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Monday, 01 June 2009


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"...dank, smelly basements where there was six inches of standing water the previous spring, littered with heaps of old paint cans and oil-soaked rags, lit by a single hanging light bulb six meters away, and staring at an antediluvian dirt-encrusted cast-iron table saw being used as a storage table for boxes of items last used when Richard Nixon was president."

Ha! That is a picture-perfect description of my parents' basement...

Love that show, too. You ought to check out The Woodwright's Shop show on PBS - it's pretty much the same thing, but with hand tools.


"Even back in the days when silver prints were common, good ones weren't." To my mind the problem wasn't so much making a good print. Assuming years of practise, that could be achieved after a hard slog in the darkroom. It was making the second good print and the sixth and the twentieth....I've happily resisted digital's siren song EXCEPT for inkjet printing. To watch my printer issue print after identical print: bloody marvelous!

I've always likened woodworking to photography in certain forum discussions ...
Tools matter.
A good woodworker can make great things with a hammer and a handsaw ... but most don't. Tools are more about what you can do than how well you can do it.
Only a handful of woodworkers are also artists; most are craftspeople working off plans or know-how to produce their own iterations of the same thing that's been produced before.
You can probably add plenty of other similarities.
I have a decently equipped basement workshop, a number of books and a few years worth of magazine subscriptions. I had visions of being a Norm Jr until I realized that I had no time to be a Norm Jr. So now it's a family handymans workshop, used for small around-the-house projects. But maybe someday ...

Heh. My father built himself a traditional sailing dory a couple of years ago. From the ground up, from scraps of wood, single-handed, and after heart surgery. It's now sailing, contrary all our scepticism. Some people have what it takes.

I like film, black and white, and old cameras, but I decided some time ago that I would never invest in a traditional darkroom. On the other hand, digital black and white printing is something I'd like to master someday.

Norm is looking a little old these days. On the other hand I've been watching him do his sidekick and solo acts for the better part of 30 years. He looks better than I do.

You mean I don't need my $480,000 of equipment to make a decent digital print ?
Sure it's d... hard to make a super sparkling wet print, but you can't knock the 'making out' (an Americanism I believe) as a student in a small, locked, red lit room to enhance the learning curve. Trays of irritant chemicals in proximity to said act can add a fizz to things (if you're not careful) and is probably more fun than proximity to a 20 inch Mac (or perhaps not). I am so sorry my English Reserve has momentarily gone AWOL: perhaps the frustration of looking at screen and print and trying to reconcile the two.
Thanks for the giggle, Mike.

Hey Mike, New Yankee Workshop gets piped over to this side of the atlantic too! I watched a lot of it when we first bought our house, 7 or 8 years ago. I found it very relaxing - and it even prompted me to do a wood working evening course. 8 years on and I have a rusty old handsaw, a hammer, a jam jar with nails, screws and other odds and ends, and a darkroom where I can touch all the walls at the same time. Despite my nifty D300, I do find a lot of pleasure mid winter in producing an under controlled (finger in the air) silver print. Years to learn a painstaking craft? Depends how much you want to learn - my wobbly shelves are still up and I have a drill to hang my own hand crafted silver picture. What more do you need?

Of course, what no one has quite noticed yet is that, now your inkjet can "issue print after identical print" from the same data, the value of those prints is asymptotically the cost of copying that data over the net (which, in turn, is asymptotically zero) plus the cost of the media (which is not zero, but not very high).

Anyone who wonders what this means for them should look at what is happening to the music industry.

There are ways to escape from this, all of which basically come down to never letting anyone get hold of a "digital" copy (to be precise, any copy which has a reproduction cost which is sufficiently low) of anything you do. Preferably produce your work in a medium where such copies do not exist at all.

For instance: make silver prints from negatives.

(To anyone tempted to argue with this based on free software: you are wrong, and you need to stop and think about how software differs from photography.)

