Loading film on a reel of a development tank – things I wish I knew earlier

The little tricks I wish I knew before, which would have prevented me from ruining quite a number of film rolls. I use one of those popular Paterson tanks with plastic auto-loading reels. There are a few other producers of these, but they all look similar:

Film development reel.
Any resemblance to TIE Fighter is purely incidental

The below is collected wisdom of previous generations, painfully rediscovered by trial and error, as I’m stubborn and I won’t listen.

Buy a large bag

Period. Just buy a large bag. I was greedy and bought the smallest one they had. Now I’m stuck with it. You’ll understand why it’s so important, the first time when your film gets jammed. You will find yourself panicking in the dark bag full of dangerous and sharp objects which might damage the unprotected film, as you try to re-load it onto the reel. You need plenty of room for doing this safely.

Practice in daylight

Before you even begin, commit one roll of film to be your practice roll. Come on, it’s just a few EUR! Try loading it on a reel in daylight. Observe and understand the process, the mechanics, how it all happens. If the film gets damaged, just cut off the damaged piece and keep practicing. Try with your eyes closed. Try in the dark bag. After a couple times you’ll get it πŸ™‚

Keep the reel DRY

That’s one most important piece of advice. Before you put the film onto the reel, make sure that the reel is completely dry. Wet reel is reason number one for film getting jammed.

This typically happens when you want to develop one roll after another. A recently used reel is wet. Even if you shake it off and use paper towels, it’s still wet in the corners. The worst is water residue left on the tiny metal balls which are there to lock and push the film as you turn the reel. If they’re wet, the film will stick to them like it’s been glued with some super-glue. The film jams, you push it stronger, the film bends and cracks, you swear, all the hope is lost. Loading a bent or cracked film is really hard. When you pull it out of the reel, the damage gets even worse as sprocket holes often get ripped in bits.

Best way to avoid this problem is to thoroughly dry the reel with a hairdryer. Blow hot air into the little corners, take special care of the metal balls. When you shake the reel and the balls no longer stick but move freely, the reel is dry and ready for the next round.

Keep your hands DRY

Wet hands will stain your film. They will wet the emulsion which then peels off the film base by slightest scratch. They will wet the reel and make the film jam, like described above. Even if your hands are dry now, they will get sweaty once in the bag. It’s dark and hot in there. Dangerous tools. Zero light. You operate in blind on a delicate matter.

A safe way to handle the delicate film is using plain thin cotton gloves. You can buy them real cheap. The only problem with gloves is that you can’t feel a damn thing through them, while at the same time your nimble fingertips are the only tool you have. So try this:

Instead of spending money on fancy fingerless gloves, get those cheap cotton ones and cut the fingertips off. Just get rid of the fluff!

Pre-cut film’s end

Before you put everything into a dark bag, prepare the film’s end. Cut it straight at 90ΒΊ angle. Make tiny 45ΒΊ cuts on both corners. This will make film much less prone to jamming, as it doesn’t struggle against the reel’s edges while it’s pushed. Something like this:

This is going to be a problem if whole film is rolled inside the casette. It happens all the time when rewinding film on the camera. There are two ways to address this problem:

  • Cheap. You can learn to do the cuts blind, when film is in the dark bag. Really, I do it all the time and it works like a charm, just practice, practice and practice on a your practice roll πŸ™‚
  • Cool. There’s a device for pulling the film out of the casette. There’s a device for everything these days. Check here. I never had one, but some people find it useful.

Open the casette like a pro

That’s a tricky one. They make tools for this as well, but I’ve managed for a good while using a simple bottle opener. I don’t think that the tool, which I ultimately bought for a good 8 EUR, makes it any easier. Not worth it, really, I’ve wasted the money so that you don’t have to πŸ˜‰

Specialized film casette opener, expensive, pretty much useless except those few days in a month when you need it
Plain bottle opener, 1.50 EUR on AliExpress, super cool, always with you on your key bunch ready to pop a beer whenever you need it

Have little scisors in your dark bag

After loading the film on the reel, a good many times I found myself wanting to scratch my head. Impossible, as both hands are inside the bag. The reason – well, the film has been successfully loaded, but the spool is dangling on its end and it’s not easy to detach. The film is either glued to the spool or pressed in between some plastic clip. Have the scissors ready inside the bag, to cut the spool off. Detaching the spool by force can end up in cracking and bending the film, right when you thought you’re done with it.

If the film gets jammed

With all the above, it still can happen. What to do then?

Make room in your dark bag. Move all the objects into one corner, especially the sharp ones. Move your hands with the reel and the film into the other corner, so that the film won’t touch anything sharp. Now you see why it’s good to have a large bag.

First, dislodge the film from the reel. Gently turn the reel into the opposite direction, so you can dismount it. No illusions, this will bend the film even more, just do it. Gently remove the film from the reel. You should really practice the skill of emergency film removal using your practice film roll.

Assess film damage by gently touching along both edges, on the whole length. If there are no cracks or damaged sprocket holes, there’s hope. Maybe the reel wasn’t tight enough and the film just slid off the rail. You can try loading it again, using the normal procedure.

If you feel any cracks or damaged sprocket holes, the film will not load on the reel, period. It just won’t work, don’t try it as you’ll damage the film even more.

All you can do, is to cut the film in two (while in the dark bag!), cut off both damaged ends, then try load the pieces and develop them separately. You will lose a frame or two, but the film will be saved. I tried this a few times and it’s definitely worth it!

I hope you find this advice useful. Please let me know if you have other clever tricks to add to the above!

(c) Tomasz Waraksa, Dublin, 2019

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