Up, not North

Alphabet blocks

Shortly before my son was born I decided to make a set of alphabet blocks decorated with things that his mother and I were looking forward to sharing with him. I started work, and then he was born. Now, coming up on his first birthday, I’ve finally finished. (Apparently, shop time is hard to come by when you’re caring for an infant. Who knew?)

Pile of blocks

There are 36 blocks — the English alphabet and ten digits — showing 134 images of people, animals, monsters, robots, vehicles, organizations, devices, tools, and objects from some of our favourite movies, TV shows, books, comics, video games, poems, and sculptures, as well as a few from the real world for good measure (and a couple not-so-favourites for comic relief/alphabetical exigency; I’m looking at you, Zardoz). The only real rule I followed in choosing subjects was trying to maintain an even gender balance.

Alphabet block contact sheet

Click for giant size (7500 x 6000, 6.1MB)

For close-ups of the individual blocks please visit this Flickr set or download the contact sheet (6.1MB JPEG); keep reading for more information on how they were made, as well as a full list of what’s on each block with links to Wikipedia explanations.

Making the blocks

Design

Originally I’d considered following some sorts of rules, like having each block show one movie, one video game, etc. It quickly became clear that was far too limiting, so I decided to just put whatever I wanted. After noticing that male characters were dramatically overrepresented, I revised the list to make sure that female characters were represented more-or-less equally. Cats were included at my wife’s insistence.

To find the images I mostly used Google image searches, often using the search parameters to limit the art to black and white, clip art, or line art. I also found searching for “colouring pages” to be useful. (Unfortunately, I didn’t think to keep track of the sources, so my apologies to the artists.) Occasionally I had to resort to scanning my own images. In most cases I cleaned the image up a bit before converting it to a 1-bit bitmap for laser engraving.

The typeface is Sebastian Koch’s free Crimson. The letter faces are bold (expect the Roman numerals, which are, coincidentally, Roman weight), and the captions are semibold small caps (although if I had to do it again I’d probably use the lighter Roman weight).

Fabrication

I bought pre-cut wood blocks from Bear Woods. They offer cubes in many different sizes at reasonable prices, as well as many other wood shapes. I went with 1.5″ cubes.

The alignment grid for batch engraving the blocks

The alignment grid for batch engraving

The engraving was done using the laser at Site 3 coLaboratory. The blocks aren’t sized precisely enough to rack them together and engrave all at once; the art wouldn’t stay aligned and would stray onto neighbouring blocks. Instead, I used the laser to mark out a spaced grid on paper, and then used the grid to centre each individual block. Between placing the blocks on the grid and actually engraving them it took about 40 minutes to do one set of faces for all 36 blocks. The letter faces got multiple passes in order to have deeper relief, making the whole process take about six hours of labour.

Results

I’m thrilled with how the blocks came out. I was a bit worried about some of the more detailed pictures, and while a few didn’t really come out well (like the X-Men), many of the others look pretty great: check out the feathers on the dodo, or the grooves in the vinyl! It was annoying babysitting the laser for hours, but it was very much worth it. The hardest part was having to cut certain images because there wasn’t enough space; I guess it’s incentive to have another kid so I have an excuse to make another set.

I did multiple passes on the letter faces in order to get deeper relief, but unfortunately the laser wasn’t working at full power, so it didn’t turn out as dramatically as my test passes. I considered using the CNC router to do the letters, but then they wouldn’t have that beautiful contrast between the burnt and unburnt wood.

The list

The links for each letter go to the image for that block; clicking the capital letter will show the images in the third and fourth column, and the lower case will show the images in the fifth and sixth.

The links for each title go to the relevant Wikipedia page for that item.

The full set of images is available here.

