Cut It Out

My friend Dan Shapiro co-founded Glowforge, the makers of a remarkable laser cutter that I can’t pretend to be impartial about. I met Dan when he was finishing up Robot Turtles, a Kickstarter-funded, chart-topping board game to teach programming principles to kids in a really fun way, and he had bought a large-format laser cutter to deliver some of the rewards. He found the software…lacking.

Fast forward not that many months, and Dan is showing me a wallet he made through programmed cutting and a bit of sewing that inspired him to find co-founders and start Glowforge. And now two more years have passed, and they're nearing a point, not yet announced, where they move into full production and ship thousands of them.

The idea behind Glowforge is that a laser cutter (which they call a “3D printer,” because it can cut variable depth, from engraving to scoring to cutting) can replace some expensive hardware elements with cheaper ones paired with sophisticated software and achieve similar results. Instead of using difficult-to-master cutting software, they built a cloud-based front end.

I've been excited from the moment Dan told me about their plans for how Glowforge would contribute to letterpress printing and related fields, like silkscreening, printmaking, and the like. Today, Dan gave me a few hours on one of their pre-production models, which they've been tuning as they move towards full-on production. 

Because of the well-designed software approach, I had the same excitement as printing from PageMaker to a LaserWriter back in 1985. And it has the same potential. Glowforge is oceans ahead of the first days of desktop publishing, because computation and components have advanced so far. But at the same time, they'll only be tapping a fraction of the possibilities of the hardware. This first model will receive continuous improvements since the software is cloud-based (and, yes, they have a plan in case of going under so that the devices can continue to be used).

While I had hands-on training from the CEO and have over 30 years working with design software, I think anyone with a solid but not expert understanding of Photoshop and Illustrator (or any similar software) would have a similar experience, and I think that encompasses millions of people worldwide. However, and it's a big however, you can also know absolutely nothing and make stuff immediately: you can put a drawing in the Glowforge, which scans it the with a built-in camera (used for multiple purposes) and can then use that a template to cut. My background definitely helps, but it's not required. And many of my skills related to letterpress and offset printing in terms of file prep and expectations of what would come out.

Glowforge has certified materials (wood, acrylic, and so forth) that they've characterized and you don't need to test to figure out how to use best, but I brought four unique materials and we were able to rapidly test and cut them exactly as hoped. (The materials were Davey board used for book covers, a paper-backed rayon fabric used to cover Davey board, the Neenah Paper stock I'm using in the book, and a heavier paper stock.) 

I had about three hours today, and cut and engraved a bunch of stuff, including some 1/8-inch maple plywood. I can't wait to have unlimited time with one, as my mind is exploding with potential projects.

I'd noted early in this book project I hoped to incorporate laser cutting. I will likely print chapter numbers either from the figures I cut today or ones cut later. And I have to consult with the bookbinder about what I learned in terms of how the Glowforge would interact with different cover components. Among other things, with so many covers to customize, it could require days or even a couple of weeks of cutting or engraving depending on the choices I made, and I have to factor in both that time and a device's availability.

Chromatic Type

I tried to keep my plate relatively free this quarter at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC). I’m taking a single class, and while I printed three separate items last quarter, I felt I needed to have the time to work on the keepsake and the book. But I wanted to make at least one thing in class, learn to use the largest platen press on site, and produce something wee and refined, as all my first-quarter projects were relatively coarse or large. I settled on a business card.

From an 1874 specimen book considered the epitome of chromatic wood type shown in print.

In looking at type for the card, I realized what an opportunity I had to use chromatic type, which are typefaces designed in variants that can be overprinted exactly in place with different colors, allowing for insets and knockouts and other neat effects. This kind of design was found particularly, though not exclusively, in wood type, and you might be most familiar with it thinking of old circus posters, or new ones that reference the past.

Wood type is almost always large and was designed mostly for advertising. As such, it could be wackier and more interesting than metal type, most of which was designed and sized for text and headlines. (There are plenty of metal faces designed for ads, but they're a modest subset of all faces designed for metal.)

The Hamilton Manufacturing Company cornered the market on wood type in America in the late 1800s, and remained in operation until the 1970s. The Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum preserves the former company’s collection and actively uses it, and has worked to cut new faces and push forward to keep this history alive. As part of that, they worked with the digital type foundry P22 to create a series of faces based on and referencing classic wood type. One of them is American Chromatic, and that's what I picked for the type for my name on the business card. It has eight styles that can be used together and some separately. Per my previous discussion about the cost of licensing type, the Hamilton faces are part of Adobe TypeKit, making them viable to use for a modest, one-off project.

