A simple, economical contact printer

Peter J. Blackburn presents a simple printing device capable of producing sharp prints with ease.

Pictured is a homemade split-backed contact printer. It rests elevated from the tabletop  which allows for easy clamping of the orange handled spring clips.

Pictured is a homemade split-backed contact printer. It rests elevated from the tabletop
which allows for easy clamping of the orange handled spring clips.

For many alternative photographic printing processes, images are typically created using massive quantities of UV light, large negatives, and a device capable of maintaining constant, even pressure of those negatives with the surface receiving UV exposure. We commonly call those devices contact printers and they can be simply classified in two categories: wired and wireless.

“Wired” contact printers are those which are connected to or incorporated within an electrical unit providing UV light. More common names for electrical exposure units include plate burner and platemaker. Plate burners, such as those made by NuArc and commonly found in universities or commercial graphic production houses, feature powerful UV bulbs arranged inside a compartment allowing light to shine through a glass surface onto an intended substrate. Some plate burners can include the amenities of pin registration, electronic timing with a buzzer, and a vacuum system for maintaining perfect negative/paper contact. While convenient and consistent, plate burners can also be quite expensive to buy and operate, and many require special electrical sockets and wiring.

Here is the underside of the printer showing two hinges and birch construction. Note the four square dowels which have been laminated to the bottom with epoxy which raises the platform from the table. This particular printer measures 16 x 20 inches.

Here is the underside of the printer showing two hinges and birch construction. Note the four square dowels which have been laminated to the bottom with epoxy which raises the platform from the table. This particular printer measures 16 x 20 inches.

For 25 years I have preferred the more basic “wireless” versions of the contact printer. At first I used a piece of glass and a hinged board mounted in a finished wooden frame similar to the type now sold by Freestyle and others. It allowed me to drop the hinge and visually check the progress of my exposure while keeping both paper and negative securely in place.

When pin registration became important, I opted for an even simpler design which I still use today. It is a piece of 1/4 inch thick plate glass which rests on top of an unframed board (hinged or unhinged) which has been covered with a double layer of black felt. Spring clips keep the glass firmly in place while applying appropriate pressure ensuring sharp images.

The unit has been designed in such a way as to allow either side to drop down permitting visual inspection of a print while maintaining firm pressure. Note that one side is dropped while the unit remains  balanced on the table, allowing for convenient, hands-free operation. This type of printer is quite suitable for cyanotype and other processes requiring visual inspection.

The unit has been designed in such a way as to allow either side to drop down permitting visual inspection of a print while maintaining firm pressure. Note that one side is dropped while the unit remains balanced on the table, allowing for convenient, hands-free operation. This type of printer is quite suitable for cyanotype, gum, and other processes requiring visual inspection.

The photos below tell the story. You can make the frame large or small for your requirements. With larger frames, however, there is a tendency for insufficient contact in the center of the image. This can be resolved by placing additional smaller bits of felt in the middle of the frame before placing the negative, paper, and glass on top. Alternatively, you can soak the wood prior to construction and with pressure, allow the board to acquire a slight bow as it dries. Having a subtle bow (warp) in the center of the board will act as a pressure point when applying the spring clips.

What materials do you need? Plywood, felt, and  1/4 inch thick plate glass all cut to your desired dimensions, spring clips, hinges, and dowels or “feet” to raise the printer from the tabletop (optional).

Basic spring clip contact printers can be positioned in the sun for exposure or placed underneath bulb style exposure units and overhead lamps. I love these simple printers and have rarely been tempted to use the more elaborate versions. To each his own, I suppose. Enjoy!


5 Comments

  1. Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    As the proud owner of one of these printing frames, I can attest to its simplicity of use and effectiveness. Thank you, Peter! The only thing missing was an autograph on the printer :)

  2. Peter J. Blackburn
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Ellie! You rock, as always! Hey, bring your printer around and I’ll sign the back it for you. Yes, folks, I occasionally make printers for friends and associates. However, I am not currently taking orders.

  3. Geraldine Powell
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    This sounds great, but I am not clear as to how the negative and paper are placed on the picture that shows the drop down part. When it drops down, does the paper flop over? Can it be returned to exactly the same spot? Do the spring clips pop off unexpectedy?

    I’d love to see photos of the method in action.

  4. Michael Schubert
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Hey Peter, this is so simple … I love it and can’t wait to make a few sizes … I’ve spent too much time sketching simple ideas that I find fault with … well done. Michael

  5. Peter J Blackburn
    Posted November 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Geraldine. Sorry for the delay in my response. For some reason, I did not get an email notification of your comment as I usually do. Just make sure your print/negative is placed in the printer so as when one end is dropped some of the print remains firmly in place underneath the other part which remains clamped. And yes, print and negative will return to the exact same spot. The clips (at least the ones shown) do not pop off. As long as the clips are large enough, you should be okay. These clips, or similar ones, can be found at Home Depot or Lowes, or probably at any hardware store.

    Thank you, Michael, for your comment. I wish you well in your printing endeavors!

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