Replicating Aeolian Lithographed Celluloid Nameplates
by Richard Vance
Copyright (C) 2001 by Richard Z. Vance
rev. A, 29 October, 2001

    Everyone who has worked with Aeolian Company instruments has come across the nameplates which they used everywhere, made by lithographing or printing text on thin ivory coloured Celluloid.  Many of these are faded, cracked, or have been lost.  The printing on the celluloid often tends to wear off.  When I visited Paul Morris in Exeter this spring, he showed me that the nameplates on his Duo-Art Pipe Organ read-only cabinet were in bad shape.  An attempt to replicate these nameplates using the service of a "Hermes" pantographic plastic nameplate engraving shop was not a conspicuous success.  The little milling cutters that such machines use, could not reproduce the details of the various founts with sufficient resolution, and the plastic engraving stock was too starkly white to match the ivory colour of all the other existing nameplates on the organ.  Also, Paul's console "Opus Plate", had gone missing altogether.

    After I got back, I got to thinking about a method of making better looking replacements for these labels.  Some of the nameplates on my Duo-Art cabinet were also looking shabby.  So, after some trial and error, I worked out a method, which I respectfully submit to MMD.  Since that time, Al Pebworth said, in MMD, that a similar nameplate on his Duo-Art Pianola, needed replacement.  So this method may be of some general use to others.  Also, this method can be used to make replacement stop knob labels for reed organs.  New ones are available, but they are somewhat crudely hot stamped on very white plastic stock, and don't match any existing labels very well.

    Here is a picture of some of the completed labels shown on the right, along with some of the old, faded ones on the left.

    The first step is to make a high resolution printable text of the required label, on the computer.  There are several ways to go about this.

    The example above was done by "drawing" the nameplate in Microsoft Paint, and inserting the lettering with the "A" function, using the fonts installed in the computer.  I have hundreds of fonts, available on CD at a surprising low price, and I can usually match any existing lettering style.  You should make the drawing in the .GIF format, at least four times bigger than the final plate.  That insures that individual pixels on the final printout will be too small to be visible.  Add little dots at the points where the pin holes or screw holes will be drilled.  Note that the reduction required by constructing this .HTML, causes pixel drop out, and make the above images look raggedy.  But the final printed results are really very sharp.

    This next example uses Aeolian Company's unique "Roosevelt" font.  I think this font is actually available from Dan X. Solo, but lacking the odd six hundred bucks, I decided to replicate this plate by scanning my own Opus Plate.  First I set the scanner to 600 DPI and directed the image to Paint.  This resulted in a huge .GIF, which was rather ragged when examined at a large zoom.  Then, using Adobe Photo-Delux, the image's contrast and brightness was adjusted in several successive iterations, until the background ended up all white, and the text all black.  Finally, the Image was reopened in Paint, and all the rough edges and gaps in the printing were cleaned up, pixel by pixel, at 6X zoom.  Of course, Paul's opus number is 1431, and my original is number is 1036.  So I had to move the numbers around, and hand hone the figure "4" based on other examples of Roosevelt that were on my console.

    Now one ends up with images that are at least four times bigger than the actual plates, which have to be reduced to the correct size for printing.  An advantage of "Microsoft Word"  (and probably other word processors as well). is that one can open a document and "Insert Picture...".  These images in the Word document can then be reduced in size either by using the "corner arrow" or by adjusting the image width and height independently, in the "Format Picture..." utility.  This feature is important because the final printed image has to be distorted in such a way to make it come out the right size ultimately.  In Word, these reduced images will print out without any loss of pixel resolution, limited in their clarity only by the resolution of ones printer (600 DPI in my case).

    The basic idea here is to print the text on paper, and "decoupage" that printed paper on to a sheet of celluloid.  The water based varnish use for this will cause the paper to swell to a surprising extent, and paper swells much more across the grain (width wise) than length wise.  So the printed image has to be smaller width wise, than the final label.  When the printed label is first saturated with the varnish, it will swell back up to the correct size, and it will adhere that way; not shrinking back down when the varnish dries.

    As you can see in the above view, the dry printed label is only about 94% as wide as the desired label  (the vertical error is less than 1%).  Select the paper that will be used, and print a trial image.  I used Eaton "Techniclear" ivory colour acid free laser paper, Item 31-722-40, which is stocked, or can be ordered from, all the "Office Warehouse" outlets.  Soak the label in the varnish (see below) for at least 30 seconds, and stick the wet label on a white china plate.  These test labels will wash right off the plate with hot water, and saves wasting the celluloid stock here.  Then one can compare the test label with the desired result, and adjust the image dimensions in Word to make it come out correct.  This takes a few trials at first, but once one label is done correctly, the other label's dimensions can be worked out mathematically.

    People with other types of computer graphic capabilities will be able to figure out how to make the printed labels by other means; it doesn't matter what method is used.