An image from the PDF.

The printed version. This one is overinked on the black, although it still reads fine. Later in the run, the inking is much better.

Now, I designed it small, and my mentor was rightly concerned the tiny details of stars (inset and printed) wouldn't come through. I thought that was okay, because the brain fills in details, and except for designers and printers putting their nose up the cards, people would perceive the bits as stars because that's what they expect. I learned quite a bit about the limits of registration (lining up multiple passes) and overinking on a platen press, and my next job on a platen will be so much the better for that.

I've printed the first side with American Chromatic produced as photopolymer plates. The opposite side will have my contact information, and I'm using metal for that, including a dial telephone that's a two-piece chromatic item! The front is classic Americana colors; the back will be 1950s goldenrod and avocado.

By the way, one of the technical reasons wood was used is that you need an even printing surface at an exact height with letterpresses; it’s 0.918ʺ in the U.S. and many other places. Metal type works up to a certain size, at which point it becomes unwieldy: the amount and cost of metal, its weight, its behavior. As the Hamilton Wood Type Museum notes, “large letters used in printing were carved out of wood because large metal type had a tendency to develop uneven surfaces, or crack, as it cooled.” Properly aged wood can be planed and sanded to exactly the right height and kept in fine fettle for many years — some is still printable after well over a century.

Closing in on a print date

It’s allergy season in Seattle, which has unfortunately knocked me out at times, delaying some of the work on the book, keepsake, and other projects. Nonetheless, things are moving forward, and I’ve made decisions and am proceeding towards a final design, binding choices, and the rest. 

  • The keepsake. I’ve decided on what it will be: a setting of Walt Whitman’s “A Font of Type,” a poem from 1888 that has a lot of resonance in his life, as he started work at age 13 apprenticing as a typesetter. I created a design, but after consultation with my mentor, am reworking it entirely from a small poster into a folio, or a folded sheet. The book design is a gating item at the moment, to get plates made for printing, which will push the keepsake design finalization and printing back into late May or possibly into June.
  • The book’s type and interior. I tested out some type choices and sizes by having a photopolymer plate made and then printing on the paper stock that I’ll use in the book on the press at SVC that I’ll print all the interior pages. Learned a lot that informed the design choices and how I’ll make and integrate illustrations.
  • The book’s binding. Jules Faye will be binding the book. She has a long and wonderful history with printing and bookbinding, and we’ve met twice to talk options and budgets. We’ve settled on a format that will expose some of the stitching and binding methods in an attractive and functional way. 
  • Unrelated, a business card. This is a project I’m doing in the one letterpress class I’m taking this term, learning to use the Chandler & Price platen press in the SVC studio. The card’s front uses a digital face created at Hamilton Wood Type Museum that’s chromatic: it has multiple elements designed to be interlocked and overlaid that may be printed in different colors. It's something used commonly with wood type to great advertising effect. On the back, I’m setting in metal using a chromatic telephone that an instructor identified in one my photos: it's a dial phone that is designed as two separate pieces of metal type that neatly intersect. I'll also be used some ornaments and handset type.

One of my goals with all the printing projects underway, especially the book, is to be sure that my printing skills are good enough to achieve the level of quality and competence required. I carved out a particular set of parameters with the book to make sure that it would be both an interesting piece of work but also be achievable for me to print without years of training. The longer I print, the more nuance I’ll gain, plus I keep re-learning things that I lost the muscle memory and detail for in the past. Lots of knowledge and half-learned bits of practice keep bubbling up, both in the letterpress side and in designing the book.

My mentor, Jenny, is keeping me honest: if I get underway with the book, and it seems like I can’t print as well as I need to, we’ll hit a pause button while I get more practical work under my belt, and I’ll inform everyone of delays. I’m not going to go to all this effort and with all your trust and produce something that’s subpar.

Learning to use these presses involves both very few variables and a million ones. The proof presses that are the workhorse of modern letterpress weren't designed for production printing. They were designed to let press operators pull proofs of work in progress and test out printing. This means that elements like the set screws that lock in ink rollers to keep them a precise height to layer a film of pigment on type and other material in the bed of the press shift even when you've done everything right, over inking or under inking pages, and if you're not attentive and don’t stop, recalibrate, and continue, you could wind up with a rash of bad work. 

I know all the coarse aspects of the press, which are few: How to lock type and other elements properly in the bed. How to pack the tympan, the padding that underlies the paper as you pass the paper over the material to be printer. How to set roller height. How to apply ink. How to oil the press to keep it in fine fiddle. 

