CNC router owners: meet the quoin

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For centuries printers have been locking-up type inside a frame called a chase, then putting the chase into a printing press to complete letterpress printing projects. The method for doing the lock-up was originally done with wooden wedges which were hammered between the type “form” and the steel (or cast iron) chase. In the 19th century a company called Challenge developed a double-wedge tool called a quoin that expands when you turn a toothed wrench between its two halves.

In the 20th century the same company developed what is known as the high-speed quoin. It’s a modern, steel expansion device that opens and closes about 1/8 inch with a wrench called a quoin key. The benefit of the modern quoins is that the pressure is even across the width of the quoin, and they are fast and easy to install and remove.

Quoin alone 08

This is a high-speed quoin, originally manufactured by Challenge Machinery for the printing industry. The quoin key (wrench) is inserted into the gear on the top. Turning the key caused the quoin to expand or contract.

I happen to own a stack of them, remnants of a graphic arts company I used to own and operate. Mine are clean and in excellent shape, as the most recent use for them was to hold Linotype slugs in place on a Vandercook proofing press. They almost never got ink on them, and they have been in storage for many years, unused, lonely, and waiting for this afternoon.

A few weeks ago I machined a four-foot square board for my CNC router table with T-slots that run the length of the board. T-slots allow various clamps and bolts to be used to hold things down on a machine. On a CNC router, they can be used to hold the work piece (wood, typically) to the table while the router makes its rounds, cutting out and around the pattern I have loaded in software.

Quoins on CNC table 04

Here is my test board held in position by Rockler low-profile stops and three high-speed quoins. The pine board along the bottom is a spacer.

I also bought some low-profile stops from my favorite woodworking tools company – Rockler – to use on the table top. These stops have T-slot bolts built-in, and they slide nicely down the board I machined for the purpose.

The T-slot board sits on top of another board called the spoilboard, which is a piece of MDF designed to get cut (very slightly) by the router as it goes by. The T-slot board is held to the spoilboard with T-bolts, each one recessed into the board so that it is lower than the cutter where it might pass overhead.

Quoin wrench in quoin 05

Here is the quoin key tightening the quoin along the short dimension of my test board. 

Several weeks back I was searching high and low for some kind of clamp to attach to my T-slot board to affix my wood. It was then that I remembered the high-speed quoins in storage, so I went and got them.

And this afternoon I used the quoins to affix a test board to my T-slot board. It worked fine, and I think I have solved a problem that many CNC router owners have in holding their work down to the table.

Router close-up 02

With the stock in place, the router is free to cut without much risk of hitting any of the clamps or stops.

I affixed two of the Rockler low-profile stops on each side of the board, then two more on each opposite side, in the next available T-slot. The gap, which was about 1.375 in. wide, I closed with a strip of pine cut to fit the gap. Between that strip of wood and my low-profile stops I put two of my quoins on one side, and one on the other.

Wrench close-up 03

This is a close-up of the quoin key. Its gear teeth engage a gear inside the high-speed quoin, where a mechanism causes the quoin to expand.

Using the quoin key (wrench), I then tightened the three quoins until the stock was held firmly in place. Quoins are only .75 in. thick, making them about the same height as the low-profile stops, and about the same height as the stock I am cutting. This is good, because I do not ever want the cutter to hit the stops or the quoins. When I get into production in the coming days, I will put thin boards all the way around the stock to put some distance between the live cutting area and the metal stops and clamps.

The printing industry still uses there quoins on foil-stamping, embossing and other relief printing machines. Using them on router tables and other machines is logical and simple.

And, the quoins are still made – a company called Samson, and another company called Bar-Plate both provide these to the printing industry.


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More in my GREPping drama

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In past blogs I have expressed my love for the GREP functions in InDesign. GREP is not only functional, but for me it’s a lot of fun.

I enjoy working with strings of text, manipulating things en masse to cause changes that would otherwise take too long.

An example I have written about in the past is that of reversing names in a list from last name-first to first name-first. I have written a handful of GREP search instructions to do this, and none of them is completely perfect. That is still the case, but I discovered a couple of new GREP commands in InDesign that are very useful, and I want to share my success with you.

The pattern of text that I work with is my class lists, which are sent to me by the university at the beginning of each quarter. These come with an overload of information, and I have to filter-out only the names to make a roll sheet for the first day of class.

The patterns look like this:

7 Bauer, Marcus Desmond mbauer09 GRC Freshman 3 Enrolled No

The numeral is the number of the student in the list, then last name, first name, middle name (or not), e-mail address, the student’s major, class level, the number after that is the units fo the class, and then their enrollment status (always “Enrolled”) and whether the student has flagged his or her information to be kept private. When I look at the text, I look for patterns that I can search for:

String explanation

I only need the second and third elements of all of this data, so GREP can help me accomplish this in two ways: 1, It strips off the unnecessary data, and 2, it reverses the last name and the first name.

The implementation of GREP in InDesign is pretty good, but it varies slightly from the more “pure” GREP that is found in UNIX and in some text editing environments. But, that’s OK with me, because InDesign is where I work most often with text, and it’s very helpful to be able to use it there.

GREP Explanation

This is the anatomy of my GREP search string in InDesign. It uses the commands that are new to me: the at-the-beginning-of-the-paragraph, and “find a word.”

The “new” functions that I have discovered are the “at the beginning of a paragraph” command, which is a simple caret at the beginning of the command string, and the “find a word” command, which I use twice in this search.

\w+ is the command to find a word. Words are defined as characters in any order, in any case, not separated by non-alphabetical characters (which you will see in my example here). Word does find number strings* and the underscore, but no other characters.

So, to find the second and third data elements (both words), I search for (\w+) twice, and I get both words.

They’re separated by a comma and a space in the text, so I put those characters in between, and that works also.

