‘Mastering’ inkscape for makers …

Things you should know. These are a few tips I’ve learnt from the last twelve months of using inkscape on a daily basis. Practically every piece of art work I process using open source / free software. Mainly Inkscape, sometimes GIMP, sometimes Scribus and laugh all you like mspaint.exe, useful when I quickly need to crop or annotate an image.

Before you rage quit my article and storm off muttering under your breath ‘what a newb! WTF is he going on about.’ … well I started out using Hardvard Graphics in dos and Deluxe Paint on the Amiga, when I upgraded to windows (3.0/3.11) I moved to Corel graphics v3.0 for scanning, tracing images and compositing etc. (I can still to this day remember the evening I got the disk, bought an official copy second hand. This was before the age of CD writers and copied CDs weren’t easily available, this came with all the official documentation, manuals and the clip art book!!) Mid-nineties I took a bespoke course taught at local university on web design (the first of its kind in the country.) which was really what started my interest in design work, the internet and programming, the lecturer introduced me to Macromedia (awesome company that Adobe practically consumed and now lives off its glory, not to mention they absolutely ruined the nice simple / low overhead / easily navigable interface.) So I spent many years working with Macromedia products, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash and Director. I’ve worked extensively with 3D Studio Max, Maya, Truespace and still use Blender (but not as much as I should do.) Had a brief experience with Solidworks, spent many hours using Autocad making files for water jet cutting. Down to specialist bespoke product design software, aimed at manufacture (I’ll post a link later the name escapes me at the moment). I’ve also a degree in design and applied arts, spent over 20 years in the IT / digital graphics world and the last five years of my working life programming robots. Right less about me waffling on about old software, I’ve used a lot of packages, you might notice I’ve neglected one, yes I have used Photoshop for many projects / years, at one point it was my go to design program (probably around version 6) especially useful for digital composition and photo manipulation, but, I’m going to say it, bloated to hell and the most over-rated design tool out there. If Oracle made design software it would probably be called Photoshop. I’ll save that for another post. The above is merely scraping the surface.

So now you have a little background on some of my software experience, I hope you might listen a little more intently. Inkscape is a fantastic tool. Firstly it’s 100% free. (Really dude you’re starting here … YUP) This is for makers. Makers are usually on tight budgets / constraints so its important to consider this. 100% free no cost, no subscription, no hidden code, no shady CEO milking your bank account. All updates 100% free. Available 100% of the time to run on older hardware than the kind of pc you need to handle the amount of bloat that Photoshop / Illustrator rolls with. Inkscape takes up less resources and memory than most design packages / ‘solutions’. Means you can do more faster with older hardware. (I promise that’s my last dig at Adobe.)

Inkscape is also cross platform, meaning it really doesn’t matter what hardware you’re running it on you’re always presented with a familiar interface. Which is really handy if you’re a maker, you might require a specific vector file format for a project on a linux / windows / osx box, Inkscape is only one trusted download away. No cracks, keygens, viruses / malware. If you’re really paranoid you can build from source or checksum the download.

The program itself is open source but also allows users to independently develop plugins via a well documented API. Python the language of the maker, free, open source and right now, there’s an incredible amount of python development going on, meaning modules plugins and code is pretty much readily available all over the web. Inkscape also supports Perl, the language of the internet and regular expressions. Advanced programmers are encouraged to implement their plugins natively in c++. If there’s some kind of graphical automation you require its likely Inkscape will be able to provide or give you the grounds to develop your own solution.
Click here to learn how to create your own plugins.more about pythonmore about perl,

Existing plugins? Yes there’s a lot, because there’s already a large user base for the package. Many that help extend the programs functionality from simply a graphics program to a production tool or service. Examples? One that immediately springs to mind is the laser cut tabbed box designer plugin. Not only useful for producing your own tabbed boxes but these boxes are extremely popular on auction sites. Makers and crafts people are buying them by the bucket full for their own projects. A few clicks and numbers to set the dimensions and amount of compartments you require, something that would manually take quite a while to produce. There are plugin’s for HPGL plotters, 3D printers, gcode senders, jigsaw creators, all great plugins for makers.
Click here to browse the full list of plugins on the inkscape site.

