The Versalab Print Washer

by David Vestal



On seeing Versalab's ad in PHOTO Techniques I wrote to the company, which sent an 11x14 print washer for testing.

I have not attempted a quantitative test. My present reflection densitometer lacks the blue filter that measuring the test stains requires, and I have grown lazy since my last spasm of print-washer testing. Also, I learned years ago that the simple Kodak HT-2 silver-nitrate stain test for residual thiosulfate (a.k.a. "hypo") is just as sensitive and useful for practical purposes as ANSIÕs more elaborate quantitative silver nitrate test. HT-2 won't let me plot a wash curve, but I only need to know that prints contain so little hypo that neither test method will produce a stain. Then they're clean enough.

Since 1979 I've used the Darkroom Aids 11x14 print washer designed by John Brezina. It works well. It has two small problems that I can live with. First, its print capacity is 10 11x 14s or 20 8x10s. Usually that's enough, but sometimes I need to wash more than ten 11x14s and must put another washer in the sink. Second, its stainless-steel tank -- lighter, stronger and more compact than the usual acrylic tank -- is not so stainless where it's welded, so the washer must be drained between uses to prevent rust.

Long ago I found a print-washing method that works well for me in Connecticut. It won't work for everyone everywhere -- the difference is what's in the water that comes from the faucet. Print fixing and washing involve so many unknown variables that no photographer can be sure of a good wash without careful personal testing. For me it works to wash prints at slow flow (half a gallon per minute) for half an hour at 75¼ to 80¼F, then leave the prints in still water in the washer for a few hours, then finish the wash with another half hour of slow flow.

I found this method by accident. I once overlooked a test sample, left it soaking in a washer overnight, then sent it, along with other regular, unforgotten, samples for quantitative methylene-blue testing by a lab. The sample I'd left in the water overnight showed such a low hypo content that it puzzled the chemist who did the test, so he did the test twice more on what was left of that sample to make sure it wasn't his mistake. It wasn't. This continues to work for me, as my occasional HT-2 tests consistently show.

Recently I got nervous and doubled the slow-flow periods to an hour each. The water use per print is still far below that demanded by the old and crazy photo industry recommendation to use a flow rate that changes all the water in the tank every five minutes. That takes about five gallons per minute in most washers, but doesn't shorten the wash time by much. Mostly it wastes a lot of water.

Don't assume, without testing, that my still-water soak will work for you. Ralph Steiner made similar tests, independent of mine, and got very different results. The longer he left the prints standing in his Vermont well water after a preliminary wash, the darker his silver-nitrate stains became, as if the wash water were putting hypo back into the paper. When he consulted a Kodak research chemist, he got no definite explanation, just an educated guess that leaf mold (or something) in his water contained some chemical that reacted to the silver nitrate as hypo would. To get a good wash, Steiner learned to fix prints very quickly in strong ammonium thiosulfate rapid fixer without any hardener (hardener in the fixer retards print washing) , and then washing them for only a few minutes after a 15 minute washing-aid-plus-selenium-toner treatment.

Although that worked well for him, it wouldn't for me. Something in my well water softens the print emulsion too much if I don't use a hardening fixer -- the picture tends to peel off the paper. Things are not as simple as most instruction books imply.

Back to print washers. Used with my present procedure -- an hour at 1/2 gpm, an overnight soak in still water, and another hour at 1/2 gpm -- a full load of 11x14 prints in my Darkroom Aids washer uses 60 gallons plus 4 3/4 gallons to fill the tank, 64 3/4 in all, or about 6 1/2 gallons per print -- much better water economy than 5 gpm, which would use more than 30 gallons per print.

The Versalab washer is quite different from the Darkroom Aids one. Its much larger tank holds 11 gallons of water and it has 14 print slots, wide enough to hold two prints each, back to back. It can wash up to 28 11x14s at a time.

I don't make that many prints in a day, so I tested the washer with 15 prints and one test sheet. Two of the slots held two sheets of photo paper each, one of them being my test sheet, to learn if two-in-a-slot would really work. It did.

Using my habitual 1/2 gpm flow rate, I made my first HT-2 test after 30 minutes washing at around 80¼F (the most efficient print wash temperature, according to Kodak research papers) and was surprised to get almost no stain. Another test at one hour showed no stain. This seemed too good to trust, so I let the prints soak overnight and gave them another hour of slow flow in the morning to make sure. Then I felt confident that the wash was good.

At 15 prints per wash and a flow rate of 1/2 gpm, this washer uses 71 gallons in two hours of flow (60 + 11 to fill the tank), so water use per 11x14 print works out to about 4 3/4 gallons -- well below the 6 1/2 gallons per 11x14 print of the Darkroom Aids washer.

The Versalab washer needs some assembly. The tank is a thick one-piece polyethylene molding that Versalab says is "leakproof and so damage-resistant the entire washer could be thrown across the room and still be picked up and used." I haven't tried that, but it's the least fragile print washer tank I've seen.

Assembling it consists mostly of putting the print basket together according to instructions, with parts that are supplied, and pushing hoses into grommets. This was easy. I got everything put together in an hour or so, and none of it had to be done again.

Water goes in at the top and is fed to the prints through holes in a "spray bar": a hose is used as a siphon to remove water from the bottom of the tank, and there are two overflow hoses, just in case, as well as the inlet hose and the siphon hose. This washer isn't an octopus, but it is a tetrapus -- hoses galore. It's as big as my sink can hold, though fortunately not bigger. To drain the tank after the wash, a little soft "split grommet" (replaced by a small rubber cork - Versalab) ring with rubber bands around it is slid over to block an air hole in the siphon at the top of the tank. In theory this lets the siphon drain the tank when no water is running in. For me the split-grommet trick doesnÕt work consistently -- draining usually stops with the tank a little below half full. However, it's no problem: a finger over the hole blocks it better and rapid draining then goes on until the tank is light enough to tip and pour conveniently.

With slow flow, the siphon and its air hole make "a little buzzing or purring sound as a little air is added through the hole to make up the flow. Somewhere around .2 (two tenths) gpm the siphon flow will stop because enough air was sucked in so it broke the siphon effect. The siphon will usually start back up again automatically under these conditions allowing the washer to be used at very slow flow rates." (I quote this from the four pages of instructions that come with the washer.) At my 1/2 gpm flow the siphon gurgles tranquilly to itself and seems contented.

I'm pleased with the Versalab print washer. Although its size and all those hoses seem daunting, they are easy to manage. In addition to its print capacity and durability, it has another great advantage -- at $160 (this is the original price, it is now $220 - Versalab) plus shipping and handling, it's inexpensive.


PHOTO Techniques contributing editor David Vestal's involvement in photography spans 45 years. He is the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships and has written two well-known books, The Craft of Photography and The Art of Black-and-White Enlarging, both now unfortunately out of print.