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An intro to Pen Plotters (tobiastoft.com)
353 points by Tomte on Mar 1, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments

Can't believe my old post got picked up! If anyone's looking to get a plotter I would still highly recommend an old HP 7475A as a gateway drug — they're relatively cheap, not too big (the size of a large-ish inkjet printer) and incredibly well made. I've had a lot of fun using the Geomerative library for Processing.org to play around with my plotters, but really anything goes as long as you can access your serial port and don't mind reading the plotter's manual. I generally save the HPGL output to a text file and then use a small utility app I've written to send it to the plotter. Sometimes I'll check the output in Cenon.app before wasting any paper or ink.

Though there's a lot to be said for the old HP plotters, if eBay is any indication, there's a very thin supply and any uptick in interest is going to cause them to dry up and prices to increase. It looks like that may have already happened.

One alternative for people who just want to get started today is to buy a modern version: they don't sell them as "pen plotters" exactly, anymore, but they do sell desktop vinyl and paper cutters (sometimes a/k/a "die cutters", although that's an inaccurate name used by papercrafters for historical reasons) that are very, very close in terms of operation to a 1980s moving-media pen plotter. And most of them can be trivially adapted to use a pen or marker in place of a cutter blade.

I have a "Silhouette" brand cutting plotter, which can take two tools, and it cost me about the same as what used 7475As are currently selling for and worked via USB out of the box. It'll never challenge the old HP on its great 1980s aesthetics, and the paper traversal speed isn't quite as fast, but it produces output that seems equivalent and I can jam pretty much any type of pen I want into its toolholder. It uses a variant of HPGL that's supported by several open source tools in addition to the OEM software.

The one important note is that you must absolutely avoid "Cricut" brand cutting plotters, which are unfortunately the dominant modern manufacturer. They have an awful razors-and-blades business model that revolves around selling the machines at a discount and then charging users for overpriced vector drawings through an "app store" type system, and they enforce this by obfuscating the communication protocol used by the plotters, and abusing the DMCA and engaging in other bits of sharp practice to discourage 3rd-party software. Unless you're buying one to reverse-engineer, they are best avoided.

The Roland STIKA line is very well-regarded if you want to spend a bit more. Can't speak for many others.

I'm hopeful that the current resurgence of interest in plotters will result in more third-party, open-source software for these current-production commercial machines, in addition to the older surplus ones. Once the parts supplies dry up for the older machines, these newer ones will be the easier path forward for people who want to start playing with this technology.

I have one of the made-in-China cutting plotters from USCutter. USCutter seems like the Harbor Freight of cutting plotters, but for me the plotter works as intended. You can swap out the cutters for pens or markers. I paid around $200 for the 34" version.

It's USB and uses HGPL and you can open it up like you would a serial-USB device and just start sending it HGPL.

I hope interest in these devices from programmers continue, because I'd love to see an open-source plotting software that's suitable for printing/cutting graphics on rolls of paper or vinyl. The software available from USCutter is horrible!

This is exactly what I was looking for. After searching on ebay for the HP 7550/7475a i noticed they are generally only available in the US. Since the shipping costs and import duties to the EU are really high for US-ebay products and most of them did not guarantee it would work I started looking into alternatives.

So I tried my luck on the 'Drawing Machines'... But they are (in my opinion) very slow, suffer from the same 'do your own maintenance/support' like current 3D printers and brands like AxiDraw, Eleksmaker or Mackerblocks are crazy expensive compared to the 3D printers which contain much more electronics and material.

Also looking into their 'boards' I noticed they use different firmwares and mostly leaned on SVG/Inkscape/Python and i'd rather have the HP-GL to mess around instead of getting lost into this firmware/library rabbit hole.

Then I stumbled on the Silhouet Curio while looking through youtube videos. It has so many options.. whole 'home' businesses are build around this device. Looking closer into the electronics I noticed it uses a proprietary language/driver. However it does have a small active tech community that was able to reverse engineer the protocol and created an Inkscape plugin.. but that will make it on par with the drawing machines, and I'd rather have a documented protocol from the get go (like HP-GL).

