One of the things I love about this Wet Plate Collodion lark is that is makes you use more of your senses than you do when you make a digital image.
Obviously you have to see the image and compose it, it's very tactile and my touch can either make or break the final image. One of the thing I get all of my sitters to do is smell all the chemicals as I am using them, the ether in the collodion may be able to get you high or anesthetise you, but most fragrant of them all is the varnish which contains lavender oil.
Varnishing is a part of the process that alot of wet plate practitioners struggle with. The choice of varnish is always contentious, with arguments both for and against different resins. The two most popular varnishes are a) Gum Sandarac, this is the gum from the African cyprus-like tree and b) Shellac, which is a by-product that is produced from a female Lac bugs bottom (yes that's right, bug poo). I have come up with my own varnish, a New Zealand first, using the gum from the NZ native and massive Kauri tree.
The final piece of the wet plate collodion puzzle is difficult, but very important. Once made and dried, the wet plate collodion image is very fragile and susceptible to scratches and damage. Over time, oxygen oxidises the silver and tarnishes it, changing the colour and contrast of the image. To seal the image for eternity from physical and oxidative degradation, a varnish is applied.
In addition to the resin, there are two other components important in the varnish, Lavendar oil which acts as a hardener/drying agent (and smells lovely), and 96% alcohol, which is the solvent in which the resin is dissolved.
In my first 8 months of making wet plates, varnishing was my worst enemy, I followed the text books and used Gum Sandarac, my images melted, which was more than frustrating to say the least.
Over the first 8 months, I lost count how much money I ploughed into my own varnish research, I tried almost everything I could get my hands on at the DIY or art store, I tried marble wax, liquid glass, water based acrylic, oil based varnishes, store bought shellac ..... none of it worked. I went back to trying gum sandarac again, but time and time again it melted my images. I was stumped. It actually turned out that the collodion I was using, had a different, older alcohol content than I was mixing my varnish up, this was a Eureka moment, once I got the alcohol in the collodion and the alcohol in the varnish the same ..... no more melting images! However, I was left a bit disappointed with the finish from the Gum Sandarac, which led me to continue experimenting.
I looked at the USA, a chap called Gerald Figal was doing alot of his own research into period specific varnishes of the 1800's, and it turned out that the hotly advocated gum sandarac was actually not the varnish of choice, most photographers in the day used shellac. At the same time, I also experimented with New Zealand native Kauri gum - both of these varnishes gave highly acceptable results and I am still using these today.
To the left is a video of the varnishing process.