Nova Trimate [Model 200012 16x20 Slot Processor]
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EQUIPMENT REVIEW - January 13, 1996

Manufactured by Nova Darkroom Equipment
Unit 1A, Harris Road
Wedgnock Industrial Estate
Warwick, CV34 5JU, England
Fax: 011- 44 - 1926 - 49 - 99 - 92

Distributed in USA by Jobo Fototechnic
Box 3721, Ann Arbor, MI 48106
Phone 313 - 995 - 4192
Fax 313 - 995 - 8886.

Price: US$ 719.00, April 1994. [price has increased since.]

Abstract:

Nova Deep Tank Print Processor, "Trimate" model. A manual processor for photographic materials capable of sheets to 16x20 inches. Concept excellent and vastly useful, construction mediocre, severely overpriced.

I received shipment of the Nova "Trimate" Apr. 29, 1994. I purchased it for my own use, with my own money, through a retailer in New York City. No one knew an equipment review would be made of the unit I received.

The Author:
Lloyd Erlick,
357 Richmond St. West, Toronto M5V 1X3 Canada
Phone:416-596-8751
Fax:416-596-6764
Email: Lloyd@the-wire.com
http://www.heylloyd.com

Portraitist and darkroom worker for over twenty-five years. Not associated with any photographic manufacturer or supplier. My enthusiasm is not as good as pumpkin pie. It's cold as the cash I laid down.

Review:

As a teenager, just starting out in photography in 1968, my ardent desire was to free myself from the overpriced "labs" that would never give me the results I wanted. I realized right away that my own darkroom was a must, and that I had to do all my own processing. The camera, enlarger, lenses all had to be purchased at agonizing expense. But what about...trays? The robbers at the camera store thought I hadn't the wit to visit the restaurant supply company, who were glad to sell me plastic trays at reasonable cost.

For years I poured chemistry into trays, used it as best I could, and finally dumped it at the end of each working session. The time taken setting up and cleaning up frequently equalled the time spent working. More frequently, it daunted me and prevented work when 'not enough' time was available.

I had an idea: get some plywood, coat it heavily with plastic or epoxy paint, make tanks [a tank is a tray on its side, with only the narrow edge open] of the appropriate dimensions to accommodate sheets of paper, and make tight covers so I could preserve the developer at least some length of time. My goal was a darkroom I could just start up at will, and close down with no fuss.

I never built my tanks, and I always believed my idea was so obvious I could not be the only person to have it.

Nova of England has produced the correct version of this idea, which indeed was floating in the air past many minds. Theirs is far more evolved than my notion ever was: all three tanks integral in one unit, lightweight [because they didn't use plywood!], temperature controlled [a huge plus feature.]

And they solved a problem I never considered: how to insert, hang the sheet in the tank, and transfer. The 'Nova clip' is at the heart of their system, and is an invention as basic as the print tong, film developing spiral or clothes pin.

The Nova clip is a fairly broad plastic device that contains two small stainless steel pins. Held correctly, the user squeezes it gently and the plastic flexes, opening the 'jaw' and permitting the clip to slide over the edge of the sheet of paper under the enlarger. Releasing pressure closes the clip; the pins grip the edge of the sheet, creating two tiny marks that really require vigilance to see later. Lifting the sheet, carrying to the Trimate and slipping edge-first down into the developer tank is smoother and quicker and far more elegant than this sentence.

Once the printing sequence is done, Nova advises, in their little manual, the (wet) clip can be shaken and is ready to go again. Or is it? When one prints with white borders, the clip can be wet and cause no problem. I have found that when I print black right to the edge of the sheet, as I do much more than half the time, marks can appear where moisture from the clip touched the paper. Therefore careful wiping is needed. It would be an asset to have a quantity of clips. They could be set in front of a fan or small heater to dry without handling. Then a dry one would always be ready. Shaking them off, semi-effectual at best, is a horrible thing to do to one's wrist. I have often found myself making enough prints--let me emphasize: being enabled by the efficiency of the Trimate to make enough prints--that shaking the clip so many times hurts my wrist.

