Oleobrom process

Writer / Kirk V. Toft. LRPS

Working and adapting methods in the oleobrom process by Kirk V. Toft.

Always be careful when handling chemicals. Read the health and safety instructions.

A decade ago I attended a Bromoil Process weekend workshop at the National Museum of Photography Film & television, run by the Bromoil Circle of Great Britain, I was taught at the workshop the rudiments of the Bromoil process. We who work in ‘Alt’ processes continue to pursue our chosen process, continue to advance by modifying altering and adapting to contemporary materials to making the process easier quicker and less labour intensive with reduced toxic materials damaging the environment. We endeavour then in continually improving our ‘ Alt’ chosen process without compromising image quality or at least the aesthetic qualities of the image. Like many alternative processes Bromoil can be troublesome even when the experienced worker follows their ‘well-trod’ routine problems can and do occur. If a Bromoil kit or technique could be produced which would allow rapid inking of the matrix with the minimum of labour and can be undertaken even by the unskilled Bromoil worker, whilst the skilled practioner can impart to their pictures that personal touch which the Bromoil-pigment process can permit. It was with this school of thought that in The British Journal of Photography for 7th November 1930, p.676, described the new printing process Oleobrom by F.J.Shepherd and F.F.Renwick. Oleobrom was a version of Bromoil “So completely altered and improved as to form a new printing medium”. It was originally made available from the firm ‘Wellington and Ward ltd’, Ilford ltd later took over the Oleobrom kit. The process was developed at Ilford’s Rodenside Laboratories in 1934, not long after this however Ilford stopped production and Oleobrom kits were discontinued.

Image above: Original Oleobrom cover.

The B.J.A described ‘Oleobrom’:

A print on a special tough paper was exposed, developed, bleached, fixed, washed, and dried as per normal Bromoil procedure. In a dry state the matrix-print was lightly inked with a rubber roller, immersed in water and brought out by rolling with another clean roller, blotted off, and finished with the first, freshly inked, dry roller.

Wellington and Ward recommended the ‘Oleobrom’ worker success by using only ‘Oleobrom’ materials failure may be courted by neglecting the makers’ directions.

The bromide print must be made on ‘Oleobrom’ paper in a definite way; it must be bleached with a special bleacher in a definite way, and finally fixed and washed strictly according to instructions.

Oleobrom Characteristics
Paper and Stop-Bath

The bromide paper had unusual emulsion characteristics the emulsion was hardened which was uncommon until the late 1930’s. The contemporary equivalent is Kentmere Document Art paper which although non super-coated contains hardener.

The second feature of the paper was its chemical manipulation taking place after development, the print was passed into a strong boric acid solution containing borax, which arrested development and brought the photographic paper surface to a condition of uniform acidity, after a two minute immersion then a two minute rinsing the print was removed and placed in a normal Bromoil type ‘bleach-tanning’ (hardening) solution. This procedure of development, wash then bleach tanning is known as the “Bromoil-Short Process” and dates back to 1910.

Interestingly ‘stop-bath’s’ are not recommended today, just a good wash in plain water this is due to the acid in the stop-bath, which is necessary to arrest development also acts as a hardener to the emulsion making the bleach-tanning difficult and later the swelling of the gelatine matrix without which Bromoil would not work, so an acid stop-bath is not to be recommended. The exact ‘Oleobrom’ stop-bath formula is not known but I have tract down this stop-bath hardener published in 1940.

115. – Hardening Stock Solution


  • Water at 125.F. (52.C.): 2,500 c.cm.
  • Sodium sulphite, anhyd.: 300 grams
  • Acetic acid 28%: 950 c.cm.
  • Boric acid cryst: 159 grams
  • Potash alum: 300 grams
  • Cold water to make: 4,ooo c.cm

To prepare 28 per cent acetic acid dilute 3 parts glacial acetic acid with 8 parts water. Use 1 volume of the hardening stock solution to 4 volumes of 300 per cent ‘hypo’, add the stock solution to the ‘hypo’ slowly and with continuous stirring. Caution: On no account must an attempt be made to dissolve the ‘hypo’ with the other constituents; the two solutions must always be made separately. Borax (a mild low energy developer) is added to the Boric acid stop-bath, but the amount given is not published so a 10% solution is worth trying.

I don’t have any plans to try the above stop-bath formula with ‘Oleobrom’ but as a reference to the original special ”oleobrom’ stop-bath formular it is of interest. “Follow The Spirit of The Old Formula’s”

Producing an Oleobrom print

Follow the normal Bromoil procedures by printing on Kentmere Document Art paper I use Ilford Multigrade Developer 1:9 for 3 mins development. Then wash the print for three minutes in clean water followed by fixing with plain ‘Hypo’, five teaspoon of ‘hypo’ to a pint of boiling water (only use when at room temperature.).
After allowing the print to dry naturally it is placed in the ‘bleach-tanning’ solution for 12 minutes, then washed for ten minutes in clean water then fixed in a new made up ‘hypo’ solution. Wash for another ten minutes and again allow to dry naturally. The matrix as it is now known is ready for coating with ink.

