It all started about nine months ago. I was playing card games with friends at an SCA event and turned to my friend Jenny to ask her “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we made our own card deck?”
We both sort of noncommittally murmured “Yeah, sure, maybe someday.” and then when on with our day. But that tiny conversation planted a seed. When we saw each other occasionally over the next few weeks, we would put out ideas:
“I wonder what sort of suits we could use…”
“It would be sort of fun to have some of our friends as the court cards….”
“There’s some historical decks that use Swords and Bells as suit pips, how neat!”
“Oooo, wouldn’t it be cool to have our sword fighty friends in the Sword suit and our musical friends as Bells?”
“But we have so many fighty and music friends! How can we pick just three for each suit?”
“Lots of historical decks have figured illustrations for the whole deck, we could have someone on every card?”
Within a few weeks, it developed from a maybe-someday project into something we might seriously do.
I was interested in trends in historical decks, so I made an excel sheet with every pre-1650 deck I could find.
Not the most interesting part of the project, but it laid a very strong foundation for building our own deck!
I made notes on when and where they were from, size, what sort of suits they used, what numbers were included, what the court cards were, whether they had plain or figured pips and so on. Some neat bits of information emerged, like how some suit sets were much more common in one country but almost never made in others, or the charming tendency to have the 10 card be a pip on a banner, held up by creatures or beautiful ladies.
Set of Fifty–Two Playing Cards, ca. 1475. South Netherlandish (Burgundian Territories). A very beautiful 15th century deck, very complete and in great condition, with very unusual themed pips: dog collars, tethers, gaming nooses, and hunting horns. This deck is sometimes called the Hunting Deck.
A German deck from 1504 at the British Museum.
While some decks were fancy and hand painted, some were much simpler, like this uncolored woodcut print deck. I love how the hearts are stacked on top of each other, it’s very different from modern decks. Woodcuts like this would have made mass production easy.
Deck by Peter Flöttner of Nuremberg, c.1545.
The deck above by Peter Flottner is particularly lovely. The black outlines were printed with a woodcut block and then the cards were water colored in by hand. The 10 cards have a banner held by lady, like mentioned earlier. Nearly every card has a human figure, sometimes several. Unlike most 15th and 16th century decks, this one has a patterned back, containing sheet music for songs and it appears that most cards were different songs. They must not have been terribly stressed about cheating! Such a neat deck, you can buy a modern reproduction of it here.
Jost Amman, “Book of Trades”, 1588
Jost Amman’s deck is another example of a deck with all figured pips, and a fun variant on the banner ten card: the banner has become a tiny flag in the corner with a Roman numeral X for 10, and the woman has grown to consume the whole space of the card, holding the pip in her hand. This one also has water colored versions.
Back to our own deck plans, we decided to keep the period suites swords, bells, and acorns, and add an original suit: Spoons. A few of us have made spoons, myself included, and we also had a number of self-proclaimed foodies among our friends, so this seemed to be a fine suit to include. Acorns are just pretty, so we put pretty people on them!
Moar spread sheet! Here’s most of the bells, you can see the sort of brainstorming thoughts we had. Not everything made it into the final card form, but quite a lot did. Both of us could edit this sheet from our own computers, and it got a lot of tweaking over time.
In a new spreadsheet, we arranged our historical recreation friends into the suits, assigned them numbers, and added notes about fun things to include, like pets, children, favored outfits, and activities. We even tried to put spouses on similar cards, either next to each other in a suit, or of the same number in a different suit, so they would look nice if displayed together. It wasn’t perfect, some people love to cook and fight, or play music and dress in beautiful clothing, but we did the best we could.
During this planning stage, I started sketching out ideas for cards, some of which got scrapped but many ended up quite close to the final cards. I got a sample of the paper we intended to use and did some water color tests to see how the paper would take it.
During all this, I was also in the middle of planning and helping with our Prince and Princess’s coronation gowns, which sort of put this project on the back burner for a bit. When I had a moment to spare, waiting for the next supply to be delivered, waiting for feedback, or just wanted to give my hands a break from my current task, I would start drawing. I even posted the very first one on Facebook
because it was vague enough to not give the whole project away.
The first card I drew was the Ace of Bells, which is the least specific card, but was meant to generally represent our Dancing Queen at the time, Stjarna. A group of dancers also makes a great first card for this suit, since the rest of the cards are instrument players (mostly).
Once the Coronation outfits were done, I of course had more projects pop up that needed to be finished asap, but in between them, I made my way through the pictures one by one. As a finished drawing them, I would post them for Jenny to see and give her feedback.
When I was feeling indecisive, I would send her pictures like this (on the left) to choose which elements and poses she liked best. I would then incorporate those comments into the final image (right).
Once several had been posted, Jenny transferred them to a lino block (a modern sister to the wood block) and started carving out the spaces between lines.
In wood cutting, you start with a smooth surface, and carve away anything you do not want printed. The tools used to cut look like tiny chisels, and leave slightly triangular cuts in the blocks surface.
A partially finished block.
I finished all 52 card drawings by the end of March, and Jenny finished the cuts a couple of weeks later. During my down time, I did a couple extra cards for old friends as part of a gift exchange thing.
Fun! You can see my paper crown project in the corner!
The super exciting time has arrived! Time to print! Jenny often prints at her friend’s print shop, Day Moon Press.
It’s a pretty darn neat place, with lots and lots of cool equipment and tools.
If you are ever in Seattle, it’s a sweet place to visit. Today, we are here not to visit, we are here to work!
See that stack of paper in the middle? You can only see about half of it here, but there’s lots of it, it’s big and needs to get cut down into usable size sheets.
Jenny cut down the sheets with a big cutting machine. I helped ferry cut and uncut paper around as needed.
Once the paper was prepped, we moved to the press. To print, we need to get ink on the round plate at the top, and evenly distribute it to the rollers.
Jenny put a few strips of black color on the ink disk.
Each lino block had to be fit into the press’s chase frame using wood blocks called furniture. When it’s nice and snug, it can be moved into the press.
It’s in the press!
The shiny black rollers are going to come up and ink the surface of the lino block as they pass. Once they are out of the way, the platen on the right will rotate up until it touches the lino block.
The very first print on paper! The print was far too light though, so we added more paper underneath, which is called packing, until the paper surface was high enough to print completely.
On the first printing day we did a small run, just proof printing to check for any missed spots or areas in need of refinement. After each block was printed, they got cleaned off and set aside to dry before we moved on to the next block.
The ink has a nifty shine before it gets cleaned off.
Test print went very well!
Here’s one of the smaller blocks. The big blocks only fit 12 cards, so for a deck of 52, we had 4 extra cards that needed homes on smaller pastures.
Jenny did all of the actual printing and cutting, I was just helping move paper around and keeping her company at the print shop.
All the blocks in one spot!
Once all the blocks were printed, we left them alone for a few days to dry.
Since this is a particularly image heavy post, I’ve split it in two. The second half is here: Fromage and Friends, a Handmade Deck Part 2.