But I don’t have a deep bench. I've put in tens of hours on press in the last few months, not hundreds. I don’t want to print as an amateur, even as I know I lack the full experience required to print expertly, which means being able to respond to all the variables, troubleshoot them, and proceed within the range of quality required.

Fortunately I’m being backstopped by Jenny, Jules, and others in the community providing insight — and moral support.

The wheels on the press go round and round

Last night in class we had four letterpresses going: two running the two passes on a poster for an upcoming event, designed by our instructor and my mentor, and the other two printing the card backs for greeting card blanks used in class projects. It was a good refresher in press setup, and I finally was up to speed enough to run the platen (clamshell) press that likely forms most people's idea of what a letterpress is.

We have a modestly sized manually operated platen with a treadle. You spin a wheel, and then use the treadle to keep it running. You've got to keep in rhythm to pull one page out after printing and put a blank sheet in. The second video contains actual footage of me printing.

My visit on Monday to Jules Faye, the bookbinder and printer, was wonderful, and I'm moving forward on collecting more detail and making more decisions for her to provide me with a bid and nail down more scheduling details.

Among other things, Jules convinced me that a folded 11 by 17 signature folded to 8½ by 5½ pages might look too ordinary. It's the same thing as folding a sheet of office paper in half, and she worried the book might feel too familiar in the wrong way. 

I agreed! It had bothered me and I hadn't put my finger on it. With the paper I'm nearly positive I'll use, I can instead cut a slightly different proportion. European paper sizes rely on the "golden section" proportion, which is 1:1.618. This is a particularly pleasing ratio for whatever reason our brains decide so, and it's only for odd historical quirks (as with everything in industry) that America uses 8½ by 11 as a standard.

So instead of an 11 by 17 sheet, I'll cut to A3, which is 297mm by 420mm (11.7 by 16.5 inches, roughly). That can be folded twice to get an A5 sheet, which is 148mm by 210mm (5.8 by 8.3 inches). A bit squatter, and a bit wider, it makes it easier to form a more readable single-column text layout and incorporate images.

Jules and her husband, Chris, ran Stern & Faye together, and had a huge barn full of letterpress gear and typecasting equipment. After Chris passed away a decade ago, Jules sold off most of their working collection to help form the nucleus of presses all across the Northwest. The casting equipment became the C.C. Stern Type Foundry, a museum in Portland.

Jules teaches bookbinding and continues to practice it as a profession.

A rough dummy

I bought a small amount of the paper that I think I’ll use for the book, cut it down into the appropriately sized sheets and folded them into a dummy, which is a mock-up of what you’re going to print. These are often blank, but they can have material in them as well. They’re designed to get a feel for the physical parameters of a book and fix problems before you’re too far down the road to make changes without effort and expense.

I’m not positive this is the right paper. I like a lot about it, but the deckle edge may be a problem. I’ll be meeting with the expert bookbinder on Monday to talk about details, but if she thinks it should be gathered into four sets of two larger sheets, the deckle edge won’t alternate finished pages, but be grouped alternating with groups of straight-cut pages. (Each sheet will have four finished pages front and back, folded down. It's likely the binder won’t want a gathering of the eight folded sheets as separate foldings of four, but prefer two sheets in four groups, as shown in the photos below, for heft.)

I have to decide if these aesthetics work. If not, I may either opt to use the same paper and trim the deckle edge or switch to a similar paper with a machined edge. The deckle edge is nice, but it's not critical, since I'm not using paper that's made a sheet at a time to the size required for the book. That would be more precious and more worth preserving. Here, this is continuously made paper produced by machine, and thus the deckle edge is a nice artifact, but a little more artificial in its way than handmade paper (even when the handmade paper is made in large quantities commercially, rather than by a small-batch artisan).

Still, it's great to feel how thick the book will be. The bookbinder will help me resolve questions so I can proceed on design ideas for the cover. Will it be case bound, the traditional hardcover style you’re used to? I would like that, but there are many other options. Cost and time are determining factors, too. I was hoping to customize covers, too, or some element of the book, so any process I use, I have to factor in whether I'll be able to incorporate that customization.

The Cost of a Face

I’m in the process of picking a typeface for the book. I have a very strong contender that seems to have the right characteristics for letterpress printing and for the paper I believe I’ll be using. But one of the deciding factors is cost.

If you haven't had to buy fonts, you may not realize how expensive they are. We’re in a golden age of high-quality “free” fonts, because Google, Microsoft, Apple, and other commissioned and paid the $100,000s or many millions to develop faces that they allow general use of. Google is over five years into the Noto project. (Which I wrote about and then had the piece killed when Trump was elected—the publication didn't have room for it, then it perished as it grew old before it ran. It may be in the book: it’s pretty apropos.) Noto comprises over 100,000 glyphs (characters of all sorts across all script types around the world) and will ultimately be even larger. It will eventually also come in both serif and sans serif versions. 