"And now we're going to make the anterior verplex hamhock joint. This can be a little tricky—" (note that when Norm says something can be "a little tricky," he means that it's going to require full-scale black magic on the part of ordinary mortals born of women) "—but it helps if you have a handy little piece of equipment called a Remosaic Inside-Out Perglulator. It's a little expensive, and it pretty much only does verplex hamhock joints, but it's a lot better than trying to scratch the joint out of the wood with your fingernails...."

This is the funniest thing I've read in awhile, Mike. Part of what makes it so amusing is it's exactly how I feel when I watch the show. Thanks for brightening my Monday a bit!

Hmm, this is a problem. Photography and woodworking are my two main hobbies. Many true woodworkers will say Norm is a carpenter making furniture as oppose to a furniture maker doing carpentry. In spite of this, I'll have to credit Norm with bringing woodworking to the masses. It's true that his shop has every conceivable tool, but if you watch his early shows, you could see tools from a mostly homeowner's workshop- shopsmith multi-tool, a Unisaw from the 50's or 60's and a pretty beat up router. When the show took off, the manufacturers loaded the shop with tools in hopes that you would buy what Norm was using. I've actually combined the two hobbies in building a 4x10 back for my Zone VI camera and also have a 7x17 on the drawing board. Both passions do have the same mottos- Every project/assignment needs a new tool/lens and he who dies with the most stuff wins.


Amusing enough read, but I never felt that way about the darkroom. I always found it peaceful and relaxing, which I doubt I would find with furniture making. I won't pretend there were no frustrations or that it was always easy, but it certainly wan't (or isn't, I still use it when I'm in the same country) that bad, and I definitely felt more accomplished on seeing the result compared to doing the same with a computer. I never did color, mind you, which I hear is worse wet.

As far as print quality, I admit I've seen a lot of boring gray ones, including sometimes from myself. However, I would contend the vast majority of prints digital users will show you are also awful--usually from the other direction of mawkishness. Just browse the photo-hobby sites and gag at the over-the-top nature of everything. Digital makes innumerable alterations much easier, but that doesn't mean you should do them.

Not that I could afford to have a master printer do it with my own photos, but by far the best black and white prints I've seen were done through traditional processes. However, I've only been to a few shows that had digital reproductions in black and white, so I'm not very up-to-date.

Michael Reichmann has to be the photography equivalent of Norm. $480,000 might be light for his set of camera gear. (Look at his recommended list some time.)

Like a lot of male persons, I've watched Norm and thought, "Hmmm." That carried me so far as to buy a copy of a magazine called "Fine Woodworking," I believe, in which there was an article on setting up your bandsaw. Not *using* your bandsaw, understand, just setting it up; and setting it up was so intricate, and called upon so many skills that I didn't have ("using your retrograde vernier caliper to determine...") that I took up downhill skiing instead.


Ah Norm - I love that show - it convinced me I should probably go into photography.

I really think that this analogy is an apt one, even outside of print making and into the realm of photography. Some images just require a Remosaic Inside-Out Perglulator to capture; while some of us are happy just making a nice mortis and tennon joint by hand.

Great post. I'm 35 years old. That's hardly old. Yet, in my field as a wedding and portrait photographer I am a dinosaur to know what D76 and stopbath were. Forget about Ilford printing filters.

Times are better no doubt. But darkrooms had a great indirect benefit of weeding-out of pretenders, posers, wannabes and hacks in my field.

Nowadays, anyone with a home computer can go get a digital Rebel with a kit lens and call themselves a "wedding photographer."

Home renovation programs are one of my pet peeves. I wrote an impolite blog entry about them a few years ago:

I remember seeing an excerpt from a very old "This Old House". A very young Bob Villa is consulting with the local hippie contractor, Norm, who had a pony-tail halfway down his back.

Bob is renovating a very ordinary suburban cracker-box, and the the two of them are examining a two foot square hole in the dirt. Norm dabs at the edge of the hole with his foot: "If I were you.....".

I think the proposed solution involved a shovel and an hour of digging. Things are different now!


I used to love those shows, but they lost me when they would say things like, "Well, we only budgeted $40K to upgrade the closet, so we'll have to make do..."

