I was recently contacted about making a set of blocks that would be used for something called letter press. The client is an artist who I’ve sat for in his portrait workshops and his request intrigued me to say the least. He started off by saying he needed “furniture wood” so my first thought was hey, furniture’s made out of all kinds of wood! As we do these days to learn about things is to do an internet search and I discovered that this process began with the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. There is a resurgence of it now for wedding announcements thanks to Martha Stewart! Here’s a link to the process.
The wood chosen was European Beech since this process began in Europe it seemed only fitting to use that species. It’s a hardwood with consistent grain that I thought would work well for this. The pieces are all 5/8″ x 17″ and vary in thickness from 1/16″ to a full inch in 1/16″ increments. I figured that my Powermatic planer with the Byrd head could handle all but the thinnest pieces (less than 1/4″). After surfacing all of the boards to the 5/8″ thickness they were cut to 20″ to begin the process. The job called for three sets of these pieces.
It was challenging to calculate how much of the lumber I needed so wisely chose to buy more than I thought I’d need. My shop is about 20′ square with a post dead center! The first step was to cut the pieces of Beech into 5′ lengths and uniformly surface them to 5/8″ thickness. These pieces were then cut to the 20″ length. Any leftover material could be used for future drawers.
This project required quite a bit of precision so I needed to come up with a method to achieve that. The 20″ long pieces gave me 3″ of extra stock to compensate for any snip the planer may give. First up was to establish a working edge on both sides of the 20″ long piece. I began with the widest pieces (1″) so set the bandsaw fence to that plus a sixteenth inch.
I’m using a 1/2″ wide Wood Slicer blade from Highland Woodworking.
After cutting it, it was run through the planer. My technique is to also cut pieces of the same size from MDF which serve as test pieces to verify size. Assured that the piece was accurate with the MDF each piece of Beech was run through at 1″. Those boards were then hand planed again to get a true smooth and square edge. The bandsaw fence was re-adjusted to cut the next three pieces a sixteenth smaller, MDF test piece too, and then the planer is adjusted up 1/16″ and the process repeated until I reached 1/4″ in thickness. At the bandsaw, three strips were cut for each size.
Even with the Shelix cutter head in my 15″ Powermatic planer getting precise finish on piece that were 3/16″ down to 1/16 inch isn’t possible. Running the thin pieces on a backer board through the planer gave marginal results. Tried to use double back tape to secure the very thin pieces but removing them usually tore the wood. Hand tools are often best so that was the solution.
I’m looking forward to seeing the results of my clients work with the Letterpress process. He plans to send out Christmas cards using this process so if I get one that means these furniture sticks were successful!
Just a side note: WordPress has changed their format and I’ve found it to be beyond challenging! Ironically enough they have told me that it is a block system based on the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. I’d be interested in hearing from other WordPress users if you’ve had the frustration I have with their new format — numerous communications with them unfortunately haven’t helped either.