I took time this weekend to go about Japanning steel plates for making my ferrotypes. This is another skill that I am developing with my work in wet plate collodion. The process of making "tintypes" has been made easier and more convenient with the use of trophy aluminum. The thin black metal sheets that are used for engraving plaques on trophies. This is indeed convenient and makes the process easier, but that's not why I chose this path. I have aluminum in my kit, I learned with aluminum and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. However, as an artist that is seeking to learn the historical nature of the craft, it just doesn't make sense to cut that corner. I don't intend to get into a debate over what is right or wrong about using aluminum in your work, that's completely an individual choice. It's a tool for the artist to use or not. I am concerned with making my plates as historically accurate as possible, and this is just a step in that process. Besides, it's fun. In creating my ferrotypes, I begin with sheets of rolled steel cut to various sizes, and thoroughly cleaned with steel wool to remove any dirt, grease or ink on the surface.
Next, I mix up my Black Japan. A mixture of Gilsonite, paint thinner, and Canadian balsam resin that is heated until nearly boiling to dissolve and blend all the ingredients. It is a messy, smelly process that is best done outside.
The Black Japan is then flowed onto the cleaned steel plate in much the same manner that collodion is flowed onto the plate later. Covering the plate completely, it is drained and set aside to dry.
The plates are set aside to dry on a wooden rack for the first of two coats, the back is also lightly painted and then the plates are ready for the next step, baking.
The plates take their place in a gas grill oven that will heat the plates to 300 degrees and then be cooled. Once the plates cool, the Black Japan is flowed once more over each plate , drained and dried on the plate rack as before, and baked a second time for the final finished plate.
The surface is not a mirror smooth surface the way the trophy aluminum is, there is character in each plate, flow lines, imperfections, dust, small scratches and thick areas all contribute to the personality of each plate. I like that. I want every element of my photographs to be created by me. This approach is teaching me more about the process, no shortcuts. I want to be proficient at every aspect of this craft, learning to mix chemistry, prepare the glass, estimate exposure, and so much more. I get a lot of satisfaction in holding a finished, varnished image that I created from scratch. It's a lot of work and I am happy to do it, to get it right.
This is also a friendly reminder to my clients, when you order a Ferrotype, or an ambrotype, or anything I have created, know that a lot of care and work has gone into producing your image as accurately as possible, down to the last detail, and it is worth every penny.