Dry Plate Photography

Plate Prep and Coating

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The Basics

The key to a beautiful dry plate is careful glass preparation.  This means a clean surface and smooth edges.  I have good luck cleaning glass with  paste of calcium carbonate (here), Everclear, and Seventh Generation 'free & clear' liquid dishwashing detergent applied with a soft nail brush, followed by a thorough tap water rinse and then a final rinse in half distilled water and half Everclear.  After a plate is clean, I never again touch it with bare hands.

William Winkler has a more elaborate cleaning system (here) that works even better to help emulsion adhere to glass.

Emulsion has a tendency to pull away from the edges of the plate, even if the glass is clean.  This is rarely a problem.  Edge chips are another matter.  Note the bottom edge of this dry plate and the close-up of one of the chips in the next illustration. 

Enlarged crop from the image above, showing an emulsion flaw that formed around a chip in the glass.

'Perfection' is nice, but a flawed edge does not ruin a plate.  Here's a traditional enlargement of the flawed plate with the chips cropped out.  Only an 1/8 inch of the bottom of the image was lost. (Ilford Multigrade FB-glossy.)

An enlarged crop of the image

This piece of glass has a raw, snapped edge (left) and a smoothed edge.  A smooth, rounded edge is easy to achieve by hand.  An excellent way is with a set of 3M Diamond Pads in five mesh sizes.  Start with black (120 mesh) and move through all the grits — Red (200), Yellow (400), White (800) and Blue (1800).  The edge will end up baby butt smooth in only a couple of minutes.  You can sand the plates either wet or dry.  Either way, wear vinyl, latex or nitrile gloves.  If you work dry, wear a dust mask.

Glass selection couldn't be easier. Simple, inexpensive, uncoated single-strength plate glass — 3/32" (~2mm-2.5 mm) — is what you want unless you know that size won't fit in your old holder.    If you have any doubt, take your holder to a good glass shop.

The 3M pads are available individually or as a set. Follow the 'Hand Tools' link at the top of this page. and look toward the bottom of the page.

If you are planning on making a lot of plates, there a number of electric grinders available.  The best advice is to find the nearest stained glass supply store and let them help you out.

Even with perfectly smooth edges, few finished plates will look exactly like a piece of commercial film.  I think this is something to celebrate. Consummate craftsmanship can still show the hand of the artist.

Contact printing is a way to go.  Everything shows, warts and all.  That's part of the attraction of a handcrafted print. 

What usually happens with dry plates is a slight emulsion thinning around all the edges.  These thin areas naturally print out darker, making a natural border around the print, masking for the most part any flaws around chips.

This print is do-it-yourself from start to finish.  The dry plate was contact printed on handmade baryta paper ('Warm Emulsion' coated on Rives Lightweight watercolor paper coated with 'TLF Baryta'. (here).

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