Chapter 1:The Beginning

In 2006, I went looking for a place to turn into a photography studio. The house I live in is a classical 1800's farmhouse without a lot of storage space or work room, and I didn't want to destroy its lines with an addition. So I started looking for a store-front that I could rent in Philipsburg or Clearfield - I thought it would be easy since both are economically depressed with largely vacant mercantile areas. Unfortunately, the property owners are holding out for when things turn around (they have probably been holding out for the turn around since World War II ended) - prices are surprisingly high and negotiating a lease turned frustrating. Then, someone suggested I take a look at "the old school" which had been decommissioned and put on the market. Things moved quickly after that, and I soon found myself the owner of a 5,000 square-foot 1957-built elementary school. It is my Fortress of Solitude, Lair of Evil, and Extended Mega-Closet . Real estate around here is cheap, the whole place with 9 acres of woods, a playground, basketball court, and flagpole - cost less than I was looking at spending to rent a much smaller store-front.

The only problem with the schoolhouse is that it has no water. That means: no bathroom. Well, there are bathrooms, they just don't work. So, I gutted them and turned the boys' bathroom into a passable medieval dungeon set, and the girls' bathroom into an over-the-top medical exam-room set. Meanwhile, years later, I got a letter from one of the local engineering companies: they are putting municipal water in! Last week, the backhoes were out along the road, with beautiful stacks of blue pipe ready to go into the warm welcoming Pennsylvania mud. I should have water by mid-winter, which means I can aim for a hookup in the spring when the mud is a little nicer to deal with.

My Place In The Dark
I've been processing my wet-plates in the former boys' bathroom, now the medieval dungeon set. It's worked fairly well, since there's this great big oak bondage table that I built - quite convenient! Water-jugs are pretty easy to haul back and forth in my truck, but it sure would be nice to have a real darkroom again. Back in the 90's when I lived in Maryland, I built a pretty amazing (very clean, white, and high-tech) darkroom in the basement of my house. During a very stressful period of my life, it was my haven - my lair of loud symphonic metal music, running water, red lights, and the smell of thiosulphate fixer and acetic acid. I moved from that house ten years ago, and I don't think that a week has gone by when I haven't caught myself missing the darkroom - I forget most of the rest of the house (except the library with floor-to-ceiling wall-to-wall shelves...) but it's the darkroom that became my safe haven.

It is time to build a new darkroom. It'll be my last darkroom so it needs to be the best.

The Plan
My first idea was to make a steampunk darkroom. So was my second. And my third. Then practicality set in. Then, I decided that I could make a steampunk darkroom that was both funky, weird, and practical . In this journal entry I am going to describe the broad outlines of the design.


The front wall, with some random junk leaning against it.

Looking back toward the door.

The Floor Plan
A darkroom needs five things:
- Storage space
- Dark
- Safe Lights
- Sinks
- Counter space
I have two sinks and some cabinets and a plan!

Sketch of the front of the room.

For the front of the room, I think I will keep things relatively simple. A single counter-top, probably constructed out of plywood and painted black (unless I get ambitious enough to cover it with zinc) (on second thought: zinc + nitric acid = ugly zinc) My plan is to modify the fronts of the cabinets by cutting shapes out of pasteboard - more on that later - so they look like bolted on metal plates. One of the cabinets, which will hold my toxic chemicals, will have a skull/crossbones applique and maybe even a lock. Although anyone who breaks in and steals my cyanide deserves what happens to them.

I've left space on the sides of the cabinets because I think I will make brackets to hold a pair of speakers. Some kind of grille or bracket or something would be cool to put in front of them. I'm toying with the idea of cutting some conduit pipes to make a fake pipe-organ pipe bank to hide the speakers behind. As long as they don't rattle or ruin the sound dispersion. That's a "figure it out later" thing.

Sketch of the floor plan.

