PART TWO – ‘Load the Spiral’. An extract from the chapter ‘How to process Black and White Film at Home’.
The thing which can be the most tricky part about processing is getting the film onto the spiral and into the tank. Fundamental but it is easy to go wrong. Sometimes the film just doesn’t seem to want to feed onto the spiral at all or you get three quarters in and the whole thing will not budge another inch no matter how persuasively you twist the spiral ends back and forth.
Here are a couple of tips that will help to avoid these pitfalls most of the time. I am thinking 35mm black and white film because this is where most photographers start to process. I have never got on too well with stainless-steel spirals and at home I use the nylon ones which you twist back and forward to draw the film onto the spiral. Patterson are the most popular make in UK. Practise makes perfect so use an old piece of film to practise before you go for it in the dark.
1. You need a dry spiral, moisture sticks the film to the nylon and typically the film goes nearly all the way on and then sticks fast. Before you start heat the spiral up with gentle heat, a hair-dryer works well.
2. Cut end of the film nice and cleanly with sharp scissors between the sprocket holes. It makes sense to leave the tail out of the film canister when you take the film out of the camera, or use a film extractor if your camera winds the finished film all the way in. With the film tail out of the canister in the daylight you can then neatly cut the film end to make an even rounded edge which will not catch on the spiral.
3. Also in the daylight start to load the first few inches of film onto the spiral, depending on the camera you get up to five inches of film before the first frame. That way you are sure it is running between the rails and following the rails into the first bend. It is all about symmetry, everything nice and neat and co-ordinated movements.
4. Now turn the lights off and gently twist the spiral back and forth until the film is on. Don’t go too fast because if the film does catch it will buckle if it stops with too much force. A bit of gentle tapping often frees up the jam together with small back and forward twists. Too much force will make the film buckle and either damage the film itself or make its surfaces touch and produce chemical marks during the process.
5. Sometimes you do have to take the film off the spiral and start again. I do not cut the film off the canister until it is almost all on the spiral so if for some reason the film simply refuses to load I can wind the film back into the can. Also the weight of the canister stops the film coiling up like a spring which is annoying. If you do start to freak out with a really horrid and badly behaved length of film wind it back into the can or if you can’t do that roll the film up and put it into the daylight tank and close the lid. Turn the lights on, cool down and start again some other time. NOTE that for some tanks to be light tight the pole you put the spiral on must be correctly inserted into the tank before the top is screwed on.
3. Do not worry too much because dry film is pretty tough stuff and scratch resistant. Try to work in a clean space free of dust… a print tray is good to keep everything together. Work above the clean tray so if the film does drop off it will land in the tray and not a dirty floor.
That’s it really. Easy when it all goes to plan which with practise makes perfect (using an old film if you can be bothered).