Saturday, July 17, 2010

Gocco Part II: How-to - Family Reunion Napkins

Provided you’ve managed to acquire a Gocco printer and get your hands on the basic supplies -- Gocco flashbulbs (either 2 or 4 per screen, depending on your Gocco printer), blank Gocco screen, Gocco ink (either ink for paper or ink for fabric will work for the napkins), and of course a big stack of blank napkins -- you’re ready for the Gocco magic to begin. The images here are from some commemorative Family Reunion napkins Carrie and I made a couple years ago.

First off, Making the Image
To make your screen you will need a black and white printed image at least slightly smaller than the size of your screen (a good rule of thumb is to leave about ½” margin at all sides to assure proper printing). Consider whether you want your design printed square to the edges of the napkin or at a 45-degree angle. Also keep the crimped napkin edges in mind. It’s a personal preference, I guess, but I prefer to keep my image entirely off the crimped edge.

Black and white means black and white. When making your image, it’s important to remember there are really no shades of gray with Gocco. A graded dot pattern will give you a fading effect, but you should basically think of your screen like a stencil: either ink comes through, full color, or not at all.

Equally important is to realize that you cannot print two different colors directly adjacent to each other (again, like a stencil). Different colors will either need to be separated by at least 1/2" of space (more is better) or printed with two separate screens. (This is possible, but it’s very tricky to get the screens to register exactly the same. For a “simple” project like paper napkins, I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.) So, for instance, for the Family Reunion, we started with this cute color image:

You'll notice these cute little chickens have several colors (yellow, orange, red, black) touching each other – a big NO for doing a single-screen Gocco print. I brought the image into Photoshop and made some adjustments to get it Gocco-ready. First the hen: I deleted the color from her head and feet, leaving a heavy outline at the edges. This means the head will be left the background color of the napkin, allowing the beak, comb, wattle, and eye to all stand out. Because the rooster has the same color for the head and body, I removed the color from his eye, beak, comb, and wattle (leaving an outline around the edges), as well as his feet. The little chicks mainly needed their eye-color deleted, similar to the rooster. I also gave them a little more definition by “cutting out” a partial outline under their little wings. Finally, I scooted the entire rooster further to the right, so it would be easier to use a different color ink for him than for the chicks. Here’s the resulting image, ready for the next step:

Now, because the Gocco process relies on carbon-based inks to burn the image into (or out of) the screen, take your printed image to the nearest black & white Xerox machine and run off a copy or two (one should be enough, but I’m a big believer in back-ups). Please note that it is very important that you use a black & white copier, NOT a color copier, or else you won’t get the carbon ink necessary to cut the screen. It may also be a good idea to make a copy a little bit larger than full-size and one a little bit smaller, so you can be sure you end up with the right size for your napkin.

Making the Screen

Before you make your screen, decide exactly how you want your image positioned on the napkin. I do this by cutting away the excess paper from the edges and laying the image on the actual napkin. (Here's where you can try out the various sizes you printed.) Now take the napkin and place it on the Gocco printing pad, with the image in its desired location on top. Mark the location of where to place the image. (I use a couple of strips of masking tape for this.) Insert a blank screen and four fresh flashbulbs into the printer lamp. You’re ready to cut your screen – almost.

This next step is more or less important depending on how “old” your photocopy is. If you’ve run it off within the past 30 minutes, you can probably go right ahead and burn your screen. If it’s been sitting around for awhile, though, take out a hair dryer and blow-dry your print (yes, seriously) for about two minutes. Somehow heating up the carbon ink helps in the screen burning process.

Now reposition your image on the ink pad, put the lamp on top of the printer, and press down until you hear (and see) a flash.

Close your eyes (they probably should have been closed anyway in anticipation of the flash) and pray. Remove the lamp from the top of the Gocco, and lift the lid. If all went well, your paper image should now cling to the underside of the screen, and the image should be "burned" out of the screen. To see if you got a successful burn, carefully peel back a bit of the paper. (Don’t peel it off all the way. You want to leave it “stuck” so that you can use the paper as a guide for where to put the ink.)