To capture the numbers at the beginning of the paragraph (and no others), I use the command ^(\d+ ) which finds any digit, one or more times, followed by a space. I put this inside of parentheses to pass it to a memory space called $1. Later I will not use that memory space, but I need to capture it for the short term.

I then search for “a word” and pass those words to memory positions $2 and $3 for the last and first names, respectfully.

After the student’s names there is all that other information that I don’t want. I use GREP’s command for finding any character (this includes letters, numbers, figures – anything) followed by a standard carriage return. This gets rid of everything after the student’s first name.

Once I have all that, I put the first and last name back in the opposite order, and I’m done.

Replace with

This is the replace string for the search above. It’s very simple: put the content of Memory 3 followed by the content of Memory 2 back on the line, separated by a space, and followed by a standard carriage return. The comma after the last name is automatically dropped because it was not inside the parentheses in the search string.

In my earlier method for this, my search criteria usually failed when a capital letter showed up in a name, like DuPont. This new method works for those kind of names. But, it doesn’t work for names that have spaces in them, nor for words with hyphens.

In the past I had to fix those names by hand, and I still have to do that, but with fewer names now.

Class list

This is the list as I receive it from the university.

Class list with highlights

…and this is the same list with potential problems highlighted in red. In my previous GREPping dramas, I have had to fix all of the lines marked in red.

By using the new search criteria, I can fix most of these, but not all:

Names after GREP

Notice that only two of the four potential problems were not processed correctly: those with spaces in the last name, and one with a hyphenated last name.

It’s easy to fix those that are not processed by the search string, and it only takes a few seconds.

* An addendum (November 9, 2014): Though it doesn’t make any difference in performance, it is possible to search for three “words” – the first being the serial number, the second being the student’s last name, and the third being his or her first name. The search string looks like this:

^(\w+) (\w+), (\w+) (.+~b)

The result is identical.


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Our night on Mount Wilson with a really big telephoto lens

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On September 26, my wife and I joined a group from the local astronomical society on a field trip to Mount Wilson, just east of Pasadena, California, where we spent the entire night observing objects in the sky. My wife and I didn’t end up spending the entire night in the observatory because I got too cold, and I had to retreat to our vehicle where I was slightly less cold. But, the others – intrepid astronomers all – spent the night there, and looked periodically at stars and binary stars and planetary clusters, and nebulae, and even a galaxy or two. It was very exciting stuff.

100-inch telescope interior 13

This is the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson. Between the years 1917 and 1947, this telescope was the largest in the world. It was superseded by the Mt. Palomar telescope in San Diego County, California. The giant mirror in the telescope is just above the cluster of people standing under the instrument.

I took lots of camera equipment because I am always interested in taking star photos, and photos of people watching stars. I like the telescopes and the observatory as much as I like looking at distant stellar objects. I had planned to do a time-lapse movie of the observatory (didn’t work), and many interior photos of the telescope with one or more of my very wide angle lenses. The most recent acquisition on that front is a Canon 8-15mm fisheye zoom lens that I bought just a few days before the observatory visit. With this lens you can point the camera at the horizon and get your own toes in the photo (I admit this isn’t something one normally wants in his photos). But it did allow me to take some grand images of the telescope we were using.

60-inch telescope in use 21

This is the interior of the 60-inch telescope dome with the telescope pointed out into space. The 60-inch instrument is used exclusively for public all-night astronomical sessions by trained docents who operate the device and explain the sights to visitors.

The telescope in question is the medium size 60-inch reflector that was built at the beginning of the 20th century by Mr. George Ellery Hale (the Hale-Bopp Comet is named after him). The funds came from Andrew Carnegie who entrusted a considerable sum to the young astronomer who wanted to study the sun and the stars. Hale did not disappoint. With the funds he built the largest solar telescope in history at the top of Mount Wilson, and then the 60-inch reflector telescope on the same peak. For years it was the largest optical telescope in the world. Several years later John D. Hooker endowed the construction of Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope, which took the honor of being the largest until it, too, was supplanted by a Hale-built telescope in San Diego County, California, atop Mount Palomar. That telescope, a 200-inch design, was unchallenged for many years until the bigger telescopes on Mauna Kea were built.

100-inch telescope interior 09

This is the 180-degree view of the Hooker 100-inch telescope. The dome was closed when the group toured the facility.

We started the evening with a tour of the facility, walking up to the base of the 150-foot solar telescope, around the 60-inch telescope, then we got an interior tour of the 100-inch optical telescope on Mount Wilson. Also on the mountain is a modern optical telescope array called CHARA, which is owned and operated by the Georgia State University. CHARA is made up of six separate 40-inch reflector telescopes that each feed their optical product down light tubes that converge in an amazing building that adjusts the timing of those optical images by bouncing them around on long tables with stationary mirrors, then focusing the converged result onto a digital sensor in a digital astronomical device. The effect of these six telescopes looking at an object in the universe is the equivalent of having a single mirror that is over 1000 feet in diameter.


In the foreground is one of the six CHARA telescopes owned and operated by Georgia State University. These 40-inch optical telescopes are used as an array to do deep-space astronomy. Immediately behind the CHARA unit is the 60-inch telescope enclosure, and behind that is the vertical solar telescope. To the left of the 60-inch building is another of the six CHARA telescopes.

Here is what the Mount Wilson web site says about CHARA:
The Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) of Georgia State University has built the highest resolution interferometric telescope array in the world for the study of objects in visible and infrared wavelengths. With six 40-inch telescopes at distances of up to 330-meters apart (almost 1/4 mile), the CHARA Array can detect much finer detail on distant objects than ever before. Fully operational since 2005, the CHARA array is being used to measure sizes, shapes, temperatures, distances, masses and luminosities of stars. In 2007, it produced the first image ever made of the surface of a sun-like star. More recently, CHARA successfully imaged the once-every-27-years eclipse of the previously mysterious binary star system Epsilon Aurigae as well as the famous eclipsing binary star Algol (beta Persei).

