Toning Darkroom Prints with Coffee

There are a lot of dentists that will suggest you should drink your coffee through a straw because it can stain your teeth. Well, if it will stain your chompers it will probably do a good job staining other stuff, too.

So, whenever I want to tone my darkroom prints I reach for some coffee (only the inferior bags of decaffeinated crap).

Toning can make darkroom prints pop, giving your paper a variety of tones that can add a pleasing vintage look to your work. Using coffee is great because it’s safe to handle compared to chemical-based toners, it’s super cheap and easily available.

In this article, I’d like to share my process for toning and finding the correct times for whatever paper I’m using. This is by no means a definitive guide or even the best process, but it’s how I’ve done it in the past and it’s worked for me.

It’s worth noting that different types and thicknesses of paper will react differently. The times I’m sharing are related to the specific paper that I’m using, which is Ilford Multigrade RC Pearl Portfolio paper. I like Ilford RC Portfilo because it’s a heavyweight 255 gsm paper that reduces curling, and is easy to work with.

Getting Set Up

Whenever I’m printing I always keep the test strips and the misprints so that I can have a few sacrificial lambs for times like this. It’s always nice to have a stack of prints to experiment with so you’re not taking a gamble on your best work.

My setup is pretty straightforward. I use three trays- one filled with water for the pre-soak, the second for the coffee, and a third tray for a water rinse. For small prints, I’ll usually use 8×10 trays with about 500ml of water for both the pre-soak and rinse trays, and I’ll brew 4-6 cups for the coffee tray.

Once your trays of liquids are ready to go, then I usually take the stack of misprints and a permanent marker and write on them the different times that I want to try. Typically I’ll test out 1 minute, 2 minutes, and 5 minutes. From there it will give me a good idea of a starting point.

Toning the Prints

  1. Pre-soak for 2 minutes
  2. Submerge in coffee for 1:30
  3. Dip and momentarily agitate in the rinse water
  4. On a flat surface and use a squeegee to remove excess water
  5. Place somewhere flat, face up to dry (I use stainless cookie racks)

Since I like my prints to have a lighter color, I use the toning time of 1:30 as a starting point. If the color isn’t dark enough just throw it back in the coffee for an additional 30 seconds, rinse, squeegee, and re-evaluate. You can always go darker and re-tone as many times as you need until you’re happy with the color.

Also, the reason that I pre-soak the print before toning is that I’ve done a few tests and found that pre-soaking can reduce some blotchiness. This only needs to be done at the very beginning and not if you’re resubmerging in the coffee to deepen the tint.

I want to emphasize that these are not the “right” times or the only way to do it, but this is the sequence, and the times that I’ve found deliver the light yellowish tint that I prefer. Start here and adjust to your own taste. Coffee can turn a print near brown if you let it soak long enough.

Random Tidbits

  • Let your test prints dry before judging the color. A wet print can look more vibrant than a dry one.
  • Make sure all corners are fully submerged in the liquids at all times. It seems obvious, but you will get uneven color otherwise.
  • When drying, make sure there are no pooling areas of water on the print. The squeegee helps a lot with this.
  • Some people like to hang up their prints to dry, but I’ve found the color can run to the bottom, so I lay them flat
  • The strength of the coffee will affect the color, so I try to be consistent in measuring out 1 tablespoon per cup when I’m brewing.

When the prints are dry, check on the back because you may have some streaking or light staining. This can usually be removed with a damp cloth and water.

And that’s it! Easy-peazy. Let me know below what you prefer to tint your prints with, traditional chemical toners or organic options like coffee and tea.

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