    Once each label is correctly sized, copy it several times on the Word document page.  There are many opportunities during the process,  to mess up a nameplate; so it is wise to start out with several of each type!  Then print the sheets on the selected paper.  It is now important to spray the printed sheets with Fixative protective varnish.  I used "Krylon" Workable Fixatif item #1306, available at most office warehouses, craft shops or art stores.  If this is not done, the subsequent finishing steps will knock off or melt away some of the printer toner on the image, leaving grey areas or broken letters.  The Fixative only ends up on the paper surface, and does not interfere with the label being saturated (and swelled up) with the varnish.

    Select the nameplate materials.  The plastic backing sheet I used is "Pyralene" (essentially pure Celluloid) 0.060 thick piano key covering material, sold as Item no. 2380-P, by Schaff Piano Supply Company.  It has a slightly off-white colour, and cuts and files easily and cleanly.  Most important, the acrylic varnish genuinely adheres to it.  All kinds of cutting, routing, and filing proved to me that the completed label indeed dries as if it is one contiguous piece with the underlying plastic, without any tendency of the paper or the finish layer to split or peel off.  Other white plastic sheet might be cheaper or easier to get, but I can't guarantee that the finish will adhere properly; many types of plastic will not permanently adhere to any sort of varnish.

    The varnish I used for both adhering the paper, and subsequently finishing the plates, is Minwax "Polycrylic" clear semi-gloss protective finish, a water based acrylic varnish.  This varnish dries rapidly, gets hard all the way through when dried, and the brush is easily cleaned with hot water.  I tried several kinds of Decoupage goops from craft stores, but they turned out to be unsatisfactory.  These products, essentially thinned down Elmer's Glue, were too thick and lumpy, and dried too soft to be of any use.

    Cut the printed and sprayed labels into individual, oversized pieces.  Dip these pieces into the varnish can, three or four labels at a time, and lay them on a plate for at least 30 seconds to allow complete saturation.  The plastic stock is tacked to a piece of Masonite, to hold it steady and flat.  Carefully lay the saturated labels on the plastic, and brush them down flat with a soft artist's brush.  It is not necessary to roughen or prime the Pyraline in nay way.  After a few seconds, gently rub out any excess varnish from under the paper, and dab up any excess with a paper towel.  It is very important to work on this step with everything clean; any dirt particle, however small, trapped under the paper, will show up as a lump or black spot, and spoil the final result.  As each set of labels are applied, the previously applied labels are covered with waxed paper, to keep any errant drops of varnish off the work already done.  The final result of this step should be an array of labels on the plastic, stuck on very flat and smooth, with no thick, glossy layer of varnish on top of them.

    When this has dried for a day, now one starts to build up the finish layer, with six coats of the varnish.  This seems tedious, but each coat is needed to gradually eliminate the lumpy surface of the paper, and end up with a flat surface for final polishing.  Allowing each coat to dry thoroughly for at least 12 hours, this step takes at least three days, but each coat goes on quickly, so the work time is fairly short.  Each coat must be thin and smooth; don't try to speed things up by applying a thick coat, which will end up showing streaks or brush marks that won't ever come out.  After the second coat is dry, smooth out the surface with a green Scotchbrite.  It will surprise you how much of the original roughness will gradually disappear, with vigorous rubbing with the Scotchbrite.  After the rubbing, wipe the surface with a Tack rag.  As in any varnishing, marks come from bits of dust on the work before the varnish is applies, not from dust that falls on the wet layer.

    After the final coat is fully dried, cut the labels apart roughly.

    The marks indicating the nameplate attachment holes are center punched, and the holes are drilled.  Then trim them to their final size and shape.

 These pictures show some tricks using a router, that make shaping the labels easy.  The movable piece in the router guide rig has brads driven up through it to hold the workpiece while feeding it through the router.  Where possible, additional pin holes are drilled so that the workpiece can be rotated around a brad to make a rounded outline.  Where a slot has to be routed in a plate, stop blocks are clamped to the guide strip to limit the slot to its proper length.  For this, another advantage of Purloin over other plastic sheeting, is that it responds superbly to the router, without producing any cracking, spalling or chipping of the edges.  (This is a quite deliberate attribute of Pyraline, since it is formulated so that piano key covers can be cleanly trimmed and shaped with a router.)


    Lacking a router, the plates can be shaped neatly and fairly easily by hand.  Trim the plate close to the finish outline with a nipper, and then make the final edge with a  belt sander and a single-cut, flat file.

    The edges where the paper and plastic come together are finally smoothed by gentle filing away from the surface.  You will have to take my word for this, but the interface between the paper and the coating, and the Pyraline base, completely disappears.  The nameplate ends up looking as if the text was actually printed directly on the plastic.

    While I was about it, I made some stop knob labels.  The printed blanks include a circle, a bit larger than the final diameter, just as a guide for trimming.  After the finished labels ore cut out, they are trimmed close to the guide circle with a nipper, to make punching easy.  Then, using the circle as a guide, the labels are punched to the correct diameter (often 7/8"), and the edges smoothed with a file.

    To make the final polishing easy, spray some Masonite with "Spraymount" temporary adhesive, to hold the plates in place.  Polish them vigorously with automotive rubbing compound on a piece of damp felt. Clean off the remnants of polish, and finish with a coat of Butcher's Wax.

Richard Vance, 29 Oct., 2001