But those freely available faces, some of them quite excellent, are a drop in the bucket of the type universe. Most of the time, when you’re planning a project, you rack your memory of faces you like and look through samples online or in print to find candidates that convey the feel and fit the medium. If you have need of particular typographic features, like small caps or swashes, that focuses direction, too.

(FYI, while there is some variations in how type historian, type designers, and graphic designers talk about it, a typeface typically refers to a family of letters designed to work together across multiple weights, and a font is the instantiation of a typeface. So Garamond is a typeface that encompasses Garamond in fonts of Roman, italic, bold, and so forth. Thomas Phinney ran a poll to find the most popular definitions of these and related terms, and it was fascinating.)

In my case, I want a serif face that hearkens back but doesn’t feel like a copy of a face from the past. I want something highly legible and without terribly thin strokes, which don't always hold up well in the plate-making process nor in printing nor stand out from the paper. A more even stroke will make it easier to produce pages that have an even and equal impression.

However, if I were to purchase such a family outright, it could easily cost $750 to $1,000 to purchase the license that covers the right number of variations (Roman, italic, and bold in text weights and then some versions tweaked for larger sizes) and have the right to use both in print and include in a single ebook. I don't think this is outrageous: font design and development isn’t cheap, and it’s very speculative. No type designer ever really knows how much they’ll sell of a face sold commercially, as opposed to one designed for and paid by a client.

Because of this project’s modest budget (about $12,000), I can’t purchase a set of fonts, nor is a particular typeface critical to the project. I turned to Adobe TypeKit, a service I’ve been using for years, since it was an independent company, and one of the first good ways to deliver Web fonts reliably to browsers, so you could actually design with a typeface in mind and it worked everywhere. After Adobe’s acquisition, TypeKit expanded choices and its purpose and license. While terms vary somewhat, the subscription (which I have as part of Adobe Creative Suite) lets me pick among many typefaces, sync across my computers, and then use in print projects, ebooks (that lock usage to the book), and often on Web sites. You don't need an active subscription to keep using the fonts in ebooks, just on associated Web sites.

I won’t reveal the face yet, but I’m very pleased all around about it so far, and will be making more experiments. In the nearish future, I’ll prep some variants in size and leading (vertical spaces between lines) and get a photopolymer plate made so I can do test printing onto small sheets of the paper I expect I’ll choose. This will let me test for type color (the relative density) and legibility, and make sure I'm making the right choice.

what the > ?

Why is the > (or greater-than) character used to precede lines that are quoted from a previous message or forum post? I set out to find out for in this article. I confess the ending is a bit of anti-climax: after consulting with the people who, in the early 1980s, wrote Usenet news-reader and distribution software and were involved with the email programs in common use, we pinpointed a particular year and even portion of year — but no one can remember being the person who put it into effect! I hope to one day track this down further.

This article may wind up in the book, as it's on topic, but because I don't have a definitive answer, I'm not yet sure if it'll make the cut. I may work it in in a reduced form.

End of quarter and scheduling apace

The quarter at SVC ended a couple of weeks ago, and I thought I’d share in one place the three projects I created. I’m very happy with all of them, but the greeting card is probably my favorite, because it’s totally original. The three items (clockwise from upper left) are a poetry broadside (poster) as part of a fast workshop in cooperation with Copper Canyon Press; a broadside celebrating The Incomparable podcast network, using elements from our logo; and a greeting card that relies in part on photos I took.

The next quarter starts this Thursday, and I'll be taking a single class as I gear up to get “signed off” to use the presses on my own by my mentor, and dig in on the details of getting the book from conception to finished.

I'm close to deciding on the paper I’ll use. Because the press bed can’t take a sheet larger than 14 by 20 inches, this determines a lot of characteristics. I had planned a final book roughly 6 by 9 inches, but it looks to be easier to be 5.5 by 8.5 inches for a few reasons. This leads me to figuring out the size of the mothersheet, or the largest cut format you can buy.

Because of the maximum press size and paper size, the book will be printed in signatures (full sheets) of four book pages per size, which are then folded, gathered, cut on folded edges, and bound. That means the signature size is 11 by 17 inches. (Yes, a multiple of 8½ by 11.)