The position of the sinks is pretty much not negotiable. The stainless sink will only fit in one particular direction because it is designed to go against a wall on its left side. Also, there are commode rings in the floor on one side, from where the toilets used to be, and on the other there are drains where the sinks were. "All" I need to do is mount the sinks and plumb the drains right into the sink drains/commode rings. That should be "relatively straightforward" although I hate plumbing.

By the way, I apologize for the quality of my sketches. If I could draw, I'd be a real artist, not a photographer. In fact, one of my big problems is that I have a lot of trouble rendering things I have never seen before. I can make something out of wood or metal and look at it and go "yeah, that's right" but I completely lose my sense of proportion when I am visualizing something, unless it's something I can create and then look at. That's why I like photography: I can think "model dressed as a gorean slave girl with her panties falling down" and construct that, as described - then go "yeah! that's right!" But if you stuck a gun to my head and ordered me to draw it? You may as well pull the trigger.

The sketches were done while I was waiting to speak on a panel about internet security. I was doodling away and I'm pretty sure all the people in the room thought I was writing deep, thoughtful notes about the other speakers. Actually, I was in la-la land.

Now, The Steam and Punk
The cinderblock walls of the room pose a bit of a problem. No matter how you paint cinderblock it looks like cinderblock with paint on it. So, I hit upon the idea of using pressboard wall covering, glued to the wall, with lapping panels and "bolt heads" to make it look like steel boiler plate - how's that for retro? It's actually fairly inexpensive stuff, at $7 for a 4'x8' sheet 1/8" thick. I'll cut the sheets in half and mount the 4' segments off the floor (the sinks will be against the wall and will hide it) so it covers the walls to about 7' off the floor.

320 square feet of pressboard! (the brown stuff) and 64 square feet of green 2" thick foam!

I'm sparing you some of the details of how I'll mount the boards because I will do a full write-up of that process when I get into doing it.

Oak plug buttons for woodworkers. $15 for 100 on amazon.com!

The oak buttons ought to look fairly rivet-like when glued to the panels in rows. I hope so, anyway! Because once the glue holding the panels up sets, they're going to be there for a good long time.

The Foam Connection
Green construction foam is great stuff; it's fairly strong, relatively cheap, and very easy to cut into shapes. My plan is to use it to define the upper parts of the room by scroll-sawing stuff out of foam, then painting it with the same faux-steel finish as the wall board. Or maybe battleship grey. The upper reaches of the room will be fairly dark so it seems pointless to waste expensive metallic paint. The "girders" will go across the room, about eight feet off the floor (maybe more) - the idea is that they will sort of vanish into the shadows above... All the lights will be shining downward, so the upper parts of the room ought to be pretty gloomy. A hint of looming heavy metal (even if it's just foam) is just what the mad doctor ordered!

I'm also going to use the foam to cut a sort of clock/boiler shape for the front of the room, that will go above the cabinets. I'll put wallboard up to cover the window (covering the window is an important source of darkness!) and then applique the foam to it with glue. My current sketch is sort of vaguely intended to look like an old clock or the front of a steam locomotive. It might be a fun place to mount a clock or something. I am currently toying with the idea of mounting a lumin disk in it although I am concerned that it might output light in the wrong part of the spectrum.

Ceiling brackets, to be cut/constructed out of foam, glue, buttons, wall board

I'm pretty good with woodworking, though my designs tend toward the industrial-strength not the beautiful. I can handle making stuff out of plywood. The sketch also has a design for a bracket to hold safe-lights. That kind of industrial-themed bracket is pretty straightforward: two pieces of plywood glued together, scroll-sawed, and painted, then mounted to the wall with expansion bolts. One thing that's great about working with cinderblock spaces: you can just attach stuff to the wall and hang pretty much anything on it.

