill bit.

After the frame was up, the door and the 4×8 pressboard (or plywood) sheets could be hung. Hanging a door by yourself isn’t hard if you use shims underneath while installing the hinges. Rather than trying to install the typical door hardware, I used an eyebolt & hammock hook placed on the inside of the door which would prevent it from accidentally opening.

I did not attempt to do any wiring. For that I hired an electrician who also converted my fuse box to an updated system and put the darkroom on its own breaker. I had enough outlets that I could put in safe lights 4’ from my enlarger or sink. I wish I had asked for more pull cords on the lights, but that can always be done later.

To make sure there were no light leaks, I used caulking for the seams between the studs and the pressboard, and quilt batting (stuffing) to fill the gaps where any holes for wiring were made. I then stapled black fabric over top of the batting for extra protection and to keep the batting from falling out. For the door frame I used self-adhesive foam weather stripping. I then checked the room by turning off all the lights and stood there for five minutes or so to see if there were any leaks.

Now that the walls were up and the electrical outlets and light sockets installed, I could think about where to put the enlarger and sink for trays.

For this particular setup the layout was fairly simple, being limited only by the size and physical properties of the room. For the “dry side”, a 6’ x 30” solid folding table was adequate for two 4×5 enlargers, two timers, an Ohm Meter and a paper safe, plus a small area for hanging negatives to dry.

Another thing I had to consider was the height needed for the enlargers when fully extended. By placing the enlargers between the beams in the ceiling, the full 50” of the enlarger could be utilized, making it possible to make very large prints.

For the “wet side”, I found a stainless steel sink 6 ½’ x 32” x 3”. To support the sink I put two horizontal cross pieces on each wall where a platform could rest.

This particular sink was long enough and wide enough to hold five 11×14 trays for paper, or six 4×5 tanks for developing sheet film. Since there was no running water inside the darkroom, I decided to use one of the trays as a ‘holding tray’ until it was time to wash the prints.

The final wash is then done outside the darkroom in the sink between the washing machine and dryer. I was lucky enough to inherit a temperature control system from my father. This is mounted on the wall with a hose connected to a siphon which goes into the tray.

The final additions (electrical and ventilation) are made after the room is finished. Electrical outlets, switches and light bulb sockets, as well as ventilation, are a very important part of the darkroom layout. Besides the enlarger, benches, sink, shelves, cabinets etc., safelights need to be installed. The standard distance for safelights is about 4’ away from trays and enlarging easels. Outlets for the enlarger/s and overhead lights are all essential parts of the layout. Having an overhead light that can be turned on and off using a pull chain is very handy, especially in the dark. Implementing switches at the entrance also alleviates the need to walk back and forth to turn off the lights. If possible, have your darkroom on a separate circuit breaker. This will reduce the chance of your enlarger light dimming when the furnace or refrigerator kicks on. Since all darkrooms are different the number and placement of these receptacles will vary. But having more than you need is always better.

Future Considerations
If I had it to do over I think I would start by…

…putting in a better ventilation system. My mistake was putting the fan above the trays. It should be below, near the feet. I’d also put in a vent to bring in fresh air. At the moment, any time I want to use ‘smelly’ chemicals such as toners, I have to go outside the darkroom where there is more air circulation.

I’d install a switch that turns off all the lights in the basement (other than in the darkroom) as a precaution against any light leaks. Also, I’d have more pull-cords on the lights.

And finally, I’d put in cabinets or shelves for storing trays under the sink.

Materials List
The list of materials could go on forever, depending on your needs. Here are the basic materials for the room and to get started.

Ortho’s Home Improvement Encyclopedia

Solid Table for Enlarger

2x4s (studs for walls)

Enlarger

4×8 sheets of pressboard or plywood for walls

Timer

Lag-Screws to secure frame to floor

Easel

Nails

Safe Lights

Paint for walls

Sink for Trays

Wiring

Trays

Solid Table for enlarger

Tongs

Sink or platform for trays

Sink for final wash

Cabinet or Shelves for storage

Shelving

Ventilation

Drying Rack (can use nylon screen in frame)

Door


Summary

Having a home darkroom can be as simple or as high-tech as you want it to be. Many people get along fine with just using their bathroom or kitchen. Some people use a basement and just darken the windows. I wanted to have mine enclosed. Building it wasn’t difficult. I had never done anything like this before in my life but having the desire was half the battle. With a few good books for guidance, knowing the essentials, putting a plan on paper and having the proper tools are all that were needed to build a successful darkroom. It’s not very fancy or state-of-the-art, but it does have certain key elements; i.e., it’s light-tight, it has a designated wet-side and dry-side, and proper lighting. I hope you are inspired by reading this and will have the desire to fulfill your dreams and carry on the tradition.