Printmaking + Digital Fabrication

This semester I am working on a research project/technical investigation on the potential of using CNC machining to make printmaking relief and intaglio plates. I am specifically interested in using 3-axis operations (rather than 2 1/2, which would give you the same affect as a traditional relief woodblock print) to create 3 dimensional plates for embossing. Through a combination of 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and photography, this will allow me to create prints with the physical impression of objects, textures, and surfaces from the physical world.

These are some of the images I have been working with to create test models. I am interested in capturing textures from the ground, such as crumbled sidewalks, piles of debris (usually salt due to the time of year and my area of residence), weeds, etc. While the above edits may not be considered good photography, I am experimenting with how different edits (such as extremely high or low exposure) affects the resulting 3D model.

To create the model, I am currently playing around with the affects of the “heightfield” tool in Rhino, which creates a 3D mesh from photos, based on the values in the photo (which is why how I edit the photo is important). I have also experimented with making a 3 color live trace of an image in Adobe Illustrator and extruding the resulting layers in Rhino.

Heightfield tool:


Live trace:


The live-trace technique is good because I have more control over the exact dimensions of the layers of the plate. However, the layers are all flat since they are straight extrusions from vectors, so it creates more of a “stepped” effect. The heightfield tool preserves more detail, and there are also settings in the tool that allow for some interesting distortion effects.

By limiting the number of vertices in the model, you can create a “faded” appearance:

models from heightfield tool at 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 vertices per inch

You can take this feature to quite an extreme:


Here are some shots of a simulation in RhinoCAM of how one of the plates will look when milled:

5/64 diameter endmill


1/32 diameter endmill

Obviously I am working at extremely high detail, the above simulation is only on a 5 in long piece and it still captured everything from this model (the example on the right):


This model is also at a very shallow depth (about .02″), but I will definitely play with deepening that. There is somewhat of an interplay between wanting to know how detailed and shallow and intricate I can make a piece through milling (and how much small detail I can emboss in paper), but also wanting to get as much depth in my print as possible. I will definitely need to make a few different pieces with this project.

From here, I am ready to start making these models physical. I will probably start by making at least a couple 3d printed versions, just because of the time investment required to mill even small surface areas at this level of detail.





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