Writer’s Block: Reflections

As you can probably see, it’s been a while since we last posted! Once thing’s for sure, It’s not because we’ve been ignoring our site, or our fans. It’s because we’ve been focused on finishing Writer’s Block, which has taken us more than a year to complete. If you would have asked us 16 months ago if we thought it would take this long, we would have certainly laughed at the thought. The trick with commissioned work is that you are not only creating a one-of-a-kind piece, you’re also charting new territory. This makes creative process is a not only a journey, but also a learning process. In the case of Writer’s Block, we learned a LOT along the way.

#1 Finding the right combination of blocks is critical.RF_typeset blocks wide 1

Finding large lots of typesetter’s block is easy, and hard. It’s one thing when you simply want a complete set of only one typeface, but we wanted a large, diverse collection of many different typefaces and advertisements. This was the key to ensuring the mosaics had real character, and that the variety and contrast of wood and metal tones could make themselves known. After lots of searching, and little bit of luck, we were able to locate a former owner of a print shop that operated in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He had a large collection of type, illustrations, and advertisements – many of them local – that had been sleeping in an attic for the last 50 years. We immediately bought the lot. When we got the boxes back to the shop, we spent weeks sorting the collection and drooling at some of the blocks that had unique and familiar products and places on them. Everything from national brands – such as coca-cola and Schlitz – to defunct or once well-known empires – such as The Rock Island Line and Peter Pan Bread – were uncovered in the dust.

#2 Removing ink from 50-year-old typesetter’s block is a PAIN!

phase1_sink_sideVintage typesetter’s block has a number of challenges, depending on its age. It can be composed of 100% wood, metal faced with wood backing, or 100% metal. With the lot of blocks we acquired, we were working mainly with the first two since they would be glued onto wood panels for assembly. Since wood is softer than metal, and it floats, this meant we could not use industrial power-washing or ultrasonic cleaning. Instead, we had to clean each block – large or small – by hand. Additionally, we had to achieve this in a sensible and economical way that was environmentally friendly, and could be done indoors without filling our shop with toxic fumes.

After two weeks of experimenting with different solvents, detergents, and cleaners we found that using Finish Line citrus bio-degreaser for the metal faced block combined with scrubbing with fine steel wool worked best for getting all the crud out of the nooks and crannies. For the all-wood blocks, we realized that the the best method had nothing to do with the cleaner, but with temperature. Soaking the wood blocks in a simple warm water bath for about 8-15 minutes allowed enough time for the wood fibers to expand and push the ink to the surface. The block faces could then be then scrubbed with a soft, short bristled brush to avoid damaging the block while allowing us to get into all the hard-to-reach places. The unseen sides and backs of all blocks were scrubbed with a stiff wire brush to remove the thick ink layers, and to roughen the edges for better gluing during the build process. This eliminated the time-consuming (and dusty) step of rough-sanding the blocks later.  After each block was scrubbed, it was dried, categorized, and stacked with its other counterparts.

We scrubbed blocks of every shape and size – big and small, square and rectangular, metal and wood – for three months. Our fingers are still black.

#3 If you have more than 1,000 blocks, you probably need 1,000 more.sorted alph blocks 1_web

Estimating exactly how many blocks we were going to need for this endeavor was…well…impossible. While we could calculate the square area of the finished piece, we could not calculate how many blocks would be used in each panel’s mosaic. That, unfortunately, would only be decided by the way the pieces fit while each panel was underway. So, we simply had to guess, and roll the dice. We originally thought we had enough blocks for two bookshelves. But in the end, really only had enough for one. Ironically, we even had to buy extra collections from sources on eBay to fill-in the gaps on shapes or sizes we needed most for the last two panels.