AaAlice in WonderlandApplejackAda LovelaceAvro arrow
BbBubble BobbleBuffy The Vampire SlayerBatgirlBianca
CcCompanion CubeC-3POCaseyCats
DdDeLoreanDodoDarth VaderDalek
EeEnterprise NCC-1701EVEEntEeyore
FfFireflyFone BoneFinneganFraggle
GgGame BoyGizmoGran'ma BenGLaDOS
HhHedgehogHedgehog (Sonic)Hitchhikers Guide to the GalaxyHermione Granger
IiIndiana JonesIcosohedronInvaderIntegrated Circuit
JjJoustJack SkellingtonJoystickJabberwocky
KkKatamariKermit the FrogKoopaKitty Pryde
LlLinkLeelaLeia OrganaLuke Skywalker
MmMarioMillennium FalconMs Pac-ManMarceline
NnNintendo Entertainment SystemNarwhalNautilusNancy Drew
OoOkapiOptimus PrimeOswaldOscilloscope
PpPac-manPrincess PeachPlatypusPenny
QqQ*bertQuestion blockQueen Elizabeth IIQueen of Hearts
RrR2-D2RosieRipleyResistor
SsScooby DooSamusStay Puft Marshmallow manSoldering iron
TtTotoroTARDISTurretTIE Fighter
UuUnicornUnited Federation of PlanetsUnicronUncle Deadly
VvVulcanVoltronVelmaVindicator
WwWall-EWonder WomanWinged VictoryWitch
XxX-wingXenomorphX-menXenopus
YyYoshiYodaY-wingYeti
ZzZeldaZeppelinZombieZardoz
1ICircle1 pipOne ring to rule them all1-up
2IIDigon2 pipsThunderbird 2Two-Face
3IIITriangle3 pipsTriforceThree rings for the Elven-kings
4IVSquare4 pipsThunderbird 4Fantastic Four
5VPentagon5 pipsMach 5Johnny 5
6VIHexagon6 pipsNumber 6Hexapod
7VIIHeptagon7 pips7" singleSeven rings for the Dwarf-lords
8VIIIOctagon8 pipsFigure 8 knotOctopus
9IXNonagon9 pipsK-9Nine rings for the Mortal Men
0 NothingZipZilchNada

§ 46 Responses to “Alphabet blocks”

  • Jennifer R. Ewing says:

    Those are beautiful blocks! Saw the link you posted on Scalzi’s Whatever blog. You’re very talented!

    :-)

  • Tassie says:

    Those are amazing

  • Jenni says:

    These are amazing! You have a great mix of different geeky and nerdy areas, and I think you did a great job balancing the masculine and feminine.

    So – has anybody asked you if you’re selling them yet? I know I would buy them, and I bet you could make a killing…

    • Thank you! While I’d love to sell them, there are a few problems: first of all, it just takes too much time. The amount I’d have to charge to make it worthwhile would be exorbitant. Even if I could find a way to make it economically feasible, I don’t have the rights to either the characters or the art. Unfortunately, I just don’t see a way to make it happen. Sorry!

  • Marcy says:

    I laughed about Zardoz. It’s one of my husband’s favorite movies, and I found it dreadful. Is he kidding that it’s his favorite? I really can’t tell after 20 years of marriage, but he insists that it is. These blocks are amazing–what a treasure they will be. I found you through Whatever.

    • Zardoz is a beautiful train wreck. It’s transcendentally bad. I can definitely see it being someone’s legitimate favourite. Or, it’s entirely possible that your husband just has terrible taste. :-)

      Thank you for the kind words!

  • Paul says:

    So when will these be going up for sale??!!?!?!?!?
    I KNOW these would be a great gift, I want them for a friend of mine who is expecting…

    • I wish I could sell them, but it won’t happen, for two big reasons: the first is that they take so long to make, I’d have to charge a fortune to make it worth my time. The second is that I don’t own the copyright to any of the characters or art.

      My best suggestion is to find a hackerspace near you (there’s a list at hackerspaces.org) and make a set on your own!

  • Brian S says:

    These are fantastic! Very impressive labour of love and the laser engraving makes the bunt wood look really pop.

    One question, do you have the links to the actual images to load into the laser printer? I was thinking of trying to make a set myself in a hackerspace in Philly and it would be very helpful to have some of the originals that you used to at least see the actual process of setup and cleanup to produce those fantastic looking blocks. Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for the kind words! I have mixed feelings about distributing the files publicly, since none of the images are my original work. I’ll send you an email, though, and I’ll see what I can do to help you out.

  • These are so amazingly fantastic. I know you can’t make them to sell, but I will jsut drool over them from afar… Thanks especially for including Number 6!!! And Eeyore. The right Eeyore. Fabulous, congratulations!

  • :| says:

    I’m sure other people have already pointed out this fundamental flaw in your character, but HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE ZARDOZ? It took the sci-fi tropes of the time, said “fuck that noise,” and decided to do something really MEANINGFUL. There has not been a film quite like it since, and the medium (nay, art and all of human endeavor) is better for it.

  • Ann says:

    How fun…folks will want to buy these, be prepared for that… so how much?

  • Adam Goss says:

    Sir, this was a brilliant idea and I think you did an amazing job! I have a thought – certainly you do not want to take up too much time making these. But if you were to look into making an arrangement with a business or facility that *could* make the blocks, and if you put the project up for funding on Kickstarter… you could have a lovely little home business! Just a thought! Beautiful work and I hope your child loves them!