While were were on the mountain, and our astronomer guide was pointing our celestial objects, we were treated to the same views that Albert Einstein once made in the same structures. His image is found in photos around the observatory and adjacent buildings. On the first floor of the 60-inch telescope building is a locker with Edwin Hubble’s name on it. The locker stands next to others with the names of George E. Hale and other storied astronomers who worked on the telescopes at Mount Wilson.

Solar Observatory 01

This is the 150-foot solar telescope on Mount Wilson. It was used until recently to measure sunspots on our sun. It is still operated by volunteers, but has lost its funding from its owners, the University of California, Los Angeles.

The 60-inch telescope is now used exclusively for public tours and all-night astronomical sessions. Groups like ours can reserve the instrument, and gather for the night with the assistance of a professional astronomer who will operate the huge telescope, and allow each person to climb the stairs and look through the eyepiece at distant celestial objects. It is apparently the only telescope of its size in the world devoted exclusively to public use. The 100-inch Hooker telescope is still used for science, and can be reserved for experimentation by anyone in the scientific community for astronomical studies.

Even though I got too cold and chickened-out in the middle of the night, I still enjoyed the experience, and treasure the images that I took of the telescope being used to see distant galaxies and stars. Next time I will take warmer clothes and be better prepared for the temperature extremes.

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Another Blognosticator milestone

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Greetings, dear readers,

With your continued interest, The Blognosticator has now passed the 90,000 reader mark.

The blog is read by more than 200 people every day, and it continues to grow at an impressive rate.

90000 readers

So, please keep those cards and letters coming! (I have never received a card or a letter.) And, keep those comments coming! I especially love those from people who believe that we should put numbers in parentheses after the number is printed in text. There was one (1) of those today. How does putting the numeral 1 after the word “one” make the previous sentence any clearer?

I will continue to write The Blognosticator, and occasionally I might write something controversial. I sometimes enjoy controversy.

My best wishes to all of you. Thank you.

Brian P. Lawler
October 9, 2014


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The most exciting thing I saw at GraphExpo 2014

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I troll the hallways at GraphExpo, looking at the many booths showing exciting technologies to potential customers. There are people selling software, hardware, firmware, middleware, and usually – pretzels. This year there was no pretzel vendor, nor an ice cream vendor, both sorely missing in the vast space of McCormick Place.

And, I confess that having trolled these halls since the mid-1970s, I have become jaded. It takes something pretty cool to get my attention.

I appreciate the new models of the presses, and the newest expansions of capabilities. Last year at the Print show, I was really excited about the two ink-jet-and-laser label printers from EFI and INX/Komori. Both of those were really cool, and I could see an obvious market for machines like this.

I often envision myself as a younger man, an entrepreneur walking the show floor, looking for the perfect machine or techniques to differentiate my business from my competitors’ businesses. I remember lusting after the Heidelberg DI press a decade ago. I thought often about how a solid small business could be made with one of those, a paper cutter, and a folder. Small, easy to operate, insanely profitable, and a business that could be run entirely by one or two people.

This year I searched for such a technology, for the machine that could be used to set up a solid small business.

I didn’t find it.

But I was directed to a couple of booths where I saw truly exciting technologies that will change the industry. When I say “directed” I mean escorted by my dear friends Craig Kevghas and Elmo Sapwater to the booths of companies they felt I would like to see. These two gentlemen said, “I really think you need to see…” and walked with me to one or the other of several booths.

At the annual shows in Chicago there are a number of technologies or systems that are awarded Must See ’Em status by a secret panel of judges who let us in on the secrets of the show in advance. These folks spend the summer, I am told, evaluating press releases and web sites of the manufacturers who plan to attend Print and GraphExpo with their wares. They scrutinize and evaluate, and finally give their thumbs-up to a number of products they think we should see.

The product I saw in booth 1177 was not a Must See ’Em product. It wasn’t a big, flashy new machine making glossy folded cartons, or putting colored foil onto printed sheets with glitter (more on that in my next blog).

In booth 1177 was BDT, a company from Rottweil, Germany showing the most boring, but exciting machine component that I have seen in many years.

It’s a paper feeder.


This is an illustration of the BDT Tornado feeder module, at almost full size. The device lifts a sheet of paper and feeds it into a printing press. (Image courtesy of BDT)

For anyone who has ever run a sheet-fed printing, folding, or other machine, it is the feeder that causes the most difficulty. Paper feeders are a necessary part of any printing machine that uses sheets of material, and while absolutely necessary, these feeders are also the source of many a headache, and lots of time trouble-shooting problems that come up before the sheets are printed.

Feeders have the tedious but all-important job of picking up one (only one!) sheet of paper, and forwarding it to a pinch-roller where it is tested for thickness (and failed if that’s not right), then pushing or pulling – or otherwise cajoling that sheet of paper along a conveyor to the side-guide and gripper where it begins its journey through the press. Feeders are amazing devices; watching one work is an amusement tantamount to watching a fine mechanical clock work. When feeders work, they work perfectly; when they don’t work, they cause incredible trouble for the press operator.

BDT has developed a feeder so good, so delightfully simple, so wonderfully effective, that it belongs on every sheet-fed press in the world.


Row of BDT feeders

This photo shows a row of the Tornado modules in a feeder on a press. Each one is about 4 inches in width. The green “tractor-tread” belts propel a sheet at amazing speed into a press or other device with tremendous precision.

The company’s small Tornado module lifts a sheet substrate, then forwards it to the next station in a printing or post-press device with what appears to be 100 percent effectiveness. The Tornado device is so clever and effective that I suspect we will start seeing them on many major brands of presses. I was told that new models of the HP Indigo press feature these feeders. I am jealous of the operators of those machines because they will never get to experience feeder jams, doubles, or misfeeds like all of their forebears. Lucky dogs!

