Making vectors out of old cuts
May 6, 2009 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I have been loaned a set of metal cuts from an old press. I need to create vector images from these items. Should I scan the cut or an impression from the cut and, after picking a method, what would be the best process to get a sharp image?
posted by Foam Pants to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Huh. If it were me, I'd take some nice, hi-res digital photos against white and isolate the cuts in Photoshop. Convert to vector and bob's yer dad's brother.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:52 PM on May 6, 2009

I'd favor a pure vector package like Illustrator or InkScape (if you're budget-constrained), but yes, what Baby_Balrog said. If you're in Illustrator, you could try LiveTrace, but the quality you'll get will probably be lower than just tracing the outlines manually.
posted by Alterscape at 3:03 PM on May 6, 2009

I am not worried about the creation of the vector file. I am concerned about getting something from the cut that I can make a vector file from. We tried a straight scan of the cut and there wasn't a lot of definition. We also tried a basic ink pad transfer but the ink beaded up on the cut and we didn't have enough pressure to make a good impression anyway.
posted by Foam Pants at 4:32 PM on May 6, 2009

Here is a straight scan we did. As you can see, some have decent contrast but some don't.
posted by Foam Pants at 4:45 PM on May 6, 2009

An inkpad won't work - it's really thin, water-based ink. You want printer's ink. Block-printing ink would probably work. For a proper impression you'd be better off running it through a press than trying to "rubber stamp" them. Can you run proofs at the press that loaned you the cuts?
posted by O9scar at 5:05 PM on May 6, 2009

No, the press that they used these cuts on is only fired up a few times a year by some 90 year old guy who is the only one who knows how to use it.
posted by Foam Pants at 5:07 PM on May 6, 2009

Hm... it looks like what gives the patterns what little contrast they have right now is the residue of previous inkings. Is there a way you could exaggerate this temporarily? One thing that occurs to me is somehow getting only the very surface of the relief damp, and then dipping it in some kind of very fine, brightly-colored powder (say, embossing powder?). Then a scan would have a much higher contrast. And you could just wash it off when you're done. The trick would be finding a way to get the substance to adhere to the precise contours of the image.
posted by pluckemin at 5:26 PM on May 6, 2009

What kind of scanner are you using and how are you scanning them? The scans will turn out better if you use a scanner with good depth of field focus and if you don't group the objects together like that. First, clean you scanner glass, then carefully (so as not to scratch the glass) place one of the pieces down on the scanner bed. Cover the scanner with a dark piece of cloth to prevent light leakage. Do a prescan, crop just the object so you're not scanning a bunch of background, make sure you're using at least 300 dpi, use the eyedropper tools to make the most of the contrast, adjust the sharpness, remove any noise, and scan. You'll probably be able to get decent scans of the first two, but the third one (the fish) might take a bit of tweaking. Experiment with scanning them in color and black and white. Clean up the noise and adjust contrast again, if necessary, in the image editing app of your choice.

Unless you have a lot of time, I wouldn't recommend trying to convert them to vectors yourself (except for the first one, that's pretty basic). Instead, try Vector Magic; it puts LiveTrace to shame.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 6:45 PM on May 6, 2009

Got an alternative thought: 3d laser scanner.

Finding one may be a trick but there may be service companies that would do the scan. What you get can be taken into a 3d program then you should be able to find exactly whats at the surface plane. The laser scanners give a massive data point cloud so on second thought there is probably a specialized program to extract the surface you need. Good ol'google found one.
posted by sammyo at 6:47 PM on May 6, 2009

Ha, low tech idea. Fill in everywhere with putty or plasticine in a contrasting color. Scrape the surfaces carefully, photograph in high contrast. Vectorize.
posted by sammyo at 6:51 PM on May 6, 2009

Your ultimate goal is what? Reproduction of the images?

Depending on just how good you need them to look and how large they will end up being, an ultra-high-res scan of them (after being leveled and threshold-ed) might just do the trick. You don't necessarily need a vector image for high, sharp quality (it doesn't hurt, though). If you're cutting vinyl or something, then yes, you need vector art. If you must do vector, I've read very good things about Vector Magic (and the first two conversions are apparently free), but Inkscape's (also free) AutoTrace may give you the quality you're after, and you can do those conversions til your cows come home.

Ooh, I like the putty idea. Day-glo Fimo? Bright blue mold compound? (pause) Silly putty?
posted by ostranenie at 7:57 PM on May 6, 2009

Take them (or mail them) to someone who can print them for you. There are a ton of independent presses who'd be happy to do it, maybe even nearby, and it would literally take a minute.

Just google "letterpress" and the city you live in. Maybe call the newspaper, since they often have a lot of old gear they couldn't get rid of, and somebody might still use it. I promise you, they'd be happy to do it--especially if you don't need the cuts mailed back.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:11 PM on May 6, 2009

I've worked with metal cuts on a letterpress in art classes, and I don't really know how you'd get great results without making printer's-ink prints of these — they're designed to make impressions.

Would it be a possibility to obtain black rubber-based printer's ink and a brayer (hand-roller)? You could experiment with rolling the ink onto the cuts and hand-pressing them hard on a stack of soft paper. You'd also need a way to clean the ink off afterward; my print shop uses mineral spirits for this.
posted by dreamyshade at 8:22 PM on May 6, 2009

One thing that might trip you up regarding scanning the metal type itself: metal type is designed to make a letterform, using ink and pressure, in paper. It's not necessarily that letterform in metal— there are ink traps and shapes designed to produce a printed end result under known behaviours of ink and paper.

I'd figure out some way to make printed impressions, even if you have to make your own lockup and makeshift platen press.
posted by a halcyon day at 9:46 PM on May 6, 2009

Hey, we have a platen press on the book repair desk. I be gettin' idears.
posted by Foam Pants at 2:04 PM on May 8, 2009

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