Inking the Screen

On to the fun part. If you plan to print in multiple colors, you’ll need some of Gocco’s handy foam ink-blocking stuff. This is like a large foam sticker that you can cut into strips and place between different-colored parts of your image to stop ink from running from one area into another. Make sure you ink the right side of your screen! The cellophane side should be face-up. Pull back the cellophane to expose the screen. Cut foam strips about ¼” wide and stick them in place as necessary, making sure you have a continuous wall between the different areas.

Keep in mind that once you start the inking process there’s really no stopping until every last napkin is printed. This is because the ink will dry out if left in the screen for too long. Also it’s very useful to have a helper for the inking process. It can be done alone (trust me), but it’s faster, and easier to avoid screw-ups, with a second set of hands. If you’re sure you’re ready, take your ink tubes and squeeze a generous amount of ink over the cut out portions of the screen (the black areas of your image). The ink will eventually spread, but if possible try to keep it as far from your foam separator tape as possible.


When everything has been inked, fold the cellophane back over the screen, insert the screen back into the printer, and carefully peel off the paper. Before you waste ink on your precious (if inexpensive) napkins, it’s always good to do a few “starter” prints on some scrap paper. It usually takes a few goes to get the ink fully flowing to all areas of the image. When you feel like your tests prints are looking satisfactory, bring out the napkins. Now, bleed-through isn’t as much an issue with napkins as with t-shirts, but it remains a possibility. For this reason, I like to keep scraps of thin cardboard (cut-up manila folders are handy) to slip inside the napkin, just under the top layer. Slipping the cardboard in is one of the many little jobs you can have your helper do.

The printing process itself is very quick and easy: insert napkin/press/remove napkin. The trickiest thing, in a way, is finding somewhere to put all the napkins until they’re dry. (Don’t want to stack them while the ink is wet.) A very useful tool, then, is a laundry drying rack. These will hold several napkins, and they make your house (apartment, whatever) look very crafty and productive in the meantime. Invariably, though, I end up using every horizontal surface available to me as well. From time to time you’ll notice an area of the image that’s not getting its full color. Simply remove the screen, lift up the cellophane, and reapply ink to the fading areas, then get back to business.

And there you have it! Unique, personalized napkins for any and every occasion!If you think you might want to print your image again in the future (more napkins, t-shirts, whatever), make sure to clean the screen well. Using a rubber scraper or a scrap of cardboard, scrape off as much as the ink as possible. (The thrifty among us will store this in an airtight container for another day. The rest of us will toss it.) Then use simple soap, water, and LOTS of paper towels to remove as much of the rest as possible. (Don’t expect to completely remove all color from the screen – just make sure no ink is left in the cut-out portions.) You don’t want your screen to warp, so be careful not to get the cardboard edges wet. I typically lay the screen on some reliably sturdy scrap paper, and rub gently with a damp, soapy paper towel. You will have to frequently change the paper underneath. Cleaning the screen is the messiest part of the whole process.

If you want a more thorough tutorial, with pictures, on how to Gocco, check out this website.

As mentioned in the previous post, these little gadgets are becoming increasingly scarce. I know there’s a new home-crafter screen printer out there called the Yudu, but I haven’t heard a lot about it. From what I can tell, though, the Yudu screen-cutting process is much more complicated and time-consuming than the flash-bulb burning of the Gocco. The scarcity of Gocco products (screens and bulbs especially) may have all of us looking for another way soon enough, but we can always hope another manufacturer resurrects this fun, if only marginally useful, technology.

Gocco, Part I: Party Napkins - A Last Gasp for a Dying Technology?

Time for a little divergence into near-obsolete technology!

Gocco (rhymes with “cocoa”) printers, made in Japan, are essentially a very easy way of making and printing from your own screens. They use flash bulbs to burn any black (carbon-based ink) & white image into a screen which can then be inked and printed onto virtually anything. Pretty cool, maybe, back in 1980. Now that everyone in the world has access to photo-quality inkjet printers, not to mention laser printers, it’s a little hard to know what use to make of Goccos. Yes, an inked print is longer-lasting and possibly more satisfyingly tactile than a standard inkjet print, but is the difference really worth the expense and trouble? To put it another way, what can you do with a Gocco that is truly unique and otherwise impossible?

Let’s examine the facts.

Gocco Negatives

Increasingly harder to find supplies (production appears to have ceased several years ago, and supplies are only available from online sellers (etsy, ebay, etc.))