To watch the Tornado with an experienced pressman’s eye is like watching a gymnast who is perfect in her execution. This is mechanical poetry in motion. And all it does is pick up a piece of paper and push it to the next station on a printing press!

Heidelberg! Komori! MAN Roland, Mabeg, Mitsubishi, Polar, Müller-Martini, MBO, et al – take a look at this! You’ve never made one this good.

Words like “foolproof” and “unbelievable” and “wow!” were running through my brain as I watched the gentlemen from BDT demonstrate their diminutive mechanism as it picked up sheets of material (and they demonstrated a wide variety of substrates) and shot them out into a corrugated box.

As I walked away, I thought, “there’s a technology that most people would never appreciate.”

A paper feeder.

I am glad I had a chance to see it, because in its very small way, it will change the world of printing.


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Making things I designed in Illustrator – CNC routing

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In previous blogs I have described how I have designed things in Illustrator, then built them out of wood in my shop. The shop in question is located in my friend Jim’s barn. We consolidated shops in 2005 when I moved into a small house where there is no room for large power tools.

Since then we have expanded the shop to include several stationary power tools and a very large work bench and assembly table that has electricity and compressed air delivered to its perimeter. I have added digital micrometers to two of our tools – one to the router table, making it precise to 0.001 in., another to our 12-inch planer, adding the ability to dial-in similar precision to cuts we make on that machine.

Moving deeper into the digital domain, last month we installed a large CNC router table, and we have been learning the ropes of computer-controlled routing since then. The CNC machine is a product of a Washington state company called CNC Router Parts. They sell kits for the do-it-yourselfer to make a CNC machine of your own. The parts are well-made; the precision of the machine seems to be extraordinary.

Making T-slot board 08 This is the CNC router, built from a kit made by CNC Router Parts. At the moment of this photo the router was cutting T-slots in a sheet of 3/4 in. hardwood plywood. That plywood sheet will become a hold-down board for future projects.

Once the machine was assembled, which took the better part of two days, it was ready to run. We entered the learning mode, where we have been for several weeks. We have learned that the machine will do exactly what you tell it to do – even machine right through itself, if you give it the wrong instructions.

It’s a very powerful machine, using four NEMA 34 stepper motors to control the movements and position of a DeWalt 3.5 HP router.

We run the machine with a program called Mach3, which is probably the most common machine control software in the industry. That software can be customized to control a wide variety of CNC devices. Ours is pretty simple – left-right (X), back-forth (Y), and up-down (Z). But within these three seemingly simple axes are a world of complexities: cutting speed, spindle speed, plunge speed, cutting depth, number of passes, step-over settings, tabs, and much more.

CNC machines of all types use a control schema called G-code. G-code is text, thankfully, and it’s pretty easy to interpret. Here is a snippet of G-code:

G0 X0.0000 Y0.0000 Z0.8000
(Closet shelves 3)
(End Mill {0.25 inches})
G0 X9.0267 Y4.7822 Z0.2000
G1   Z-0.2500 F30.0
G1  Y17.5546  F150.0
G1 X9.0767
G1 X9.0765 Y4.7744
G1 X9.0753 Y4.7632
G1 X9.0728 Y4.7555
G1 X9.0666 Y4.7520
G1 X9.0559 Y4.7498
G1 X9.0435 Y4.7503
G1 X9.0345 Y4.7530
G1 X9.0304 Y4.7559
G1 X9.0277 Y4.7663
G1 X9.0267 Y4.7822
G1 X8.9267 Y4.7810

If you study the G-code, you’ll begin to recognize its instructions. The top line tells the machine to go to X0, Y0, and 0.8 Z, which is eight-tenths of an inch above the work surface. This is “home” for the X and Y axes, and a safe margin above the material so it doesn’t start cutting too soon. The T1 is a definition for Tool 1 (some machines have multiple tools). Ours has only one, and in this case, it’s defined as an end-mill (a simple two-flute 1/4 in. diameter router cutter). The next two lines are X and Y cutting speed (150 in. per minute or 2.5 inches per second, which is pretty fast), and a plunge speed of 30 inches per minute, which translates into one-half inch per second, also pretty fast. The S stands for spindle speed, which in this case is 6,000 rpm.

CNC Router 06 The router is controlled by a Windows PC, running two programs: V-Carve Pro and Mach3, both of which are necessary to do CNC design and machine control.

Then the work begins, which an instruction to move 9.0267 inches along the left-right axis, 4.7822 inches along the back-forth (Y) axis, and to hover above the material at 0.2 inches (it will begin cutting there). Following these instructions, we learn that the machine is starting a cutting path at this location because it immediately plunges the cutter .25 inches down (below zero Z), then moves to a new location along the Y axis only (a straight line), then a similar cut along the X axis, and begins a complex “curved” cut described by hundreds of lines of X-Y code positions.

Machines like this don’t really cut curves, they step in both X and Y directions in small increments, making the effect of a curve in the material being machined. It’s equivalent to the effect of applying a raster to a curve in Adobe Photoshop. The curve is converted from a mathematical entity into a series of pixels on an X-Y grid defined by the resolution of the photo. In the CNC software, that raster grid is 0.0001 in., though the resolution of the machine is closer to 0.002 inch. The stepper motors can move in micro-steps, essentially half-steps that can increment the cutter between two poles of the stepper motors.

Print These are parts designed in Adobe Illustrator for a set of interlocking shelves I made for a cabinet in my camper van. I drew them at actual size in Illustrator, imported the file into V-Carve, and machined the parts in Baltic 1/4-inch plywood.

