Starting a darkroom can be a pretty daunting task. So much equipment, so little money, so much complication. It all boils down to a little bit of ingenuity, a little bit of thought, and some prioritization. Everything has its place. This article will discuss how to start doing darkroom work in minimum operable units. I am not going to tell you how to do each step; there are plenty of good books on that. I will tell you how to do it with a minimum of equipment and modification your house.
1. Start with developing your own film.
If you can master black-and-white development, you are halfway to having good prints. A lab can do a lot of things, but one thing that most labs can't do well is develop b/w negs. And when you get into exotic things like pushing film, forget it.
For this step, you will need a bathroom sink (or bathtub) and the following equiment (should be less than $50 total). This stuff is compact enough that if you went somewhere for a few months, it could easily fit in your suitcase (or you could of course mail it to yourself). After all, I used this setup to develop film in a dorm room in law school, so it has to work for you!
Plastic Paterson reels and tank, 2 reel size (or the Spanish knockoff of the old Paterson tanks). While many cognoscenti will spit on you for not using stainess steel reels, these minimize your chances of messing up the loading. If you look hard, Paterson used to make a set that included tank, reels, thermometer, clips, rinse hose and graduated cylinder. New reels are worth the money.
Glass Thermometer reading with 20 degrees on either side of 68¼F (20¼ C). Avoid dial thermometers. Although more durable, they are much less accurate and less reliable in the long run. If you use a process that is not temperature dependent (Diafine or standing Rodinal), you don't even really need a thermometer. You just need to keep the water reasonably close to room temperature.
Scissors are for cutting the film (no-brainer)
Bottle opener for opening film canisters. The kind you would use to open a Coke bottle (punch on one side; cap remover on the other). From Target.
Dress Hangers (the kind with two spring clips). You hang the film on these at the top. Get them from Target. You can now hang up the films from an overhead rail or from a nail in the wall. For 120 film, where the film length is uniform (because you don't cut it), you can use these on the top and bottom.
Clip-type clothes pins. You weight the film you are drying at the bottom end. Also from Target. Film clips are a lot more expensive and do exactly the same thing.
Changing bag substitutes for a lightproof room. This saves you the trouble of taping up windows and doors with that awful gaffers' tape. Some places you go you can't tape. The only thing you do in the dark for processing film is to load the film into the tank.
For chemicals, I would recommend Diafine, as it is relatively fine-grained, is happy at temperatures from 70 to 85 degrees, and works well in 3-5 minutes per bath. Time and temperature have very, very little effect. It works very well with most b/w films except Plus-X. It also lasts forever. With Diafine, you don't need a stop bath. Use rapid hardening fixer, which takes some rinsing at the end, but which hardens the emulsion, making it more resistant to scratches. Heiland Perma-Wash is a good optional fixer remover that will speed up rinsing significantly.
When you are done, you have negatives that you can either (1) scan or (2) take to the minilab and have them make sepia prints from. You can also (3) take them to a pro lab and have them printed on real b/w paper.
2. Move on to printing your own pictures.
The second half of good pictures is getting control over the printing. Assuming that you have survived the above without saying my name anggrily in your sleep, you are ready for the next step. This involves a significant investment in equipment. The good news is that you can fit almost everything you need in a standard bathroom. Here are my picks in terms of bang for the buck and how to make it fit:
Enlarger. There are only two choices in my mind. Durst and Leica Focomat. Get a Durst. They're much cheaper on the used market, and no one will know the difference. Enlargers have so few parts and are so immune to technological change that they are OK to buy used. Just make sure you can get a 39mm lens board.
The critical consideration in an enlarger is the lens/negative alignment. You can argue Beselers and Omegas all the day long, but they require elaborate alignment rituals. Dursts and Leicas, which have one-piece heads, have nothing to align.
The other feature you need is a glass negative carrier. Don't be fooled by the people who tell you that glassless carriers are easier. Glass carriers may require a little dusting, but they hold negatives so much flatter it is not even funny. They will make the difference between your thinking your lens is a killer and thinking it sucks. All Leicas have these carriers; many Dursts do as well. Glass good, anti-Newton glass better.
If you can afford it, go for a color enlarger with a dichro head. This will save you the trouble of switching gelatin contrast filters with wet hands. This adds remarkably little to the price of an enlarger on the used market. Some Dursts, like the M605 Color, have diffusers built in for 35mm and 120 film.
Get a 6x6 enlarger, unless you already own a 6x7 or 6x9 camera. This size enlarger will handle 35mm and 6x4.5 negs (your likely upgrade path) plus Rolleiflex negs should that day arrive. Moving up to a 6x7 or 6x9 enlarger is very expensive, and that extra capacity will probably go to waste. The other consideration is that as you get up near 6x9cm or 2x3", you need more recessed lens boards for 50mm enlarging lenses (used for 35mm work), which adds up to big bucks. Ask anyone who's priced a Durst SEIMAR recently. Make sure that whatever you get has the condensors or diffusers to handle both 35mm and 120 film.
Lens. This is one of the most important determinants of output quality. Don't scrimp, because enlarging lenses are best shot one or two stops down from wide-open. Buy a Schneider Componon-S or a Rodensock Rodagon. This will be about $200 used (again, okay). End of discussion.
Enlarger Timer. Eschew mechanical enlarger timers like Gralab. Go right for repeatable digital timers like the Kearsarge, Gralab 525. These will save a massive amount of aggravation. Make sure it can be configured to switch easily between safelight and time.
Safelight. A Kaiser Duka 5 (doesn't that sound positively Fascist?) florescent light with a red filter should be adequate. An Osram Duka 50 sodium-vapor light is more versatile, but it cannot be switched on quickly. You can also use the cheaper Kodak bullet safelight, with either a red or an OC (amber) filter. One thing you can do in a bathroom is bounce this off the vanity mirror to multiply the dispersion from one light.
Trays. Start with 9x12 trays (smallest "normal" size). Not only are these cheap new, four of them also fit easily into a standard American bathtub. I would recommend white for developer, gray for stop bath, red for fixer and gray for fixer clear. 11x14 trays require a lot more chemical (2L/per), are hard to handle, and for 8x10 and smaller prints, impractically sized.
Drying rack. Go to Home Depot and find the expandable two-section screen. It is made of fiberglass windowscreen and a tubular body (plastic or metal). This will extend to fit over your bathtub and will provide a nice surface to dry prints on. Looks cheap on a house but it is great for drying RC materials.
Contact printer. May I suggest a piece of foam rubber and a piece of 11x14 glass from the hardware store? Be sure to tape the edges.
Doran Paper Safe. Get the 11x14. It will make life easier, and it should not cost more than $10 at a photo show.
IKEA Magicker workbench. This odd piece of furniture has a shelf base approx 30x18, with a cantilevered (right) top that is 42x18", with a working surface 36" above the floor. Although I can't for anything figure out what they originally designed it for, it is a great stand for a 16x20 base color enlarger. Your paper goes underneath. The cantilever shelf should sit over a standard-height light switch.
The best thing about a bathtub is flooding it to clean everything!
Knowing that you can use so little equipment, you should be able to make first-rate prints in absolutely no time. You will find the effort well worth it.