Tag Archives: plaque

108: Preparing Laser Cut Wood for Paint

Scott at work!  Mixing the green wash (there is a touch of gel medium in the glass too)
Scott at work! Mixing the green wash with our trusty note taking and testing plate.  

This month I thought it would be fun to add a new skill: properly preparing a wood surface for painting.  I have painted laser cut wood in the past (Week 64 is a notable example), but honestly, the preparation and finished result is not what I’d consider fine art.   So, with the help of Scott Sherwood, Fine Art Conservator, we will learn some basic first steps to preparing unfinished laser cut plywood shapes for paint.

week 108

Supplies you will need:

  • Laser cut wood shapes
  • Grain filler (I picked up DAP Plastic Wood from the local DIY store)
  • Scraper or palette knife (we used a metal spatula!)
  • Gesso (Liquitex is Scott’s favorite, easily attainable brand)
  • Water
  • Paper Towel
  • Brushes
  • Foam roller
  • Sandpaper (240 or 400)

Step 1:  Cut your shapes

Our professional work surface
Our professional work surface. Apologies for the poor photos – I was not using my own camera, and we hopped from natural light to fluorescent light too much.  Another lesson learned!

For ease, I precut some plywood into shapes I had on file – a bird, the whale and a couple different quatrefoil examples.  I also had a couple plywood circles left over from an earlier project and threw them in the mix.  Cutting first means the edges will get some over paint and need to be finished at the end – if that is a problem or you have a particularly intricate shape, I’d suggest preparing the surface and possibly even applying the background color before cutting.

Step 2: Determine whether you have open grain wood or closed grain wood

Closed grain on the left, open grain on the right
Closed grain on the left, open grain on the right
Raking the light across the surface makes uneveness pop right out
Raking the light across the surface makes uneveness pop right out.  The ampersand wasn’t cut for this project, but something I had laying around.

Some wood simply has more prominent grain than others.  Oak is a prime example of open grain wood.  The shapes I specifically cut for this project were on closed grain (I believe it’s birch ply), but the circles were open grain oak ply.

Like buttercream frosting :)
Like buttercream frosting 🙂
Post filled and sanded disks. They are amazingly smooth!
Post filled and sanded disks. They are amazingly smooth!  The lighter spots are the fill.
Side angle on the sanded disks to better show texture.
Side angle on the sanded disks to better show texture.

Open grain needs to be filled in order to achieve a smooth surface, and that is where the DAP grain filler comes into play.  I purchased it in a tube, and it comes out like a putty almost.  We slathered it on against the grain, making sure it got into the pores of the wood.  Scott said “fill it proud!”  Well, we definitely did – it looked like we frosted cupcakes when we were done.  In retrospect, we make have over filled, and I would probably have thinned the paste a touch with water to make it easier to work with.  Live an learn!  Wait for it to dry (it was thick, so we waited 24 hours) and then sand off the excess.  You sand enough that you want to see the prominent grains, but it will be smooth as glass.

Picking up a closed grained wood allows you to skip this step, which I would recommend unless you wanted to look of oak or a specific open grain wood on the back.

Step 3: Acrylic Gesso Wash

Gesso, for those that do not know, is a priming paint.  There are versions for painting with oil paints and for acrylic paints.  Oil paint *can* go over acrylic gesso, so, for versatility’s sake, we used acrylic gesso.  It is made with white pigment, chalk, an acrylic binder (to make it a liquid) and a smattering of other chemically stable elements.

Why prime your wood with gesso?

  • It creates a uniform,  layer under the paint
  • It gives you surface a nice “tooth” to hold paint
  • It keeps paint from soaking into the material underneath
  • It protects the paint from chemical changes on the board underneath – wood is organic, and the process they use to create plywood is not exactly archival.
It's hard to see in the photo, but the gesso wash is pretty frothy!
It’s hard to see in the photo, but the gesso wash is pretty frothy!
Wiping away the gesso wash
Wiping away the gesso wash

You can slap the gesso on, undiluted, but it really doesn’t penetrate the wood very well.  We mixed up a gesso wash, which is gesso + water.  It may have been a 50/50 ratio, I should have been measuring!  But you want it nice and runny.  We put it on with a foam brush.  You can also use your fingers if you like a more tactile experience.  We really smushed it on, working it into the grain of the wood, which created a sort of foamy looking paint layer.  When we were satisfied with had penetrated well, we wiped off the excess paint with a paper towel.   Let dry thoroughly.