Sadly for the buyer of the Trimate, and for the reputations of the makers and marketers of the Trimate, only one clip comes with the unit. Additional clips cost US$ 14.50 each! [List price, according to distributor.] Talk about gouging. When I learned this fact I nearly cancelled my purchase. Having several clips would make life much easier. Frankly, I believe it is unethical to sell such an expensive machine with only one clip; it's like the old trick of selling the car without the tires, or in this case with only one tire! Nova and Jobo would enhance their stature by including some reasonable number of clips with each unit. The price of US$ 14.50 per clip rankles. The device is overpriced far more than enough; why show off such a cheapskate character?

If companies like Nova and Jobo would learn the effect on the buying public of open-handedness, generosity and fairness, they would do much better. Instead they took more than US$ 700 from me for a brilliant system that vastly improves my darkroom 'speed,' only to slow me down with a clip that I have to spend time wiping off. Incongruous. Where is my motivation to knuckle under and cough up the bucks for three or four [or ten!] more clips? I resist this; it is something to be resented and despised.

The designers of the Nova slot processor system really deserve commendation for their clip. It permits the system to exist. One might be able to run 16x20s through the Trimate with normal tongs, but it is inconceivable that it would be as quick. Smaller prints, of course, would be out of reach down in the tank. The clip allows easy production of any size print up to the maximum 16x20.

The Trimate is part of a system of darkroom processors made by Nova. They also make units in smaller sizes; previous reviews in the photo press have examined the 8x10 unit. Jobo, the distributor in Ann Arbor, USA, says no 20x24 units are made, so it seems the Trimate is the largest of its type.

The Trimate meets the eye well. True to its advertising, it does resemble an oversize toaster, complete with extra slot. The plastic tank walls are made of white plastic with a cross-hatch texture inside.

This textured plastic surely must have cost the designers many hours to source and test. It is necessary to negate the tendency of sheets of photo paper to stick tenaciously to a smooth surface. Probably all darkroom workers know how a sheet will stick to the bottom of a tray if it is smooth; the technical term is "to glom," as in, "the sheet has glommed onto the bottom of the tray."

Of course, merely preventing glomming is not enough. The texture must not scratch the delicate, wet emulsion. More successful hours of research for Nova: in twenty months of constant use I have scratched not one sheet.

But perfection has not been achieved, because after all texture is by definition a series of high points and low points. The low points are perfect gathering places for the sludge deposited by developers. The high points are by no means free of deposits, either, and sometimes a sheet shows this material offsetting onto the face of a print.

Cleaning the interior tank walls is a scrupulous necessity, and should be done at each developer refill. An appropriate tool is essential. But-where is such a tool? Not included with the unit, not offered for sale at yet more exaggerated cost. The baby-bottle brush that suffices for the 8x10 unit will not reach the 18 inches to the bottom of the Trimate.

The construction of the Trimate places certain demands on the characteristics of the tool used to clean its interior. The textured interior surface requires bristles; sponge and textile did not work for me. Whatever you push down into those tanks should not be too thick, because the plastic can be flexed outwards much too distressingly. [See below for discussion of the flimsier-than-thou construction of the Trimate.]

This is an important matter. Sludge buildup can destroy the utility of the Trimate. Frequent cleaning is essential; allowing too much buildup can make it nearly impossible to remove. And yet, because the plastic chosen by the maker is quite thin, cleaning is a delicate matter if tank rupture is to be avoided.

The tool I use to clean the Trimate is a long-handled laboratory bristle brush. The bristle end is just the right thickness; unfortunately it covers only a very small area and makes the process long and tedious.

Nova has sold a machine missing an essential part. Proper design would include the correct cleaning tool.

The fact that the deposit and cleaning of sludge is a problem actually demonstrates one of the most endearing aspects of the Trimate:

Developer does in fact last for weeks [months with some developers!] It is hard to emphasize the value of this sufficiently, especially without seeming hyperbolic.

