The Early Stages

Even before making decisions about which fonts to create, I had to decide how to make them.  Most wood type is made using a pantograph router, which utilizes a traceable pattern and a mechanical arm to duplicate an image in wood.  In the case of type, a letter could be modeled in any material, then used as the pattern for the pantograph router.  The advantage of the router is that it can quickly and easily remove all of the other unwanted material (wood) from the face of a piece of type – this eliminates any hand carving that might be required to remove excess wood.  However, router bits are round and often reasonably large compared to the elements of a typeface, so one of the major disadvantages of using a router is its inability to generate sharp inside corners.  Many such details would have to be hand carved.  A modern incarnation of the router was also an option, namely, a CNC router.  The CNC would have allowed me to work from computer generated templates, but it still would have been susceptible to the same problems as the pantograph (round bits, no sharp inside corners, scale restraints, and hand carved details).  The third, and final option (I discussed hand carving all of the blocks with a few people and was strongly advised against so ambitious and undertaking), was to use a laser cutter to slice the letterforms out of thin hardwood, then adhere those letterforms to blocks that would make them type-high.  The laser cutter boasted a number of benefits:  sharp corners, speed, no hand carving, fine details.  But it did have one major drawback:  it couldn’t produce a single letter out of a single block of wood that was already type-high, because the laser wasn’t suitable for removing the excess wood on the face of the block.  This requires that the letter itself be adhered to a substrate; this two-piece construction may be a major weakness of the final product.  The type will be subjected to repeated use and repeated pressure, as well as constant exposure to ink solvents.  In order to resolve these issues when the time comes, a number of different adhesives will have to be considered.

After deciding on the third option, I was lucky enough to connect with Master’s candidate Architecture student Luke Johnson here at SUNY at Buffalo, and he’s been helping me convert Illustrator typeface files into Autocad files for the laser cutter.  In fact, we’ve run a test typeface through some chipboard and produced some amazing prototype letterforms.  Tomorrow we will be testing different types and thicknesses of wood, and then I’ll be adhering those wooden letterforms to a substrate (after I find suitable wood and get it planed to height) – soon we’ll have our first testable mock-up.

Check out the pictures, more to come soon!

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Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 12:59 PM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “The laser cutter…. couldn’t produce a single letter out of a single block of wood that was already type-high, because the laser wasn’t suitable for removing the excess wood on the face of the block.”

    Is that an inherent property of the technology, or was it a property of the laser cutter you had access to?

    In other words, is it that any (available within reason) laser cutter either can’t cut deep enough into a type high block to make a suitable printing surface, or is it that a type high block won’t fit into the laser cutter you have access to?

  2. Peter – the technology itself is capable of cutting to a certain depth based on its power setting. I could place a type high block into the laser cutter, and it could cut the outline of a letter to the exact depth desired (say 1/8″ inch), but the remaining wood surrounding the outline would have to be removed. With a router, the high velocity bit simply shaves off the excess. The laser cutter, however, works by burning. It could be set to remove the excess wood, but it would take an excessive amount of time and produce a large amount of smoke. When working with wood in the laser cutter, especially for a longer duration, there’s also always the risk of a piece catching fire – and no one wants that!


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