I suppose, with a bit of practice, one could write G-code by hand; it would be like writing a photo’s pixels with a word processor. The consequences of error are much greater when you are running a multi-horsepower machine with a spinning blade into a block of wood, or worse – part of its own aluminum or steel superstructure. Oops!

Print This is the exploded view of the shelves I drew in Adobe Illustrator. I used the 3D extrude tools in Illustrator to convert 2D art into 3D representations.

To build the G-code, one uses another program. The program we have chosen is a Windows-only application called V-Carve. It’s a very popular CNC design tool for a variety of uses, and it has the ability to import Adobe Illustrator (.ai) files directly. I experimented with a similar program for Macintosh called MESHCam, which is nice, but it lacks many of the capabilities of V-Carve on Windows, and it requires the intermediate step of exporting DXF files from Illustrator (no big deal, but it’s an extra step).

Shelves extreme wide 05 …and these are the finished shelves in the cabinet of my van. They provide easy storage for our clothes when we go out camping in the RV.

The way V-Carve (and similar programs) works is to declare a material size and thickness, and the origin X,Y as one of the corners (three-dimensional space can be reassigned on these CNC machines).

Once the material is defined, then cutting paths can be drawn in V-Carve or imported from Adobe Illustrator. Once those paths have been imported, they can be assigned to cutting tools, with cutting speeds and cutting depths assigned. When complete (and I am glossing over a lot of detail here), V-Carve generates the G-code for the project, and you load the G-code into Mach3, and you make your parts. This, after mounting the material solidly to the cutting table of the machine. You’re in big trouble if you fail to secure your work to the table.

Once it gets going, the CNC machine is a delight to watch. It roars around the material rising and plunging its cutter into the material and making a huge amount of sawdust where there once was solid material. It also makes a lot of noise. In the coming days I will write about some of my projects, and will show examples of how I have been using the machine to make practical things from Adobe Illustrator designs.


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Drawing on the Photoshop side of the brain

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A few blogs ago I wrote about how to use AppleScript to crop a Photoshop document with pixel precision. As part of that same project, I needed to add white space to the canvas and trim marks top and bottom along the edges to mark the location of a cut that was made later on a large metal cutting shear.

The resizing of the canvas is easy. The AppleScript code looks like this:

resize canvas _CroppedPano width 11287 height 17700

This, of course, must be placed within the construct of a script, but looking at the syntax of the instruction, it says simply, “make the canvas bigger (or smaller) to these dimensions: 11287 X 17700 pixels.” AppleScript and Photoshop will carry out your instructions without delay and without asking if it’s OK, so be careful to be accurate with any script that makes changes like this.

_CroppedPano is my variable name for the photo on which I am making the changes.

Now let’s look at how the crop marks are drawn. Photoshop, like Illustrator, uses the Cartesian coordinate system for all of its measurements. Upper-left is 0,0 (early versions of Illustrator put that 0,0 at the lower-left). Photoshop measures everything in the current measurement unit, whatever that may be. At the top of my script I tell Photoshop to use the pixel unit of measure:

set ruler units of settings to pixel units

From this moment on, the program is computing values in pixels.

This is the way Cartesian coordinates work in Photoshop (and everywhere else):


The crop marks I want to draw are one pixel wide and 150 pixels tall (in this example, that’s 1/2 inch). I needed one at the top and bottom of each panel, on both the left and right edges, and one-half inch in from the edges (these are crop marks).

Here is the code for the AppleScript to make the first mark at the upper-left of the photo:

set _LineShape to {{150, 0}, {150, 150}, {151, 150}, {151, 0}}
select current document region _LineShape
fill selection of current document with contents {class:RGB color, red:0, green:0, blue:0} opacity 100 without preserving transparency
deselect current document

Parsing those lines of code, the first line lists the Cartesian coordinates of a 1-pixel by 150-pixel rectangle, located 150 pixels from the left edge of the image. The second line of code tells Photoshop to create the variable _LineShape (which is the name of the line I am drawing). The next line fills the shape with black (RGB 000) with 100% opacity and no transparency. The last line deselects the current selection so that I can make another selection.

The other three crop marks are made the same way, but with different coordinates in the x,y positions for all corners.

At the end of the script I return Photoshop to inches units for measure:

set ruler units of settings to inch units

…and then I end the script. The result is a photo with a larger canvas (the background color is used to expand the canvas) and crop marks on the corners:

Running the script – even on multi-gigabyte files – takes just a few seconds. It is absolutely precise and absolutely repeatable.

Here is a photo showing crop marks like those I have described here:

Burning Man at with marks

Notice that it has pairs of one-pixel-wide crop marks top and bottom, left and right. That is exactly what the script does, after it increases the canvas size.

When you need precision, and I often do, using techniques like this can make a job successful where dragging rectangles on screen will not be as accurate.


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Burning questions, answered

Blognosticator Head

My wife and I went to Burning Man last week. It was something we had wanted to do for several years, and now we have done it.

The legendary counterculture festival is held on a dry lake bed in northern Nevada, and for a week each summer that lake bed turns into a city of over 65,000 people. We were just two of them, but we were immediately swept up in the activity and community of Black Rock City. We had many preconceptions of the event, as my sister has been going for many years, and our son for the past four years. They had told us about the event, and had encouraged us to go this year. Their stories made us want to attend and experience it for ourselves. We were not disappointed by the reality of Burning Man.

The Embrace sunrise

This sculpture, standing about 50 feet tall, was called The Embrace. It was built by a team of 80 from three cities, assembled on the site, then burned to the ground on Friday morning. The Embrace was funded with crowdsourcing money on Kickstarter. Below is The Embrace an hour later.