The safe-lights are 24" flourescent tubes that will be mounted in an industrial metal flourescent tray, sleeved-over with a red filter-screen that only allows through orange-red light. Flourescent safe-lights are great because they put out a lot of light but don't heat up. Scientific companies now sell LED safelights but they're several hundred dollars apiece. My flourescents will do the trick, look industrial, and cost 1/5 as much.

When I get around to the plumbing and wiring, I'll make similar-looking stand-offs to hold the wiring conduits and pipes. My plan is to use clear PVC pipe with the pipes running straight down the inside of the walls, between the "girders" on stand-offs. The electricals will run through the same stand-offs in metal conduit. It ought to look suitably brutal/industrial. I'm going to tackle that after I have the walls and the "girders" up and force myself to work around the "girders" just like you'd have to in a proper steampunk battleship engine-room.

Hmmm... Is that my theme here? A battleship engine-room?

Armored wall lights FTW!

A good darkroom has lots of light that can be turned on and off quickly. You leave the safe-lights on the whole time, but when you need to see what a picture looks like in daylight, it's nice to be able to snap on the lights and see. So I have five of the armored lights like you see above, which I will put around the room, as well as a totally drool-worthy overhead retro gas-globe light from Rejuvenation . So far that's the big ticket item for this project but when I saw it, I had to have it. I'm going to wire the armored lights to a remote-control Lutron switch, so I can wear the remote on a cord around my neck while I'm working. Instant-on lights! The gas-globe light will be on the room's regular light-switch.

How the plumbing and wiring may run down the wall.

I'm toying with the idea of mounting a metal box on the wall, with cloth-wrapped wires coming from it in coils on ceramic insulators. That'll be the speaker wire that carries the signal to the speakers, and the box will have a jack for an iPod. I'm still thinking about that.

Sink or Swim
The sinks are the remaining crucial part of the darkroom. I won't bore you with the details of why but it's really useful to have a couple faucets that can mount a hose and be used as a water feed (for things like print-washers) - the obvious answer to that problem would be to use scientific stainless steel fixtures. Ebay to the rescue!

I will feel so scientific using these!!

I managed to get a few hose-bib fixtures including some with the paddle levers, all made out of solid stainless steel for corrosive applications: $200! That may seem like a lot of money but, really, it's nothing compared to what they cost new. Good faucets are insanely expensive and these are the best. They were supposedly "used" but when I opened the boxes, well, they sure look new to me!

Stainless Steel! 400lbs or so...

The school's kitchen had this monster ten foot long stainless steel deep well sink - absolutely perfect for a darkroom. Detaching it from its existing plumbing and getting it moved was a day of sweaty misery but I did it all by myself. The stainless sink will be perfect for many purposes because it has slightly sloped surfaces on either side, almost as if it was designed for photographers. I get all choked up whenever I see it. I am seriously looking forward to using that thing! Is that weird? It's my sink and it makes me happy !

Plastic Darkroom Sink

I bought the plastic darkroom sink 10 years ago and have been moving it around the farm from barn to barn for years. It was sort of a promise to myself that "someday, if I have a good sink, I'll build a darkroom for it." Or something like that. Finally its time has come! Some alternative processes don't like metal and the stainless steel sink would be a problem. Having two sinks solves that! If you've never worked in a darkroom before you can't understand how valuable drainable space is: you can spill stuff and it won't splash on the floor and can be rinsed down the drain. I'm going to have a ton of work space but I'm sure it won't be enough - because you cannot possibly have too much.

We Have A Plan!
So: that's the supersecret master plan! I'm going to try to start on the walls in the next week or two, and then install the sinks, plumb the drains, assemble and mount the cabinets, make the counter, then I'll re-assess my plan and see how it looks like it's going. One of the important things I have learned in forty-plus years of making stuff is that you need to identify places in your plan where you can take a bit of downtime, scratch your butt, and have a good WTF? at yourself. No plan survives contact with the enemy, even when the enemy is yourself and the plan is yours, too.

I'm as excited as I get to get going.

(Chapter 2)