I almost gave up on my dream of owning a plotter and tinkering with fractals and the HP-GL on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Until I decided to read this thread that started it all once again and read your comment about the USCutter, this thing is exactly the right price and seems to actually use HP-GL, awesome, my search continues.

Do you have the Curio?

Do you have an opinion about the Curio? I'm curious as to what people think of them. My daughter has one, uses it occasionally, and enjoys it. Beyond that, I don't know much, or how it compares to similar machines.

I don't have a vinyl cutter yet. I'm looking at the Silhouette Curio, Portrait 2, and the Brother Design N Cut.

I like my other Brother products and would ordinarily choose them, but I don't know anything about their protocol. Silhouette has been very open about their protocol in the past[1]. They use a variant of HPGL and there are a few open source tools that allow you to drive their plotters/cutters.

[1] https://ohthehugemanatee.net/2011/07/gpgl-reference-courtesy...

I just bought two Brother "Die Cutters" last week for my Technology Lab for Head Start myself.

The axidraw from evil mad scientist is also a great gateway and super hackable, though generally more expensive than a vintage hp plotter you can find on ebay.


Thanks for posting! I just ordered one myself to try out making some plotter art of my own!

Can you still get new pens for that plotter? Do serial-to-USB cables generally work?

Yeah, fortunately pens are relatively easy to find on Amazon, eBay, and a few online stores (just Google 'HP Plotter Pens'). My Roland and HP plotters use the same type of pens, btw.

All USB-Serial cables and adapters I’ve used so far have worked (including Arduinos!), but you might need a DB-9 to DB-25 null modem to physically connect your adapter to the plotter. Biggest thing to watch out for is to make sure you get an RS-232/Serial version of the plotter and not an HPIB/GPIB version. The easiest way to check is to look for a DB-25 connector on the back of the plotter instead of a Centronics-style connector (looks a bit beefier).

EDIT: Btw, some plotters (like the HP 7550A) will have both types of connectors on the back. In that case you’re good!

The only reason I didn’t buy that HP pen plotter is because I’d want the freedom to give it any kind of pen or marker, not just ones made specifically for it. I imagine it’s not possible?

You can make your own adapters depending on the pen you want to put in it. I've made some out of dried out HP pens that I cut the ends off and jammed a Sharpie into. I've seen nicer 3d printed adapters on eBay and Thingiverse as well. When using a heavier pen like a Sharpie, you might want to set the plotter's speed a little lower to avoid knocking the pen loose when it accelerates.

Nice post. You should post some plotter stuff on Twitter. ;)

I should, but I'm frankly too lazy to get it done! I've really enjoyed browsing your post history — awesome work!

I grew up in the 90s. My dad would tell me about the plotters they had at work. I remember many of the old dos programs from that era would have plotters listed in their printer options. (Anyone remember Banner Mania?)

I never actually saw a plotter in person though. We just had an ink jet at home and lasers at school.

This is a pretty amazing post though. I never knew how plotters worked, or even realized how elegant their protocol was.

A lot of people talk about how kids will never appreciate x, y, z today. I remember in high school when a friend of ours got his first CD burner, a 16x. We had been struggling with 2x/4x burners (I even had an old SCSI burner). We were both like, "You will never appreciate that."

That's why posts like this are so important. I think a lot of people growing up will appreciate learning what technology was like; seeing simulations of old BBSes on 9600 bps modems. Sure, they'll never have that feeling we did of dialing BBS after BBS and downloading shareware, typing on FIDO net or photo copying our parent's drivers license so we could download dial-up porn, but if it's well written about -- it's still something we can pass down to the next generation of engineers about the way things were and how far we've come.

At work I once needed to write a program that as part of its workload would backup a lot of images to CD. We only had 2x writers available at the time, so I spent a lot of time creating a distributed system which could write e.g. 8-16 CD's at the same time.

