The Johnson “Cutplate” Developing Tank – By Ray Goulter

I’ve written a number of articles regarding film cameras, but this time my article is about an indispensable item of film darkroom equipment: the developing tank.

Cutplate Tank Panorama

Most of us who ventured into developing our own films back in the days before digital imaging did so using a cylindrical developing tank, of which there were many makes and models to choose from. Most had an internal reel or reels into which the film was loaded in total darkness, either in a special darkroom, a darkened room at night without any stray light coming in, or a room such as the bathroom with the windows covered by a completely opaque material, or in a daylight change bag. The reels usually had several grooves that allowed one wheel of the reel to be moved along the shaft for loading 35mm, 127 rollfilm and 120 rollfilm. Like many earlier sizes of film, 127 rollfilm had a relatively short life before discontinuance. 35mm and 120 rollfilm still enjoy continued manufacture so the developing tanks are still usable.

The loaded reel was placed into the tank, which was capped ready for the developing process in normal daylight: development, stop bath and fixer. Agitation was usually 10 seconds each minute. The film was then washed and hung to dry. We’d then cut 35mm film into strips, usually 6 frames to the strip, and store in negative holders. 120 rollfilm was also cut into strips of either 3 or 4 frames depending on the number of frames per film length. If the film was transparency type then we’d cut 35mm into individual frames and place these into slide mounts ready for projection, although I still have many transparencies that are stored in 6-frame strips. The 4” x 5” cut sheet film I use is also developed in cylindrical tanks, with the reels typically holding 6 sheets in six sets of curved grooves.

Johnsons of Hendon Ltd was a British firm that made many darkroom and photographic items.

I recently came into possession of a Johnson “Cutplate” film developing tank. Its provenance is as follows:

George S Hutton was a professional photographer based in the Port Adelaide area. He operated there for 60 years from 1924 to 1984. I got a call from his son Deane several months ago asking if I was interested in some enlargers. I agreed to meet Deane to have a look at the enlargers. Of further interest is that Deane W Hutton will be known to many of our members as the co-host of “The Curiosity Show” on television. Whilst the show is no longer aired, episodes of the show can be obtained via the Internet so if you have any children or grandchildren interested in scientific-type exercises then check the web for DVDs that can be purchased. When I told our son Byron, now in his early 40’s, he said “I loved that show! I hardly missed an episode.”

The end result of meeting Deane and his lovely wife Jan is that I now have an historic (circa 1920’s) Eastman auto-focus enlarger Model B and an Agfa Varioscop model 60 enlarger. (My three monochrome entries in our last competition evening were exposed using the Agfa Varioscop enlarger). The Agfa Varioscop had a long manufacturing period of about 60 years. The more recent models had colour heads. George would have purchased the Agfa enlarger at a later date but he would have bought the Eastman enlarger, which is based on a cast-iron frame and “weighs a ton”, in the early days of his photographic business back in the 1920’s. The Eastman enlarger will be the subject of a later article once I’ve got it operational.

The Internet can also be used to view many of George S Hutton’s images. Search “Images for George Hutton photographer”. Many of the images from this search would have been printed using the Eastman Model B enlarger now in my possession.

I was also given a number of developing tanks used by George S Hutton, and one of these is the subject of this article.

Here’s an excerpt from the instruction book: “The Johnson Cutplate Tank has been designed for the development of all the most popular sizes of plates and cut-film from miniature lantern plates (2” x 2”) to 4” x 5” plates and cut-film”.

There are 7 different sizes of film that can be developed in this tank, which utilises two movable carriers. The two carriers have, on one side, straight grooves, and on the other, “wavy film grooves” (described thus in the instruction booklet). There are 8 slots into which the carriers can be placed, enabling the 7 different sizes of plates and sheet film to be loaded. Slot 1 always holds the first carrier and the second carrier is placed in whichever other slot is needed for the size of the plate or sheet film to be developed. Six plates or sheets of film can be loaded into the six sets of grooves for development at the same time.

The images at the end of this article demonstrate the versatility of this developing tank of Bakelite construction.

The instruction booklet describes the sizes of films that can be developed, as follows:

  1. 2” x 2” miniature lantern plates
  2. 1¾” x 2 3/8” plates
  3. 3¼” x 3¼” standard lantern plates
  4. 2½” x 3½” plates
  5. 3¼” x 4¼” quarter plates
  6. 3½” x 4¾” plates
  7. 4” x 5” plates.

All of the above are glass plates, no longer commercially available (unfortunately). The straight grooves in the movable carriers receive the glass plates.

Then there are cut films, which are slid into the “wavy film grooves”:

  1. 2½” x 3½”
  2. 3¼” x 4¼” quarter plate size

The grooves are designed to hold each sheet of film securely in place during development.

The last type of film that can be developed in this tank is 4” x 5” sheet film, which is where my interest is piqued. In this case there are six supplementary film holders (similar to the steel septums used in the “Grafmatic” cut sheet film holders) each of which holds one sheet of 4” x 5” film. Each film holder slides into the straight grooves of the carriers also used for the glass plates. An interesting feature of these is the hook at the top of each carrier. This allows the developed sheet film to be hung up to dry without the need to remove the sheets from the frames, thus avoiding the risk of fingerprint smudges on the edges, or of dropping a sheet whilst fixing a hanging hook to it.

This type of developing tank can’t be inverted like the cylindrical tanks can, so agitation is by way of vigorously tilting the tank back and forth for the usual 10 seconds every minute. This is still an effective way of ensuring fluid agitation and even development across the full surface of the film.

My next set of six 4” x 5” sheet films will be developed in this tank.


In its time this would have been a very useful and versatile piece of darkroom equipment for the early 20th century photographer, as it provided the means by which a number of different size glass plate and sheet film negatives then available could be developed. Whilst all but 4” x 5” sheet film is no longer manufactured it still remains a useable piece of equipment in the darkroom even though 35mm and 120/220 rollfilm can’t be developed in this tank. It provides an excellent example of an early type of Bakelite developing tank prior to mass-produced hard plastic cylindrical developing tanks.

The box the tank and instruction booklet came in, still in reasonably good condition. George S Hutton obviously stored his photographic equipment methodically and I expect very few of these boxes have survived!

Cutplate Tank 1

View of the tank top cover. The chemicals are poured in via the filling funnel on the right. The pouring lip to empty the fluids is at bottom left below the patented developing calculator.

Cutplate Tank 2

Side view.

Cutplate Tank 3

View of the lid removed and the 4” x 5” sheet film holders in place. Note the hooks at the top of each film holder, allowing easy hanging of the wet film for drying without having to handle the film sheets. The hole in the lid’s filling funnel also allows a thermometer to be inserted to check temperature.

Cutplate Tank 4

The film carriers, showing the wavy film grooves of one side and the straight grooves of the other.

Cutplate Tank 5

The slots along the sides of the tank into which the second carrier is placed for different size plates or sheet film can be seen in this image.

Cutplate Tank 6

A closer view of the pouring lip and the patented Time & Temperature calculator.

The names of long-gone developers is interesting:

  • Fine grain and Meritol-Metol
  • M.Q.Stock Sol’n + 7 parts water
  • AZOL (1 to 24) and Universal M.Q. (1 to 15)
  • M.Q.Pactum 1 packet in 20 ozs.

Cutplate Tank 7