Kind of a weird question

Hello all,

I'm new here and I have a singular purpose.  I am a hobby woodworker and am getting into string inlay.  this is a process where you create a thin channel in your wood and embed a thin 'string' of contrasting wood.  See below.

patterns are fairly easy. Characters are not so easy.  the example above was done ad-hoc by a fellow named Steve Latta who is an acknowledged master of string inlay.  He basically messed around with special cutters that slice the two sides of the channel at once.  His tools amount to a straightedge and a compass.  I've seen him do this and he works by eye on every character in every project.

Cutting inlay with a CNC router would be childs play.  But what if you don't have the $3K for a minimal system?  It occurs to me that it should be possible to create a font that is not the letter or number but the instructions for making the letter or number.  It would include lines, center points, vertices and such.  I've seen plenty of drawings of a Roman character.  What I have never seen is a whole font of those drawings.

Am I making sense?  Any thoughts or suggestions?  If anyone out there in the typography world would like to make such a font, I have little doubt that it could be sold.

Finally, being new to this forum, please forgive me if I've posted to the wrong place.  Feel free to move this topic to where it belongs.


  • Welcome, Roger.
    This is surely an interesting topic, though I’m not confident that I understand your technical proposal right away. Maybe you’d like to illucidate by one or two sketches?
    I myself, though being a type and font man mainly, have some experience with hand  work in a similar field (attached: the mould made for a bronze cast).

  • AbiRasheedAbiRasheed Posts: 235
    edited October 2017
    Foremost, for the amount of work that goes into making this the end result looks bland I thought. Also why is it they can't use something like wood dust to fill in sort of like what we do with glitter and glue on paper? I just thought the workflow for this was somewhat unnecessarily labor intensive using string. I had to see the video by Steve Latta to understand what this is about. I kinda get it now. So basically the guy does the inlay and then adds a string that's uniform in weight to the inlay. Going back to your question if I understand you correctly, you mean you want geometrical values to construct the proportions of a letter so it's as accurate as possible? If so, why, can't you use a pounce to transfer the letters onto wood or any number of methods to transfer and then continue on with the inlay process? 
  • why is it they can't use something like wood dust to fill in

    The inlay isn't a string but is a contrasting wood. The term "string inlay" is just something the craft calls it.

  • AbiRasheedAbiRasheed Posts: 235
    edited October 2017
    @George Thomas Right, but if you see the video the wood actually is quite flexible like string maybe that's why they call it that, I don't know. But I'm thinking something like wood dust or crushed wood with the right color added to it using a dye or something would yield the same thing and would be less of a hassle because all you have to do is pack it in and tamp it down. Won't have to sit there chipping away serifs that are less than 1/8 of an inch. Just thinking out loud really about their workflow.
  • In case anyone is interested in this technique, here's the charming Roy Underhill episode:

    CNC fonts for stroke based work can be a surprising headache. The machines want path-based instructions they can follow from point A to point B. Regular fonts don't actually work this way, instead they define an outline, so point A to point B and so on... but the font always needs to return to point A to complete the outline. This works for outlining an area, but not so much for single stroke forms. 

    Do you really need the calligraphic stroke models (i.e.: Couldn't you just use any thin stroke-ish font as a model and just carbon transfer, pounce, trace, stencil those forms to your work?
  • Thanks to all for the comments.  

    Lets imagine the upper case I in a Roman font.  We can think of it as one vertical rectangle, two horizontal rectangles, and four arcs.  To do all that with string inlay, the rectangles are self evident.  To do the arcs, you need the center points and the points where they meet the straight lines so you don’t overshoot.

    Transferring a design to wood is fairly straightforward. You can adhere the design to the wood with spray adhesive or you can print in reverse using a laser jet and  us a hot iron for the transfer.

    ive seen images of single Roman characters with the centers and stuff left in.  That’s what gave me the idea.
  • I’m on an iPad right now.  If you google “font master v 1.55” you should see an image of an upper case B that illustrates what I’m looking for.
  • @RogerFeeley Still not following you. If you know to transfer the design why is there a need for all those measurements? The design is already done, use that as a template to transfer and bob's your uncle. Am I missing something else here?
  • Hin-Tak LeungHin-Tak Leung Posts: 339
    edited October 2017
    The wood cutting inlay issue, if I understand correctly, is that the contours are composed only of straight lines and circular arcs. This is radically different from truetype and CFF where the contours are composed of quadratic splines and cubic splines.

    In most of the common font editors should be capable of being adapted into converting and approximating cubic / quadratic splines to straight line segments and circular arcs. Splines are specified by the location of the spline control points, whereas circular arcs are specified by the end points and the centre of the arc. (i.e. different kind of control points)

    This is because, at least for traditional (non-machine guarded) wood cutting, one can only either cut in straight lines or part of a circular arc, but not any arbitrary curvy line.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,220
    edited October 2017
    If you rendered your design as a DXF (AutoCad) and then printed the DXF as text, following the cutting instructions manually should be possible. DXF is human readable with a little practice. Well, I'm not sure about the format now but 20 years ago, it was pretty easy to figure out. As for getting the type you want, there's software that will convert type to single stroke DXF for laser cutters etc. I don't have direct experience with these tools but I've been told that the free conversion tools do a poor job of it.