There are few things as annoying as a brief description of an impossible job, which purports to make it seem easy....and there, are few things as satisfying as doing a difficult job well with the right tools and the benefit of experience.
A parallel here with our always trying another camera in the hope it will be the tool that "makes it happen" and the joy that will accrue when we get the experience Mike has been lecturing us about the last few days.

Cheers, Robin

Muddy gray B&W prints? Yeah, made a lot of those. Now I use only 2 films, 2 developers and expose carefully. Most negs print OK with a two and a half filter on Illford MG4 RC and I never go bigger than 8X10. Of course, out of a roll of 70 half frame negs I'll only wind up printing 2 or 3. At least now they mostly go from base white to almost black....in the same print.

PS: Just turned 60 and too tired to start all over with computers, image files, scanners and ink jet printers that won't work when you connect them to the computer unless some 'high computer priest' says an incantation over them and then bangs, seemingly at random on the keyboard. Then, with the setup working the 'high computer priest' (AKA my son) leaves and I start the system the next day. Following carefully all instructions on the screen I work through the procedure to make a print. When I finally press enter an error message pops up that contains such usefull information such as "warning: your monkeys have eye boogers". At this point I rip the power plug from the wall yelling "die digital scum" and then pour a glass of cheap table wine and proceed to once more set up the trays on the tub.

Great post, and it really brings home my feeling that I'd love to try the Leica challenge if only there were an M6 able to spit out digital files. I understand (and my wife will attest) from my brief forays into woodworking (and previous darkroom work for that matter) how likely I am to stick with that side of the process for a whole year. Plus, you described my basement to a tee, apart from the 5' 5" ceiling.

Anyway, on a more serious note, Does the Remosaic Inside-Out Perglulator perform posterior verplex hamhock joints as well as anterior? What about lateral semi-verplex trotter joints? The manufacturer's website is maddeningly vague on these issues.

I'm old enough to have had my fingers wet with chemicals, and I remember that darkroom magic from them back when I was very young. However, I also realize that it was the hassle of setting up / getting access to a darkroom when moving from place to place, that finally made me give up printing. And since decent B&W printing shops became more and more difficult to find, I consequently gave up photographing, except for the occasional family snapshot.
Then digital came around - and I was born again. I’m glad I had the experience from film, and I still feel humbled by the old masters – but no way am I going back to chemicals again.
Since the time of youth I have in fact settled down, and nowadays I’m the proud and sometimes very tired owner of an 80 years old house, that I try to keep at least in some kind of shape. Your description of the New Yankee Workshop gave me a really good laugh.
Be it photography or woodworking: what matters are 1) the result and the 2) amount of fun you had reaching it – the type and amount of equipment are only means to reach the goal.

Oh, it's lovely with a computer. You start to do something quick and simple on Monday morning at eight am, and you are finished at eight thirty.
But it's Tuesday.
The seat in front of the monitor is the place of evil and loneliness, and there is no paler-skinned creature than a computer geek.
Err, with all this in mind, why don't I use my darkroom?

I never experienced the darkroom described in the quote. In my experience, the darkroom is a place of peace and solitude, where a person can apply skills developed through hard (but usually fun) work and experience to make beautiful, one-of-a-kind prints that represent the fruit of their vision. It is also a place where I have had lots of fun, and derived much satisfaction. As John Sexton says, it is also a place where magic happens.

There are not many places where magic happens.

And you don't need a really expensive tool to make it happen. You never did.

Dear Tim,

Why would you expect that the DATA that goes into a digital print would be publicly available???

When I sell a digital print, I don't send people a copy of the source file along with the print. Nor do they expect to get one. They're buying a photograph, not a means of producing said photograph.

Unless you're predicting some change in the audience mindset where they'll expect to receive such data with a print. I don't see it on the horizon, but stranger things have happened.

If you're worried about digital piracy from a print, yeah that's possible, though I think you'll have to be awfully successful before it becomes an issue. If you think that making your prints in the darkroom protects you from that, you're in for a rude surprise.

pax / Ctein

The Woodwright's Shop show on PBS - it's pretty much the same thing, but with hand tools.

That sounds great. Probably can't get it in the UK though.