The developer I used for first fill-up was Selectol, a well known low capacity, short lifespan developer. I processed ten 16x20 sheets, then closed up the device with its three tubular 'slot covers.' A week later I returned, and ran a further ten sheets. They matched the first set. This was the first time in my career I was able to exhaust a mix of developer. [An aside: large numbers of sheets can be run through the Trimate in part because the 'Nova clip' makes it much easier to move the sheet than hand transferring through trays. Ten 16x20 sheets are a simple, quick run.]

The Nova delivers on its promise to conserve chemistry.

Even more important, I think, is the related benefit of eliminating the setup time for trays. Now I merely enter the darkroom, lift off the covers, and work. It is possible to spend fifteen or twenty minutes in the darkroom and have something to show for it. I wonder if the marketers at Jobo even realize the importance of this advantage? Productive, SHORT sessions in the darkroom have always been unheard of. The Nova system is a major advance.

If I use a high capacity developer like Neutol, I can easily go four to six weeks between replacements. The process of draining and refilling is quite easy, too, because each chemistry tank has a drain valve. I found some scrap tubing of the right inside diameter and ran it from the drain valves to the sink drain. No mess, no fuss.

The Trimate holds just under a US gallon of chemistry per tank. That allows a small amount of developer to be kept in reserve for topping up as sheets carry developer out of the first tank. Many liquid developers, like Neutol, come in containers of one-half liter, and dilute 1+7 to make four liters working solution. Again, a perfect amount to fill the Trimate and have some in reserve. Very good planning in this regard by the folks at Nova. Topping up regularly when working is important, not only because the sheet must be kept submerged. When the level drops below a certain point, but is still above the sheet edge, the sheet will glom to the tank wall as it is being inserted. Topping up seems to allow enough room for the sheet to get a 'layer' of fluid behind it as it is lowered. This matter is important but not a problem; Yogi Berra's comment "you can see a lot just by looking" applies.

Complementing the white plastic walls is gleaming black plastic forming the ends, top pieces and bottom. To an old B&W freak like me the Nova units look fine. The plastic forming is well thought out and executed. The top of each tank is slightly broader than the depths, because the top of each wall curves out slightly toward the horizontal, black plastic of the top. This black strip of plastic has a well-formed edge against which the back of the sheet may be squeegeed as it is removed from each succeeding tank.

Since the Trimate has three tanks whose tops are slightly broader than their depths, spaces exist 'between' the tanks. They are called tempering chambers or water jackets. Filled with water heated by electric heaters sealed in glass, they transfer heat to the adjacent chemistry tanks. The ability of this arrangement to maintain consistent developer temperature is unquestioned. My darkroom chills down quite badly in winter, but the temperature of my dev is always the same. And since the heaters are only 150 watts each [there are two] the energy consumption is relatively low. And even better, if one does not leave them on continuously, the time required to raise the chemistry temp from chilly darkroom temp to operating is fairly short. I find an hour is about as bad as it gets, in the depths of winter.

The subject of temperature regulation is dealt with in the product literature delivered with the unit. It contains the following gem of clarity, which has been used (without attribution and with single-word alteration) in a review of the Nova processor that appeared in an international (print) magazine: (Darkroom and Creative Camera Techniques, Nov/Dec 1993, page 53.)

"The reason for poor solution heat recovery from conventional water jackets is due to the jacket and chemical tanks being of similar temperature. The Nova system uses a heat dissipation system that carries a 5C difference from the water bath to the chemicals. The system is constantly recovering temperature drops while processing - eliminating potential of lowering the chemical solution's temperature." (JOBO Product Catalog, "For Your Best Image," copyright JOBO Fototechnic 1993, page 15.)

Apart from the mouthful of marbles, the use of manufacturer-provided writing in a review of a product gives us the impression that the review is less than trustworthy. The applause is muted when the facts are known. The units reviewed in the photo media were the 8x10 size processors. They seemed to have been provided by the seller for review, not purchased by the reviewers.

I am reviewing the Nova 16x20 three-slot manual processor, which they call the 'Trimate.' I purchased my own unit (with my own money!) and have been using it since May 1994. My comments are based on my own observation and analysis.

