Joel's most recent projects include Burning Man 2017, Colorado Hemp Expo, Denver Paper Fashion Shows, Arise Music Festival and more.
Presenting, The Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Project
To turn Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland story, by Lewis Carroll and illustrations by Sir John Tenniel, into a wooden book with engraved flexible wooden pages.
The Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Project, for me, was indeed one of those projects that brought not only the realization of a vision but also an exciting adventure in itself, experiencing creative challenges along the way which led to the opening of many other doors. The Alice Project project itself seemed to mirror, in many ways, the path of Alice and going down the rabbit hole. Sometimes, this project made me feel bigger, and sometimes, very small.
When it came down to figuring out how to make the actual wooden pages, there was a lot of trial and error, a lot of mistakes, but, on the other hand, a lot of success. Creating flexible solid wood pages that were as thin as possible, but thick enough to engrave on using a laser beam on both sides without burning through was a learning experience that resulted in a lot of early attempts being thrown on the scrap bin.
Pages out of Wood
After a lot of calculations, testing, and trying and retrying, I ended up with an engraved wood page that bends and is engraved on both sides and includes block cut type engravings. But, it certainly didn’t start out like that!
The first thing I had to do was to develop the wooden page itself. I found many ways of how to not make it work, but in the end, it only took one right one. The real trick to any project is to trust that, even if I fail forty-nine times, one more try will make it happen.
I’ve learned, It's not a race, its an education.
On the “last try” is where and when you finally blow life into what you have put your hands to and the vision becomes alive. Welcome to this adventure. Welcome to my version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Wood Choice
I tested many types of wood of different grains, species, hardnesses, and bendability. What I found, is that I had a lot of feasible domestic choices like Birch, Maple, Poplar, Beech, and Cherry. I also experimented with some more exotic and specialty woods like Zebrawood and Olive. I ended up choosing Rotary Cut Cherry from a tree in Pennsylvania. I love the smell, texture, and bendability of this beautiful thin wood.
And so, my first experiments began. At first, I used several types of cherry veneer.
- A self-adhesive sticky back veneer
- A paperbacked veneer
- Raw veneer
Long story short...The sticky backed made the pages too rigid and way thicker than I wanted.
The paper backed veneer had to be glued and laminated and ended up being just about as thick as the sticky back. The third option, the raw veneer, would work as a single thickness but after I cleaned up my test sample a little bit, I found that the flip side didn’t look so good. Besides that, even though it was so thin, bending it caused it to crack.
I was stumped but just for a minute.
Almost by accident, while rummaging through a dusty veneer bin, I came across a dusty piece of rotary cut cherry that was micro thin, and beautiful! This was the turning point to what lay ahead. Now, after learning what I did from the previous experiments, I had finally come to a new approach that worked! After just a bit of tweaking, I had developed a method that I am still using to this day.
Here are my basic steps for making wooden pages that bend:
- Layout Veneer Roll and Bench Flatten
- Inspect and callout imperfections
- Bookmark sets of pages to align grain front and back as much as possible
- Mix a 50/50 ratio of flexible wood glue and water, thin, and strain.
- Apply glue to backs of (2) pages using a short nap paint roller
- Inspect glue surface for any dust or specs
- Place the glue surfaces together
- Roll any excess glue using a clean laminate roller
- Place the wood/glue/wood sandwich into vacuum press bag
- Vacuum press each page for 12 hours, repeat
- Page blank is ready for rough cleaning and testing for bendability (I’ve found that 1 out of 10 pass my inspection).
Creating Laser Engraving Design
To create the artwork and files for this project, I had to first do much research on the history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I read various versions and searched out best resolution Tennison illustrations based on Carroll’s original sketches that I could find. At that part, I became hooked even further as I also discovered and examined the messages hidden within.
With that, I started my “late at night” sessions where I began the process of tediously transposing every letter (in Carol Lewis Handwriting Style), space, punctuation, and illustration into over 100 individual files which I then converted into vectors and rasters for the next step, lasering engraving. I created each file with high resolution so that in the future, I could blow them up big enough to engrave a full wall mural on marble for example.
