The Modern Hectographer

In which I investigate a messy, sticky and highly-variable ancient copying technique.
hectographic copies

Way back, if you wanted more than one copy of something you’d written there was no print button. If you wanted copies, each one required a bit of work. Before copiers and printers there were duplicators where you could type or draw onto special membranes that either transferred ink to a printing sheet (Banda or Ditto brand machines) or made holes in a screen to allow ink through (Gestetner or Mimeograph brands). Risograph machines are modern digital ink duplicators still in use and active development today.

One of the predecessors of duplicators was the hectograph. In the 19th century they still knew their Greek and yet were totally okay with hype, the hectograph was named after the extremely, um, aspirational idea that you could pull a hundred (εκατό = hundred, in modern Greek) copies from one master. Once you’ve made a few hectograph copies, you’ll be more wondering what the heck they were thinking: you might get a few tens of legible copies if you’re extremely careful.

Some hectographic copies, all pulled from the one jelly sheet impression

A hectograph copier is basically a sheet of jelly that soaks up certain kinds of ink from a master copy, then oozes the copies back onto paper pressed onto its surface. The ink slowly diffuses down through the thickness of the jelly, allowing different copies to be made with the same plate a day or so later.

Getting the right ink is a little tricky these days. Tattoo artists use hectograph ink to make stencils, so I got a small bottle of ink ($15) from Studio One (940 Queen St. East, Toronto). You can also use hecto/indelible pencils, but the National Tattoo brand one I got from Studio One barely transfers at all.

Making a copier in a kitchen is easy. There are several recipes online (University of Iowa Library and W0IS‘s being two: if you follow The New Standard Formulary historic ones, remember that white glue now is quite different from the hoof-and-hide renderings they used then). My recipe is a bit of a blend of all of these:

  • 28 g Gelatin
    (powdered, unflavoured; in North America, it’s sold under the Knox brand in little boxes containing 4× 7 g sachets)
  • 175 ml Glycerin
    (from the pharmacy, possibly sold in the skin care section; about ¾ cup)
  • 75 g Sugar
    (regular white sugar, about ⅓ cup)
  • 350 ml Water
    (1½ cups)

You’ll need a flat tray, larger that the paper you want to use. Dollar store baking trays are ideal. I used a slightly-too-small toaster oven tray, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

  1. Stir gelatin and sugar into the water and leave it to soak for a few hours. It should form a translucent gel
  2. Heat the glycerin in a double boiler until the boiler water is just simmering
  3. Add the gelatin/sugar solution and stir gently until the boiler water resumes simmering. Keep heating for a few minutes until the solution turns clear
    (The liquid doesn’t have to boil, just get hot enough for the gelatin to melt. Avoiding bubbles is worthwhile, as gelatin foam is not what we’re looking for here)
  4. Carefully pour the hot liquid into your tray, avoiding forming bubbles if at all possible
    (Bubbles can be shepherded off to the edge of the plate with the tip of a scrap of paper before the liquid sets)
  5. Allow the tray to cool and set. This may take several hours at room temperature. The solid jelly hardly changes in appearance from the liquid form
surface of a freshly-cooled jelly plate: extremely clear with a faint texture

Now draw your master. Hectographic ink is loaded with dye, so a little goes a long way. It’s also not a modern non-blotting ink, so you need to be more sparing with it than I was.

The unused master sheet, drawn in hecto ink (purplish black), copying pencil (grey) with guidelines from a plotter pen (red)

Stick the master face down onto the jelly sheet and leave it there for about a minute. I used a brayer to press the ink onto the surface. When you lift the master off the surface, you’ll end up with a slightly ruined master —

The used master sheet: probably too blurred to be usable again. Next time I’ll be more careful not to blot. (Colour balance made it yellow, btw; it’s the same sheet as before)

— and a crisp, reversed image in the jelly plate. I hope yours will be less blot-ridden than mine:

Image transferred onto jelly. Note blots (dammit!) and complete lack of visibility from hecto/copying pencil. Red lines from plotter pen are clear, though they didn’t end up transferring through to the paper copies

Now lay your copy paper onto the jelly sheet for a few seconds. Again, I used a brayer.