I’ve talked about how great the software is and the plugins but you came here for useful tips.

Lets talk about scaling. Something completely overlooked by most digital designers. I mean it’s overlooked in the respect that scaling on the pc and scaling something to real word values can be a tricky process. Especially when every time you hit the print / send / execute button you’re using up valuable materials / stock / paper / ink etc.

So to ensure your document is scaled correctly, load Inkscape, press CTRL + SHIFT + D, this is the short cut for the document properties window. It’s also accessible via. File>Document properties. If you regularly work with a certain size stock material you can alter the dimensions in here and save it as a template for later use, saves you having to repeat the same task over. The most critical thing though is to alter your unit scaling to what ever measurement / scale your sender / control application is using. Most gcode applications prefer millimetres some older applications mils (thousandths of inches) or inches. Sometimes you’ll find yourself here tweaking values for specific application exports. There is nothing like closing Inkscape and loading the file inside your production software to have everything the same size as it was when you saved it. This avoids the need for human interference or manually having to scale a very precisely engineered component (DON’T DO THIS TRUST ME NOTHING GOOD WILL COME OF IT) Not only does getting the correct scale save you a monumental amount of messing about, wasted materials and later embarrassment, it saves so much stress. It’s the correct size because that’s the way it was designed.

Moving on, auto trace / trace bitmap IS NOT YOUR FRIEND! It wants to ruin and over complicate your work at every opportunity and not only that it more than often degrades the subtleties that make a good design great. Ill provide some examples later. Its a little more time consuming to go in and manually trace / reconstruct every line when someone brings you a brief or you don’t have the correct source format to reconstruct an accurate replica of the work. Not only will this help you to use the software more efficiently it’ll help you become comfortable with Inscapes tools and short cuts, which in turn allows you to know from the word go if something will work or not, how extensive the task will be. Not to mention this will increase the overall quality of whatever it is you are working on HUGELY. This said, the trace bitmap functions can also save you a lot of time but its just knowing when and when not to use it.

Alignment, good design relies on consistency, consistency that often lacks when it comes to alignment. You’re all guilty of it, nudging elements around till they look consistent or maybe look equally spaced. Instantly you can look at a piece of work and see how competent someone is with their software just based on how accurately / programatically aligned their work is. It’s such a shame when someone hands me a flyer / promotional material and everything is misaligned / inaccurately placed. In inkscape on the righthand side of the screen is an alignment tab. If this is not visible you may have to press CTRL + SHIFT + A. Learn to use this tab and grouping well and it’ll bring your overall standard and ‘professionalism’ to a whole new level. I wont go in to too much detail but there are various options to align and space elements very accurately with just a few clicks. Great for spacing objects out when you’re cutting things. Also good early in the development / design process, I use this quite a lot when presenting 4/8/16 concepts to customers a few clicks and everything looks aligned and the way it’s meant to be presented! One more small alignment tip, when you’re in inkscapes vector / node edit mode the align tab changes to allow you to bring a selected group of nodes to a common horizontal or vertical line, this is very useful when mirroring / connecting objects or you just need some points pulled to a straight line.

Spacing, something you don’t consider until you work with a tool or a machine that effects adjacent material, its no good placing two parts 2mm apart if the tool you’re using is 10mm wide or you’re using a laser and other close elements might get burned or catch on fire. This is also important when considering materials and size / scale too its no good having a small piece of water just cut glass holding a 10 pound piece of glass by a string of glass. Depending on what material and machine you are working with you might want to encapsulate your design in side a rectangle leaving enough room for you to make precise cuts to the material after its been machined for example cutting out vinyl stickers you must leave enough room between each sticker to be able to guillotine the stickers down to size. When laser cutting this might not be the case you might want to leave the majority of material connected to the source piece of stock so you can perfom larger cuts on the ‘waste’ material later.