Of course right after write speed increased dramatically and we went up to 16/32 writers...and the distributed component became totally unnecessary. But it remained in the code for a long time just complicating things for no apparent reason (to those who later took over).

Agreed. I was just talking today about how I missed the days of yanking trial CD-ROMs from magazines to get that next free month with a cardgen. I love seeing old technologies like this still in use, especially with modern libraries, etc. It's the perfect mix of nostaglia and discovery. I am picking up an HP7470 tomorrow and can't wait to play with it.

I wonder if AOHell would run on Windows 10...

Guide XYZ has entered the room...

I turned 18 in 1999.

I found a discarded HP plotter from the mid eighties in the late nineties (about 1996/1997) and successfully connected it to my PC. There I used CorelTrace! to transform a scan of my father’s signature into a vector file. Then I was able to place any document the school wanted him to sign into the bed of the plotter and have it literally inked onto the page.

Excellent, reliable, indiscriminate forgery. (I’ve since owned up to this.)

We did the same thing with the signature of our department head, who was often out of the office, and was cool with it provided it didn't get him into trouble.

It was necessary because this was in the Civil Service where you needed a signed requisition for everything, and previously he'd just leave a pile of pre-signed forms on his desk when he went away...

I laughed out loud. I think all of us who were teens back than thought up this idea as something dark and sinister that only we thought up at the time.

Myself I would use this trick to prank friends. I never got in trouble in High School so I didn't need it to get out of trouble. Sending love letters to people with fake signatures and doodles was priceless for 15 to 17 year olds.

Most vinyl cutters can use a pen as well. I have a Graphtec CE5000-40 cutter with a 15" wide bed, and I have adapters so I can stick sharpies of various sizes in it. Plus it has niceties like a USB interface and plugins for Illustrator. (Downside vs. an old plotter, of course, is cost.)

EDIT: also don't forget the AxiDraw! https://shop.evilmadscientist.com/productsmenu/846

Interesting note on the AxiDraw, the way it holds the pen at an angle and drags it around means it can work with a fountain pen where you need the nib held with a softer angle relative to the paper (both tines touching, ink flows out in between). The photo shows it with a Lamy Safari.

I don't think this is the case with regular pen plotters, which look like they hold the pen vertically and keep it fixed as it draws in different directions. Some pens will write vertically, but it's not ideal depending on the nib grind. The bottom corner of the nib is rounded to work at a range of angles, but the top might have sharper edges that would catch when dragging it upward.

EDIT - I suppose you could make an adapter for a pen plotter that would hold it at an angle though.

I tried putting a calligraphy pen in my plotter and it was definitely rough on the nib because of the angle. With continuous line drawing it would probably be ok, but too much up/down movement might get messy. Still fun to watch though! Here's a short video of it in action: https://www.instagram.com/p/BNCxyfLBh8_/

Those folks also sold “Sylvia’s watercolor not” which was designed around, well, water color painting via the same mechanism.

They also sell an “eggbot” for drawing on Easter eggs. Wonderful stuff.

dont forget you would have to prevent the modified regular pen plotter from dragging the angled fountain pen the wrong way

As long as it's not a particularly flexible nib (and most aren't these days) you can pretty much push it any direction once you have it at an angle. Lucky for me, otherwise I'd have trouble with down strokes (left-handed overwriter).

My wife uses a vinyl cutter at a local hackerspace, and I wanted to make the same comment. When I saw it, I realized it was a 2-d printer. Somebody else put in a pen to draw huge mazes. I wonder if the smaller cheaper pen plotters could be modified to cut vinyl?

Any recommendations on vinyl cutters? It looks like all the servo-controlled ones start at around $1k; are the stepper ones at all worth it?

I have an inexpensive stepper-based cutter and it has really impressed me. I had very low expectations when I bought it, but it's quite nice as a pen plotter.

With an 0.05mm fiber tip technical pen, the stepper movements are indistinguishable in the final drawing. I've also run the same drawing multiple times to check repeatability, and it's within probably 10 thou (10 * [1/1000 in]) at least at first glance with a small drawing.

