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I have had a few questions lately about the process I used a few semesters ago to create new movable type from plywood and plexiglass, so I thought I’d recap that process today and show a test print I made several months ago using both my wood type and the plexi type.

I have access to a great laser printer though the industrial design department at Auburn University, and it seemed natural to try to use it to create a new variation on movable type. The main issues to solve would be:
Which combination of materials would make the blocks type high?
How to we attach the two materials together?
How do we align the laser cut portion to the shoulder in a consistent manner with a level baseline?

Here is a shot of the to part of each block, the acrylic face and the plywood shoulder with the letterform outline etched in for placement purposes.

Here is the laser cut type alongside the wood type!

At first we tried to etch into a thick piece of plexi, burning away the counter space. This method worked, but we were concerned about the amount of debris created and wanted to avoid anything that would be toxic or unhealthy. My professor had a sheet of 3/16ths thick acrylic lying around, so we decided to try and trim the faces of the letter out of that first. To test the height of the blocks, we would work to complete a set of Futura condensed wood type the university had. It was difficult to find a material for the should that would have the right thickness to bring the type up to type height, but we finally found it in a baltic birch 14 ply 3/4″ plywood. We used the phenolic plywood for a harder surface to facilitate cleaning any not have to try to seal plain plywood. The wood we used for the first sets of type had a green coating, but the wood comes in different colors. We lightly planed the back of the wood to level out a few inconsistencies.

To solve the baseline issue, we created a separate file for the laser cutter which had the outlines of the type and lines for where to cut into the plywood to make the separate blocks and we etched it into the surface of the plywood, then trimmed them down to size for each piece.

Easy, right? With the inflation of wood type prices, I would like to see more people exploring options like this to create type. I would estimate material costs to be around $100, because we went with a very expensive plywood. My professors are currently testing cheaper types of plywood to see if they will be just as successful. This is a great way to bring in the advantages of photo-polymer plates as well as movable type, and has proven for us to be an excellent way to replace missing characters.

As you can see in the theater poster, the plexi type prints just as well as the wood type (the “The” and “CHEAP!” are both plexi and plywood made.) The typeface is Matinee Gothic by Jim Parkinson, a simply exquisite typeface.

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