Lastly shortcuts, you have a keyboard, use it! Learning keyboard shortcuts for regularly used functions and operations can save you a lot of time and effort I know this sounds like common sense but I still get round windows faster on the keyboard than anyone with a mouse. When you’re tasked with a repetitive job shortcuts / macros can save you seconds on each operation.

I cant think of much more I should mention right now so ill leave it here, I hope some of these simple tips will help you guys be more productive and help improve the quality of whatever it is you’re working on. Good luck, let me know if I’ve missed something you feel is important or strongly disagree with something I’ve said. (@hakology on twitter) Going to get busy making something, catch up soon.

Added 23/12/2017. Whilst I wait for the CNC laserpointer lol to make some alternate christmas cards (NB. Engraved in to wood and not in to paper as the paper is deflecting dis-pursing the beam too much to cut it.). PS. I’m already looking at purchasing a cheap chinese CO2 cutter, I know there are issues with them, but, at least it will be leaps and bounds ahead of this thing.

Fonts. Meh fonts. When machining or cutting take into consideration the simplicity of the font you are using. Clean fonts without complexities, simple, rounded, easy outlines. The more simplistic your font the less cuts / passes / distance your machine is going to make. If you’re looking for something you need produced quickly always go for elegant and simple. If you’re not concerned with over complexity also take in to consideration overlap and spacing as mentioned before depending on what tool you’re using. Don’t forget subtractive / additive machining / milling / cutting / burning of these fonts will have differences in time and result.

If you’re getting a job run externally always verify with the machinists, the materials and specifications they require. Some will want SVG, DWG, DXF, etc. it all depends on the machine and job. When prepping your work to send ensure you convert all your fonts to paths. If you don’t when you perform an export to say DXF format the font / message / writing / text will be absent from the file. Before converting everything to paths make sure you save a backup so if at a later date you need to go back and alter any text you can simple edit the text. After converting to paths the text becomes un-editable. You can do this in inkscape by selecting the text / group of objects and pressing CTRL + SHIFT + C and also accessible from the path menu by clicking Path > Object to path.

Multiple copies. Your production software may allow you to send a total amount of copies to it, in most cases this should be so. The software will calculate all the positions and alignment, most require that you provide the source materials dimensions and it will tessellate your design across the materials. Some programs have very advanced functions, some not so much. These you need to make allowances for in your design, doing the work before hand, if your material is 8 x 4 and you need to fill the piece, calculate this in small batches, if you find it works well in a small batch then you could consider adding to or doubling the amount run in each batch, till you work up to a full sheet. NB: This will not always be the case depending on the scale of the objects you’re working with eventually there will be some trade off occurring in the time it takes to generate and manipulate your source file and the amount of gcode / instructions the machine will take.

On some old manually programmed¬† machines you might find your program can’t be over for example 500 lines long due to the restrictions on the machine. (This happened to me working with a pick and place machine in the electronics industry. We had to run one script then load another script to continue placing components / fully populate the board.) Batch size depending on the machine you may want to consider working in rows then build columns or vice versa on each file till that trade off is reached.

Post processing, machines as magical as they are, will do a lot of the hard work for you, but in many cases taking something to its full potential takes a lot of work, lots of thought, refinements, development and most importantly presentation. The final presentation of your work is probably the most important aspect, the first thing that people see has to make an impact with them. Taking the time to correctly sand / polish / buff and present your work in the correct setting, to the correct people. It’s no good if your cut edge has a dull and matte finish whilst the rest of the object is polished and shiny, unless that’s what you intended, or some things function is of more importance than its look. Taking time in the smallest of details always produce the most exceptional of results.

Going to leave this here for now, if I think of any more waffle ill update the article.