Drying Fiber Based Photographic Prints:
May 18, 1997, 10:27:39 AM    [Revised October, 2002]

Yesterday I made some FB prints of "She's Leaving Home", one of which is for the winner of the draw held by Keith Mays of Sightphoto online magazine. I had agreed to provide a print as his prize. The winner chose the image from the show of my work Keith put on his site.

Recently the following lament appeared in one of the online photography discussion lists. I haven't credited the author because it is very generic and widely felt:

"drying fiber prints face down on screens results in 'sorta' flat prints -the corners tend to curl quite a bit although not so much as to prevent drymounting (i'm poor: i drymount with a clothes iron.) screens can be made very inexpensively with lumber and fibreglass window screen.

Drying in blotter books results in prints which are flatter than drying them on screens, but still not absolutely flat. Blotter books, however, are not cheap and have finite lifetimes.

I've tried someone's flattening solution... "ultra flat" or something like that. I didn't notice any help whatsoever and haven't even finished the bottle I bought."

Two aspects of common practice repulse me: the drying screen and the squeegee. So-called print flattening chemicals are beneath consideration. And you would get me on the subject: photo blotters. Well, just let me quote from the package of one well known brand, Delta 1 by CPM, Inc., of Dallas, Texas: "50 Year Archival Quality, Photo Drying Book, C$15.99, Holds 21 - 11x14 Prints, 12x15 Pages, Acid Free Paper, Chemically Pure, Extra Heavy 120 lb. Paper, Low Lint ..." Wait - did we see "low lint." Low? Not "zero lint"? In the theatre they call this an exit cue. Blotter material has exited my life forever.

Pardon me while I unburden myself:

Drying Screens Get Out of Town If You Know What's Good for You, and Take Squeegee With You, Too!

Fiber base paper, according to conventional wisdom, must be air dried on screens. Photo blotter sheets are permissible, too, but even more of a bother. Mr. Kodak, in the data sheet accompanying Polymax Fine-Art paper, goes so far as to say, "Dry prints in a dust-free place. Remove as much surface water as possible from prints and place them face down on cheesecloth, fiberglass, or plastic screen racks; between photo blotters; or on a belt dryer."

Screens are prone to depositing dust or lint on the print face, and they are prone to contamination without indication. Constant cleaning and monitoring are essential. Screens embed dust particles in the wet and tacky face of the print.

The drying screens do not, repeat, "do not", prevent the edges of the sheets from frilling as they dry.

Drying in screens takes place with the sheet horizontal. Water or moisture or wetness or dampness tend to pool near the center, and the edges dry sooner. Gravity is not used to assist; in fact, gravity works to make the situation more difficult, because it tends to pull moisture toward the center of the sheet. Gravity properly used would pull moisture away from the center, toward an edge; away from the sheet.

The squeegee. A dread, primitive, vicious tool. Before laying it on a screen, squash the water out of the sheet. Yow. Careful, now, we'd like to apply a little more squeegee pressure in the center of the sheet than at the edges, so center and edge can dry in approximately the same time. Don't hurt it, it's your friend! No squeegee on my buddies!

Handling the prints before laying on screens is interminable. Lift out of the washer ever so carefully. Place flat on a perfectly clean surface, don't kink it now! Apply the horror squeegee - you did place it face down, didn't you? Lift it up now, you've only squeegeed the back. Hold it up in the left hand, use the right to squeegee the work surface. You need both hands now - put down the squeegee, careful don't contaminate it! Now lay the print back down, face up. Squeegee the face arghh don't hurt it! noooo ... Now lift it again! Set it down on a dusty filthy screen that won't stop it curling along the edges as it dries.

I've been searching for the way to dry FB prints. I have found it is a lot simpler than the experts advise. Laziness and chance have contributed to my discovery of a method that suits me and is very simple and direct, with a minimum of handling of the wet sheet.

I don't think I can claim much credit for this technique. It is very much like the well known and very conventional method for drying rolls of film after processing. Actually, this may work mainly because the paper manufacturers are supplying quite thick paper bases now. Kodak uses three separate terms for base material other than single and medium weight: DW, PW and HW. Those are Double Weight, Premium Weight and Heavy Weight. (So is premium beyond double? Does heavy mean heavier than premium? Surely premium means premium, and heavy is merely ... heavy.) [Kodak publication E103BP, CAT 861 6633.]