#4 Creating eight unique mosaics means a never-ending game of Tetris for a year.

wb panels 3 and 4 reconfig 5.16.14Once the cleaning phase was complete, the most exciting, and often frustrating, building phase began. We had eight panels (four for each side of the bookshelf legs) to completely cover, and it wasn’t going to be easy. You need LOTS of room to work, and re-work. Two panels could be placed on our workbench and worked on simultaneously while still having enough room around the edges to place a decent variety of blocks to work with. This was nice, because we could compare both panels as we worked, ensuring we had a nice balance of wood and metal blocks, as well as shapes and sizes.  Just like siblings, each of the panels took on their own personality as we placed blocks, but still retained a slight bit of similarity. This personality also meant that some panels went very smoothly, while others fought us the entire way. Some panels only took a week to complete, while others took a month because they had to be rebuilt (sometimes entirely) several times to find the right combination of blocks to fit the panels exactly. By the time we started the final two panels, our Tetris skills had been highly refined and honed, and we finished them both in a week!

Cleaned and sorted, but only halfway there.

After three months, we’ve finally completed soaking, scrubbing, and sorting the massive number of typeset blocks. Needless to say, our fingers are raw, the sink is trashed, but the blocks look GREAT!

Here’s a few shots of what the sink looked like immediately after completing phase 1. It took two hours to get most (80%) of the ink residue removed from this sink.

After a LOT of experiments with different solvents, soak times, and other cleaning methods, what we learned from this first phase was quite interesting:
• Leaded blocks do not respond well to soda blasting.
• Ultrasonic cleaning does not work with wood products, as they float to the top.
• Despite numerous combinations, no chemical or solvent (such as citrus degreaser, or Simple Green) can match the cleaning power of hot water.
• Even dried-out 50-year-old wood will quickly go from “good” to “warped” if soaked just a few minutes too long.

After the last batch was dry, the sorting began. We honestly thought this would take longer than it did, but was completed over two nights.

So, this brings us to the start of phase 2: the mosaics and glue-ups. Ironically, this phase is also not fast, and put our Tetris-like puzzle solving skills to the ultimate test.

Here. We. Go.

Ink Archeologist

We’re diligently sifting, sorting, and cleaning this massive number of old printer’s blocks, and it’s proved to be quite a challenge. Removing 40+ years of ink residue is not easy, especially since the blocks vary from being 100% wood, 100% metal, or metal faced on wood block. Using an arsenal of brushes, steel wool, power tools, and different types of environmentally (and skin) friendly solvents, we’ve been able to make some great progress.

Along the way, we’ve uncovered some interesting relics of the past – mostly vintage logos and advertisements for classic American (and now worldwide) brands, and some other icons of yesteryear. Below is a small gallery of our finds so far. For the most current finds, visit and like our facebook page here

A writer’s block…of sorts.

No, it’s not what you think. Actually, it’s the title for our latest commissioned piece we’ll be working on over the next several months. The clients have a large office in their home, and they want custom-built bookshelves that fit underneath each of the two large windows on the east and west sides of the room. Not only do they need to fit under the windows, they also need to compliment the large desk in the center of the room.

With this in mind, we started sketching, and after spending many, many months searching for the perfect items to work with, we finally found it in an old, classic relic: the typesetter’s block. Many other artists have done large-scale mosaics using typesetter’s blocks, but they are strictly 2-D. In true form, however, we had to take it to a new level by making it 3-D. But, our work was far from over.

Over the years, typesetter’s blocks have been sold, scrapped, or simply discarded as printing presses converted to the digital age, or simply closed their doors. So, finding a large batch of them to use is no easy task. Locating quantities means contacting numerous antique and scrap dealers across the nation, as well as spending many nights searching on ebay and Craigslist for the hidden gems. Finally, after more than a month, we located two massive lots – 600 and 1200 pieces respectively – to make this project possible.

RF_typeset blocks wide 1

And our work…is still far from over.

Now the daunting task of sorting, cleaning, and polishing all these blocks begins. Using an arsenal of rubbing alcohol, Simple Green, Finish Line Citrus Degreaser, and a big box or steel wool, we will spend the next few months getting all these pieces ready.

So far, we’ve uncovered some interesting gems. Here’s a before & after of an iconic American brand: Oscar Mayer.

Here is the block, before cleaning.


And here is the same block, after cleaning. For the first time in 30+ years, the metal shines again.