Ferrotypes

Join Our Community Subscribe to Paul's Posts

My most productive mental state is the hour before I get out of bed and start my day. During that hour I drift in and out of sleep planning, inventing, figuring, remembering, and sorting.

This morning I remembered my electric Ferrotype Plate and the struggles leading up to its purchase. Why am I telling you this? Well, why not? It’s likely you’ve never heard of a Ferrotype Plate, much less ever struggled with one.

And, it’s me rambling on about something different.

In my teenage years, I was a budding photographer with a home-built darkroom in a small basement cubby next to the family’s water heater. I had no running water in that small darkroom so once I had run my 8×10 prints through the tray of developer, stop bath, fixer, and Photo Flo I marched them upstairs where I commandeered the family’s entryway bathroom to wash the prints. Once washed and chemical-free the sheets had to be dried and this is where the story begins.

When you dry a wet piece of paper it curls up and refuses to lay flat. Once dried, my photos looked more like potato chips than the flat and shiny prints churned out by the pros. I tried everything: hanging them on the clothesline, pressing them between towels (both paper and cloth), and so on. Worse than their lack of flatness was their surface appearance. Dull, blotchy, and water stained.

The pro’s 8x10s were flat and glossy. They had access to an expensive heated Ferrotype Plate (usually in the form of a drum dryer), something I was unable to afford.

A Ferrotype Plate is a piece of polished stainless steel that looks like a mirror. To use the plate you gently lay the image side of the freshly washed print onto its mirrored surface and with a few passes of a squeegee, press it flat and let it dry. The soft emulsion of the image assumes the mirror finish of the plate and voila! A glossy print.

But it’s never quite that simple, right? Even though the plate offers a glossy surface, once dried we still have the paper curling problem. To solve that, one must hold flat the print while it is drying and do that in a way that lets the water evaporate. A canvas sheet is a good way of holding down the print while it is drying. It is a highly porous cloth with good abilities to be tensioned.

I spent months trying to build my own contraption and never once did I get a perfectly flat, glossy photo out of the deal.

Then, a miracle.

My local camera store put on sale for $25 an old electric Ferrotype Plate with a stretchable canvas cover. Between my paper route and the few shekels I had amazed from my job as a cub photographer at the Anaheim Bulletin, I became the proud owner of a contraption that looks very much like this one.

Why that memory cropped up in my mind this morning I have no idea but had to share.