Step 4: Light Sanding

The gesso wash soaked in well, and caused some of the grains of wood to swell, and the dried surface was slightly uneven.  We hit it quick with some 400 sandpaper to smooth it out.  It’s not uncommon for artists to sand between each prep layer – it gives a nice even finished look.

Step 5: Full Strength Gesso

This is the step where the ground work you lay down has a stronger effect on the finished piece.  Scott suggested a couple different ways to incorporate texture with the gesso layer on the laser cut shapes:  with brushes, or with foam rollers.

Swirled whale texture
Swirled whale texture
Flowing bird texture
Flowing bird texture

Full strength gesso has the ability to hold some texture; it’s not self leveling as a more watery version would be.  We took brushes to the whale and the swallow.  I made swirls of gesso on the whale, trying to emulate a turbulent sea.  Scott chose to paint gesso on the bird with long, flowing brush strokes, to evoke the feeling of flight, or airiness.  The subtle peaks and valleys of the gesso will still be present behind whatever paint it will have in the end, adding a depth.

First layer of the foam roller texture
First layer of the foam roller texture

The more geometric shapes for the foam roller treatment.  Rolling on the full strength gesso created a fabulously fine pebble texture, almost like vinyl.  The first layer looks suspiciously like a popcorn ceiling treatment, but it calms down with repeated applications

We let all the pieces dry overnight.

Step 6: Repeat Step 5 as necessary

Everyone has different goals for their primer, and different levels of “done.”  We put a second coat on, and looking as I’m writing this post, I’m tempted to do a third.  As it dried (and sadly got got banged up a bit when I cleared off the table they were on) imperfections became clear – the brush lines weren’t exactly where I wanted them, or had areas where the vinyl-like texture was less pronounced.  If you want, you can also do a quick sanding between each coat of gesso – it’s up to you and the finish you want!

Step 7: Add art!

When you feel your board is primed properly – but that, I mean it has even coverage of gesso, a good texture and reminded me of a sheet of really nice paper that I was itching to put my pencil to – you are ready to add your art.  I didn’t intend for the project to go to the actual art stage, but Scott and I were experimenting, and I couldn’t resist picking up a tube of “sap green” acrylic when buying the gesso (colors are so PRETTY.)  Here are three different paint treatments you can do:

From left to right: Wash, glaze and tint. It's amazing these greens all came from the same tube of acrylic!
From left to right: Wash, glaze and tint. It’s amazing these greens all came from the same tube of acrylic!

Wash – We mixed the acrylic paint with water, which created a very flowing semi-transparent layer of paint.  It was very light in color and was very wet.  If we were using oil based paints, we would have used turpentine to thin it.

Glaze – Glazed are made when a color is added to a “transparent gel medium.”  I’m not 100% sure what the medium is made of, but the color was really vibrant.  Glaze is nice because it is translucent – light can penetrate the layer and make it really pop.

Rolling on the tint.
Rolling on the tint.

Tint – here we mixed white gesso with the acrylic and came up with a lovely minty green.  It is opaque.

The gesso base is also good for charcoal, pencils, pastels, oils, even mixed media or collages.  It’s a good standard base to build on.  Today, most painting is done on canvas, but it actually wasn’t until the 16th and 17th century canvas became popular.  By painting on panels, you are paying homage to an old tradition (even though the panel was cut with new technology!)

This post is in no way comprehensive (even though it is the longest one I’ve ever written!), and it’s one professional’s opinion.  Artists come to develop their own style and preparation methods they like – experiment!  And enjoy!

 

84: Color Fill

The blank barrel plaque.
The blank barrel plaque.

Recently, a potential client handed me a nice thick piece of finished hardwood and asked me to see how it looked when laser engraved. The goal is to create a higher quality look than the simple ink stamp he had used for these barrel-shaped plaques previously.

