My Days With Japan Black

**Jan. 4, 2013 – Update:  For the past few years I have  only used glass when making wet collodion images.  Gone are my days of trying to japan metal plates.**

It as been a handful of days since I last posted to the blog, and tonight I mean to bring you up to speed to my activities (just in case you care). First off I need to say that I never thought that I would be a baker, but my recent efforts at Japanning my own tintype plates has shown that maybe I could.

Before going into too many details I should make sure that you know what I am trying to accomplish, and what japanning is. Japanning is a method to blacken (or apply other color) to metal via a hard, protective coating of baked on Japan Black lacquer (also known as Brunswick black). This was a common method used in the early days of the automotive industry, as well as others. Japanned iron plates were used to create ferrotypes (tintypes) starting in the 1860’s as a way to make cheap and durable images that were very popular with Civil War soldiers (ferrotypes were made well before the Civil War, but the need for durable and cheap images during the war made the method the most popular it would ever be).

Like an ambrotype, a ferrotype (tintype) needs to have a dark backing or surface that it is created on to make it visible as a positive. Without the dark backing, such as an ambrotype on clear glass, the image appears as an under exposed negative. Japan Black was used on thin iron sheets for tintypes because all of the materials were cheap and very durable (as can be seen in the condition of period tintypes still around today). The deep, shinny blackness of baked on Japan Black provides a great surface to capture an image.

The Japan lacqure is created by mixing a solution of mineral spirits, powdered asphaltum and Canadian fir balsam, cooking it a bit then letting it settle for a few days. Once created, the lacquer is applied to the metal, usually by flowing just as in applying collodion or varnish, then baked in an oven. This coating and baking takes place two times with two different formulas of Japan Black and specific temperatures during baking.

So I assume that you can already see that this is a pretty involved process, all well before the rest of the efforts needed to create a ferrotype. In addition to mixing my own Japan Black, I also needed to build an oven to bake the plates in. Trust me when I say this is something your wife will kill you for if you attempt it in your house. First off, the fumes from the materials are a heath hazard, and the mess of the flowing, and baking will lead to divorce post-hast for sure, so be warned.

My oven design is based off of the oven that collodion artist, photographer, and teacher David Prifti built for his own plate baking activities. The image above shows my 32 gal. oven a few minutes after construction. This one burner configuration is pretty compact, and allows me to bakes up to 24 5×7” plates as well as small numbers of 12×20” plates. This oven took me a day to assemble (including the sourcing of the parts) and was pretty cheap at about $60 to $65.

After a week of small baking runs of up to four plates at a time, I can say that the process is not as straight forward as some written material would have you believe. Over the past few days I have been able to make progress in the quality of my plates, both with improved technique during the flowing of the black japan onto the metal, and working out the baking times and temps. Let me give you a heads up about a problem you may run into if you ever try to make plates like this for your own tintype work: If your second coat of Japan slowly starts to slide off of the base leaving zebra stripes, ether during the air dry time before the bake, or during the bake, then the issue is that you did not bake the initial coat long enough. The area to pay attention to is the time you are using to build the temp up to the target temp for each coat. I still have much exploration in this area before I can get the plates just the way that I want them, and in the numbers that I would like to have from each batch, but progress is being made.

So why all of this work when there are other materials to use that would not require so much effort? Well, I guess I like the punishment, and I want to hand make as many elements of my images as possible. I want each image to have as much of my effort, time, spirit, and soul in it as I can get….and that is the reason I am putting forth this much effort to make images.


~ by Phil Nesmith on September 18, 2007.

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