Burning embrace

Getting tickets was not easy. The 65,000 tickets sold this year were swept up in less than an hour. Two additional rounds of ticket sales in early and mid summer sold out in seconds. We were lucky to be able to buy tickets and a vehicle pass from two people who could not attend this year’s event. And, those ticket holders were nice enough to follow the no-scalping policy of the event organizers, selling them to us at face value. Burning Man tickets are not cheap: $380 each, plus the parking pass. There was a fellow sitting by his car at the Wadsworth exit of Highway 80 in Nevada with a sign that read “Burning Man Ticket Wanted: will pay $1,000!”

The 65,000 inhabitants of the event live in a semicircle that is several miles across. Outside the area reserved for camping is the Playa, a large open space that continues for several miles onto the lake bed. On the Playa are the Man, a gigantic wooden sculpture of a man towering over 100 feet into the air, the Temple, another structure built by the Burning Man organization, and numerous other constructions. That Man and several of the others are burned to the ground by the end of the week. It’s odd and delightful.

Brian with telephoto

That’s me! Out on the Playa with my Bianchi bicycle, two panier bags filled with camera gear, and wearing my inauthentic cowboy garb. I was, mostly, avoiding the sun with long sleeves and long pants.

One should take a lot of photos at Burning Man, and in the process learn how to keep your camera equipment safe in the harsh environment that is Black Rock City. The alkaline dust (Ph 10 we were told) is pervasive. It gets in your ears and eyes; it gets into the spaces between your toes. Sometimes the wind blows the dust into white-out clouds that prevent you from seeing the length of your arm (we experienced this).

Burning Man is difficult to describe with words because there are too many possible adjectives for this festival. Dusty comes to mind as the most effective overall.

The good news about the dust is that it comes off easily with a damp cloth. I washed my face several times a day with a damp washcloth, and that was very effective. Water-tight bags can protect cameras while in transit. Even the lenses cleaned up easily with a lens cleaning cloth. Fortunately the dust is not abrasive; it’s like talcum powder (or for this audience, it’s like toner – with particles about 5 microns in diameter).

My cameras looked like they would never be the same, but I cleaned them twice and returned them to like-home condition. Everything works fine and the cameras were not damaged by Burning Man. While on the Playa I kept the cameras in their cases, and that sufficed to keep them serviceable.

Beyond the dust is the event itself. Words, again, fail to describe it adequately. There is no commerce, and nothing except coffee drinks and ice can be purchased with money. There is no barter, only gifts. Everything is free, willingly given by people to other people in the spirit of the event. It’s quite amazing.

Nothing is expected of you when you are there except kindness, an open mind, and adherence to the law and some basic rules of behavior on the Playa. As a result of this code, there was no litter anywhere. None. In a city of 65,000 people, everyone is deputized to pick up litter, and everyone does (they call it MOOP on the Playa, for Matter Out Of Place). The few times I saw something out of place, I stopped my bike and picked it up, later to deposit it in my own trash container. Everyone else does the same.

People behave well. Good citizenship is a way of life on the Playa, with folks stopping to help others, hugs freely given to one and all, and an overarching sense of comradeship that I have seldom experienced in my lifetime. As we drove to our campsite on the first day we were greeted by those already settled, universally, with shouts of “Welcome home!”

There was little to no cell service, which I enjoyed because we had a three hour conversation, uninterrupted, with my son Patrick. During my days on the Playa, my phone beeped twice with text messages from friends. When I attempted to respond, the phone indicated failure. I was relieved, and continued to ignore my phone, except as a timepiece and camera, for the duration of my stay.

During the days we spent at Burning Man we made new friends with the campers next to us – a group of Russians on one side, some young men from Los Angeles on another, two young women from San Francisco on the back, and a couple from Park City in an RV next to ours. Having an RV means not having to walk a block or more to the port-a-potties that are located around the city. The RV also provides good shelter from dust storms.

We attended a Blue Grass jam session, an outdoor movie, a French toast event (with about 500 people in line for the breakfast treat), a geology lecture, a symphony by the Playa Pops Orchestra, a demonstration of solar cooking, and I tried to find a group of people who have built bicycles out of PVC, but I never found them.

Luxury Yacht

This is the art car I liked best. It was once a seaworthy vessel; now it is a rolling party platform that cruises the Playa with a continuous party on deck.

All transportation at Burning Man is human-powered, with the exception of those vehicles deemed worthy of being designated as Mutant Vehicles (Art Cars) which drive around the city and the Playa, picking people up, dropping people off, and providing mobile party platforms for the revelries of the festival. Some of these Art Cars are small, while others are gigantic. My favorite is a 60-foot yacht converted to a land vehicle that was driven around at about 3 mph while a continuous party was held on deck.

Large Volkswagens

My wife’s favorite art cars were two oversize Volkswagens that perform transportation and party service. These are a semi-authentic ’60s era VW bus, and an original style Beetle. Both are enlarged, the bus standing about 12 feet tall. They are impressive works of art and engineering.

Everyone rides bicycles at Burning Man, as it is the only practical way to get around the large expanses of the Playa. Getting to the Man, for example, was more than a mile-long ride from our campsite. Seeing some of the art installations on the “deep” Playa was more than two miles’ distance from our camp. Bicycling was a necessity. On Saturday morning while exploring the Playa, we encountered what looked like a sculpture of bicycles, but which was called the Bike Portal. There, one could put a bike into a servicing rack, change a tire, adjust the derailleur, all with parts provided for free in the Portal. There was even a telephone to call for bike repair advice. It was delightful!

Tens of thousands of bicyclists at night might create a hazard, but people go to great lengths to decorate their cycles with LED lights and EL wire, both of which were sold in abundance by Amazon in the weeks before the event. With almost every bike lighted for safety, collisions were avoided, and everyone could see each other riding in the desert darkness.