Resume of the Oleobrom Process

Print on Kentmere Document Art paper G2. Develop with Ilford Multigrade 1:9 for 3. mins.

Wash print in clean water for 3 minutes followed by the fixing bath, plain ‘Hypo’ for 5 minutes. Then wash again for 10 minutes then leave to dry naturally.

Bleach and tan the print using ordinary Bromoil solutions for 12. minutes, then wash print for 10. minutes and re-fix with a fresh plain ‘Hypo’ fixer. Followed by a 12. minute wash in clean water, then leave to dry naturally.

Ink the dry matrix on a flat surface, such as a large tile.

Immerse the inked matrix in water at 25.C. and commence to ‘roll’.

Remove matrix to blotting paper remove all surface water and commence to re-ink until the desired image is complete.

1Inking up
Palettes are required for rolling out the ink. Plate glass can be used. Sufficient ink to make the size of a small pea is layered out on a tile or glass plate with a knife and spread out a little. A wide rubber roller is then passed over the ink repeatedly in different directions until the ink is evenly spread over the palette. The same roller is then rolled over a clean palette; this will produce a fine even coating of ink on the roller.

Now lay the dry bleached matrix face upwards on a sheet of card holding the matrix down with the left hand, pass over it the inked roller and cover the matrix with a thin deposit of ink, it should be noted that the roller should deposit the ink in one direction i.e. straight down the matrix top to bottom, going backwards removes the ink rather than depositing it.

2Rolling the inked print under water
A flat-bottom dish or developing dish with a sheet of thick glass in the bottom is now required. Half fill with clean water at 25.C.

Take in the right hand a clean roller (with no ink) with the left hand slide the inked matrix under the water. In a few moments the general outline of the picture becomes visible. The clean roller in the right hand now is passed over the whole area of the matrix several times but in one direction as it lies on the submerged glass, flat surface bottom of the tray. This treatment quickly clears up the matrix some of the ink being transferred by the roller from the light to the darker tones, which leaves the high-lights without detail.

The matrix is then removed and placed on a sheet of clean blotting paper and all surface moisture is removed from the surface of the matrix by means of chamois leather. No moisture, apart from that absorbed by the print, must be left.

The matrix is now ready for inking in more detail and building up of more contrast.

The originally rubber roller is again lightly coated with a fresh deposit of ink from the palette and again worked over the matrix again. In no time at all the full detail of the print will be revealed, and more or less ink can be applied to any portion of the matrix giving the worker local control. Note, care must be taken not to stop the roller during passing over the matrix, continue right up to the borders then lightly lift the roller off the matrix.

3Increasing contrast
In the final inking up, the process gives plenty of scope for artistic feeling: a great amount of control in-depth and contrast, both local and general, can be exerted, either by brushwork brushwork in the usual Bromoil methods or by means of very small rubber rollers. The matrix should be placed in the water bath again and rolled a few more times under water. Removed, placed on the blotting paper, moisture removed and the operations previously described continued.

A small roller can be used for local control; heavy shadows can easily be brightened by very light rolling in a backward, forwards direction over the matrix. Likewise, light parts of the matrix can be strengthened further or detail brought out by first lightly inking the roller then applying it in the above-described manner. To enhance the artistic qualities of the matrix use can be made of brushes, or a piece of small felt pad. Softening effects can be obtained, high-lights brightened, a light daubing action of the felt pad on the matrix.

A Hard Ink Required

Ordinary Bromoil ink’s are the usual pigment required, I normally use 1796 ink from Intaglio Print makers in London. Recent batches however are considerably softer than past supplies. And along with standard Bromoil procedures ‘hard, stiff’ ink is required for the first applications. For this after spreading the ink out with a knife I use a pinch of arrowroot powder and work it into the ink this stiffens well. Starch powder or dry artist’s pigments also work well.

Oleobrom on Resin-Coaded Papers

It is possible to work ‘oleobrom’ using resin-coated and some fibre-base papers currently available, I have received for example excellent results with ‘Chen-Fu Fibre-based paper’. Along with Bromoil use of resin-coated paper it can be difficult, after the first brush application of ink on the matrix and soak in the water bath, subsequent brush action removes all the ink from the matrix, easy on easy off is the norm, but by using a stage of the ‘oleobrom’ process it’s possible to keep the ink on the matrix. Simply coat the dry resin-coated paper as per ‘Oleobrom’ then leave the coated paper a few hours or even overnight, this allows the ink to stiffen and adhere to the prints surface, then soak and continue as per Bromoil or in the operation of ‘Oleobrom’.

2 thoughts on “Oleobrom process”

  1. Hi — are there any Bromoil workshops in the Seattle area or anywhere in the Pacific Northwest? Any information would be appreciated.


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