Introduction: Making RetroTech: a Steampunk / Clock / Gear Font

Want to add a RetroTech feel to your laser engraving or graphic work? Read on!

I do a lot of laser engraving on the Epilog laser engraver/cutters at TechShop SJ (three 60W lasers!) and I like to use display fonts that aren't boring on one hand but aren't too fussy to engrave well on the other. I also like the retro-tech feel of clocks and gears and the like, so I thought maybe someone might have made a Steampunk font that I could use. After a bit of searching, I found some things tantalizingly close to what I wanted, but nothing that was quite right. So, I decided to make my own.

The point of this Instructable, beyond making my font available for people to use, is to show how I made the individual glyphs in the font. That way anyone who is interested but doesn't like the particular glyph I made can customize to their heart's content.

One note of explanation: what I've made here is not a font in the normal sense of the word. This isn't a True Type font but rather a series of vector "glyphs" that must be manually sized and arranged for use. Since this font is meant as a display font and thus usually used only a few "letters" at a time, I didn't consider this a big issue....or at least not an issue big enough to motivate me to dive into the world of real typography.

That brings up another note of explanation: I know almost nothing about typography. As such, I expect that anyone who does will look at this work and see many examples of horrifyingly bad type design. I'm good with that...I didn't set out to become the next Max Miedinger, but rather to make a fun font for my own use. After I was done with it, I figured I might as well share!

I've included a couple of different versions of the Adobe Illustrator and SVG files here. The smaller ones contains only my final glyphs and while the larger one contains the final glyphs and all the source components for those who might want to roll their own glyphs.

The legal bits: based on some of the sources I used for this work, it is made available for use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

Step 1: Inspiration and Source Materials

The closest thing I was able to find to what I wanted was a True Type font by member Melissa Choyce called "Time to get a Watch". Melissa made this font as a class project a few years back and it's very cool. You can find it as a free download on

Melissa's font didn't work as created for me for two reasons:

First, I wanted an outline font that was designed to be vector engraved (as opposed to a filled font for raster engraving). Although I've done a lot of cool raster engraving using TechShop SJ's Epilog lasers, for a lot of my needs vector engraving is appropriate and it's a lot faster. For me, the speed of vector engraving trumps the design value of the variable stroke width you can get with raster engraving.

Second, Melissa's glyphs didn't have the geometric precision I wanted for use at very large (>1") sizes.

After finding Melissa's font, I started looking for components I could use to create my own interpretations of her glyphs. I found some really cool stuff, made available by its creators for non-commercial use.

For this work, I used:

Chainwheels Icons Vector by DragonArtz Design. (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.)

Vector Gears by OpenGraphicDesign (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License)

Vector Gears by (Attribution required)

Gear Silhouette by (Non-commercial use)

Brain Gear Vector by (Attribution required)

Gear and Frame Vectors by Zakorath (no longer available for download)

I also needed some clock hands, but was unable to find any free-for-non-commercial-use vector artwork. So, I ended up looking around the net for pictures of clock hands and drawing them myself in Adobe Illustrator. This was a little painful because the pen tool is evil. My battles with the pen tool usually go against me, hence my desire to use vector art found on the net for this project instead of drawing it all from scratch.

Step 2: Making a Glyph in Adobe Illustrator

Here are the important steps in making a glyph.

1. Examine the model glyph and decide how you want to construct the new glyph.

2. Browse the source files for likely looking components & make copies before you start messing with them.

3. Arrange the source components as you like them.

4. Modify the source components to fit together.

5. Copy the final glyph to your finished set & make a merged outline version.

6. Enjoy your new font!

All this work was done in Adobe Illustrator because I have it at home as well as having access to it at TechShop SJ (they have an awesome array of software tools available for all members to use.) It may be that there is an equivalent work flow possible in Inkscape, but I don't know much about Inkscape.

Step 3: Examine the Model Glyph and Make Design Decisions

Let's looks at the W glyph from Melissa's font. The image notes above show the questions and ideas that occurred to me as I looked at it.

One thing to remember during this step is that there's no one right way to go about this. And, since bits are free, there's no reason to only make one version of each glyph. In my finished* font, you will see that there are multiple versions of many of the glyphs.

*I doubt it's really "finished." I expect I'll keep adding to it and tweaking it as I use it for more projects.

Step 4: Find Some Likely Looking Components & Make Copies

For the W, we need one or two gears and one or two clock hands.

There are lots and lots of gears to choose from in the source materials. How to choose? Just grab a few and see what looks right. Go with something simpler for the center and more complex for the bottom.

I don't have that many hands to choose from, so lets pick a simple one for the short, inner strokes and a little more interesting one for the longer, outer strokes.

Now that we have chosen our parts, STOP and make copies!

It's bad practice to modify your only copy of the source artwork. If you accidentally save your file after having butchered a nice bit of art, it's annoying to have to go back out to the net to try to find the original again. You can probably guess how I know this.

I copy all my source art work to a layer called Working Layer and the model glyph to another layer called.....wait for it....Model Glyph Layer. That way I can lock the model layer and move stuff around on top of the model to see what looks good without constantly selecting the model by accident.

Step 5: Arrange the Components As You Like Them

There's no real way to describe how to do this other than move stuff around, resize it, etc until you like what you see. Or until you don't like what you see. In the example above, the one bottom gear is too detailed to engrave well a the scale I'm likely to use it.

The second image shows the components I've chosen, but they still need a bit of modification. The image notes show my thoughts about what modifications to make.

Step 6: Modify the Source Components to Fit Together

Modifying the components is mostly a matter of erasing, rotating, scaling, and the like. This kind of basic object manipulation in Adobe Illustrator is covered exhaustively in many tutorials that are easily found on the net, so I won't make a half-a......errrr....half-baked attempt to do so here.

A few things worth noting here:

In the first image above, I haven't made both sides of the glyph yet. Since it is symmetric around a vertical axis, it's much easier to get half of it right and then make a mirrored copy of the half. Then you just have to line up and merge the two halves. It's nice to know that Smart Guides and Snap To Point are there to help.

When cutting away areas of your components, the Pathfinder -> Minus Front tool is your friend. Examples of this above are cutting out the center of the middle gear using a simple circle placed on top and cutting the resulting gear down the center so I don't have to rotate it perfectly before I mirror it.

If you want to actually join the components into more complex shapes, the Pathfinder -> Merge tool is the way to go. This tool sometimes produces unexpected results (or at least unexpected to me) so you might have to play around with it a bit to get exactly what you want.

The second image above shows the final glyph after I placed a mirrored copy of the left half on the right. As you can see, it's not exactly the same width as the model, but it's close enough for me!

Step 7: Add the Glyph to Your Font and Make an Merged Outlined Version

Now that the new W glyph is finished, just add it to the finished font layer in the AI file.

For some projects, I like the glyphs to be engraved showing all the overlapping parts from which they were made. What we have so far is good for that (even though there isn't really much overlap in the W). Check out the details of the R glyph above for a more obvious example of what I'm talking about.

For a cleaner outline to engrave, we can take one final step and created a merged outline version of the glyph. I do this with the Pathfinder -> Merge and Pathfinder -> Outline tools. Exactly which tool to use depends on the way the parts were drawn. Again, just play around with it to see how it works.

Step 8: Enjoy Your New Font!

I had a lot of fun making this font and have used it to engrave all sorts of things. I hope you find it as useful and fun as I have. If you use it for some cool project, please drop me a comment and a pic.

Epilog Challenge VI

Participated in the
Epilog Challenge VI