An easel holds the printing paper flat beneath the enlarger. Easels come in many sizes and varieties: two-bladed, four-bladed, borderless and speed easels. A good easel can make printing easy, while a bad one can be a nightmare. A good easel will pivot open with a minimum of effort and perhaps even have locking hinges that stay open; will accept the paper easily; close with a minimum of “flop;” have easy-to-read scales on the sides for adjusting print borders; and most of all, it will hold the paper as flat as possible. It should be heavy enough not to skid around on the baseboard of the enlarger and rugged enough to withstand the rigors of daily use. A flimsy easel will be thrown out of alignment easily or suffer from bent or warped blades. There is nothing more frustrating than going through the trouble of making a print, developing the image and noticing that one corner is "dark" because the easel had either moved, warped or didn't hold the paper in proper alignment.
Borderless easels are exactly what one might think. Each print will be bled to the edge of the paper without a border. You have little flexibility in adjusting borders. They are good when you are "batch printing" one size and don't need a border.
Two-bladed easels allow more cropping capability but generally limit you to varying only the overall size of the print. There is limited control on the size of the border around the print. It is very difficult to print without a border and, most importantly, you cannot center a print on a piece of paper, i.e. you cannot print 5 x 7-inch image centered on an 8 x 10-inch piece of paper.
Four-bladed easels are the most versatile easels. They allow you complete printing freedom and control to align your print any way you choose. Centering images on a page is very easy and although borderless printing is difficult, it can be done if proper care is taken. Most professionals will have at least one four-bladed easel in their darkroom.
Speed easels are great for “batch printing” when you need multiple copies of the same print at the same size. Unlike traditional easels that hinge open, speed easels have slots on either end through which you slide your paper. The first print is lined up on the easel, and when you are satisfied with its alignment, you tape the speed easel to your baseboard (or another larger easel). It then becomes an assembly-line procedure. Slide the paper in one side, make your exposure and slide it out the other side when done. You can repeat this procedure a thousand times and each print will line up exactly the same way.