And also, there is a very old and venerated, but as I understand it little used, method of drying prints that involves squeegeeing pairs of sheets together, back to back, and hanging them on a line by their top corners. The theory has it that the tendency of each sheet to curl is counteracted by the sheet stuck to its back. In "The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging" David Vestal, for one, says he tried it and it worked, but he also says he doesn't use this method. I wouldn't either. I am trying to avoid the excessive handling of wet sheets. Laying one wet sheet down on another, faces out, in just the correct orientation with respect to one another, squeegeeing them so they are a bit stuck together, and then lifting and handling the pair, strikes me as a lot of careful handling. One could even say a lot of error-prone handling. I'm trying to avoid all that.

While handling some wet 16x20s lately, I idly pulled one up and used common clothes pins to hang it on the clothes line by two corners of the 16 inch edge. It was a dud print I had no intention of toning or handling further.

It dried beautifully. All the edges were straight, no wavy or curly quality. The worst problem was easy to take: the lower corners had curled inwards, toward the emulsion. But they were curled in one long gentle curve, not tightly. Easy to straighten under weighted glass. Another problem came from my complete carelessness in hanging it: the clothes pins had squashed the corners against the line, embossing the texture of the rope into the print. Well, I can't avoid all care, can I?

I have been experimenting with this method, and have found that spring clamps hung from the line (attached to the line by their handles, so they can't fall) grip the sheet sufficiently that the corner need not be gripped against the line. This means the mark left on the wet sheet is strictly due to the clamping pressure, not an embossing effect from some other extraneous object like the line.

The clamps I like best so far are rather too powerful, but still good. They are made by Pony, model 3201. They are one inch, plastic tipped spring clamps. The springs are a little more powerful than I'd like, but acceptable. The plastic tips meet very nicely, and the mark they leave on the wet sheet is small. It is easy to place it in the category of 'artmark.' The artist should not be embarrassed to allow the onlooker to see evidence of the artist's presence. It is a nice clean, unobtrusive mark that is visibly depressed into the print. It is 18 mm long by 3 mm wide, with curved tips: lozenge shaped. It really has to be looked for closely to see it, too.

I have found that for 16x20 sheets, only the top corners must be clamped. I tried hanging clamps on the bottom corners, and that works all right, too, but the lower clamps are not strictly necessary. They do make the lower corners dry with less curl, but they dry with little enough curl minus the lower clamps that we can dispense with the marks they leave. So for 16x20 prints, only two drying marks need be present. Maybe I will experiment with hanging a 16x20 from only one corner.

I also experimented by placing a piece of photo blotter material between the clamp jaw and the wet sheet. I hoped it would reduce the pressure mark, and I was worried the spot within the jaw would remain wet. The blotter fibers ended up married to the print; an unnecessary problem. The spot within the jaw is extremely small and dries with no special intervention.

As for 11x14 prints, yesterday I found that hanging them from one corner was all I had to do. They dried very nicely, some curving toward the face of the print, but not severe; some waviness of the edges, but very slight. It seems the only essential and unavoidable tool for finishing FB prints is the heavy sheet of glass with weights on top! These 11x14 prints have dried well within the capability of the famous weighted sheet of glass to flatten them completely in a relatively short time. The last 16x20 prints I did this way flattened in a matter of several hours.

Say goodbye to Mr. Squeegee! Once the wet sheets are suspended on the line, it is extremely easy to sluice them down with distilled water. Municipal tap water where I live sometimes leaves water spots on my prints, hence a final rinse with distilled water. I have given up the hand-pumped pressurized spray bottle I've had for a few years. After years of holding distilled water, something began coming out of the plastic it's made of and causing yellow spots on prints. Also, overspray with this type of sprayer is a problem if other prints are nearby. I've changed to a plain plastic bottle, the kind used to package liquid developer, so I'm fairly sure nothing will come out of the plastic. And I put the kind of closure on it that comes with dish detergent, so a stream of water can be directed out of it when it is held upside down. In other words, I can direct a thin stream of distilled water onto the surface of my prints while they are hanging vertically. This carries off the last traces of tap water and any bits of dust or [horrors!] cat hair.