Screens can only be made from carbon-based prints – meaning you have to seek out old-school black&white copiers

Screen-burning process is incredibly finicky – make sure to have back-up bulbs and screens at the ready

Screen-burning process is fairly expensive: 4 bulbs and 1 screen (minimum, see above item) = upwards of $15

Multi-color prints only possible when colors are separated by at least ½” or so

Gocco Positives

Incredibly cool and gratifying, when it works

Multiple, multiple prints from a single screen

Very fast printing: you’ll be done in no time

Unique projects (see below) to impress your friends and intimidate your foes

I bought my Gocco in a triumphant ebay bid several years ago. The printers come in two sizes: the smaller can print an image up to 4”x6” and the larger up to 7”x10”. I knew I wanted the larger model, as my first line of Gocco endeavor was t-shirt printing. For a couple of years my roommate and I went crazy making t-shirts – snagging designs out of books, making our own out of thin air, or abstracting photos into posterized black & white images. The results were quite neat and unique, and we got the technique down pretty well (masking-tape markings for shirt positioning, cardboard inserts to stop the ink bleeding through, testing and re-testing on paper before printing on the precious t-shirt, etc.).

Inevitably, though, there were a lot of throw-away shirts in the process – probably the biggest downside to t-shirt printing with Gocco. Either not enough ink would come through, or too much ink, or despite your best efforts the design was crooked. Attempting to print a design both on the front and back doubled the risk of disaster. I began to associate a queasy sensation in my stomach with the whole Gocco process and the terror of opening my eyes to see failure. (At least, thanks to H&M, we had a good source of relatively inexpensive shirts.) The t-shirts, at least in the quantities we were making them, also failed to take advantage of one of Gocco's greatest features - the ability to make so many prints from one inking.

A sampling of old used Gocco screens from projects past:

A couple of years into Gocco-ing, I diverged into what has become my favorite type of Gocco project. What else, besides clothing, is fun to personalize but impossible to run through an inkjet printer? Party napkins! Now, in my mind, these are the perfect project for the otherwise obsolete Gocco printing method. The issue of cost and waste is negligible; IKEA’s fabulous FANTASTIK napkins are four cents or less apiece, so no sweat over the odd screw-up. But aside from cost, I think the napkins are more unique and useful: how many weird little t-shirts do you really need? There are only 52 weekends in a year, and in Boston half of those are in sweater season! Besides, the napkins make for great conversation-starters, depending on your design, and it’s more acceptable to personalize. (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t gone around with my name on a t-shirt since about age ten.) And of course the Gocco will let you print as many napkins as you need - tens, hundreds, thousands!!! (Yes, probably thousands, if your arms, and your ink, hold out.)

Sadly, and stupidly, I don't seem to have hung onto samples of all my napkin projects (although, since I still have the screens, I suppose I could always print more). Here, though, are a couple of favorites.

This first one I did for one of my best friends' wedding - not the wedding itself, but a cocktail party the night before. (That meant it didn't have to be too formal.) I was stumped initially as to the

design, but she sent me an image of one of the fabrics they were using for the wedding (except they used blue, not red):Then I looked through their online registry for ideas, and hit on their champagne flutes (still available from Crate & Barrel, if you're interested):

I brought these two images into Illustrator, played around with them for a bit, and came up with this design:

Cute, yes? But not how the napkins turned out. Why, you ask? Because light-colored inks just don't show up well enough on dark colored napkins - the ink sinks into the fibers of the napkin and well, the resulting image wasn't as peppy and fun as intended. This is one of my many learned lessons of Gocco-ing. Napkins are cheap, though, so after a wasted afternoon of printing lackluster, faded dark-blue napkins, I woke up the next day and printed the following:

Front side:
Back side:And of course the entire thing unfolded:
MUCH better contrast, much better result. AND my first-ever two-ink, two-sided design! I was happy, Julie was happy, a good time was had by all, etc., etc..

This next napkin, for a birthday party, is simpler, but to me is just a perfect confluence of all the right ingredients: inspiration, color, design. For this one I found a favorite photo:

(Sunglasses pics are always a plus for this kind of thing as it gets around the problem of weird, ghostly eyes. They also tend to be flattering, so you're not likely to get a "Why did you use THAT picture?!!!" from the honoree.)