On the Playa is a structure called the Library. We rode over to see it after hearing a conversation by some strangers about how they had to get out to the Biblioteque. The structure looks like a mosque or temple, and inside it features laser-cut plywood shelves and seats, none of which are cut or joined at 90-degree angles. On the shelves are hundreds, perhaps a thousand hand-made books, each made with hand-made paper, and bound by hand. These books began their lives as blank paper, but participants sit and write in the books, making them real, and filling them with prose. The Library is silent (as a library should be!) and was being used by a score of visitors when we went in. I was moved by the Library and its wonderful content.

Man writing in Library

A man inscribes one of the handmade books in the Library. Behind him stands one of the organically shaped “chairs” that are featured in that structure.

On the typography front, we enjoyed the huge steel letters that say LOVE repeatedly across the Playa. At night, these large letters belch fire into the sky, controlled by a wireless keyboard nearby. People climb on, and in, the letters, and it’s one of the most clever art installations on the lake bed.

Love letters with Ashala

This is my wife inside the O of the large word LOVE on the Playa. At night, fire comes out the tops of these letters. The letters are built from plasma-cut steel, welded into three-dimensional sculptures.

Two, maybe three optical observatories are located on the Playa, the buildings made from cleverly-cut plywood, and assembled entirely without fasteners. At night people gather to look skyward with the assistance of a resident astronomer.

It was an eventful week, one unlike any other in my lifetime. Looking back, I wish I had gotten involved in more activities during the week, and spending less time in camp.

Friends have asked me if I will return to Burning Man. That depends of whether I am lucky enough to get tickets.

For those interested, I posted a photo gallery of images from Burning Man 2014. These are the best of my photos from the event:

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Making things I drew in Illustrator

Blognosticator Head

Last summer I built a nice Adirondack chair. It was based on an existing chair that had rotted-out, a victim of years of being out in the weather. I decided for the clone that I would make it entirely of oak lumber, and wherever there was a connector, I would use stainless steel.

Adirondack chair on pier

This is my assembled Adirondack chair on the dock of a friend’s lake. The chair is painted with white exterior primer prior to being assembled, then later painted with the final color – purple.

I took the old chair apart, mostly by sawing the rusted fasteners apart, then tracing the wood pieces onto kraft paper. I took the tracings home and spent a bit of time reconsidering the design of the chair. I made some technical changes to make the chair stronger, then I made some changes that I thought would make the chair look better.

I made full-size drawings in Adobe Illustrator, then printed those out on my Epson ink-jet printer on a smooth, uncoated paper at 720 ppi resolution. I didn’t need photo quality; I wanted speed. Then I took a trek to Home Depot to purchase some oak boards, and several hundred dollars later, I had all the wood I needed.

Adirondack Chair plan to print

This is my cutting diagram, which I printed on my Epson wide-format ink-jet printer at full size. I then glued the curved patterns directly to the boards, and cut them on the bandsaw. Later, I sanded the pattern paper off.

I ordered stainless machine screws, carriage bolts, washers and nuts from McMaster-Carr, a Los Angeles based purveyor of everything mechanical. Several scores of dollars and a couple of days for shipping later, and I had all the hardware.

I glued the ink-jet printer output to the oak boards (I cut them to approximate size first) with water-soluble Elmer’s glue. Then, using a combination of tools including a table saw, a bandsaw, a chop saw, a router table, a hand-held router and other hand tools, I had all the parts cut and ready for assembly.

For those boards with ink-jet paper glued on top, I used the printed lines as cutting guides on the bandsaw. Where two parts had to be identical, or mirrored (the arms are a good example), I screwed two boards together then cut them at the same time on the bandsaw. Whatever irregularities occurred, occurred to both boards. I completed all the cutting, then moved on to surface sanding and smoothing curves. For those operations I used a hand sander, two stationary belt sanders and a stationary spindle sander.

Chair strakes 02

This is the entire chair as cut and sanded boards. Some of the board edges are routed with a half-round cutter – I did this only where the boards touch the person sitting in the chair. All other edges are left square. Assembly began at this point, following a primer coat of white exterior paint.

When all the boards were smooth and finished, I cleaned each one, then applied two coats of latex exterior white primer on the boards. It’s better to paint the raw material then assemble it into a chair than to build the chair and paint it. Unpainted parts, especially those hidden by joints and corners, tend to be an invitation to dry rot.

When the chair was assembled, a couple of days later, I sanded the tops of wood plugs I used to cover the screws, and then I sprayed several coats of exterior latex paint on the finished chair. You may wonder why I started with beautiful oak boards, only to paint the chair with purple paint. Remember that my objective was to make a weatherproof chair. The color was chosen to work with the other colors in our garden.

Chairs on Deck 2

…and here is the finished chair on the right, its beautiful purple color fitting in nicely with the plants and the sister chair on the left in aubergine. I plan to replace that chair soon, as it’s showing signs of decay from the elements.

Using Illustrator as a design tool for real objects is interesting. For me it’s easier and less expensive that getting a CAD program, and I already know how to use it. Working entirely in 2D is easy for me, and Illustrator is delightful for this. As mentioned, I draw at full size, requiring that the canvas be set to the size of the full size lumber.

The finished chair is very nice on our back deck garden (we have a very small yard), and the colors of that chair and its counterpart work nicely with the greens of my wife’s wonderful flora.

A combination of software – Illustrator, hardware – the wide format Epson printer, and harder-ware – the various tools in my wood shop, make nice finished products. It’s nice to be able to design, then build real objects from the computer screen.