I prepared some engraving tests on the back surface with several power and speed settings to determine how much power the wood needed to get past the stain. As it turned out, no matter how much power I pushed at it, the deep stained grain made the logo and company name illegible. It was a perfect opportunity to try out some color fill paint that Jennifer and I have had for a short while but hadn’t used yet.

The initial test engravings were not visible enough against the strong contrast of the wood grain.
The initial test engravings were not visible enough against the strong contrast of the wood grain.
Pro Color Fill paint that doesn't stick to transfer tape. Whew!
Pro Color Fill paint that doesn’t stick to transfer tape. Whew!

I previously used some acrylic paint to fill in an engraved picture frame, but the way the acrylic paint attached itself to the transfer tape made pulling the tape away into a meticulous, time consuming affair. We even needed to touch some areas up after removing the tape because the paint had come with it! Thankfully, this new color fill paint was made specifically to work in tandem with laser engraving. While it’s primarily made to be used to fill engravings on acrylic, my material was a grainy wood. Because I wanted to avoid paint sticking inside that grain, I put down transfer tape before engraving.

I used transfer tape to keep the paint in the engraving and off the wood surface.
I used transfer tape to keep the paint in the engraving and off the wood surface.

 

I ran two tests, one for a “titanium white” color fill and one with standard black. While the white was immediately and clearly visible, that also meant that some tiny bits of paint that got into the grain underneath the transfer tape were also very noticeable. I could probably prevent that by putting down a clear coat first, but I’d have to make sure to get a clear fill material that wouldn’t adhere to the transfer tape like the acrylic paint used on the aforementioned frame.

The white paint bled a little into the grain.
The white paint bled a little into the grain.

The black test is a little harder to read on the already dark wood, but any leaks into the grain were also undetectable and the black filled engraving more closely matched the client’s previous ink stamp design.

The front engraving, all ready to be filled!
The front engraving, all ready to be filled!
A close-up of the foxy logo.
A close-up of the foxy logo.
A front shot; the lower half would feature an engraved brass plate with a name on it.
A front shot; the lower half would feature an engraved brass plate with a name on it.

55: Pseudorotary Engraving

A rotary-engraved plate showing off a rather impressive F.
A rotary-engraved plate showing off a rather impressive F.

There’s something classy about a plaque with a neatly rotary-engraved plate. Because rotary engraving traces the outline of each letter or shape and fills are created by repeating inset paths, you get an illusion of depth that can look stunning with the right design and lighting.

The bugle and helmet really stand out in this example of rotary engraving.
The bugle and helmet really stand out in this example of rotary engraving.

Lasers typically engrave in a fashion similar to how inkjet printers print: it scans back and forth across the surface, engraving the design one horizontal line at a time. That’s called raster engraving, but lasers can also perform vector engraving: it’s the same process as vector cutting, except your goal is to lightly carve the surface rather than cut straight through your material. Because of this flexibility, though, I realized that I might be able to recreate the beautiful depth effects you can create with rotary engraving.

woohooI prepared a file in Illustrator, featuring a quote that Shelby wanted me to “engrave onto something sometime,” and used repeated Offset Path commands to recreate the way rotary engravers perform fills.

The laser-engraved text is almost entirely flat.
The laser-engraved text is almost entirely flat.
A closer shot of a later attempt, showing only a faint impression of the inset paths.
A closer shot of a later attempt, showing only a faint impression of the inset paths.

There were a few mistakes. I used too much power on the first engraving, which made for a line so thick that it obliterated any impression of the inset vector paths and faux-bolded the typeface. I engraved that first pass on my best plate, which left the revisions on plates without decorative borders. Then, I lowered the power on the second engraving, revealing that my paths were too loosely inset, resulting in awkward gaps in the letter forms.  I engraved too lightly on the third pass, leaving the surface layer only partially engraved away and causing a faint green color cast on the engraved brass. My final mistake was engraving anything on that hideous purple marble print plate. Seriously, how could anyone read anything engraved on that?

Many plates with slight variations in engraving.
Many plates with slight variations in engraving. Look at that ugly purple thing!

Throughout the experimentation, though, I was never successful. That’s because rotary engraving actually carves little channels into the surface of the metal, which catches light differently and creates the illusion of depth. No matter how much power I shoot at it, my 40w laser isn’t going to leave a dent on metal, and no matter how little power I shoot at it, the surface material isn’t thick enough to provided a substitute channel.

