12×20 Arrived… and varnishing woes

My 12×20 camera arrived last week. I was watching the Australia Post app like a hawk. I was literally waiting at the door when the postman arrived at 7pm. Cost me a fortune in duty but as mercy would have it, the seller was kind enough to pay the duties for me, without even asking. Faith in humanity restored.

It really is a wonderful camera, and in pretty good condition for it’s age. I knew cosmetics weren’t important but I was surprised anyway. The plate holder, thankfully, is good to go and no major modification is necessary. The plates look as though they sit right in the registration zone, same measurement as the film. Unfortunately I damaged one side of the plate holder when I varnished it (to seal it against silver nitrate) and the light trap got damaged. Luckily, the other side is still ok but I will need to use my dark cloth to cover the plate holder to stop any potential light leaks as the light trap on that side is a little worn as well.


12×20 plate holder, painted and varnished to protect against fogging and silver corrosion


Unfortunately the 24″ brass Rapid Rectilinear lens that I had lying around is too ‘long’ for the camera. The rails and bellows are only just too short by about 10cm or so for the lens to focus at infinity. I think the longest lens this camera will take is about 550mm or maybe 500mm lens. The entire bellows will need to be replaced to even begin considering accommodating lenses as long as 600mm. A shame but no problem I can still use it on my 11×14.


Family photo before I sent the Tachihara 8×10 off the UK to start her new life.


So with my generous tax return I purchased a 450mm Nikkor Jena from Chris Morgan in the states and also the one and only Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9 in a barrel from an interesting fellow in Germany who was only too happy to make a great deal. This still leaves me stuck with my Nikkor-W 360mm f6.5 that I need to get rid of, as well as the 120mm lens. I sold my lovely little Tachihara 8×10 to a guy in the UK who is just starting in wet plate. I gave him a great package of the camera, plate holder and a lens and a 4×5 reducing back. I’ll be sad to see it go but with the money from that I bought a Chamonix 11×14-8×10 reducing back so I can still do 8×10’s in my 11×14 camera, plus I need it to do test plates with as it’s too wasteful doing 11×14 test plates.


Cleaning 12×20 glass plates… these are big!

So, I have this beautiful huge camera sitting downstairs in the basement and I am gagging to get out and shoot with it but I have no lens for it! I am hoping either one of those two lenses show up this week. I got the 20×24 silver tank made up by a local plastics maker… that was a bit slow as I was having a hard time getting the dimensions right. Looks like I will have to make up another 3 litres of silver. I am hoping with the new dimensions we have made now it will require no more than 7 or 8 litres of silver nitrate solution.


So while I was in a pensive mood waiting for all this stuff to eventuate I decided to calm my mind by going out and making a plate.


11×14 clear glass

I went out and made this plate at Jericho again. It came out nice, but again I was having the same problems after I varnished it. I think my problem is that I am not heating the plates up enough. I have been terrified of heating them up too much or unevenly since one exploded in my hands a few weeks ago. I need to make the heating much more even and intense. The varnish causes some dark tarnishing around the top corners of the plate (you can’t see in this picture, as it was taken before the varnish)

So this plate sits on the shelf, it looks nice but not as nice as I would like. I really need to perfect the varnishing for these larger plates especially since I’m doing 12×20… I may need to look at a hot plate or some kind of larger surface area heat source.

In doing a bit of reading I came upon the topic of water based acrylic varnishes and Dana Sullivan recommended Minwax aerosol acrylic spray. Supposedly Luther Gerlach uses it on his plates, which, if it’s good enough for him it’s damn well good enough for me. But, of course, being on the retarded island nation of Australia it is not available here, and no aerosol water based acrylic varnishes are. So I looked at Liquitex. I had a couple of plates lying around from earlier this year that I cannot varnish with alcohol-based sandarac varnish as the collodion was very old, and the image would be destroyed (happened a few weeks ago to one of my favourite plates of the year 😦 ) . So I used them to test this Liquitex. I poured it the same as normal varnish, sans the heating step, and they seemed to clear up wonderfully and with an awesome super glossy finish. I would caution to say perhaps even a little too glossy as they almost have a kind of plastic looking finish  I guess because of the polyurethane acrylic thing, but they look pretty great.


Pretty good!

No brightness loss at all. A couple of tiny dust specks in the varnish but nothing too bad. But… then… yesterday I went out and made another 11×14 plate (don’t have a photo of it on my phone…) and brought it home to varnish with the Liquitex… I poured the Liquitex as before, normal, easy, thought… no problem… but then when it dried it was absolutely riddled with all sorts of dust and junk and horrible little bumps all through the varnish.

I’ll try and get a photo later.

So I might have to put Liquitex on the back burner for now until I figure out what I did wrong. Varnish couldn’t have been contaminated, the plate face was clean and dry… so who knows.

The big downside to Liquitex is that because it isn’t alcohol-based you cannot remove it and try again. Once it’s on the plate, it’s on it for good. Its’ not coming off… so you only have one chance to get it right.

So, down to exposing and developing my plates… I am happy and confident. But the varnishing… that is the killer. That is the step that gives me unending grief. The most frustrating part and the most tedious and annoying part and the part that will either make beautiful or completely fuck up a plate.  I wish we didn’t have to varnish.

Hopefully my next post will be some 12×20 plates. I got 3 pieces of glass cut and polished them up last night and ready to go!!! I am very very very excited. I have a couple of scenes scoped out already.




Here is the other plate that was varnished with the lumps in it.



It was a reasonably nice plate before the varnish. Nice and bright. However I have another sneaking suspicion that perhaps the cleanliness of the plate may be contributing to the ratty edges around the top. I cannot be certain. But it is possible I may be slacking off on the polishing of these plates. I need to keep on top of that and my standard high. I re-did all my other glass plates with the cordless buffer last night. The 12×20 plates could not be any cleaner. I might also start using newspaper too instead of paper towel. That seems to be much more rigid in removing grease.


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