My mentor, Jenny, recommended a particular paper with a deckle edge on two sides and a nice tooth and texture. I’ve ordered some samples after reading up on its characteristics. (The deckle edge, discussed in a previous post, is a characteristic of the edge of the slurry from which paper is made exceeding the edge of the deckle, or wire frame, which suspends the fibers.) The issue is, however, that at 25.5 by 38 inches, I need to cut several 11 by 17 sheets.

I also need to think about grain, however, as paper is made in such a way typically that the grain of the fibers is aligned and predominates in one direction or another. With this sheet, the grain runs parallel to the deckle edge. I could cut 11 by 17 sheets in two ways, but for binding purposes, the folded final pages that are left uncut should also have their folded side parallel to the grain. If you go against the grain, the folding buckles and the pages can curl from top to bottom as well.

Cutting so that the grain direction is correct for folding the book for binding.

Cutting so that the grain direction is correct for folding the book for binding.

Thus to visualize I had this right, I created a grain direction and cutting diagram. The paper I’m purchasing comes by the sheet or, much more cheaply, in a box of 750 sheets. With my cutting plan, I’ll have 2,250 11 by 17 sheets and 1,500 8 1/2 by 11 sheets. I need 1,000 11 by 17 sheets to make the 125 finished copies of the book. A 64-page book will have eight signatures, each with four book pages per side. Eight times 125 is 1,000. Each side needs one pass per color, and I plan to use

I'm aiming for 125 books to ensure that I have some copies for myself, my mentor, SVC, and other folks; the 100 numbered copies for backers; and some extras in case the postal service of my or another nation destroys a backer’s copy en route.

With makeready, the paper you use to test while setting up a print job, and other discards, I will likely need more like 1,250 sheets for the project. The 8½ by 11 sheets I’ll use for the keepsake, though I may cut them down further or use a bleed, where I print larger than the finished size and then cut down to have the design run off one or more edges. And I may sell some of my extra stock to printers who don’t typically order such huge quantities.

The tricky problem is that because the interior edges of the cuts will be straight, the 11 by 17 sheets will fold to only have deckle edges on every other finished page of the book. I have to think about how that will feel. For that reason, I’m making a dummy from the few sheets I’ve ordered ahead of time. This is a complete blank copy of the book.

I also need the dummy as I’m meeting with a fine-arts printer and bookbinding to consult on and I hope hire to handle the binding for the project. That’s in a couple of weeks, and I plan to document my visit with her permission so I can post photos and more notes after that.

Somewhere this month, I need to finalize the book’s text, write some additional words, gather images, and design it. The layout doesn’t have to be complete until May. I’ll also be designing the keepsake in April in order to print it in May by my current schedule and planning, so that can be mailed in May or early June to backers who receive on at their pledge level.

My second project this year

I just completed the third pass on a broadside, a fancy word for a poster, that’s a tribute to The Incomparable, a podcast network I’ve been part of since the founding of the flagship eponymous show. It now has many podcasts in the network, and we’re mostly professional amateurs: shows are produced with high quality and a lot of care, but the money that comes in mostly de minimis — we cover editing and some other expenses, but it’s not a living. 

The broadside involves multiple printing techniques and elements:

  • The background was printed using a press plate, a sort of reverse stencil placed under the paper during its impression against a large solid block that was inked on press. This created a white space for the zeppelin, and the little pointed rays around it.
  • That pass used a split fountain, in which two different ink colors were placed on the main reciprocating roller, which spins back and forth to even out ink coverage. It allows for that neat gradation effect.
  • The zeppelin is a linoleum-block cut, carved by yours truly. It's very hard to get good, solid coverage over that size, but I think it worked out fairly well. (The zeppelin is a symbol of the network.)
  • The robot is part of the podcast's logo, and after trying to carve it, I opted to send it out to be turned into a photopolymer plate. An inverse of the file (whites are blacks and blacks are transparent) is exposed onto a rubbery material that hardens where light touches. (This is done via a film transfer or direct laser exposure of the raw plate material.) The plate is sent through a liquid bath to wash away unexposed areas, and you get a printable medium!
  • The Incomparable is set in wood type and Live from Zeppellinheim in metal from the School of Visual Concepts type collection. (There should be perhaps one L in the city name, a running joke of the show, but it's a made-up name, so there you go.)
  • The paper was cut down from a larger sheet with a "deckle edge" on both top and bottom. I preserved one edge. A real deckle results from paper made by the sheet, where the pulp peters out at the edge of the form (the deckle) on which it's sluiced. I wrote about how a deckle edge (real and fake) gets made in this Economist story from 2012.

I’ve got one more project underway from this first quarter of SVC classes, and I’ll post details about it when it’s finished. It’s much simpler in outcome, but more complicated in the design process.

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