    Or maybe it's DWG that's more human readable and not DXF?
  • The example I cited is just for the letter B.  I need them all.

  • Here is something like I want.  But it needs to be very simple.  The Z is an excellent example but the font would need to provide the center points for the arcs.  the S just looks scary!

    the inlay might be the outline of the character in which case the letters below are very close.  Some folks make the lines very thin and then add serifs.

  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,220
    If you learn AutoCad or a similar open source  package, you can create the target lettering and put it on a background layer. Then draw over it with simple lines and arcs. Convert to DWG and that should give you a list of your coordinates for straight lines plus coordinates/radii for arcs. But keep in mind that ruler/compass letterforms are a fantasy. You might find a few places where you can get circles to coincide but a lot where they're not helpful at all. Don't be fooled by those old diagrams; they're like numerology for typefaces.
    If anyone out there in the typography world would like to make such a font, I have little doubt that it could be sold.
    There are no tools that can create something like this as a working font and few typeface designs that are compatible with ruler/compass. I'm not saying it's not a project worth pursuing for your craft but with the prices of CNC machines plummeting, I think you'd be the only customer. If you were to pay to commission the development of both the tools to create such a font and the font itself, you could probably buy a dozen CNC machines.
  • Roger, I think people are a little confused about how your carving your letters. It sounded to me like you are working with hand tools, but we should clarify.

    If you're working by hand, how are you cutting your curves? If you're using gouges, à la Mr. Latta, you're going to be stuck with a limited number of radii or curve profiles. And you're working with physical things, so your reference letters would need to be drawn for a specific size. Imagine a capital I drawn at a 1" cap height with 1/8" radius serifs. Now scale that up 10%. Now you need a gouge for 0.1375" radius serif.  

  • I think Roger's requirements is as I stated earlier, converting all the contours into either straight lines or segment of circular arcs; and the arcs need to be specified using the centre of the (completed) circle as control point.
  • Hello again, all,

    I'm on my big computer with a better keyboard.  Since I retired in March, that doesn't happen much (can't say I'm unhappy about it).

    As posted above, my only tools are the equivalent of a compass and straightedge. 

    String does refer to very thin slivers of contrasting wood.  the grooves cut are perhaps a 1/16" deep and sometimes about a 1/16" wide.  Sometimes the string is flexible enough to follow a curve.  Many times, the tiny wood strip is bent over a heat source to shape and then trimmed.  Serifs are hand cut triangles set into laboriously chiseled out hollow.

    Traditional string inlay is done entirely by hand.  Tools such as those from Lee Valley, do have double cutters that make things a lot easier.

    Watching the videos by Steve Latta, it was pretty obvious to me that he re-invents the characters for every project and, to my programmers mind, that seemed wasteful. In some cases such customization makes sense.  For instance when you have a three character monogram set into a diamond shape, the letters on the left and right are misshapen to follow the diamond.  But, if you do it all the time (I don't), it might be expedient to have a left, center and right monogram font.

    based on the posts above and an email exchange, I am thinking that a font just isn't the way to go.  Maybe I would be better off drawing each letter that I want into a PDF file and then enlarging or reducing as needed.

    Unlike a drawing of just the character, my drawings would include the center points for radii and vertices where arc meet other arcs or straight lines.  Something like this:

    So I would print this off on paper and adhere it to the wood.  Keep in mind that these things are usually several inches high.  You don't string inlay a lot of text unless you are glutton for punishment.

    Again, thanks to all for the great comments and suggestions.  Not to beat a dead horse, but my original font idea was to render the 'Y' above as seen above with all those circles and other directions for drawing.

  • Maybe an alternative to hand drawing would be to (ahem) borrow the design.  This would be strictly for me and NOT for sale.

    I did a search a while back and found, "

    A Constructed Roman Alphabet: A Geometric Analysis of the Greek and Roman Capitals and of the Arabic numerals"

    by David Lance Goines.  I can't find much about the contents of the book.  Would that be what I'm looking for?

    Simple is better.  Just sayin'

  • ok bad idea.  'A' wasn't bad but I pretty much did a spit take when I saw 'B'

    Way too complicated.  But you get the idea.
  • Ray LarabieRay Larabie Posts: 1,220
    I asked around and, no DWG is binary but DXF is text, but it's barely human readable. It was over 25 years ago but I remember editing something in a text editor and loading it back into a CAD package. Some CAD packages will let you draw then print out human readable instructions like: vector (X,Y) to (X,y). Circle (X,Y,R). I think all CAD packages have an option to print a diagram with coordinate labels, circle centers, radius measurements etc. You might want to head down the CAD package path rather than the Illustrator/Corel path on your straightedge/compass journey.
  • If you do an image search for "roman du roi" you'll find drawings of a geometrically constructed serif face commissioned by Louis XIV. I don't know if they're less "scary" (as you put it) than the image you posted on 10/22, but the letters are generally shown on a grid, and the center points of the arcs are indicated.
  • joeclarkjoeclark Posts: 122
    Best posting of the year.
  • edited December 2017
    If you do an image search for "roman du roi" you'll find drawings of a geometrically constructed serif face
     I thought that was fiction.  (Sorry. :-)
  • Fortunately for the OP, Google treats romain/roman the same in this context.
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