My enthusiasm is not as good as pumpkin pie. It's cold as the cash I laid down.

Flimsier-than-Thou Construction:

The Trimate manual contains two stern admonitions:

  • page 3--"Warning. All chemical slots and water jackets must be filled before you switch the processor on. Failure to do so may cause undesirable local distortion, may break the glass heater tubes and will invalidate your guarantee...."
  • page 4--"Important. Under no circumstances must any processor be physically moved when it is full of liquid, as this can result in structural damage."

I certainly get their point, but questions immediately spring to mind. I have an electric kettle [made in England, no less!] It does not destroy itself if I let it boil dry. On the contrary, it is self- protective and shuts off. Price? Less than one-tenth of the Trimate's. Heaters that self-immolate are a thing of the past, and yet we see them installed in a newly designed US$ 700+ device. I find this peculiar; my suspicious nature is aroused.

Further observation of the heaters in the Trimate reveals no easy method of removing them. I believe they are glued in place. In the event they burn out, it appears the punishment awaiting the hapless fool of an owner who is obviously at fault is shipping the whole device to some distant repair depot and paying for repair, at unspecified but, we are sure, very high cost.

I can't help thinking that my solution to this problem, if it ever occurs, will be to unplug the Trimate, set it into a large aquarium, and heat the whole works with ordinary aquarium heaters. Awkward, but no shipping and paying.

As to the second warning, about moving the unit when full of liquid: the tempering chambers have no drain valves. They are filled through two small holes on the Trimate's top deck. They must be emptied through these holes, too, or perhaps through the two holes near the top on the rear end-wall of the unit that define the upper limit of the water level in the tempering chambers. In either case, the unit would have to be lifted while full. The manual doesn't say, but it appears siphoning the water out of the tempering chambers is required. What a shame the holes are so small; siphoning through a tube narrow enough to get in there would be slow. No need to ever do this -- as long as you never move the Trimate!

Of course, this all comes down to the mechanical integrity of the Trimate. The plastic is not as heavy gauge as it might be. The exterior buttress-style reinforcement could be doubled or tripled. It simply is ridiculous to be admonished not to move it when it would be very useful for it to reside on a wheeled cart. The Trimate gives the very strong impression that a human body could strike it with calamitous results. That is simply unacceptable, because striking one's elbow or hip on a piece of gear in the dark is always a possibility. I have hurt my head on my enlarger more than once!

Conclusions and Recommendations:

The Trimate has revolutionized my personal darkroom activities and ability to produce prints. My ability to utilize darkroom time has been enhanced by the Trimate to a degree difficult to express without seeming to exaggerate. The Trimate allows me to produce RC and fiber prints with an ease and freedom from drudgery formerly impossible.

The Trimate is suitable for color process as well. The diversity of its range of application is extremely impressive.

The Nova Trimate is a severely overpriced, mechanically flawed device based on a concept that is simple, vastly useful and deserving of widespread exploitation.

Nova and Jobo should market a unit that does not suffer from the extremely simple-to-correct flaws exhibited by the Trimate. Easily replaceable heaters that are thermally protected, and heavier or better reinforced plastic tank walls would go some distance in justifying the more than US$ 700 price. The Trimate must be able to withstand moving when full, or else it must be dead simple to drain all five chambers.

The excessive price of the Trimate provides an opportunity:

Somewhere there is a manufacturer that could build a better version of this type of processor. Organizations that come to mind include Zone VI - Calumet and Darkroom Aids Co. If any do so, I am standing in line for a 20x24 unit!

The home-handyman photographer could doubtless build one, too. With a budget approaching US$ 700 one could afford to experiment with aquarium-style containers and heaters and whatnot. The savings in chemistry and improvement in time utilization justify this type of device.

Final Conclusion:

The Trimate is a seriously flawed execution of a valid concept. It proves the excellence of the idea, but falls short in physical construction.

Copyright Lloyd Erlick. All rights reserved.