First copy, on mulberry paper

The copies come out remarkably dry, but should still be allowed to dry off for a while: this is a wet copy process, after all. The copier is reusable indefinitely, and should be very lightly dampened before use.

This is after use (6-7 copies), a light misting of water and a wipe down with a damp sponge.
This is the same plate, roughly 12 hours after use. The ink has blurred and diffused more deeply into the surface. It was possible to pull a very faint and impossibly blurry copy from this, but it’s pretty close to being ready to reuse

This process is kind-of on the edge of practicality, but is not without its charms. It might be worth looking at:

  1. alternative jellies, such as arrowroot or hypromellose. Gelatin is hydrolyzed animal collagen, and this may create ethical issues for some users. Some glycerin is also from animal sources, but less so than in the past.
  2. other ink/dye sources, including inkjet ink, certain water-soluble colouring pencils and other indelible/copying pencils. I have some vintage — possibly old enough to be quite toxic — copying pencils on the way to me via ebay which may work better.
  3. making 3d printed stamps to transfer to the jelly plate. Since the plate doesn’t need to accept a perfectly flat impression, a relief design might work better than a 3d printed direct stamp.

(aside: I’d previously tried to make a copying pad from several layers of damp kitchen towel to transfer a drawing made with Stabilo All water-soluble pencils. As you can imagine, the ink quickly diffused along the cellulose fibres, making this process at best a very qualified success …

A copy attempt made with damp paper towels. The less said about this, the better

)

Things Got Weird Real Fast

things got weird real fast
things got weird real fast

this, but with alternate lines from the plot file drawn with alternate pens. The original was slow because it had a point roughly every 0.1 mm, and this has been smoothed. Still took maybe 15-20 minutes to draw, though.

Tidied-up edition of Bourgoin’s Arabic Geometrical Design sourcebook on archive.org

b-245Just uploaded Les éléments de l’art arabe: Le trait des entrelacs by Jules Bourgoin (aka Arabic Geometrical Pattern & Design) to archive.org. This is much cleaned up from the Google Books scan, which had many duplicate pages and no metadata.

This is much better than the (now returned) Kindle edition

Gramophone Echoes

gramophone echoesInspired by Robert Howsare’s Drawing Apparatus, a time-step simulation of a similar apparatus was developed. Each trace was made of thousands of straight line segments, one for each rotation of the turntables’ drive motors, and enough to create a closed figure. Suitable gearing was modelled to simulate standard (North American) gramophone speeds of 16⅔, 33⅓, 45 and 78⅕ rpm for each of the turntables. Drive crank lengths were derived from standard record sizes. The initial starting angle of each turntable was also modelled.

Three simulation runs were chosen and superimposed. The result was plotted on “A” size vellum using 0.3 mm ceramic drafting pens. Total plot time  at 90 mm/s: 22 minutes.

Code available on request.

Canadian Wheat Boards: #1 & #2

Canadian Wheat Board #1
Canadian Wheat Board #2

Organic Canadian wheat on red cedar, beeswax encaustic; 72 × 182 mm.

In the Synthetic History of Canada, there was no symbol more evocative of hearth and home than the wheat board. Reconstructed here by the artist in the traditional materials of cedar [strength], wheat [abundance] and beeswax [cohesion], the wheat board is a forgotten part of Canadian lore. Its rediscovery as a domestic art form brings new hope of a progressive national identity.

FREE ART

Mark Dougherty says:

Cal Schenkel, who did so many great Zappa/Mothers album 
covers, and some Beefheart as well, is giving away lots of 
his artwork.  Just send him a dollar to cover the shipping 
and he'll send you...who knows what?  Here is his link:

http://ralf.com/

Artwork by David Barnes

Artwork by David Barnes / thebeewithwheels. Medium: pen on index card, 3x5" (76 x 127 mm)
Artwork by David Barnes / thebeewithwheels. Medium: pen on index card, 3x5" (76 x 127 mm)

David Barnes does all the artwork for Of Montreal. He’s recently opened an Etsy store under his thebeewithwheels moniker. I bought his print of the Aldhils Arboretum cover, and inside he included a little drawing. Keep running, finch-headed man!