In the coming weeks I will be writing about the next chapter in my woodworking adventure – CNC routing.

p.s. In a crass commercial moment, I am offering beautifully printed plans and cutting templates for $15. Please contact me if you are interested. Following is a sample of a page from those plans:

Adirondack Plans pg. 1


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AppleScripting Adobe Photoshop

Blognosticator Head

I get involved in some pretty big stuff:

SLO PANO walk-through 26

This was my 58-foot GigaPan photo of San Luis Obispo as it appeared in the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art in March. That photo was printed in 17 sections on glossy paper, then mounted on the wall with wallpaper paste. The same image is now being printed on aluminum sheets for a permanent installation at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

In January and February I wrote about the panoramic photo exhibition I had at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art. That involved 20 photos. One photo, which I call Daniel’s Point, I printed to 58 feet, 7 inches in width. The original of that image, which was taken with a GigaPan device, is over 44 GB in size. I reduced the size of the file to make the print nearly 60 feet long for that display. For that image, I printed 17 vertical strips, each 44 inches wide, with a one-inch overlap for the wallpaper man to use for register.

When the show ended, my friends and I gathered at the museum and pulled the photo off the wall, and threw it away.

But, someone took notice! A group of students from the Associated Students, Inc. at Cal Poly saw the exhibition and decided that they wanted to have me make a version of that photo for permanent display in the University Union. I was thrilled.

This time, rather than print the photo on Epson Photo Glossy Paper, the ASI wanted it printed on sheets of aluminum. This exhibition is permanent. The supplier of the aluminum prints is a company near Santa Barbara, California. They can print on sheets up to 48 x 96 inches in size.

The process is dye-sublimation, where the image is made onto a paper carrier on an Epson 9600 ink-jet printer. That carrier is printed with dye-sublimation inks on the paper carrier, and the image is reversed as it is printed. The dye-sub paper is then positioned on an aluminum panel that is coated with a polyester emulsion. The sandwich is then put into a heat/pressure press where the photo is transferred to the emulsion on the aluminum.

My image will appear 33 feet long, and about five feet tall. So my challenge was to cut the image into sections that would fit onto the aluminum sheets, with an overlap of one inch to trim before the photos are mounted on the wall.

Composite Daniels Point

Four panels of my panoramic image. There is a small overlap on each panel on both sides (except the two on the ends, which only overlap on the inside). To get the panels cropped to the pixel from the original image required the precision of an AppleScript working in Adobe Photoshop.

I needed accuracy to the pixel, as these panels are very expensive to make, and the image must be perfect. When I made my paper version at 58 feet, I did the cropping by dragging guidelines into the Photoshop document, and then cropping to those guidelines. But the paper print had the advantage of being able to be registered on the wall while the wallpaper paste was wet, adjusting it until it fit.

The aluminum panels must fit perfectly without any adjustment possible as they are mounted. I tried doing it by hand, entering pixel values into the Crop tool in Photoshop, which worked fine, but there were times when the software and I didn’t see eye-to-pixel. Photoshop wanted to shift one pixel right or left of my desired size, snapping to the wrong side of a measurement, and this was not acceptable.

So I got out the extensive Photoshop CC 2014 Scripting Guide, the most recent of a series of similar publications from Adobe that document how to use various scripting languages to control their popular software. I have used AppleScripts on many occasions to script Illustrator and InDesign, and I find the process both interesting and efficient. I had never tried scripting Photoshop.

I found the references in the Guide on cropping, and I also taught myself how to draw register marks using a script (that’s for another blog). My immediate challenge was to cut a 99,000 x 16,121 pixel photo into ten pieces, each 10,400 pixels in width and 16,121 pixels tall (except the two on the end which are narrower). Incorporating a one-inch overlap was also part of the process, as I must trim the aluminum sheets to size in a huge metal-cutting shear after they are imaged, and the overlap ensures that the final trim is correct.

The Adobe scripting guide has examples of how to script Photoshop using Visual Basic, Javascript and AppleScript. I prefer AppleScript because I have the most experience in that language, and many years of basic practice. It’s pretty simple, as programming languages go. I built a test photo comprised of four quadrants of solid colors, and I experimented with my scripts until I understood the syntax of the cropping command.

In the end, it’s perfectly logical. It just took me a while to get an understanding of the coding so that I could do my project. The AppleScript code below will crop the right-most of the panels from the whole:


In English, the line highlighted in yellow says: moving over 88,850 pixels from the left corner, and 0 down, crop to 99,000 pixels wide and 16,121 down. The width and height of the cropped image are 10,150 x 16,121 pixels.

The best part of this is that Photoshop follows the instructions of the script to the pixel without any argument. Here is the detail of how the one line of cropping instructions works:


The structure of an AppleScript must include the target application, in this case Adobe Photoshop CC 2014 in a tell statement. At the very end must be an end tell statement. This encapsulates the instructions intended for Photoshop. AppleScripts are adept at getting information from one application, then switching to another application to do something with that information.

Each message to a specific application is enclosed in a pair of tell statements. Interestingly, the script also acts very quickly on the photo. To crop the 4.4 GB image (a reduced-resolution version of the original) with this script takes only a few seconds. Each resulting section measures almost 500 MB.


This is a legend of how the photo would be cropped into individual panels from one very large original. I needed this to ensure precision in the final images.

As with any adventure into potentially harmful events with photos, it is smart to work on a copy of your master image rather than risk damaging the original. The process of generating ten panels, each precisely cropped to the correct pixel dimensions, took me less than one hour. This was after I had spent at least that much time teaching myself how to write and execute the AppleScript in Photoshop.

The time spent was well worth the effort, as now that I know how to script Photoshop, I am sure that I will do it again – soon. When each panel was properly cropped, I ran another script that added a one-inch white bar at the top and bottom of each section, then added one-pixel-wide crop marks on the top and bottom to guide the metal shearing operation.

Steve with one panel

This is my friend Steve Rinell with one panel from the huge panorama in his Betenbender shear.

The panels are now printed, and the metal shearing is partly complete. I will write more about the project as it comes closer to completion. The huge photo is scheduled to be mounted in the coming weeks at the University Union at Cal Poly, where it will be on display for a long, long time.


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