Well, here's a shout out to those who can get anything chemical shipped from the USA because of regulations. I just finished a long evening in the basement garage printing RA4, and it's been an almost complete success (more on this later), so I thought it would be useful to the other APUGgers to report back.
I decided to process in trays. I have a drum setup, but last time I found it a chore to drain and clean the tubes every time. I always had splotches, and the occasional uneven development. So I pulled out my usual plastic trays for 11x14, and laid out a tray of RA4 developer, a stop bath, a bleach-fix, and a water bath.
The first hurdle was getting the chemicals. I used to work with 1-Gallon Kodak RA-4 kits, but they're getting few and far between around here. Plus, the last one I bought was expired, so it wasted me an entire evening of setting up. Luckily for me, Kodak RA-RT 10-liter Replenisher kits (a, b, c) CAT 8415580, are easily available from Henry's, and could probably be ordered from most professional photo store with the right catalog number. Same thing for the Kodak 10-liter bleach-fix kits (a, b), CAT 830 9031, which I already had.
I'd like to stress the fact that it took me forever before jumping the gun and getting the RA-RT kit. Plenty of partial information abounds, and Kodak always say to use it with a starter. You DON'T need the starter, unless you're running a replenished RA-4 line. Let it be said loud and clear.
Next hurdle was temperature control. I agonized over this. I used to put my chemicals in bottles, and then in a water bath to adjust the temperature. When I was developing in the bathroom, at a previous place, I used the tap to control temp. Now I don't have hot running water in the DR, so I resorted instead to an aquarium heater. There are a lot of crappy aquarium heaters around, and you should avoid anything that is not properly sealed for full submersion. I got myself a FLUVAL submersible aquarium heater, with the metal rod inside. Instructions say not to put the whole thing in water, but the guy at the pet shop store assured me it was made to be wet. I made a test a few days ago, and dropped the whole thing in a bucket of water. No shocks.
The only limitation is that with such heaters you're generally stuck with 30 Celsius as a max temperature (so your trays would be effectively around 28C). Not a problem: Kodak's J-39 publication tells you all you need to do to compensate for lower processing temperatures. I only got one heater, for the developer; since it's summer and the garage is rather hot, the other baths stayed within Kodak tolerances. The only thing that bugged me was that my very precise Paterson colour thermometer split when last I moved, and has become useless; the B&W model worked just fine, as it maxed at 30C.
In fact, my greatest discovery tonight was how tolerant the whole process was. It truly was as fluid as B&W tray processing. Of course, I wouldn't stake a business on cheap thermometers and an aquarium heater, and sometimes I could see a few CC of variation between duplicate prints, but as I made just one print of each negative most of the time, it wasn't an issue.
Last hurdle was finding paper. Nowadays, it's Fuji Crystal Archive Type II or bust; I was pleased to find that I got the very first sheet right just by going with an average 55Y + 45M starting pack, 5 secs exposure, and f/5.6 at the height needed to do an 8x10 contact sheet. I shoot Kodak film, so I was wary of printing on Fuji, since I don't generally like their colour films--I was glad to see that Kodak film looked like Kodak on the Fuji paper, and did not magically change. What's more, there's been some anxiety about CA Type II: some people worry that the paper is only made for digital printing, and won't work properly with projection printing. I'm no master printer, but the dozen or so of 11x14 and 8x10 I pulled out sure looked normal, contrast and colour-wise.
I mostly printed Kodak Ektar 100 (35mm and 120), and it's a bitch to focus right since the dye clouds are so damn fine, they're near invisible in the precision focuser. I relied on my eyes instead, and focused on a scrap sheet of paper. On the upside, once I fine-tuned the colour balance, I never had to change the Y/M ratio, and just added/removed some red depending the negative. At one point I printed some Portra 400 (the new kind), and 15 CC more red was all was needed. I think I remember Kodak's RA-4 papers as more temperamental than that.
So, any failure? Yeah, I broke the heater early on! The developer in the tray was not fully covering up the heater, but I had turned it on. So when I added more developer to cover it, I poured some directly on the heater and the temperature difference cracked the glass rod. I had spent so much time finding and testing the different parts of my setup, that I was livid for having broken it. I kept on using it for a while though, and only turned it on when my fingers were not in the developer. No shock, no broken fuse, and the temperature stayed around 28C all evening long. But I had to throw it away after I finished!
In conclusion: if you have a dichroic enlarger, and you want to use it, you can still find developer and bleach-fix by special order in Canadian photo stores (use the CAT numbers). Get a heater in your trays, order some paper (at least that you can buy from anywhere!), and get ready to spend some quality time and no sleep!