Stewart & His Constant Search for Patterns in Randomness

Three consecutive tracks in today’s the automatic podcast from “& His” artists:

  1. May FlowerMike Shaw & His Alabama Entertainers
  2. Call On MeCaptain Beefheart & His Magic Band
  3. ResetCasper Fandango & His Tiny Sick Tears

when the black flower starts to vibrate, run away from the scary skull with your pet arrow

when the black flower starts to vibrate, run away from the scary skull with your pet arrow

(actually, it’s the IAEA’s New Symbol Launched to Warn Public About Radiation Dangers.)

this is not graph paper

The PhotoSmart has an ability to print various ruled paper forms: lined, todo lists, and graph paper. But what they print for graph paper is merely squared paper:
HP’s non-graph paper
Graph paper’s the stuff with 1mm squares. Personally, I was disappointed that it wouldn’t print log ruled and Smith charts, but that’s just me …

All the printers I’ve ever owned …

bird you can see: hp print test

  • An ancient (even in 1985) Centronics serial dot-matrix printer that we never got working with the CPC464. The print head was driven along a rack, and when it hit the right margin, an idler gear was wedged in place, forcing the carriage to return. Crude, noisy but effective.
  • Amstrad DMP-2000. Plasticky but remarkably good 9-pin printer. Had an open-loop ribbon that we used to re-ink with thick oily endorsing ink until the ribbons wore through.
  • NEC Pinwriter P20. A potentially lovely 24-pin printer ruined by a design flaw. Print head pins would get caught in the ribbon, and snap off. It didn’t help that the dealer that sold it to me wouldn’t refund my money, and required gentle persuasion from a lawyer to do so.
  • Kodak-Diconix 300 inkjet printer. I got this to review for Amiga Computing, and the dealer never wanted it back. It used HP ThinkJet print gear which used tiny cartridges that sucked ink like no tomorrow; you could hear the droplets hit the page.
  • HP DeskJet 500. I got this for my MSc thesis. Approximately the shape of Torness nuclear power station (and only slightly smaller), last I heard it was still running.
  • Canon BJ 200. A little mono inkjet printer that ran to 360dpi, or 720 if you had all the time in the world and an unlimited ink budget.
  • Epson Stylus Colour. My first colour printer. It definitely couldn’t print photos very well.
  • HP LaserJet II. Big, heavy, slow, and crackling with ozone, this was retired from Glasgow University. Made the lights dim when it started to print. Came with a clone PostScript cartridge that turned it into the world’s second-slowest PS printer. We did all our Canadian visa paperwork on it.
  • Epson Stylus C80. This one could print photos tolerably well, but the cartridges dried out quickly, runing the quality and making it expensive to run.
  • Okidata OL-410e PS. The world’s slowest PostScript printer. Sold by someone on tortech who should’ve known better (and bought by someone who also should’ve known better), this printer jams on every sheet fed into it due to a damaged paper path. Unusually, it uses an LED imaging system instead of laser xerography, and has a weird open-hopper toner system that makes transporting a part-used print cartridge a hazard.
  • HP LaserJet 4M Plus. With its duplexer and extra paper tray it’s huge and heavy, but it still produces crisp pages after nearly 1,000,000 page impressions. I actually have two of these; one was bought for $99 refurbished, and the other (which doesn’t print nearly so well) was got on eBay for $45, including duplexer and 500-sheet tray. Combining the two (and judiciously adding a bunch of RAM) has given me a monster network printer which lets you know it’s running by dimming the lights from here to Etobicoke.
  • IBM Wheelwriter typewriter/ daisywheel printer. I’ve only ever produced a couple of pages on this, but this is the ultimate letter-quality printer. It also sounds like someone slowly machine-gunning the neighbourhood, so mostly lives under wraps.
  • HP PhotoSmart C5180. It’s a network photo printer/scanner that I bought yesterday. Really does print indistinguishably from photos, and prints direct from memory cards. When first installed, makes an amusing array of howls, boinks, squeals, beeps and sproings as it primes the print heads.

definitely clean

iTunes 'clean' marker

iTunes‘ clean/explicit labelling worries me. Shouldn’t I, at the age of Dennis the Communist Peasant, be able to decide what’s good for me? Not merely that, but it takes up a bunch of the song title entry, and they label songs by artists who don’t produce bowdlerised versions. Gah!