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Penny Gems: A Special Artisan's Workshop Tour

Julia Ziobro
United States
Black Hawk
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Microbadge: Golden Board Game CollectorMicrobadge: I'm a gut player!Microbadge: Scrabble fanMicrobadge: 2019 Silver SupporterMicrobadge:  The few, the proud, the exhausted... BGG.CON Team Geek!
(Long post. Tons of embedded photos and video clips. Sorry/Enjoy!)

It's my dad's fault. He took us on many factory tours on our camping trips. As an adult, I recognize that my parents saw the tours as free educational entertainment, but as a kid, I just thought factories were places of MAGIC. So when Dave started explaining how Penny Gems are made in the updates to his Kickstarter project, I had to become a backer so I could keep reading them. I quickly volunteered to come help after he happened to let slip that he was making them a few miles from where I live.
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He finally took me up on it (I offered, shamelessly, more than once). Monday afternoon, instead of playing a board game, I headed to the Dave's workshop at PlastiCreations in Redmond, WA.

(Many, many thanks for Dave's kindness in allowing/encouraging me to share my day of Penny Gem creation with the broader community via a blog post. I know he's wanted to share this kind of information with his backers and others who might be interested in Penny Gems, but it's hard to take the time when the project's succeeded beyond the best-case predictions and there's literally thousands of gems to produce and ship! I take full responsibility for anything I've missed or got wrong, and if Dave provides any corrections, I will update this post. Dave did not bribe me; I write as an unpaid fan.)

Making the Penny Gem Labels

First things first: get the printer started! That's the slowest part of the process, so it's critical to begin right away.

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Cutting is the next part of the printing process:

After the gems are printed and cut, "weeding" must be done to remove the excess vinyl material from around the gems. Dave showed me how to do it, and just like waxing to remove hair, the trick is to hold the material tight to the table and then to pull fast and to make as big a fold away from the sheet surface as possible. The n00b instinct is to go slow and careful, and that doesn't work so well.

First part of the pull:

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About 1/3 through a sheet:

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The last few rows (and yes, I'm not so good at it LOL):

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I have to say thanks to Dave for being patient with me. Happily, this part of the process is reasonably forgiving. Labels damaged at this point in the process can be carefully replaced with good ones from a stash of extras.

Here's a shot of full printed sheets next to a bunch that have already been weeded:

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When working with Penny Gems, it's hard not to notice that even the TRASH is pretty:

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I swear, I'm part magpie... I wanted to take it all with me!

After the gems are weeded and carefully inspected for printing problems, they are placed on metal trays that have slippery but strong HDPE feet. Thin magnetic strips hold the label backer sheets to the steel trays so that the labels don't move during the doming and curing process.

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After traying, the labels are piled on the table to the left of the doming machine, ready for doming.

Applying the Polyurethane Dome Material

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Here is the doming station:

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Now the real fun begins! Dave prepares the machine, a specialized rig that uses a modified computerized medical IV pump to dispense precise amounts of polyurethane material in a time-measured fashion. Dave starts the pump with a foot pedal, and then slides the tray under a custom nozzle-holder that he engineered and built, advancing the labels one row at a time until each of them has been domed.

A view from the side:

A view from above:

Sometimes, careful adjustments are required:

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Regular Penny Gems; towards the top of the photo, trays of freshly-domed sheets, with sheets yet to be domed closer to the bottom:

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The trays are stacked in piles of 12, because that's what fits into the curing cabinet Dave built. The top tray is covered with a clear lid to prevent dust contamination. We are making gems by the thousands! It's an impressive stack, to be sure:

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Octarine sheets ready to be domed:

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When Dave is done doming all of the regular gems (full and partial insignia sheets), he cuts off two of the nozzles, reprograms the controller to dispense less polyurethane with each pulse because there are 8 gems on a row, not 10, and starts doming octarine gems:

Domed octarines:

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Finally, the piles of trays are placed in the curing cabinet, which maintains a 45C temperature. This cures the polyethylene material in six hours instead of the 48 hours it would take at room temperature.

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Quality Control and Finished Product

After curing is complete, the sheets are moved from the trays, and the rigorous quality control step can begin. I got to do a bunch of this (full disclosure: I worked on labels that Dave domed on Saturday. He'll come back and do today's run on Wednesday or Thursday, after shipping out the weekend's production tomorrow). The quality check requires careful viewing of each label at several angles, pulling any defective ones, and then replacing bad labels with good ones from sheets of spares. The possibility of human error exists here, but great care is taken to make sure each label is right.

Bad labels might have not enough material, too much material, or bubbles or dust in the doming material. "Good enough" is not good enough; I rejected marginal labels and replaced them with perfect ones.

Most of the bad labels I pulled today:

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The QA workstation:

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The completed partial insignia labels from today's work:

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The completed full insignia labels from today's efforts:

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The completed octarine gems from today:

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An Exciting Peek into the Future of Penny Gems

So if you were paying close attention earlier, you noticed some labels that didn't look so familiar. "Something," you thought, "is not right with those gems."

