Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Long Dark

Lawdy lawdy, it's amazing what a two months of traveling, two feet of snow, and two weeks of being sick can do to hamper your aspirations as a blacksmith; anvils aren't famous for being easy to move, snow isn't a lot of help with getting metal blazing hot, and it's hard to swing a hammer when your bod feels like it's made of candy canes. But, as episode two of The Wire reminds us all, You Cannot Lose If You Do Not Play. So for the past little bit I've been directing my energy into side projects.

I wanted to send my friends and family some handmade (admittedly late) Christmas cards, and my usual modus operandi is to rummage through the recycling bin for papers without too much junk on them, draw some pictures on them, slap the ol' John Doe on there and then wait until the next time I see the person (because postage is expensive y'all). But last year mi padre reminded me of that Douglas Adams quote: "He had been extremely chastened to realize that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac, he didn't, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn't do it. Left to his own devices he couldn't build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it."

A good reminder to us that standing on the shoulders of giants isn't all about enjoying the view - sometimes you gotta get right back down to bedrock. Taking a page (HAH) out of m'grammy's playbook, I decided to start with making paper. Full disclosure, I may have started like 10 meters up from bedrock (and if you know anything about Minecraft, you'll know this is where the most diamonds are found) and skipped trying to gather yard clippings from under the snow. Instead I turned to our mysteriously enormous collection of paper bags.

This is post (HAH) paper making project too.
My suspicion that they may come in handy might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, nevertheless it was proved correct. The steps in making paper are actually super simple. You make a pulp, you strain the pulp, you dry the pulp.

You don't need paper to make paper (unless it has some very specific combination of numbers, symbols, and dead people printed on it, in which case you need quite a lot of paper to do anything at all, it seems) - you can use grass, leaves, or just about any plant material - but I chose the paper bags because I already had a ton of it inside and because I wanted my paper to be brown. Since my project list was already a few arms long, I needed my coffee inside me, not dyeing paper.

I quickly eviscerated several of the bags with some scissors and left them to soak in a bowl of warm water for a few hours. While they soaked, I checked around all our windows to see which was the smallest one, and then popped the screen off of it. I spent the rest of the soak time trying to find a container big enough for our smallest screen. Unsurprisingly the bathtub was the only suitable vessel.

Knock knock. Who's there? Dwaine. Dwaine who? Dwaine the tub before your landlord finds out you're making paper in his bathtub using his window screens.
I didn't take any other pictures of this because though it worked just fine, it was a little impractical. The next day I went out and got a smaller screen for a couple bucks from the ReStore. Once the paper was good and soaked, I ground it into a pulp with a mortar and pestle. Just kidding, I used an immersion blender because time is money, people. My new screen fit almost exactly into the kitchen sink, so I dumped the pulpy goodness in there with a dash of cold water and corn starch (to keep the ink from running).  Next I swished it around and sloshed the screen in, trying to get as even a distribution of pulp as I could on the screen without getting big bare patches.

Sorry so many of these next ones are blurry. I foolishly assumed that blinding florescent lighting would produce crisp, if hideous, pictures.
If our butts were printer shaped, this is absolutely what our poop would look like.
At this stage, it's got a TON of water in it still, so I gently pressed out as much as I could over the sink with a washcloth before transferring it to a towel on the ground for some heavy petting. It's really easy to accidentally rip a chunk off at this step, so it's kind of time consuming.


Pat pat pat pat pat pat pat pat pat pat pat.
Now it's ready to get off the screen. I chose to liberate the paper straight onto our bathroom floor since we have a heater fan in there already for the booch.

Once it's dry enough to hold together, I hung them up on the clothesline I made for the cyanotypes to dry a bit straighter.

Paper accomplished. This paper went on to be cut up, folded, and glued into envelopes designed to protect the letters inside. Now, the purpose of the letters was to let people know that their Christmas present from me (whether they like it or not) is for me to make them something out of metal. I decided since I have so much equipment for cyanotypes [see here for more on that project] that I should try making the cards that way to save time.

I opted to make post-card style letters with a photo print on one side and the letter on the back, so I started by whipping up some sensitizer and painting it on both sides of some watercolor paper. Once they were hung up to dry with the envelope paper in the darkroom, it was time to hit the Photoshop. I picked photos out for everyone and then overlaid a B&W gradient on them, fiddled with the curves to make them super contrasty, gave them a high pass filter to really make the edges pop, applied a second overlay of salmony orange (which seems to help control the exposure rate a bit better than plain B&W does), and then inverted them to make them negatives. The negatives were printed onto 8.5x11 transparency paper and with that it was time to start sun printing!

Now, a problem I ran into a few months ago when I was last making a lot of sun prints was that it was really hard for me to hold the negatives flat against the paper without moving it at all and still be able to check for exposure. I figured with the number of prints I'd be doing, it was time to buckle down and make a contact printer. For another two bucks at the ReStore I picked up a nasty picture frame, which, Frankensteined together with a creased wood ply panel I had leftover from a computer cabinet held on with some spring steel canvas clips, made a pretty decent printer.