The whole issue is identical to the situation for processed film, where I long ago abandoned the squeegee in favor of a downward flow of distilled water. Hang to dry in a clean, dust-free environment. The temperature and humidity should be in the 'normal' or 'human comfort' range. Yesterday the humidity readout in my darkroom said 62. The temperature was still a little cool, I think 16C, but that obviously did not upset my prints. They dried perfectly well overnight.

This method allows me to avoid some of the worst parts of producing FB prints, in my opinion summed up as the handling and transfer of wet sheets. This especially includes the squeegee, which involves a lot of that very handling, not to mention the noxious physical act of the application of the horrorshow squeegee itself to my delicate, beautiful prints.

So far I have tried this technique on two types of FB paper: in 16x20 size I worked with Agfa Multicontrast Classic, MCC, both glossy and semi-mat. My 11x14s were on Kodak Polymax Fine-Art paper, F surface (glossy).

June 4, 1997: Further adventure in print drying ...

Since the Pony clamps were actually much to heavy and powerful, I have been searching for a replacement. Clothes pins came to mind, but the wood and the paper locked together too tightly. The paper surface came away when it was removed. Plastic clothes pins had textured jaws that embossed the print surface. But if that texture could be covered ...

I found some self-stick (i.e. adhesive backed) rubber (all right, plastic masquerading as rubber) 'feet' in an electronics shop. They are the sort of thing used under electronic equipment to keep tabletops unscratched. The ones I used are about three-eights inch in diameter, nearly hemispherical, and a bit 'squashy.' One on the inside of each jaw of a plastic clothes pin, so they close against each other, and - it's done. I also put a short piece of stiff copper wire (#12 or 14) through the hinge of the pin, bent so it could be hung on the clothes line.

With two of these fairly small, moderately strong clips, I can dip into the print washer, grab the top two corners of a sheet at the edge, lift it securely but gently, and hang it on the line by the copper hooks. Handling is minimized, and no bare hands need touch the meat - I mean paper. At this point distilled water is applied front and back, and I walk away.

The drying marks left by these gentler clips are quite minimal. They are easy to see if one knows they are present, but easy to overlook. It is a simple matter to place them at the extreme corners, where an overmat or even mylar corners will obscure them. The ones I have settled on leave circular marks, 4 mm in diameter. It may be necessary to try several different types of stick-on tips, though, because I have found some that leave a slight color or stain, and others that stick to the surface.

My stack of two by three foot drying screens is over a foot high. That's more than six cubic feet of space in my abode that I may reclaim. I'd like to compress them mightily and extract the time I've put into them keeping them clean, and building them in the first place!

Sep 30, 2002:
More Adventure! This Time with Clothes Pins ...

After fooling around with wooden clothes pins and plastic tips for a while, I got tired of the tips coming loose and leaving stains unpredictably.

I bought some all-plastic clothes pins at the corner store (the convenience store where I buy milk). They are very, very cheap, and cheaply made, but this turns out to be inconsequential. They have a small metal spring to close them. Their little jaws have small lines of raised plastic, so when they close on the wet print a few short lines are squashed into the emulsion. Once dry, these marks turn out to be very small and faint, impossible to see unless you are looking for them. I worried that the space within the jaws would tend to remain wet, but that was unfounded. An overnight hang leaves the prints fully dried including at the clips.

I used some stiff electrical wire (#12 or 14) to put a hook on each clip. I pushed the wire through the opening of the clip's spring. The clips should align the print to hang parallel to my drying line. Hence, the 'length' of the clip's jaw should be parallel to the line, too, so that determines the way to bend the copper wire. It should need no tools, except to cut the wire to the right length.

These clips are next to cost-free, and the work of a few minutes to construct. (Construct seems a bit of a grand term for something this simple.) Make enough to hang the largest number of prints you'll make at one session. Make a few extra in case you drop any and step on them, or in case your productivity increases.

Mine have been in use for a few years now. They don't wear out and they don't get dirty. They're plastic so they absorb nothing. They are not unduly strong, so they don't impact the print surfaces very much. Their jaws require no treatment (no plastic tips or pads or timewasters of any sort). Did I mention they're cheap?

Copyright Lloyd Erlick. All rights reserved.