Some okay CMYK results from DrawingBot, finally …

decorative 8-sided symmetrical square tile sketched out in cyan, magenta, yellow and grey felt tip pen on a plotter
drawn using a Roland DXY-1300 plotter on Strathmore Multimedia using DeSerres medium tip pens, ~60 minutes plotting time, 180 × 180 mm

After a tonne of faffing about, I finally got something out of my plotter using Drawing Bot. I’d heard about it during the Bold Machines’ Intro to Pen Plotters course I’m taking, and the results that other people were getting looked encouraging. But for me, they weren’t great.

Maybe I was choosing too large images, but my main problem was ending up with plots with far too many lines: these would take days to plot. The controls on Drawing Bot also seemed limited: density and resolution seemed to be the only controls that do much. Drawing Bot itself wasn’t very reliable: it would sometimes go into “use all the cores!” mode when it was supposed to be idling. It would also sometimes zoom in on part of the image and fail to unzoom without quitting. Is a 32 GB i7 8-core (oldish, but still game) too little for this software? Forget any of the Voronoi plots if you want to see results today.

The source image was a geometric tile that I’d frisketed out years ago, forgotten about, and then found when I unstuck it from under a stack of papers. It’s somewhat artisanally coloured by me in watercolour, and the mistakes and huge water drop are all part of its charm:

geometric tile picked out in brown, red, pink, green  and various shades of faded blue, separated by rough white frisket lines
source image for plotter output

If WordPress will allow an SVG, here’s what Drawing Bot made of it:

scribbly linedrawing of the tile image in CMYK process colours
Drawing Bot SVG output: yes, it’s that faint

I do like the way that Drawing Bot seems to have ignored some colours, like the rose pink around the outside. The green border really is mostly cyan with a touch of black.

I haven’t magically found perfect CMYK pens in HP/Roland pen format. I couldn’t even find the Schwan-Stabilo Point 88 pens that Lauren Gardner at Bold Machines recommends. But the local DeSerres did deliver a selection of their own-brand 1.0mm Mateo Markers that are physically close to the Point 88s in size, but use a wider 1 mm fibre tip. They are also cheap; did I mention that?

The colours I chose were:

  • for cyan: Mint Green; RGB colour: #52C3A5; SKU: DFM-53
  • for magenta: Neon Pink; RGB colour: #FF26AB; SKU: DFM-F23
  • for yellow: Neon Yellow; RGB colour: #F3DE00; SKU: DFM-F01
  • for black: Green Grey 5; RGB colour: #849294; SKU: DFM-80

The RGB colours are from DeSerres’ website, and show that I’m not wildly off. Target process colours are the top row versus nominal pen colours on the bottom:

target vs pen CMYK colours
yes, there are fluo colours in there

I knew to avoid pure black, as it would overpower everything in the plot.

To make the pens work with the DXY-1300, I modified juliendorra/3D-printable-plotter-adapters-for-pens-and-refills: Use your favorite pens with vintage HP plotters: parametric code to create custom adapters to work the the DeSerres pens. Here are my changed files, just in case my PR isn’t accepted:

Overall, it plotted quite well. I plotted directly from Inkscape, one layer/pen at a time, from light (yellow) to dark (grey). Using the pen 1 slot had its disadvantages: the DXY has little pen boots to stop the pens drying, but these unfortunately get filled with old ink. The scribbly dark markings in the NNE and SSW orange kites in the plot are from the yellow pen picking up old black ink from the pen boot. Next time I’ll clean the plotter better.

Home-brew Jetstream Plotter Pens

After a relative lack of success in making cheap plotter pens, I managed to score a trove of old pens on eBay. Some of these were dry, and I tried to resuscitate them. A few came back to life, but I ended up with a handful of very dead pen shells.

A dry plotter pen, possibly Alvin

I think the pens were made or sold by Alvin, as there were several empty Alvin trays in the batch I got on eBay. In taking one apart, I thought that a pen refill might just slide inside. Lo and behold, but didn’t the pen nerd’s fave gel pen du jour refill just slide in with enough of an interference fit that it wouldn’t easily slide back out.

Taking the dry pens apart isn’t too easy:

  1. Pull the black tip straight out with pliers; it has a long fibre plug which goes into the ink reservoir. Discard the tip.
  2. While it’s really hard to see, the other end of the pen body has a push-on plug. Gently working around it with a sharp knife can open it up a bit.
  3. Once you’re inside the pen, pull the dry fibre ink reservoir out with tweezers and discard it.

Converting the pen body to use a Jetstream refill needs some tools:

  1. Drill a hole in the plug at the end of the pen body just large enough to allow the end of the refill to pass through. It helps if this is mostly centred to keep the pen point centred; this is important for accurate plots.
  2. Cut a piece of tubing just wide enough to slip over the pen refill, but not quite narrow enough to fit through the hole you just drilled. I used some unshrunk heatshrink tubing for this. It needs to be just long enough to push against the plug when the pen tip is at the right length. This should help stop the refill getting hammered back into the body by your plotter.
  3. Before you assemble the pen, I find it useful to cut a couple of flats in the sides of the plug so you can more easily change the refill. You don’t have to do this, though.
  4. Assemble the pen:
    1. Push the Jetstream refill into the pen body, and adjust it so it sticks out about 6 mm clear of the plastic collar near the nib.
    2. Put the tubing over the other end of the refill, and push the plug over the top, clicking it into place.

Three pens in place on my DXY-1300

To get best results, you’ll have to slow your plot speed down quite a bit. At standard speeds, you get a ¼ mm interrupted line which looks like this:

Jetstream at full speed
Jetstream at full speed

Close up, the lines are really faint

A hint that I should run them slower was at the start of each line, where the line would start very thick, then taper off as the ink supply ran low:

acceleration blobs
acceleration blobs

Run at 120 mm/s, the results where a bit darker, but still blobby at the start of lines:

120 mm/s
120 mm/s

Slowing down to 60 mm/s produced slightly better results:

60 mm/s
60 mm/s

But sharpest of all was at the crawling speed 30 mm/s:

30 mm/s
30 mm/s

Some pronounced blobs at the starts of lines still. Here’s the full page at 600 dpi, squished into a very lossy PDF: jetstream_plotter-slow

The blobs could be due to this, though:

grode on pen tip
grode on pen tip

It seems that a mix of paper fibres and coagulated ink builds up on the tip. Occasional cleaning seems to be a good idea. It also seems to help to draw a quick scratch line before anything important so the ink will be flowing properly.

Just to sign off, here’s one of the pens in action:

Flatbed Plotter Frenzy

Could the DXY-1300's self-test page be more eighties?
Could the DXY-1300’s self-test page be more eighties?

So I finally scored a flatbed from Kijiji. It makes all the right shapes and sounds. Here’s the self-test, all seven minutes of it —