I like New Yankee Workshop but I think Norm goes a bit too far when he even has to use a power tool to put in 1" nails!

With regards to Tim Bradshaw's comment, I'd like to say that, for those selling art prints, it's more useful to look at photography galleries rather than the music industry. Living photographers do just as well with digital prints as they do with traditional media. The place where Tim has it exactly right is stock photography, which has been decimated by the ease of digital duplication.

I agree that if prints are the object of sale, it's foolish to make printable digital files accessible to anyone else.

@Tim Bradshaw and others:
I do not claim my pictures are high art. But up to now I've hesitated to upload them to flickr or where have you.

Can any of you help me out... which method would allow me to share them with the world while preventing anything but viewing? (Yes, I'm old school about this.) The optional safety locks on downloads at flickr don't quite cut it, true? I've contemplated adding watermarks in the center, but that's not a desirable option if I could avoid it...

That column is truly funny! I've been to all those places... dark darkrooms, poorly lit workshops (mine has TWO bulbs, but the basement ceiling is only five and a half feet and I'm six), and also have the same response to Norm's amazing workshop! Thanks again, Mike. When I get a job I'm going to subscribe... honest!

Keep it coming... your writing is a true bright spot in my days. :-)

"Don't believe the retrospective myth-making: The darkroom was a place of evil and loneliness, where darkness, dangerous chemicals and an almost comic lack of control over the uniformity of the end product..."

Ah, more encouragement to get that Leica, a brick of film, some chemicals, and a tank.

Mike your take on old Norm if you will pardon the pun is as usual "right on the nail" the funny thing is for a long time while watching his show on this side of the pond I was convinced that all Americans had basements perfectly fitted out with every expensive piece of woodworking gizmo known to man, your description of the basement with 3 inches of water has rather spoiled my illusion.

That's a very good essay; I like it.

I remember looking at a condo in Illinois, near where I worked at the time. I thought it was perfect because the rear of the residence looked out into the Forest Preserve. I had visions of peace and quiet for sleeping. But the owner wanted $110k for it instead of the going rate of $95k for similar units. Why? Because he had remodeled the bathroom and kitchen "by hand." He mentioned that he had put "many hundreds of hours" into the work. But it looked...terrible. Not just kind of terrible; got-to-do-something-about-this-RIGHT-now terrible. For instance, to make the kitchen cabinets, he had set his circular saw at an an angle to make beveled edges; reversed, on the cabinets, you could then grab the edge with your fingertips so the cabinet doors didn't need handles. He thought this was just the height of sophistication.

Unfortunately you could also see the plys of the plywood on all the edges, and he had used A-C plywood so, on the inside of the doors, you could easily see the flaws in the wood underneath the paint. It was *awful.* And he wanted $15k extra for this wretched work. I had to pass.

It was all for the best, though. I later found out there was a Pespi distribution depot fifty yards away through the woods, across the creek. All morning, every morning, the Pepsi trucks were in and out, backing up to the loading bays from 4:00 a.m. till about 7 or 8. The uproar would have driven me crazy in short order.

Dodged a bullet there, all around.


"on a more serious note, Does the Remosaic Inside-Out Perglulator perform posterior verplex hamhock joints as well as anterior? What about lateral semi-verplex trotter joints? The manufacturer's website is maddeningly vague on these issues."

We could really get into that, couldn't we? It's a big, nay a huge, topic.



I've found few things as relaxing over the years than watching Norm make a really ugly piece of furniture with all of his gizmos. I vividly recall coming home with the weight of several worlds on my shoulders. Thirty minutes of Norm's sawdust therapy and I was much better. (I've never been a woodworker...or even had a workshop of any kind.)

The second best choice was watching one of those oil-painting-in-30-minutes shows. There's just something about watching a fellow start with a blank canvas and end up with a nauseatingly cliché sofa-art landscape painting. It's magic.

I don't think photography offers any such relaxation potential, at least not as a spectator. But when I'm actually doing it I feel absolutely fine and can think of nothing else.

I'm not sure what all the yipping is about. Only a handful of photographers ever stepped foot in a darkroom. They hired all the development and printing done. All this reminiscing about the bad old days? Harrumph.