Good starting Laser Cutting and Engraving Machine
Each step of the way, in a project like this, your investment of mostly time begins to take on a whole new perspective. All of a sudden, it feels like, you realize that if you mess up a blank page, no real big deal, but, once you push the “go” button on the laser, it is what it is...most of the time it worked flawlessly once I got the hang of it. The real challenge still, however, wasn’t the page development, the transposing and computer artwork, or even pushing the “on” button. The biggest thing to discover was how much power to send through the laser beam and how fast or slow do I need to run it. My goal was to laser engrave only one-third of the way through each side of the page.
The variables that come into play when determining how much laser power to use and at what speed to run it turns into part calculation and part trial and error. This is where using Red Cherry helped because it takes very little power to create a nice engraving. Even just a little too much power will cut through a thin wooden page. Here is where I also discovered I could add a special little secret using just a tad more power and punch through certain pages revealing a message in Morse Code. One of the messages is the answer to a riddle found within the story.
The other variable to engraving the pages, after power, speed, and focus was determined, was keeping the wooden pages as flat as possible in the laser and not move one iota. To do this,
I had to create a “jig” to hold each page perfectly flat. A simple PVC cone attached to the underside of the laser bed and attached to a secondary squirrel cage exhaust fan creates a perfect hack for making a suction hold-down device for thin flat objects like the Alice pages.
Laser engraved storage case for Alice pages
I tried different protective finishes and found that the best option actually served to increase the flexibility and final texture. For the Alice Project, I used a clear tung oil after all other sanding, smoothing, laser cutting and engraving were complete. Every year, I retreat each page with oil after a light buffing with very fine steel wool. With proper care, I imagine these pages could easily last hundreds of years.
Finding more of what I used for my experiment, was not as hard as I had first thought it might be. It didn’t take long after talking to my veneer supplier to find an exact match.
Each page uses 2 square feet of veneer, the original page count was (98) but later I had to increase it to about (125) due to errors and mistakes. In all, I used approximately a roll of microthin rotary cut Red Cherry veneer 2’ wide and about 50’ long
After all, it was just a stack of cards
Future Wood Book Projects
Over the past couple of years, this version of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has visited Colorado, Pennsylavania, New York, and...as perfectly fitting, the UK! Now, she is taking a rest as my next book project is just waiting for the right person to come along and help me do it. I am stuck on what title the book should be. Perhaps something by Edgar Allan Poe did in an ebony and bone finish, or a book of the Bible, or even perhaps, Hamlet. And, maybe, all of them! I am even thinking of making an engraved book such as this and taking it along to Burning Man 2018 and burning it in the temple...
I am always looking for artistic co-collaborators, investors, or mentor/students for projects such as this. I primarily work out of Loveland, Fort Collins, Denver, Colorado. Feel free to contact me...hey you never know...you may just end up at Burning Man 2018!
What Wood Book
Lin Jiahui on July 15, 2020:
It's really creative, and the kids must like it very much. Thank you for your sharing and creativity. This is really a work of art.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on February 23, 2018:
Joel Diffendarfer (author) from Jonesville on February 15, 2018:
Yes! In response to "if" I would be willing to do a "custom" engraved book out of wood? Once I create the files, which is the longest part, I can reproduce a small run of about ten books in about the same time I can create the first one. (or, if you want to get your own laser, I would be happy to guide you through the process. Over the last eight years, I have taught over fifty artists how to use a laser for their own inspirations.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on February 14, 2018:
I never would have thought of a project like this. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your talent with us!
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 14, 2018:
What a neat idea. Wonder what inspired you to think of this. It is really unique.
Charu Bhatnagar from India on February 13, 2018:
Wow, I have not come across more interesting article than this one in recent times. So much hard work, patience, dedication and determination. This is certainly inspiring for me too. Wishing you success. P.S.: I loved that line "....even if I fail forty-nine times, one more try will make it happen."