Trial and Error

Crazy mimeographing guinea pig, at your service

I have run into all sorts of either “dumb luck” or “this is reality” with my ongoing experiments. I try take the sting out of it a little bit by accepting that I am doing these experiments in the service of a greater good – but gee, is it somewhat discouraging to keep hitting one dead end after another.

But, you know, I’m failing so that eventually you won’t have to, because someday I’ll be able (fingers crossed) to point out a path toward accessible, affordable, and somewhat fool-proof duplicating. Or at least that’s what I hope.

You may recall my first foray into thermal stencil-making with the impressively sturdy Pitney Bowes 8050 fax machine that nobody had ever heard of:

Ok, that’s not exactly true. One person had heard of it, but I’ll get to that in a minute. When I got around to plugging it in and found that something was haywire in its internal workings (a result of it sitting around, new-in-box, for too many years), I looked high and low for a repair manual or other information on it. None of the fax repair companies I contacted had even heard of this model. In the end, fellow mimeo-enthusiast Plaugolt SatzWechsler (or psw), the one person in the world who knew this model, and who was using this same machine to produce mimeograph stencils contacted me. Her own PB8050 had seen heavy use and was starting to falter. So, for the cost of shipping it to Germany, I gave her mine. She and a circuit-board-savvy friend figured out what ailed it, repaired it and are now putting it to good use.

My second fax machine, a Sharp UX-108 was incapable of printing stencils. My guess is there was something wrong with the thermal printer – very spotty results and lots of blank space where there ought to have been print. Thankfully the seller accepted a return.

At this point, I thought it might be best to give up on fax machines even though psw and stampalofi were having good luck with them.

So, I caved in and bought one of those darned Chinese-made thermal tattoo-stencil printers. You know:

I started using it not long after I purchased it – that was how I made my very basic stencil-header stencil.

(Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but the reason the print quality looked so gloppy was because I installed the stencil backward! Word to the wise – the shiny side faces the paper you’re printing on!!)

Anyway, I then attempted to print stencils for more complex things. Apparently too complex?… maybe the font size was too small, or the image resolution too much for the machine to handle? Maybe the humidity was interfering (more on that below)? I wasn’t sure what the issue was, but I was seeing lots of “shredding” on the stencil (more on that below as well). This put me in front of my computer for far more time than I wanted, manipulating text and images to try to get something workable. It didn’t work.

I gave up for a while and mulled over what my next step would be.

The next step ended up unrelated to the general point of this post – the purchasing of some old-style stencils – shipped all the way from Japan. But, before I figured out how I wanted to approach the use of this very limited resource, Mimeomania member Arnø Jürgen van Matendouce kindly shared a print test page drawn by his friend TYST (it’s on the resources page, just scroll down until you see it), and that inspired my next move:

I decided to try the tattoo stencil printer again, to see if I could figure out what the issue was:

And it turned out that those copies weren’t half bad. There was obviously a learning curve – and some sections couldn’t be rendered by the thermal printer at all, but it seemed like I was heading in the right direction. There was no shredding.

I went ahead and made a stencil for the title page of a little booklet I want to put together (part of a collection of some public domain works):

Honestly, this was the best quality print I’d gotten so far. It’s a little fuzzy around the letters’ edges, but it’s a pretty small font size (probably 9 or 10?). I could forgive it (the ghost image you see is just because there’s another page under the one I’ve photographed). A day or two later, I then went ahead and tried to make a stencil for one page in the booklet that really requires decent resolution and the “shredding” reappeared with a vengeance:

In the next image, you can see where the image is clear and sharp and where it simultaneously has shredded sections. It was really teasing me.

At this point, I’m realizing that these multiple failures are asking something of me. It seems I’m really having to be an intrepid and committed experimenter here, and that this isn’t just about whether or not I can duplicate something, it’s about how easy it’s going to be for anyone to do this. And thus far, the results have not been inspiring, to say the least!

But wait, it gets worse.

So, I make my decision. I am in this for the long haul. I want to figure out a way for regular people to engage in DIY, low-tech-if-possible, printing and duplicating. I’m inspired by the print quality Rachel Simone Weil achieves with a label printer, so I resolve to keep trying.

Having learned that a fax machine that uses a thermal printer to print on plain paper (rather than a roll of fax paper) might possibly work for this task, I purchase yet another used fax machine – this time a Brother Intellifax-775:

I quickly figure out that this machine will not work the way stampalofi’s Philips fax machine does. His prints on Risograph paper inserted through the paper feed channel. Nor does it do what psw’s does, which is directly feed the Risograph roll over the thermal printer from inside, as though it were fax paper. Mine requires the print cartridge to remain installed – in effect requiring that the Riso paper be carried through the cartridge. So I spend a good couple of hours, rewinding the cartridge to the beginning (so the machine doesn’t tell me I need to insert a new cartridge), cutting the Risograph thermal paper down to size (because I’m using a roll that would’ve fit in the larger Pitney Bowes feed mechanism but that’s wider than the letter-sized paper this cartridge fits) so that I can feed it onto the cartridge, then, taping and winding it in; finally I’m ready to give it a try.

First, though, because the thermal printer does not have a “mirror” option, like the tattoo stencil printer, I have to get onto my computer and reconfigure my original so that every page is a mirror image of the original, and change the page order so that the print layout is adjusted to accommodate that (it was complicated, you don’t want to know at this point. Just know that it was a little mind-bending). I do that and I run one page through the fax machine.

And my stencil has a fine, fine line right across it that’s not part of the original. I try again, and once or twice more – and they’ve all got the line. I then remove the Riso paper, wind the cartridge back away from the beginning to a section that’s unused, and make a standard copy. It looks like this (copy above, original below):

I’m completely thrilled about the resolution and really stinkin’ mad about the line.

I go at the inner workings of the machine with a microfiber cloth and rubbing alcohol. I test it – still a line. I clean it and wipe it and shine a very bright light inside it to try to ascertain the problem. Nothing looks amiss. I clean it again and fiddle around with the thermal unit’s alignment. It still doesn’t work.

The seller very kindly offers me a refund even though the fax function probably works.

I spend the next few days questioning my sanity. I tell myself that there’s no guarantee that my tinkering will work and I ask, “Do you still want to go ahead with this?” and the answer is still, “Yes.” I find myself daydreaming about finding an electronics nerd who’ll help me build a thermal printer that actually works as well as a (functioning) fax machine but without the hassle and all the extra apparatus.

I can’t fall asleep because I’m wondering how I can make a “printshop in a box” that isn’t reliant on way too many “outsourced” and weak-supply-chain-linked pieces (Hush! I’m not obsessed).

But I’m kind of obsessed. I’m waiting now for my area’s relative humidity to decrease a bit (having heard that the tattoo stencil printers don’t like humidity) – but in the meantime… yes… I’ve bought another fax machine to try (same model since I’m now intimately familiar with it). It’s on its way. It’s supposedly new, so perhaps there’s hope.

By golly, I hope there’s hope.

That’s all I have for today.


your good guinea pig who will keep on trying.

P.S. there’ll be a follow-up post later that’s focused on fax/thermal-printer pitfalls and how to avoid them (if in fact they can be avoided).

Mimeograph Revival