There are half a dozen rowan trees along my road; they’re something I used to see a lot back in Wales, and not a tree you’d expect to find here. I’ve been taking photographs of them over the last year or so, and recently I took one of them—from last February or so—and commenced some messing around, snipping out a small portion of the branches and using GIMP to clean it up and convert it to black & white. The image-manipulation took about an hour overall, including using Inkscape to convert it to SVG (which in itself smooths out some awkward corners) and then to the DXF format the laser cutter can import.
Here’s the cleaned-up image, with a frame added. (As always, click through to Flickr for full-sized versions of all these images.) I was originally planning on using it for stencilling, but the initial tests showed I’d have to scale it up to about A3 if much of the detail was going to survive, and I’ve no real use for anything that size.
Here, it’s laser-engraved onto birch plywood at around A4 size. That’s vector engraving, because with a design this complex the laser cutter software just couldn’t handle the necessary calculations to reduce the white areas and make a printmaking block right out of the box.
With that test done, I could choose a suitable piece of reclaimed hardwood (I think it used to be part of a floorboard) and burn the design onto that. (Just for completeness & my own records: 50% laser power, speed 150, worked perfectly and had the job done in 15 minutes.) That gave me the design transferred to the surface, and since the lines were a millimetre or two deep I could go straight to the komasuki (U-section gouge, more or less) rather than starting with the outlining tools.
Here I’ve already carved out some of the larger areas, but you can see most of the original surface. This method of transferring the design feels like cheating, but it’s Traditional to use a transfer method (laser paper and peppermint oil, or just pasting the original design down to cut through – that’s how they did it back in the Floating World) so I try to convince myself I’m just taking advantage of modern technology.
Here’s the finished block. I was worried I hadn’t carved it out deeply enough, but then I usually am, and the depth you need depends a lot on the width of the open area, the size of your brayer, and the stiffness of the paper. The carving took around eight hours’ worth of work in total, spread over three or four proper sessions and a lot of five-minutes-as-I’m-passing work. Here’s the block inked up and ready to print. This isn’t the nerve-wracking stage, because once the ink’s on there’s nothing to do except drop a sheet of paper on it and start rubbing; the nerve-wracking stage was deciding it was Done and I should start pulling prints. So this is the first proof, done on some random hard white paper I had in the pile. The one at the top is the 5th from this set, on Arches Velin. They’re all still drying, and will be for a few days, so you’ll have to make do with my cameraphone pictures till then, I’m afraid!