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Building a home darkroom

Planning considerations


The wet side of a darkroom is where you locate the processing trays and the sink. In this darkroom, materials are stored in both drawers and open shelves  beneath the counter top.
The wet side of a darkroom is where you locate the processing trays and the sink. In this darkroom, materials are stored in both drawers and open shelves beneath the counter top.

The ideal home darkroom situation occurs when you are constructing or renovating a home and can specifically incorporate a darkroom in your design. It can be built from scratch, with all of the features included exactly where they are best suited, in a location that is away from household traffic and not subject to any vibration from, for example, a nearby furnace. However, few of us ever have such an opportunity, and must convert an existing area in the home, often one that is unsuitable in its present state.

Because no two homes are exactly alike, there is no single, standard darkroom plan that will apply in every case. We do, though, describe the principles of darkroom design and show some layouts that will help you to create your own design, one that is suitable to conditions in your home.


DARKROOM SIZE

Asking "How big is a darkroom?" is like asking "How big is a kitchen?" There are no hard and fast rules for the ideal darkroom size. Size is dependent upon the nature and amount of work to be undertaken. Many beginners to darkroom work are surprised to learn that, unlike a studio, bigger is not necessarily better. (Most photographers agree that a studio can almost never be big enough.) Having things at hand in a small darkroom is an advantage. Large darkrooms, however, can accommodate more people and equipment, advantageous when there is a lot of work to be done in a limited time frame.

Unless you set out to make huge enlargements requiring over-sized processing trays, a room that has dimensions of 8-feet by 6-feet can be adequate and comfortable. But if you have a 10-foot by 12-foot room available, that will also do the job and will allow you much more design flexibility. Even tightly-compacted rooms as small as 8-feet by 5-feet can be used effectively, and we have seen darkroom designs as small as 5' 6" by 5' 6". Such small darkrooms, though, will comfortably accommodate only one person for any extended time, and require great care in keeping wet and dry processes separated.

A darkroom does not need to be very big to be effective. This plan shows a very small one. A splash guard between the wet and the dry sides would be advised. Note the
A darkroom does not need to be very big to be effective. This plan shows a very small one. A splash guard between the wet and the dry sides would be advised. Note the "light trap" entrance that permits entry at any time.

This area, formerly the location of the laundry room in a home being renovated, is under construction as a darkroom. It has a sink, adequate electrical power, ventilation capability and other necessary features. It's not very big, but doesn't need to be.
This area, formerly the location of the laundry room in a home being renovated, is under construction as a darkroom. It has a sink, adequate electrical power, ventilation capability and other necessary features. It's not very big, but doesn't need to be.

LOCATION

A darkroom can be placed just about anywhere that can be made light-tight - a spare room, the attic, a basement area, even a garage or storage room. The potential for any one of these areas to be selected for construction of a darkroom increases by the number of its existing features. For example, an adequately-sized room that already has hot and cold running water, drainage, an electrical supply, good ceiling height, a means of ducting exhaust air to the outside and room temperature controls would be your choice over an area that has fewer or none of these features.

Some considerations that would cause you to avoid selecting a particular area of your home are places that receive any vibration (from household appliances, the furnace, etc.) since a shaky enlarger will not make sharp prints, that are prone to abnormal levels of dust, are too warm or cold, have high humidity, or that cannot be kept dark or properly-ventilated.

CREATE A PLAN

Carefully measure the dimensions of the area you plan to use. Use graph paper to draw a floor plan to scale. A scale of one-inch to the foot on letter-size graph paper can be used for areas up to 8-feet by 10.5-feet. Be sure to show the location of any fixed features, such as floor drains and utility meters.


LAYOUT

The step-by-step sequence that is followed in making prints should be kept in mind when designing the layout for a darkroom. The basic steps, in order, are:

  • selecting the printing paper;
  • trimming a sheet to the needed size,
  • returning unneeded paper to its storage place where light cannot strike it;
  • exposing the paper using the enlarger,
  • processing the exposed paper,
  • washing the processed print, and
  • drying the print.

Materials and equipment should be located for an efficient flow of motion from the first procedure to the last, in a single direction like an assembly line. If the darkroom has counters on two or more sides, plan for a circular flow, either clockwise or counter-clockwise. If there is only one working surface, the progression should go from either right to left or left to right. This keeps your work systematic and organized, and helps you to quickly locate things when the room is dark.

Counter tops should be deep enough and long enough to hold equipment such as the enlarger, trimmer, your largest processing trays and other items, and still provide you with clear areas where you can work and place materials. Work surfaces should be solidly-built. If they are in the least shaky, then spillage can more easily occur and movement of the enlarger can cause prints to be less than sharp.