    • Thank you so much! I’m very glad you like them.

      The main problem with selling these blocks is the intellectual property rights: I don’t have the legal right to sell things with all these popular characters on them, and the companies that own them would probably be unwilling to license them to me; even if they err, it would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive. I don’t really think there’s much of a market without those characters.

      And my son does love them, thanks! (Although at this age I think he’d love blank blocks just as much, but hopefully one day he’ll think the pictures are cool, too.)

  • Andrew Spear says:

    What an awesome product! I write books which teach kids about numbers, letters and shapes using geeky terminology so this is right up my alley. Geek education FTW :)

  • cubicz says:

    OMFG, Avro arrow and Mr.Dressup references!

    You’re such a canuck :)

  • Greg Spence says:

    Very cool! My wife an I actually had this same idea for our kids who are now two. I own my own laser cutter/engraver and considered doing something like this to sell, but immediately realized there would be no way of getting licensing for everything I wanted to do. At that point the idea stopped. I may still go make something like this for our own use though.

    • Thanks!

      I’d thought about doing it for years as baby gifts when my friends started having kids, but never got around to it until it was for my own son. I highly recommend it: the pride I feel watching my son play with something I made for him is incomparable.

  • Ken Vickerson says:

    Jonathan what a significant work of art, craft and design! Congratulations to you and your wife for your taste, creativity and collaborative abilities. These attributes will no doubt serve you well in raising your son. I expect we will see more of your wonderful work in the future. You made my day.

  • cliff newman says:

    Please start a kickstarter project. This is amazing

    • Thank you! I wish it was as simple as running a Kickstarter. The real issue is getting all the rights to the characters from Disney, Nintendo, etc. I can’t really run a Kickstarter before I have permission, because there’s a good chance I won’t ever be able to get permission; those companies probably wouldn’t be too keen on having their characters mixed with other companies’ characters.

      So, while I’d love to do it, I just don’t think it’s in the cards.

  • Julie says:

    These are so wonderful, and I’m heartbroken that I can’t buy a set. I understand copyright law, but these are so unbelievably brilliant. Your son is a very lucky boy.

  • Denis Daoust says:

    Hello Jonathan,

    Where did the Avro Arrow idea come from? I am a great fan (and collector) of the Arrow which is a great (albeit so unfortunately cancelled program) Canadian realization!

    Great references to many elements our whole family really likes (Thunderbirds, Sonic, Firefly, Back to the Future, Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc, etc.). Great “creation” altogether you produced there…

    Denis

    • Well, with so many pop culture references in there, I needed at least one Canadian aerospace history reference! :-) To be honest, I’m not sure why it made it in there, other than the fact that growing up in Canada I always thought the Arrow and its story were cool!

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Jonathan

  • Cliff Newman says:

    I understand you probably cant sell them because of copyrights. However, could you provide the stencil designs so we could make our own?

    • I’m reluctant to post them publicly, since the individual drawings were taken from all over and is feel weird redistributing them, but if you get in touch privately I’m happy to pass them along to you. (I know that might seem strange, but I feel like there’s a difference between posting something online for everyone versus sharing it with people who specifically ask.)

  • SlowNun says:

    Nice idea. Keep it up!

  • Jackie says:

    No avatar the last airbender? =(

    They’re still really awesome though.

  • Juanto says:

    Hi Jonathan, such an amazing work. Congratulations!!!
    Yes it would be great to have the stencil designs and try to make it at home ;)

  • Ky Patterson says:

    Coolest thing I’ve seen in ages! Awesome work.

    Now I’m trying to convince myself to try doing this for my daughter (just about to turn one), even though I’ve no gift with tools nor physical things.

    Kudos!

  • karin says:

    dear jonathan,
    i’m very happy i found this blog!
    thanks for the inspiration and the absolutely fabulous blocks you made! congrats!

    would you be so kind to send me also these stencils?
    i’m an artist working with a lot of other “nerds” with children and it would be great to try something out with them.
    all the best for following projects!
    bye from germany

  • You did a fantastic job. I love them! I found the story on flipboard. I search for stories and articles that have good news rather than horror that we hear so much of. On flipboard your blocks appeared in an article on nerdapproved.com by Nicole Wakelin
    I hope you don’t mind, I followed you in flickr

  • Anna says:

    Those are marvelous. I have a friend with a laser cutter, but I’m reluctant to ask her to make something this elaborate, so I will admire from afar.

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