But there are a few commercial darkroom rats, like Mike, that definitely have/had the darkroom chops, but then we're comparing work/productivity issues. Yes, digital beats analog in price/performance for most things. But explain to me when "art" became "mass production"?

The terms "hand-crafted" and "Photoshop" just don't go well together.

I still have a darkroom and I do woodworking. Given a choice I would prefer to spend time printing.
It is very difficult to saw off a finger with a Focomat. Believe me if it could be done I would have.
I know modern inkjets can do wonders. Still I have to mix up some Dektol from time to time. Some stuff you just do for love and that's enough.

Oh, the humanity! But in 35 years of printing in the darkroom, I've never wound up with black fingernails. Toner spills in the office are another matter, however.

Anybody with real sawdust in their veins knows that the classic verplex hamhock joint can only be done with your teeth and fingernails, not some automated, whizz-bang machine. Norm is such a wood butcher.


Lubo wrote: "... which method would allow me to share them [digital photos] with the world while preventing anything but viewing?" Well, if you want to prevent someone else from printing them in any meaningful way, for starters you can simply keep the file size small. The web doesn't demand much. I can tolerate someone stealing a wallet-size print from me.

I just have to comment on this one. I spent 30+ years working as a designer /craftsman working in wood. Norm actually visited my shop once while filming a segment of This Old House in Tucson. There are many similarities between photography and woodwork that I find amazing. There is the hand/low tech vs machine/high tech, there is the pro vs amateur, there are also the common difficulties of trying to make or craft something useful/attractive and worthwhile. The business aspects are similar as well. Changing markets, low budgets, ridiculous deadlines.

I quit being a woodworker to become a photographer for many reasons. I was tired of the isolation and infrequent interactions with people. My body was also rebelling against the years of heavy lifting, repetitive motion stress, chemical exposure and breathing sawdust. I will also admit to feeling a bit jaded in my attitude with amateur woodworkers coming into the shop seeking camaraderie yet being totally unaware that the similarities of what we were doing ended when you have to factor in budgets and deadlines.

Now I have a small general photography business and work with people often and occasionally wish for isolation. I am shooting and processing film and becoming interested in alt process work and am concerned/cautious about the health considerations. I am keenly aware of the fact that there are many amateur photographers with creative and technical skills far superior to mine that will never have to consider budgets or deadlines.

Nirvana is always over the next hill but photography is a cool thing to practice on the way. I really don't miss the woodshop.

Ah, the darkroom, who can forget that wonderful feeling of wheezing and breathlessness when you have mixed the stop bath too strong.

My sister in law's late father Jim, in the days before those noisy routers came along made his own rebate planes.
What a cool guy.

I wish I could print B&W or color inkjet prints as fast as I could print silver prints in the darkroom.

I used to be able to print well over a hundered prints an hour if I was using two enlargers at once, close to a hundred an hour with only one enlarger.

The secrets to that sort of productivity are:

Use one of those bright Thompson sodium safelights and a blue light diffusion head on the enlarger. That makes it easy to pick the correct grade and get within a quarter stop of the perfect exposure by eyeball.
My darkrooms were always set up bright enough to read in , and exposures were always around 8 seconds or so
The diffusion head makes spotting a non issue.

Besseler Nega-Trans carriers are great, you can run an uncut roll of film through them lickity split , then cut it up for storage after you print. Milling away a lot of metal and plastic to make it oversized makes it easier to get the negative positioned more quickly

A lens that is about twice the "normal" focal length at about 5.6 will be both sharp and will have adequate depth of field for the Nega-trans which is not quite as flat as some other carriers.

The biggest best grain focuser you can buy will pay for itself in a couple hours.

A tray of low contrast print developer and a tray of high contrast, and a waterbath and a tray of acid stop will give you a lot of margin to dial in that last bit of density and contrast. Obviously a tiny bit of over exposure will give you a little more flexability, and that Thompson sodium safelight will let you see what you are doing. A known good reference print in a tray of water can help your eyes stay calibrated.