Woo hoo, what a ride!

40: Commemorative Book Stack Marker

John F. McKeeThe Aurora Public Library is getting ready to move from it’s long time home in the Carnegie-sponsored library building to a new and modern structure, the Richard and Gina Santori Public Library of Aurora.  The new library  should be completed early in 2015 and marks the new era of library service in Aurora.

While it’s exciting to build something new, it’s also good to remember the old.  For the last 110 years, Aurora, Illinois has taken pride in its original Carnegie Library.   Carnegie helped build nearly 1700 libraries in the United States  between 1880 and his death in 1919, and even established trusts for his work to continue after his death.

Built in 1904, the library has served the community well.  While it has been expanded, gotten a facelift, and spawned several branches, it is still the core of the Aurora Library System.  Frank Patterson wrote a great history of the library you can find on the Aurora Public Library website.

The Aurora Public Library, as built in 1904.  The image is for the collections of the Aurora Historical Society.
The Aurora Public Library, as built in 1904. The image is from the collections of the Aurora Historical Society.
During the 1969 renovation, which cost as much as erecting the building in the first place, the library tripled in size and got a new, unified facade.
During the 1969 renovation, which cost as much as erecting the building in the first place, the library tripled in size and got a new, unified facade.  Image is from the collections of the Aurora Historical Society.

Carnegie revolutionized and modernized libraries; I thought it was fascinating that he basically ushered in the era of open stacks!  Before the widespread Carnegie libraries, books were held under lock and key, and a librarian would get you one that was specifically requested.  What would a library be without browsing?!

The is the inside of the 1904 library, open stacks visible behind the desk.  Photo from the Collection of the Aurora Historical Society
The is the inside of the 1904 library, open stacks visible behind the desk. It practically looks the same when you are on the main floor!  Photo from the Collection of the Aurora Historical Society

The ability for patrons to browse is actually what is bringing you this post today.  The library has numerous artifacts from the early days, including the book shelves behind the librarians in the above photo.  If you go there today, the shelves are marked with the same cast brass label holders they used in 1904.

Book stack plate from the 1904 library
Book stack plate from the 1904 library, photo taken 10/3/2014!

They are a gorgeous piece of Aurora Library history; heavy and very turn of the century.  They definitely tickle my love of historic design – which is why I was so excited about this project.  We were approached by the library to help them fashion the book stack markers into unique plaques for generous supporters of the new Library.  This plaque in particular was for John McKee, long time Aurora and Kiwanis member.  The Kiwanis Club of Aurora wanted to honor him for the charitable work he has done, including helping the club raise $100,000 for the Children’s Services area new library. 

On the book stacks, they simply fasten with two almost invisible screws along the bottom of the frame, and the librarians could slip a piece of paper behind them.  To create a presentation piece, we needed something a little more long lasting.  Thin acrylic, only 1.5mm deep, sat perfectly in the back of the frame, and was flush to the back.

Backside of the casting.  Lovely patina!  and it gives you some idea of the depth.
Backside of the casting. Lovely patina! Hopefully you can get some sense of depth.

We choose white capped black because of the classic literary took – nearly all books have black text on a crisp white page.  There was brief discussion about using almond topped dark brown, to give it a more aged look, but I thought it would complete too much with the lovely brass frame.

W wanted to covr the entire opening on the back.  /the little feet are on there because there were some shallow areas in the casting we had to work around.
We wanted to cover the entire opening on the back. The little feet are on there because there were some shallow decorative areas in the casting we had to work around.

One of the things I was most happy with (especially when it came to assembly) was the fact we chose to make the engraved piece big enough to fill the entire back opening, which is much larger than just the front.  Not only did this help finish the piece (the back was just a solid, flush sheet of acrylic), making sure the text was aligned was a breeze too!  We had to adhere the plate while the frame was face down due to depth.  If we had cut the inscription to just the opening in the front, the chance I would have glued the names in a bit cock-eyed would have been much, much higher.

I enjoyed helping the library to make their recognition of John McKee something unique to their history and their mission!  A bit of the old helping usher in the new.