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Shaenon asked if I was interested in designing and producing slipcases for her Narbonic Kickstarter campaign. The answer was obvious—why would I not want to be involved in a project devoted to bringing her mad genius back in to print? Shaenon expected roughly five of her backers to spring for the highest tier available, but I know how enthusiastic her fans are, and estimated I’d need to make about double that—ten, plus an additional three for the people who worked on the project.
The two of us discussed a basic concept for the design, and I started planning for the layout of the cases. We agreed that the cases would have a special die-cut—made possible by the laser cutters at Techshop where I work—but I tried to keep the overall design a secret. Shaenon trusted me to come up with something fantastic, and I knew I wanted at least a portion of the final design be a surprise.
The Kickstarter project launched, and it didn’t take long to see just how far off our estimates we were. In fewer than 48 hours blew right past my estimate of ten. By the time the campaign closed a month later, there were 47 orders, bringing my total edition number to an even 50. It had been over two years since I’d worked on an edition that large, and that was when I’d been working with a team at a professional bindery. The challenge of this project promised to be both terrifying and exhilarating.
The books arrived and Shaenon sent me a set. I started by taking the measurements and fleshing out the case design a little more. With this done, I could calculate how much bookcloth and binder’s board I needed to assemble the cases. My next step was to research the materials I intended to use, because some materials will burn or create toxic gases when cut with the laser. The main offender is PVA (polyvinyl acetate)—the most commonly used glue in modern bookbinding—and although the Material Safety Data Sheet suggested it would be safe, I preferred not to take any chances, and opted for a good wheat paste for the areas of the book that would be lazed. A few weeks later the materials arrived and I started testing for the precise measurements. In total I cut and assembled four cases before the sizing was perfected. At this point I assembled a completed mock-up of the finished box, covered it with bookcloth and did the die cut—only to discover a massive flaw in the design.
In most slipcases, the inside will never be seen, so they often don’t have a lining, and when they do the it is usually made with a very cheap paper. The die-cut in this slipcase changed everything—as soon as the books are pulled out the inside is completely exposed. It became obvious to me at this point that a special lining would be necessary, so I took the time to decide how to make the most of this new addition. I suggested to Shaenon that she create a special message to the backers who would receive the slipcases, which would be revealed when the books were removed. I visited the art store and selected a pink paper to line the cases, but it was a near disaster when the store did not have enough in stock to line all of the cases. I was at the stage in production where nearly all my work would grind to a halt if I had to wait a week for a special order to come in. A few desperate phone calls to nearby stores (and some good friends with cars), and that night I managed to round up enough sheets of paper for all the cases.
Once all this was done, I moved on to starting the production in full. The first step, of course, was cutting down all the binder’s board on the laser. For an edition of this size, cutting down is normally done with a large heavy-duty paper cutter, but unfortunately I didn’t have access to one. But the laser is even more precise than a cutter, and is far faster than cutting down by hand, which made it an excellent substitute.
Next I glued the bottom of each box to the sides to form the trays. Once all the trays were built, I glued the pink paper into the trays and onto the tops. With the trays lined I turned my attention toward the printing. Both the lined tops of the cases and the cloth that would wrap the outside of the box needed to be silk screened. Although photo-emulsion is more common for silkscreening, the design for this case was easily accommodated by vinyl stencils that were more readily available at Techshop, and less expensive to make. Since learning how to use vinyl, I have significantly reduced my use of photo-emulsion. The tops of the trays were simple enough—I simply silkscreened Shaenon’s message onto each using a simple jig registration system. The cloth was slightly more difficult, as it made the most sense to silkscreen all the necessary pieces for a single box on one larger sheet (complete with crop marks) and cut down after.
With all the printing out of the way, I began the final assembly. I matched each tray with a top to form a completed box. And then the real challenge of slipcase building begun. By far the most time consuming part of this process is covering a case with cloth—and unlike previous steps, any mistakes during this part are very difficult to correct. I cut all the cloth down to size and one by one carefully wrapped each case with bookcloth. Based on the marks I’d left myself, I started by gluing the top portion of the box to the corresponding area of the cloth. At this point forward each time I glued down a section of cloth, I cut the portion that would form a corner during a turn-over and creased the next portion with a bonefolder. With the first four sides of the box glued down, I turned in the cloth hanging over the front and spine. At this point in production it is finally possible to begin to see the box as a finished product—and as such is always my favorite stage. It’s the first time I can look at it and see the case as more than a pile of parts. I am always slightly astonished to realize that I’ve actually managed to make something with an air of professionalism and polish. Gluing down the spine label completes that look, and as such is usually the final step. Not this time, though.
To add that little extra something, I carted each case off to the laser cutter where a beam of science cut a heart from the back side. With the books in the case, the front cover image of Helen and Dave are revealed—but when the books are removed, Shaenon’s special message to her Madder Genius backers is revealed… “with love thanks and madness.”