Letterpress Goes 3D: Preparing a Digital Font for Wood Engraving Using Illustrator

In this post, we’ll be going over how you can create wooden letterpress blocks of a digital font of your choosing. Each block will correspond to an individual letter which can be used to create, or “compose,” lines of type for letterpress printing. Blocks of a particular type (e.g. “A,” “a,” or “&”) are called “sorts.”

Setting up digital fonts for raster engraving into wood blocks is a deceptively complex process, though not a mechanically difficult one. Once an initial Illustrator document is set up it can be easily edited in order to engrave other fonts or alphanumeric characters. Make sure to save the document before you create outlines of the characters in order to have an editable document to create further and different fonts. Take note that if printing using the CAMD space, you should limit your design area to 24 x 7 inches, but still make your initial document 24 x 18 inches.

  1. Create a new Adobe Illustrator document that is 24 inches wide and 18 inches high, the size of the laser cutter bed.

2. Use the rectangle tool to draw a black rectangle.

3. Resize the rectangle to be the exact height of your font size. Point to inches conversions can be found online. For instance, a 72 point font should have a box that is 1 inch in height. This may be substantially larger than the font when you first type it. Do NOT panic; digital fonts may be different sizes than letterpress sized fonts. Digital fonts are measured somewhat arbitrarily, while analog/letterpress font size is tied to the inch scale.

4. Position the rectangle in the top left corner of your document.

5. Create a text box.

6. Type 1 letter of the desired font in the text box.

7. Place the edge of the text box over the rectangle, so that you can still see some of the letter. Your letter may be smaller than in the example image, that’s ok right now.

8. Change the letter color to white, so it is visible over the rectangle. If need be, right click on the text box and select Arrange > Bring to Front to ensure the text is on top of the rectangle.

9. Shift the text box to be in the rectangle. Resize the font size to fit neatly in the rectangle; it may be larger than 72 font digitally. 

10. Resize the text box to fit the letter exactly, if necessary (so that the letter does not get cut off by the size of the box and no longer appear). A red square will appear on the text box if it is too small to fit the letter/character in the box.

11. Carefully move and resize the rectangle to align with the left and right boundaries of the text box, which at this point should be properly sized to the height of the rectangle. The bottom of the rectangle should align with the blue line that denotes the bottom of the text in the text box — not the bottom of the text box itself, but the bottom of the text within the text box. There is a small blue “x” at the bottom left corner of the text box that can help you with alignment. It may be helpful to zoom in.

12. With the text box selected, under “Properties” on the right hand side, click the two arrows facing each other horizontally to create a mirror image of the letter. Mirroring the image will help ensure it letterpress prints in the popular orientation.

13. You now have 1 letter almost set to print! Don’t worry, further letters will be simpler to make. If you just need to make the one letter, skip to step 22.

14. Go to the “Layers” tab on the right side of the screen. Click on the circle next to the Layer that corresponds to everything you just made to select all of it.

15. Click the three line menu on the top right and select “Duplicate Layer” for the layer selected.

16. Click the circle next to the copy of the layer you just made to select the full layer. Use the right arrow key to move it aside to ensure it stays in line with the original letter.

17. Arrange your copy of Layer 1 to be next to your first letter, but with some space between them to accomodate for cutting separate blocks.

18. Delete the letter (NOT the text box) and replace it with the desired letter. Note that since you flipped the orientation of the letter, you will need to click on the left side of it to delete it. Oftentimes, it may be necessary to rearrange the left and right edges of the textbox and rectangle to fit the type exactly, as in straps 3 and 8.

19. Create a new white rectangle that is .25 inches wide and 1 inch high. Position it between the two sorts you have created, then arrange the sorts to be right next to it. Essentially, you should use this rectangle as a measurement to set .25 inches of space between sorts to facilitate cutting. It’s ok if there is a little extra space between your black rectangles; this mostly just ensures that you reach the minimum distance needed between sorts to cleanly cut them with the saw.

20. Repeat steps 14 through 19 to create however many sorts you need. Remember that this is letterpress printing — you likely will want to ultimately make a number of letters proportional to their usage frequency. So rather than 1 E and 1 Z, you might instead want something like 7 Es and 1 Z. Consider also space and labor when making a full font’s worth of type. Wooden sorts take up space, and a lot of cutting may be required for a lot of letters. A reasonable full wooden font will have enough letters to compose writing on a poster, but not much more than that. Remember too that you should only use 7 inches of height space on an individual document; more than that means starting a new document (which is totally fine!)

21. Once you have all of the sorts you want, shift + click all of the text boxes you have made to select them.

22. With the sorts selected, click “create outlines” to make the letters vector images that can be engraved.

23. You are now ready for rasterizing! Save the document as an Adobe Illustrator Legacy file by selecting Save As > Illustrator and selecting Legacy from the dropdown menu in the window that appears.

Now you have a vector image file ready for engraving wood in a laser cutter. Your next steps may vary depending on your situation, but Northeastern Huskiana affiliates can reach out to the CAMD Makerspace with their file ready to request to make a laser engraving.

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