Mistakes, Sanding, Substrates, and Lucky Breaks

Last week the type project suffered a small setback when the tech in the laser cutter lab removed a few sheets of 1/8″ maple before the laser could take a second pass.  The letterforms weren’t cut all the way through, and because it had been removed, realigning it perfectly with the laser was impossible.  Unfortunately those letterforms (and the pieces of wood) were a total loss.  Luckily more sheets needed to be cut, and they came out perfectly.  Result:  I have about 1/3 of the final letterforms, and they’re ready to go.

Normally wood type is sanded to an amazingly smooth finish before it’s cut using a pantograph router.  I decided it would be easier to sand the letterforms before adhering them to the substrate, and it’s worked out well.  I’m sanding the print face of the letterforms starting with 220 grit sandpaper, moving to finer grits successively: 500, 1000, 1200.  Flat sanding the pieces on a marble slab (with the sandpaper on the table facing up) ensures that the serifs and other edges aren’t rounded off.

After some research I found that wood type is/was often sealed with a few coats of shellac.  This prevents the ink, especially oil based ink, from soaking into the wood grain. It’s necessary because if ink soaks in, changes in humidity and natural aging can force the ink back to the surface and cause mottling on the face of the type (resulting in an uneven print).  Cutting the shellac 50/50 with alcohol can reduce the body of the shellac, increase its rate of absorption and shorten drying time.  After some experimentation, I found the 50/50 solution could be applied with a brush, allowed to stand briefly, then buffed and massaged into the face of the type block.  After two coats, there was no noticeable residue on the face of the type, but it was sealed and resistant to ink.  A thin coat of shellac protects the type, but it still allows the wood grain to show when it prints, which is important to me.  When traditional wood type was made in a traditional fashion, the face of the letter was shellacked and buffed to a perfectly flawless printing surface; I don’t want to achieve that kind of printing surface because I’d like the type to announce itself as wood type – to create that visual trope we associate with wood type.

Finally:   today I visited a place called Buffalo Forest Products after getting a lead from a sculptor at the University.  He suggested that I might be able to find rough cut hardwood lumber there for cheap, and boy was he right.  Originally I was considering 3/4″ stock hardwood from a place like Home Depot.  The problem with the 3/4″ stock was that even after adhering the 1/8″ letterform to it, it wouldn’t truly be type height.  It would be .875″ – true type height is .918″.  I know .043″ doesn’t sound like much, but it definitely would’ve required placing paper or cardstock under the finished type to raise it up and print it.  In the interest of cost-effectiveness, this was the suggestion many people at the Hamilton Wayzgoose gave me:  just do it on 3/4″ stock and build it up.  And I was going to – but today I found that Buffalo Forest Products sells 1 and 1/8″ rough cut maple for 1/4 of the price of finished 3/4″ stock at Home Depot.  Translation:  a maple board I can plane down to type height was 9 dollars instead of 36.  I get the right wood and the right height for less money.  Score one for the little guy!

Tomorrow morning I plane the substrate to type height (.918″) and 10 line  (1.666″).  By Friday, the final Winchell letterforms should be cut, and I may even use the laser cutter to etch each letter into the substrate so I can easily align them correctly when gluing them down.  More on that soon!

Published in: on December 2, 2009 at 4:50 PM  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interested in your progress and eagerly awaiting news of wood type for sale. Have you any plans to try to duplicate any 19th century designs? My work often ends up at a museum (where I demo antique presses) and I am very interested in more ornate or traditional designs. Thanks!

    ==Marjorie (LETPRESS list since 1995, printing since 1987)

  2. Marjorie –
    Thanks for your interest – I’d love to be able to say that I’ve gone into production, but at this point in time it didn’t seem like it was a feasible option for me. The Winchell font came out amazingly well for a first try, and we’ve used it for a number of posters and specimen sheets at WNYBAC. I’ve also seen a number of people who are recreating missing letters in antique fonts using laser cut acrylic mounted on wood substrates (take a look at EndGrain here), most notably Bethany Heck, which is a great option as well. At some point in the future, I am considering collaborating with my friend Rich Kegler (owner of P22 Type Foundry and Director of WNYBAC) on a number of different fonts, both modern and antique. If I work that up, I’ll definitely be back here posting the results of our labors!

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