Wave Borders

All afternoon and into the night, waves were high on Lake Michigan. The marine weather report said four to eight feet and most waves were somewhere in the neighborhood of five. High enough to break over the top of the North Pier and set fishing boats rocking a good way up the West Twin River.

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Waves breaking toward the Two Rivers shoreline, June 10.

Surfers were catching the waves north of the pier. They’d carry their boards out almost to the lighthouse to get beyond the break zone, then ride the waves back in to shore. Seven or eight surfers did this continuously until it got too dark to see.

This was Saturday, June 10, for me the last of four days spent making wood type wave borders on the die-stamping machine at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum (see blog posts 'Wood Type Archaeology: Motive Power', 'Drawing a Machine', and 'Wood Type Archaeology: The Archaeological Experiment' for more on the die-stamping machine).

The die-stamping machine is a piece of nineteenth-century mechanical art that was used to manufacture decorative wood type borders. It worked by impressing one or a series of stamping dies into the end-grain surface of an oblong wood type blank. The shapes on the dies stamped out the border designs’ negative space, leaving the printing surface in relief.

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Die-stamping with the first die for Wave Border.

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The machine’s power came, via a leather drive belt, from overhead shafts mounted in the rafters of Hamilton’s wood type factory. It has since been retrofitted to run on a one-horsepower electric motor and standard V-belt.

Waves get their power from wind. Their size depends on the intensity and duration of wind blowing over the water’s surface, and the distance the wind blows over the water (called “fetch” in the language of wave dynamics). In the oceans, the largest waves derive from storms blowing on the opposite side of the ocean from the beaches where they eventually break.

In the nineteenth century, the power that drove the die-stamping machine (and all of the other machinery in Hamilton’s wood type factory) came from a steam engine in the boiler house located across an alley from the factory proper. The steam engine turned the drive shafts that delivered the wood type manufacturing machinery’s motive power.

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Illustration from an 1891 Inland Printer showing the Hamilton Manufacturing Company Works and the location of the boiler house (E) relative to the type factory (A). Lake Michigan waves can be seen in the background.

Like the power for type factory machines, Lake Michigan waves are relatively local phenomena. Lake Michigan doesn’t have enough fetch to produce swell, the large-scale, unified and rhythmic conglomerations of wave energy travel across oceans. So it takes really intense wind to raise high waves on Lake Michigan, and they are often ragged edged and irregular.

Influences on the shape of a wave approaching shore—in Lake Michigan or in the ocean—are staggering in number and profound in the complexity of their interrelations. The shape of the shoreline and its orientation relative to the waves’ path plays a role in shaping waves; the inclination of the lake- or seabed influences waves’ shape and height; the lake- or seabed’s composition—sand or gravel or bare rock, mud or boulders— is a significant factor; grains of sand suspended in the wave will change its dynamics and so will the air bubbles that suffuse the wave as it breaks. The physics behind waveforms is mind blowing.

By contrast, the shape of the waves on the Wave Borders is formed with almost absolute mechanical certainty by a pair of hardened steel stamping dies. One die defines the curvature of the wave’s crest and lip and the second stamps out the trough, face and shoulder.

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Stamping dies shown with a proof made using a rubber stamp pad to show how the stamp shapes overlap to define a wave shape.

I cut the shape elements for the wave border stamping dies—one about 36 points high and shaped like a funnel cloud, the other smaller and shaped like a raindrop—out of 3/8-inch 1-A tool steel using an angle grinder and Dremel tool. This struck me as a somewhat crude approach, since I had previously spent hours sketching wave shapes on paper and fine-tuning them in Photoshop. In the end, by luck as much as skill, I think, the wave shapes came out surprisingly close to what I had drawn.

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Preliminary wave drawings for Wave Border (drawn in a Firecracker Press notebook from Wayzgoose 2014).

I used silver solder to mount the stamping shapes onto ­­steel blanks that had been professionally machined by Rod LaPointe at BNH Machines in Mancelona, Michigan. Heating the dies for soldering, then quenching them in a can of water hardened the steel effectively, if not precisely.

Stamping the wave shapes using two dies instead of one had two important advantages. First, the lip of the wave, formed at the intersection of the two stamped shapes, is sharper than what could have been achieved using a single die. Second, each die face’s surface area is small enough the machine had no trouble pressing the dies into end-grain maple type wood (Scott Moore of Moore Wood Type provided the wood for this project). This is one way that the mechanical realities of the die-stamping machine conditioned the Wave Border’s design.

The two stamping dies used in combination render five wave shapes across the face of a block of type wood four lines wide by 24 picas long. The waves break right to left across the type piece, and left to right on the printed page.

Like many wood type borders from the nineteenth century, Wave Border has narrow lines cut lengthwise along the top and bottom edges of the face. The machine that was used to cut these lines in the nineteenth century is either missing from the Hamilton museum’s collection, or is configured in a way that makes it unrecognizable as the line-cutting machine. To cut the lines in Wave Border, I built a jig to fit the museum’s regular table saw and fitted the saw with a specially made blade on loan from Scott Moore.

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Wave Border pieces after one pass through the line-cutting saw.

Wood type border makers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries almost certainly had specialized implements for cutting the lines into border corners. Examples of wood type border corners in the museum’s collection, and ones I’ve seen elsewhere, show clear mechanical certainty in the rendering of their lines. These implements have also not been found, so I cut the corner lines by hand with a diamond burin. As a result, the lines are perhaps not as straight-edged or as uniform in thickness as on the corner pieces cut years ago. They are fairly straight, though. And besides, there is documentary evidence suggesting wood type border corners were never all that popular a century ago.

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Cutting lines in border pieces by hand.

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While I was down in Two Rivers making Wave Borders in June, I also stamped out a few dozen “star bar” border pieces. These were a cinch compared to the wave border, requiring only one stamping die, minimal machine calibration, and two pass on the line-cutting saw. These border pieces are now for sale at the museum store.

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Star borders after stamping in the die-stamping machine, before the addition of cut lines.

The next step in the progress of twenty-first century wood type border production is rendering Marian Bantjes’s “Bernice” design as wood type border. Marian’s design is substantially more intricate than Wave Border, and will be a good test of the die-stamping machine's capacity for precision. The "Bernice" stamping die is on order and the first prototyping session will take place in early February when, in all likelihood, it will be too cold to surf at North Pier.

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A set of corner pieces after stamping with the first stamping die.

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A set of corner pieces after stamping with the second die.

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Stamping the second die shape into Wave Border pieces.

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Describing aspects of die-stamping machine operation to Paul Brown, Jim Moran, and Alexander Landerman (from left).

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A galley full of Wave Border and corners.

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Wave Border type pieces after the second die shape has been stamped into them

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Proof taken from Wave border and Wave Border corners (this type was produced during an earlier Wave Border prototyping session).

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Poster printed at the Hamilton workshop studio using Wave Border, without corners.

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Broadside printed on Rives BFK using Wave Border, a copper cut of the die-stamping machine, and 18-point News Gothic lead type.