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!

No comments: