Paper and Coating

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"Another very convenient method of preparing sheets of paper for negatives is by means of a perfectly straight glass tube of the width of the paper, round the ends of which are two india-rubber rings, of the thickness the film is desired to be. If thought advantageous, a rod may be passed through the tube, and bent round to join, and so to form a handle, by means of which the tube will revolve as it passes over any surface.

The paper is damped as before, and stretched on perfectly flat plate glass, the emulsion poured gradually in front of the roller, and the emulsion takes a fine layer of a uniform thickness."

Photography with Emulsions, A Treatise on the Theory and Practical Working of the Collodion and Gelatine Emulsion Processes, by William De W. Abney, 1885.

Coating is too often thought to be a stumbling block in using emulsions. Nothing could be further from fact. It is true that there isn't currently a mechanized multi-sheet coating machine that one can order up from a photographic supply catalog. I believe a whole new set of tools and materials will follow from a renewed interest in emulsion making. The perfect large sheet/minimal waste/ maximum convenience coating contraption will be invented by an emulsion maker - but we have to start making emulsions first. Handcrafted b&w paper making is still a sheet-by-sheet affair. This is an art as much as a science. It should be celebrated (and can be marketed) as such.

With a few simple tools I can coat paper that is essentially indistinguishable from a commercial paper (that is, if such papers were still being manufactured). The irony is that no one can tell I've made my own paper unless I tell them. (Of course, if you want to market that extra cachet of 'hand made', maybe it ought to be more obvious. Ah well — a problem for another day.)

If there is a 'problem' with making our own paper, it's dealing with the bounty of choice. In addition to emulsion characteristics and color control, there is the choice of paper and how to coat it. There is a great wealth of watercolor papers. Most of them are probably suitable for coating with emulsion. I have worked with the following: Fabriano Artistico X-white HP, Fabriano Artistico Traditional HP, Rives BFK, Somerset Satin, Saunders Waterford, Hahneműhle Copperplate, Baryta glossy , Arches Watercolor HP, Arches Platine, and Crane's Platinotype (discontinued, I think). All the papers I have used are 140 lb. (300 gm/m2). For detailed info on many papers, visit The catalog they mail out has a very comprehensive description of all the papers they carry.

My favorite all-around paper continues to be Fabriano Artistico HP. It is suited to both dry and wet coating. The texture is very close to Kodabromide N (from the 1952 Kodak Professional Handbook). With 'I ' there is the slight bas relief in the shadows seen on Mural Paper R. Although no watercolor paper (that I've tried) duplicates exactly any of the various textures of paper Kodak had once upon a time, many come close. Saunders Waterford comes closest to Opal Paper L. Baryta looks just like baryta. 'I ' coated on glossy baryta looks like Illustrators' Azo F.

An extra note of opinion: Someday (soon, I think), photography enthusiasts and collectors will know that the b&w print they are viewing might be 'homemade' - just as today they understand that platinum printers almost certainly make their own paper. Our work today, making prints of every tone and texture imaginable, can bring about a new renaissance of appreciation for the unique beauty that is the silver gelatin print.

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