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?)
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.
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
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).
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 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.
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 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.