Anyway, I brought the image into Photoshop, made it grayscale (you might want to play with the Brightness & Contrast a bit first), and posterized it with the minimum number of levels (2). I cropped out the part I wanted, then added in some text, courtesy of VH1):

And here's the result:(Yeah, it's awesome. You know it. I know it. Definitely my favorite so far.)

Stay tuned for some more specifics on how the actual printing is done, in Gocco, Part II.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

We Are Climbin'....

...Jacob's Ladders!!!

A Jacob's Ladder is an old folk craft/toy that I've seen in the odd craft fair over the years but never paid much attention to -- until recently, that is. Typically a Jacob's Ladder is made up of several panels - traditionally wood - connected by strings or ribbons in such a way that each panel can flip backwards or forwards. It's actually kind of hard to explain how it works in words - in fact, it's hard to understand even if you're holding one in hand and watching it move. Here is a somewhat pedantic video that nevertheless does a pretty good job of showing you what the basic toy does. (I especially appreciate the decorative wrinkled bedsheet in the background.) The more interesting Ladders, however, have pictures on both sides of the panels, so that the image switches from one picture to another as it flips back and forth.

"Very interesting. So what?" you say?

Well, they only became interesting to me last fall when I needed to make a book for my Typography class. The emphasis of the assignment was on the content of the book rather than the binding process, but we were encouraged to find a creative way to bind it, nonetheless. Because there were two different topics for the book - typography journal on the one hand, process documentation on the other - I initially thought of making an accordion-folded book, with process on one side and the journal on the other. Then I came across a mention of Jacob's Ladders in a book-binding book I have at home. Immediately I was intrigued. Fortunately in this digital age not only can you find videos of odd Australian men demonstrating how to play with Jacob's Ladders, you can also find videos of scrapbook-obsessed women demonstrating how to make Jacob's Ladders.

Whereas the panels in wooden Jacob's Ladders, as in the first video above, are typically single blocks of wood with ribbon attached at the ends, each panel of the scrapbook-style Ladders is made up of two boards (typically mattboard or somesuch) sandwiched around the ribbons. (This makes more sense if you watch the video.) Unfortunately, the online tutorials I found only show how to assemble a Jacob's Ladder with blank panels -- onto which you apply photos after the fact. This might work OK for a scrapbook-y look, but I knew that for the look I wanted (perfect) I would have to mount my "pages" first, so that I could get them precisely even with the edges of my chipboard panels. A little trial and error was therefore necessary to figure out how to orient each board as I glued up my Ladder. (I loosely taped some trial pieces together until I got the hang of it.)

The other major problem I had with the typical Jacob's Ladder was the obtrusive ribbon right in the center of the panel. True, I could design my pages around it, but there had to be a better way. That's when I noticed that the ladder in the second video linked above has not three, but four ribbons holding it together. In effect, the center ribbon has been split down the middle and pushed to either side, next to the outer ribbons. The physical phenomenon is the same, but the center of the Ladder is left unencumbered. Brilliant!

The ribbon on that ladder was also much narrower than the others. How narrow a ribbon could I use, I wondered, and still have a functional ladder? Did it have to be ribbon at all? I went to the hardware store and looked at various options - fishing line, hemp, etc. - and finally settled on a decent-weight string, about 1/8" diameter: sufficiently flexible, yet strong, and not too stretchy. To accommodate the increased depth of the string (as opposed to a flatter ribbon), I used an Olfa knife to cut shallow little grooves in the back of each panel. This time-consuming step not only allowed the panels to adhere better to each other, but also provided additional surface area to allow for better adherence of the string.

Then it was just a matter of gluing/flipping the string/gluing/etc.. I allowed plenty of drying time in between gluing each panel, using heavy books to weight it down while it dried. It came out ... not perfect, but, you know, acceptable. I was happy with the overall graphic style of the book, and there was a sufficient number of pages that it was very long (tall?) and made a nice clacky sound as it moved along. The extreme length also makes it more fun to play with - you can get it going both directions at once.

Here are some videos of the result. (No, that isn't me in the videos.) Sorry there are no process photos - it was difficult enough to get this finished by the due date without stopping to take pictures. If you have a quick eye you can also get a look at some of the projects I made for Typography class. Enjoy!