Tim Layton Fine Art | Darkroom Diary: Managing Curling in Silver Gelatin Fiber Prints

Darkroom Diary: Managing Curling in Silver Gelatin Fiber Prints

July 19, 2018  •  2 Comments

My Darkroom Diary series are a monograph about the lessons that I have learned while making large scale black and white fine art silver gelatin prints in the darkroom.  I specialize in making 30x40, 40x50, 24x72, and even bigger large format black and white fine art silver gelatin artist original darkroom prints for collectors, designers, and corporations that seek the ultimate floral still life artwork.  


One of the most difficult and annoying things when you make large format black and white archival prints using fiber paper is the curling of the paper!  It will keep you awake at night thinking of ways to tame and manage it... 

The problem exponentially becomes more difficult to manage the larger you print.  

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If you refer to the photo of the print to the left you will notice a couple of things that are important.  First, I left a two inch border around the print when I made it to allow for hanging while drying. 

I use 1x2 pine boards with some woodworking clamps at the top and bottom borders of the print.  I sandwich the top and bottom of the print between the two pieces of wood and then clamp the wood tightly before hanging from the ceiling.  

The weight of the wood and clamps applies just enough pressure to keep the wet print very straight, but without tearing the sensitive fiber paper.  

I learned over time that my local environmental conditions also impacted the amount of curl that remained after the print was dry.  I think that is a key point to underscore before moving forward.  There is no practical way to dry fiber-based darkroom prints to be 100% flat without combining a couple of methods together.  

The goal in the drying phase is to get the print as flat as possible making the next step more manageable and easier.  One of the important things that I learned was that the humidity in the drying room makes a big difference.  The slower the print dries, the flatter it will be in the end.  To help with this, I put a humidifier in my drying room along with the wet print after it is hung.  Between the hanging method described above and the humidifier, the print will typically dry pretty flat.  The problem areas for me right now are the sides where there are no boards and clamps.  The sides tend to bow/curve in towards the end of the drying phase, so I am experimenting with some new methods to help with this and I will write another article when I have more information to share with what worked.  

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I also learned from experience that you don't want to leave the print clamped between the wood any longer than necessary because the fiber paper under the pressure of the wood will sort of bind and stick to the wood.  It is heartbreaking to damage a beautiful print and it is a hard lesson to learn.  I think it is the gelatin in the paper that binds itself to the wood under pressure.  I leave my prints hang over night and then remove them from the hanger first thing in the morning.  

After I remove my print from the hanger, I place it under some very heavy sheets of wood in a warm room.  For this stage, heat and pressure are your friends.  I sandwich my prints between two pieces of thick white melamine wood and then I stack four additional sheets on top for at least a week in the summer months before checking the print.  The stack is so heavy that it broke one of my tables!  

I have a workshop area that is not air conditioned and in the summer months it is usually well above 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis.  In the winter, I have a space heater that I place in the room to get it warm, but not as hot as the summer months. I think my prints dry flatter and faster in the summer heat.  

I am exploring some options for reducing the natural curl of fiber paper when I make borderless prints and don't have the option of employing the methods described above. I will write another article on that when I have something of value to share with you. Some of the tests take several weeks to determine their value, so it can be sort of slow to know what does and does not work.  

If you have some innovative methods that can help with managing the "curling nightmare" with these larger prints, please share your experience in the comments section below.  

-Tim Layton

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Tim Layton Fine Art
Hi Ken, that is a really interesting idea! I had not thought of this, so thank you for taking the time to tell me about it. I am going to research and see what I can come up with. Thanks!
Ken C(non-registered)
Are you familiar with vacuum clamping? It's used by wood workers to,for instance, glue sheets of very thin wood veneer to a thicker substrate. It done in a heavy vinyl bag which comes in sizes consistent with your prints. The air is evacuated from the bag by either a vacuum motor or even a venturi used with an air compressor. It's incredibly strong, and reasonably priced relative to your project.
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