Indeed, the real treat of the day -- other than getting to chat with Dave for six hours and getting to know him a little bit, discovering a gaming friend or two in common -- was seeing the potential prototypes for the not-yet-official (insert another layer of no-promises disclaimer text here) pastel Penny Gems!!

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You can't possibly be as excited about these as I am!! laugh I will become a backer the moment that project goes live, and I advise you not to hesitate, because Dave will run it for a shorter period next time, anticipating higher demand and wanting to maintain great quality and turn-around speed.

My Overall Impressions

Dave is a true artist... a perfectionist, but not a diva. (We laughed about ways in which artists CAN be divas, and Dave tried it on, but no, probably not his default mode).

We talked a lot about how something approximating Penny Gems could maybe be made in a less labor-intensive, cheaper process, probably in China. Maybe they COULD do it, but I honestly don't believe the end results would even come close.
d10-1 Dave's printing process requires two or even three layers of overprint to get the color intensity that you see in your gems. That's a lot of ink and a slower printing process.
d10-2 Once you lay down that much ink on the vinyl, you've got to move fast, or the ink drying on the vinyl will make it curl.
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d10-3 Maybe some super-fancy machine exists that does doming with less hand-work required, but probably not.
d10-4 We've all seen that quality control can be lacking in some overseas company's efforts. Except for the labels I did today, every single Penny Gem you get from Dave will have been personally inspected by him about five times (by my count). The ones I did today will be inspected by him at least three times. Dave CARES about these... he wants them to be spectacularly beautiful, and I think they are. "Good enough" doesn't fly. If they're flawed, you won't get them, except through human error.
d10-5 This is a 100% US-made product now. US ingenuity and design, US vinyl, US polyurethane, US ink, US equipment, US labor, US packaging, hell, even US PENNIES! I don't know about you, but I am thrilled to buy US-based products which help keep my friends and neighbors working.
d10-6 These are going to last a very long time, and you will enjoy them for years to come. If corners are cut in their production, will they last as long? Hard to say. Does being 10% cheaper at the moment of purchase really increase your enjoyment long-term?
d10-7 Dave's a gamer in addition to being an artist. I really love keeping my gaming dollars in our little community so that a few people can make their living doing these things we love to do.
d10-8 Buying close to home (for me, less than 2 miles, but I know I'm special) reduces the petroleum footprint of the Penny Gems. ALL products from China come with a hefty petroleum expense, both in real economic terms and in broader environmental ways.
d10-9 Thanks to great materials control, they are known to be non-toxic. Inks, adhesives, doming material. Stuff from elsewhere SAYS it's non-toxic, but is it always? Oversight is much less reliable so it's harder to be sure.

Oh go on, really, it's about doing the right thing and owning a set of really delectable gaming accessories. I've spent a lot of money on gaming accessories, and these blow all others away completely. You don't hold these, you fondle them. You don't use them, you enjoy them. It will take your enjoyment of gaming to a new level.

You will sound ridiculous and giddy when you try to describe the tactile pleasure of these things (as I know I do), and then you hand them to someone and they will HAVE TO HAVE THEM. Now. Be prepared for your friends to try to borrow or buy them from you (it's already happened to me)!

Getting Penny Gems in the Future

If you missed the Kickstarter campaign in April, Dave will have some on his Etsy store: (see update, below). You will also be able to get the next edition of Penny Gems on Kickstarter once Dave announces them (and I will try to remember to update this blog post accordingly to help you find them).

I hope you enjoyed this insider look at how these beautiful improbable objects are made. Please thumb this post if you did, and check out Dave's work.

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Dave Howell
United States
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Board Game Designer
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Availability Update - 30 May 2012 or, Your Reward for Reading the Whole Thing is Learning How to Get Some Penny Gems of Your Very Own!

About half of the Kickstarter orders have been fulfilled, so Penny Gems have been added to Dave's Etsy store!

The gems listed there show a status of "backorder" because all Kickstarter orders will be filled FIRST, but he says he's going to start shipping Etsy orders in about six weeks, and then will ship those orders in the order they are received.

Quartet Set $20 - 10 each of ruby red, topaz yellow, emerald green and sapphire blue

Prism Set $20 - 5 each of the standard 8 colors (crystal silver, ruby red, amber orange, topaz yellow, emerald green, sapphire blue, amythest purple, jet black)

Rainbow Set $35 - 10 each of the standard 8 colors listed above

Double Rainbow Set $60 - 20 each of the standard 8 colors listed above

Full Spectrum Set $99 - 40 each of the standard 8 colors listed above

Octarine Penny Gems, the amazing sparkly ones, are not yet available through the store but will be sold separately in sheets of 20. Stay tuned!
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