Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mouse Pad Elves

((First written 12/13/2009, then hid on the shame shelf, behind the cringe jar. Dusted off months later, long after all the old orders were filled along with many new ones.)) 

It feels fantastic to be emerging from late-product purgatory. I put a lot of customers through some egregious tests of patience with the hexagonal mouse pads. I believe I can see the gorilla with a flashlight and it is in fact the opening of the tunnel. I've just resolved ((again this was written 12/13/2009)) the last issue with being able to manufacture the mouse pads entirely in-house. It was long and dramatic and agonizing and here is my whiny story.

If the very idea of making mouse pads from scratch strikes you as fundamentally alien to the 21st century western hemisphere, well I feel your pain more than you could know. Googling for anything related to making mouse pads unleashes a cavalcade of schwag purveyors. I suspect more than 1% of Earth Domestic Product (EDP) goes into putting logos in landfills. Search for the raw materials? Answers are flooded with all the companies bragging about the features of their schwag. Schwag braggarts. (I like saying schwag so much that I even like to type it.) As further evidence that google is not omniscient, "Barely There" is the trademark for the ultra-thin non-skid substrate I use in my mouse pads, but it's also a million times more commonly a trademark for, er, this other stuff.  Very different stuff.  And if you want you can go find out for yourself, but I warn you it could be distracting.

So why should I fight the tide, why not do it the easy way, and (pretentiously leading question alert) why pretend there's anything special about the mouse pads I make? If I would only make mouse pads as everyone else does, I could sell them for $3 each and still make mostly profit. I'd order 10,000 at a time from China and they'd have all manner of outlandish special features and I'd never run out. If you work in print at all you know the limited color gamut of the CMYK ink printing process. Well I've gone to outrageous lengths to get beyond it, and it doesn't fit the schwag "industry" at all. I tried to communicate to suppliers in Asia that I need to print the paper for the mouse pads using a custom color process, ship to them, and they'd use that paper in the mouse pad, coating the top with a clear but friction surface, and the bottom with the nonskid pantyhose stuff, and ship the result back to me. Ok be honest, did you really follow that last sentence? Now imagine if English were not your mother tongue but merely your third-cousin, twice-removed, by-marriage-only-then-divorced tongue.

I had a supplier in California (without mentioning Diran Afarian of mousepad.com by name) who had been making the mouse pads for years and doing an excellent job. But last summer he finally gave up, returned all the prints to me and politely declined to try any further. My take was that he'd automated his shop so much to keep up with competition that my jobs required too much manual intervention. (Seriously, Diran is still a hero in my book for trying, and oh yes I did change the layout on him.) Finally I located some samples of the materials and tried to make the mouse pads by hand myself. Turns out that a U.S. penny has exactly a 3/8" curve radius, just like the corner rounding I had been using. I will let you imagine why that matters, but the point is the mouse pads came out looking pretty darn good despite humble methods. Though I needed some machinery if I was ever going to keep up.

Each time I changed mouse pad manufacturer in the past I'd have to pay a hefty "die charge" a particularly apt term. I thought dies were a big deal. A die is a strip of metal with a knife-sharp edge, curved into a special shape and pressed into a slot in a carrier, usually plywood. Turns out if you find the guy who makes them, they're not such a big deal at all. However, much bigger deals are the presses that push the die into the material and make the cut. Literally, tons are involved. They are very heavy, very dangerous, and very expensive. Or so I thought, until I discovered that the crafting industry has done some amazing things in recent years. I don't know how many people use those infomercial paper cutting machines, but there seems to be a lot of them, and some of the companies (not the infomercial ones) have made some gadgets that will last more than a weekend. In fact they come with a lifetime warranty.

So making mouse pads in-house had many challenges: (1) finding the materials (2) buying less than a shipload (about a dinghy load) (3) die (4) press.

((Updated 3/30/2010)) The fifth and funnest challenge was to get the upside-down materials to line up to the die when cutting. For this I actually got to make some electronical purty lights, thrashing the work/play boundary yet further. I'll explain this contraption if more than 2.5 people actually read this post. Basically, see the teeny red and blue lights at the corners? They line up with the pink and blue bullseyes.