Use graded paper, variable contrast never worked for me.

Right hand dry , left hand wet

Consistent dodging and burning and development are aided by the proper music with a consistent beat, I recommend The Ramones.

Wet was *So* much simpler than digital.

Mind you these were all prints for reproduction where my clients wanted rather open shadows, "art" prints took a little longer.

I never did figure out a way to work fast in a color darkroom , I was lucky to print 4 negatives in a day even with a Creonite machine.

Inkjet printing is really really slow compared to B&W darkroom work , but at least I don't have to dry and flatten the prints.

Well, MJ has done it again!!!!! hhehehe

"Times are better no doubt. But darkrooms had a great indirect benefit of weeding-out of pretenders, posers, wannabes and hacks in my field. Nowadays, anyone with a home computer can go get a digital Rebel with a kit lens and call themselves a "wedding photographer."

Kansas C. Photographer,
not only "wedding". I would say "call themselves photographers"...


I agree with you. Fiber paper was slower due to washing and drying, but workprinting was much faster. I think my record...well, jeez, I've forgotten the numbers. But it was something like 180 prints in a little over three hours. (Maybe 120? I really can't remember.) You'd have to have several inkjet printers going to match that, and I could never do the Photoshop work fast enough.

But we had mad skills. Not everyone did.

Also, I don't have mad Photoshop skillz.


An insightful piece of humorous writing, Mike. I read it on the laptop while coincidentally watching NYW and laughed so hard I nearly spat my wine all over the screen. It made me think of your classic "Great Photographers on the Internet".

I'm sold. I'm going to click the "Subscribe" button right now...

Thanks, Hugh and Mike, for reminding us all how fast the wet darkroom can be, if you set up everything right.

The second best choice was watching one of those oil-painting-in-30-minutes shows.

Bob Ross? We get his show in the UK too. I even had a go at one once. Took me four hours!

@Ken N. Said "But explain to me when "art" became "mass production"?"

When artists started doing "limited editions". I have a "limited edition" print by a quite well known '60s photographer. It is one of a limited printing of 10,000. It was the only way I could afford one of his images.

And believe me, my inkjet prints prepared in Photoshop are every bit as hand crafted as any I ever made in the darkroom. I pretty much do exactly the same sort of things to produce the print, I am just using different tools now.

"But darkrooms had a great indirect benefit of weeding-out of pretenders, posers, wannabes and hacks in my field."

How? 99% of film photographers never did their own processing outside of school (if even that). I worked at a pro lab before the digital revolution. Everyday I had to explain such basic concepts as aspect ratio and color temp to full time, professional photographers. The industry has been full of hacks since Eastman made photography "so easy any school boy or girl can get professional results".

"Someone let the rabble in." -Lewis Carrol, dedicated wet-plate photographer, commenting on the introduction of film.

Bob Ross? We get his show in the UK too. I even had a go at one once. Took me four hours!

Happy little trees.

Ok, now I'm worried. My goal with photography was to one day make room for a darkroom to make B&W prints. I spend all day in front of a computer and I don't want my hobbies to involve that too. Plus, I'm a purist so B&W darkroom just sounds like fun to me. I also have dreams of woodworking with only handtools and 10 fingers. If I had Norm's powertool workshop I would have about 3 fingers left.

Somebody out there let me know that I'm not crazy wanting to shoot film with MMM cameras and doing darkroom work myself even if I only have the artistic ability of a tablesaw.

"And believe me, my inkjet prints prepared in Photoshop are every bit as hand crafted as any I ever made in the darkroom. I pretty much do exactly the same sort of things to produce the print, I am just using different tools now."

no doubt. But, after the first one, the next prints are not "handcrafted" anymore, only reproductions.


Your description of the New Yankee Workshop cracked me up, Mike. Spot on. I am one of those guys with the cramped, messy workshop in which I stand for several lonely minutes at least once a week wondering how I can make room for a table saw and all the rest.

I recently counted all the power tools Norm used during one episode - it was 17, and only 2 or 3 of them were the portable kind we mortals are familiar with. And he wasn't even making an especially complex project.

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