Some negatives next to the printer.
The canvas clips don't add that much pressure, but it's enough that with my hand on the back of the top half of the panel, the prints are firmly held in place. Here you can see the letter and one of the prints I used.
The fold in the center of the panel makes it easy to check on the print and see how it's doing quickly without losing the alignment on the negative.
On the day that I had everything ready to print, I checked the forecast and saw about eight days of cloudy weather ahead of me. Of course I should have waited it out, but then I didn't. The first round of prints I made spent a whopping three minutes per-side out in the "sun" (which is a long time in sun printing), and I'm happy to report that the contact printer worked great, none of the images were blurry at all! Sadly, they were also invisible because three minutes in the shade is as useful for exposing cyanotypes as fly fishing is without any line - a lot of running back and forth waving your arms and standing with your body in unnatural positions, but no dinner.

So back to painting sensitizer in the darkroom. I tried again in a few days when the sun popped out for a couple hours, but this time I learned to make extra sensitized papers so I have room to dial in on the right exposure depending on what the sun is up to (since its strength varies depending on relative humidity, time of day/year, temperature, mood, etc.), and this saved me some labor pains.

I wanted to include a hand written letter too, so I experimentally stenciled a little tree onto some card stock with the leftover sensitizer I had. I didn't expose them, so the cards were green upon mailing, but should turn blue once they're opened - I'm excited to hear if this worked.

I had a lot of leftover botched prints, but they'll come in handy for future projects
Now, I know what you're thinking - you went through all this and you're just going to glue the envelopes shut like a peasant?! That would be so déclassé, no of course not. I decided to make a wax seal because wax seals are so damn classy there should be a class action lawsuit against them.

The first hurdle in making a wax seal is that they're fantastically useless without any wax. Sealing wax is unique among waxes because among its laundry list of qualifications are that it shouldn't evaporate when melted, should dry fast, needs to be hard but not brittle, must stick to paper without being so oily that it is absorbed and looks ugly or stains the letter inside, and can't be so sticky that it gloms onto the seal when it's pressed.

You can buy it at Michael's or online if you're a CHUMP who wants to spend hard-earned cash on WAX which your ears make for FREE. I personally didn't produce enough from my ears to make a substantial contribution to the project in the timeframe I had, so I toyed around with some different candles around the house, but they were all made of disappointment, not sealing wax. I had tried this before in high school, and I remember thinking crayons were practically designed for this, but I found they smoked too much and dried way too brittle. In an act of providence, Bucket had just bought a hot glue gun over the holidays, and I felt that what I want is a wax that is almost like hot glue, so I figured...

They melt around the same temperature, right? The glue actually melts a little slower, but it, amazingly, worked perfectly. Approximately two crayons to half a glue stick over the stove for a couple minutes and poured into a little aluminum foil mold makes a stick of sealing wax you'd pay good money for like a CHUMP.

On to the fun part - Some of y'all may have noticed the logo I whipped up a couple months back when I was gathering internet real estate where which to flog m'blog, and I thought it would make a great seal, so I got to I test carving a few different materials. A handy lump of silly putty (delivered to me in another providential move by my other grammy) worked ideally for testing the seal periodically to see what the positive impression would look like. Once I had a design I liked in wood, I decided that the end of a bolt had the aesthetic I was going for.  My trusty Dremel Stylus once again girded itself for battle, and together we gnawed away at the bolt in half-hour increments until we had a decent approximation of what I was going for. I put a little heat on it with a torch and added some accents with a little star punch I had on hand, cleaned up the center lines with a flathead drill bit, and that was that!

I did a few test seals on some scraps leftover from making the envelopes and then got to packing and sealing letters.

It seals really nicely, but I glued most of them before putting the wax on because I don't trust me or the USPS.

Do a lyric search for I'm Too Sexy by Right Said Fred and then do a find and replace for "sexy" with "Etsy".
I used the ice pack (bottom right) to keep the seal cold between impressions, which keeps the wax from sticking to it and also sort of flash-hardens the wax in place.
Thus they were ready for mailing and the saga of The Letters Wot I Made From Scratch comes to a close.

This might seem like a lot of work not forging, and that's absolutely true. I'm really excited to get back to the forge - in the week I had home between traveling to St. Louis for Thanksgiving and Atlanta for Christmas, I picked up a whole bevy of new tools and resources, chief among them is a beautiful post vice I picked up for a song and a "How'd'y'do", which I'm eager to write about later. For now though, I'll close with a bit of more off-topic news - some of you know that I've been tossing around an idea for a pirate/Master & Commander-themed board game for a few years now, and while I was home for Christmas I experienced another one of those huge surges in enthusiasm for working on it. This time it has made it all the way to prototyping!

Most of the pieces are bits of foam or borrowed from other games for now. Instead of printing and cutting out the hex tiles I drew, I just traced a Catan hex and made 3d hex parts to set on top of the map.
I've been using ProCreate on my iPad to do most of the design work, which has been a lot of fun. 
The ships and islands are made out of a sort of salt dough baked hard in the oven. I got the idea from my Aunt who made tree ornaments from the stuff. My dad ate one thinking it was a cookie - a mistake he will not likely repeat. I patterned the ships using a cookie cutter I made out of strips of soda can.
Bucket and I have been playing around with it for a few days, and I'm excited to say that maybe by the end of the year I'll have it for sale on!

More on the forge soon. Here's a sneak peak.

2015 Sweet Hollow Forge calendars forthcoming.

1 comment:

  1. When I first got my letter in the mail, I stopped and thought, "what a beautiful thing." The envelope. The card. The sentiment. I didn't realize until this blog post all the care that went into making it. Thanks for explaining so can really appreciate it. The little tree card is lovely... but green.

    In an age when it seems speed is all that matters, you seem to have joined up with the Slow Movement. You may be onto something.