ELECTRICAL

Be sure you use a qualified electrician for the electrical installation. It is a good idea to seek his or her advice in the planning stage, so you will know about the availability of sufficient power and whether new circuits can be added just for the darkroom. Plan the electrical layout so that switches and outlets are in their most handy locations, but well away from areas that are wet or where splashing may occur. Since you will be working with wet materials, you should have the electrician install ground-fault circuit interrupters for outlets. They are inexpensive and a wise precaution for prevention of injury or death. Having switchable outlets for your safe lights and exhaust fan can be very convenient. Just be sure the safe light switches are not located near the main room light switch, since you might accidentally turn on the room light and destroy unprocessed work.

WATER

The darkroom sink should ideally be quite large. A laundry tub (20" X 20" X 12" deep) is suitable, but a sink made specifically for darkroom use is even better. These are available in different sizes. If you plan on purchasing one, you should check with a supplier and decide on the size before you finalize your darkroom design. If you are handy with tools, you can also construct your own customized fibreglass sink to fit the space available. If your water supply contains sediment, consider installing a filter to remove it. A mixing valve to control the temperature of hot and cold water is a useful accessory, but if you are processing only small quantities at a time, manual water temperature adjustment (using a thermometer) is a less-expensive alternative.

STORAGE

Items that are needed in the darkroom should ideally be stored in the darkroom so they are always handy. Drawers and / or shelves beneath counters are practical locations for supplies. Wall shelving above work areas is ideal for easy access to often-used materials. Dry items, such as printing paper, should be stored on the dry side, near your enlarger and paper trimmer. Wet materials, such as chemicals, should be stored on shelves or in drawers on the wet side so that accidental spillage or splashing will have minimal negative results.

A small, tight space requires compromise in its design.  If the space is smaller than this, the processing trays can be stacked.
A small, tight space requires compromise in its design. If the space is smaller than this, the processing trays can be stacked.

The darkroom door is often the most serious cause of light leakage, especially at its base. Care must be taken in sealing out all light that might seep in around the door.
The darkroom door is often the most serious cause of light leakage, especially at its base. Care must be taken in sealing out all light that might seep in around the door.

PUTTING THE DARK IN THE DARKROOM

A darkroom generally requires only one entry door and no windows. If the area you select for your darkroom area has one or more windows, use wood or light-proof fabric to block out the light, making sure that edges are completely light-sealed. The door is often the most troublesome area when it comes to light leakage. Standard door design often allows for an air space at the bottom where light can get in. One means of blocking out this light is to attach light-proof fabric along the bottom edge of the door so that it reaches the floor. Be careful not to have too much fabric below the door since it can get caught beneath the door and act as a wedge, making it difficult to open or close the door. Weather-proofing materials can also be attached to the base of the door and around the door frame to block out light. Simple wood strips attached to the door frame are also effective light blockers, and can be made even more effective by the addition of lengths of foam weather stripping.


A lock or door bolt that is controlled from the inside of the darkroom provides insurance against entry by someone at the wrong time.

Many darkrooms have no door lock, however, and can be accessed at any time without risk of light damage. They use a special entry system that is designed to trap light outside, along the principles of an air lock. You enter into a cubicle, closing the door or heavy, light-proof curtain behind you, darkening the cubicle. Then, you open a second door or curtain that leads into the darkroom. (See the first floor plan above for an example.) Be sure that your curtain material is heavy and light-blocking. You can add weights to the hem of the curtains for added security. Commercially-available revolving darkroom doors that never let in light can also be purchased. Another alternative is to create a maze-like entry that requires you to walk around a light-blocking baffle. The interior walls and ceiling of such an always-open entrance are painted in matte black to avoid light reflection, which is also prevented by the use of dark carpeting or a black, non-reflective floor covering.

WALL PAINT

If you are certain that your darkroom is light tight, there is no need to paint the walls black or in a dark color. In fact, using reflective white paint that has a glossy finish will help in providing the darkroom with the maximum in safe light illumination, and makes it much easier to locate items when you need them.

VENTILATION

In the paragraphs entitled "Ventilation" in our section on The darkroom, we describe one effective means of getting fresh air into the darkroom (a "wall chimney" that blocks out light).

There are other methods that are just as effective. Another simple light proof vent, for example, is an opening in a wall or door (at least one-foot by one-foot in size) covered by a baffle or cap that is significantly wider than the opening and installed over the opening so that air, but not light, can get in around its edges. (See the drawing on the right, above.) The cap is easily made from plywood, drywall or another solid material. The inside of the cap is painted matte black to prevent light reflection. Reflected light is also blocked by framing the opening with strips of wood that protrude into the darkroom and by attaching similar strips to the edges of the cap. Air can enter; light cannot.

You will need an extractor fan inside the darkroom to expel stale air to the outside, causing fresh air to be drawn in through the light proof vent. A wall switch to turn the fan off when you are not using the darkroom is handy.

A fresh air vent can be as simple as a hole cut in the wall that is capped to block out light. Paint the inside of the cap matte black to avoid reflected light.
A fresh air vent can be as simple as a hole cut in the wall that is capped to block out light. Paint the inside of the cap matte black to avoid reflected light.