Having a servo-based movement is probably important if you are cutting tough outdoor vinyl or stencil material, but if you are just moving a pen across paper, some of the advantages of servos don't come into play.

The only problem I've had with it is when cutting 4-5mil mylar for stencils. There, because of variations in the thickness of the mylar (I think), the machine sometimes fails to cut completely. It doesn't lose its place in the drawing, though, which makes me think that they are running the stepper motors in a closed-loop mode similar to how you'd use a servo. I am not 100% on that, it's just a theory I've developed after watching the thing at work for a while. I'm still enjoying just playing with it enough for the moment, so I haven't bothered to dig into its innards.

Lots of fun for under 200 bucks though, IMO.

"makes me think that they are running the stepper motors in a closed-loop mode similar to how you'd use a servo. I am not 100% on that, "

Do the steppers have encoders on them? If not, the machine can't do closed loop control. It can keep track of where the rotor should be based on counting the steps of coils it has energized, but it has no way of directly keeping track of the rotor. A large enough torque resisting the rotor's rotation can cause the rotor to skip steps, but this doesn't influence the energizing of coils in the stator so the machine has no idea that anything has gone wrong.

An encoder lets you directly measure what's going on with the rotor (and therefore the shaft of the motor). You basically keep track of where you should be (based on counting the steps delivered to the stator coils) then use the encoder to validate. e.g. 'I've sent 12 steps so I should be 48 degrees from where I started. My encoder is reading 26 degrees, so I must have skipped steps somewhere along the way.'

If you use an encoder to adjust your position, then you are a servo; you probably won't use a stepper motor because the main advantage to a stepper motor is that you don't need position feedback to estimate the position accurately, but a stepper motor with feedback is just as much a servomechanism as any other motor with negative feedback.


Wikipedia tells me that there are some mechanisms that use stepper motors that run mostly open-loop with an encoder only for detecting stepper-miss. Whether or not this qualifies as a servo-mechanism is up for debate.

In any event, I seriously doubt that a sub $200 plotter is doing this, as the encoder adds to the BOM.

If the step distance is very small then many designs would tolerate a fair amount of stepper-miss before being noticeable. Might be easiest to see if you did half of a shape, then went somewhere else and finished the shape.

What's the part number for the one you have, please?

Unfortunately I can't say with confidence; mine is one of the servo-controlled ones that cost exactly $1K (new). I don't have first-hand experience with the stepper-driven ones. I will say, however, that 3D printers in the sub-$5000 space are pretty much all steppers, and those work great, so I doubt a stepper vinyl cutter would have positioning problems. The forces involved aren't high enough to make the drive system miss steps, skip belt teeth, etc..

See #plottertwitter for a peek at "our" world.


There’s also a nascent plotter art subreddit: https://reddit.com/r/plotterart

Your blog posts are what inspired me to purchase a plotter kit of my own! Thank you!

Now if I could just get it to work... ;)

That is the most fun I've had reading a hashtag stream in a while. Thanks!

Thank you for this! I loved the GIFs and videos in the stream, it's very mesmerizing to watch.

Big fan btw :)

Work a lot in crystallography, your work definitely inspires me to give it a go myself one day.

Building 2d plotters is a fun mechanical design exercise too. It's very accessible from both a mechanical design + software/electronics perspective.

Shameless self promotion but here's one I built: https://www.markjgallagher.com/projects/#/utsushi/

Awesome stuff! The water droplet one looks amazing.

Not quite the same as a pen plotter, but the Maslow CNC http://www.maslowcnc.com/ takes a similar approach to CNC (no reason you couldn't replace the router with a pen), but with a near-vertical work surface. OTOH I guess an 'ordinary' CNC is the same base principle as a plotter, just with more moving parts and another dimension. As are 3D-printers (the extrusion type, at least)

Here's a good intro to plotting in a JS environment: https://mattdesl.svbtle.com/pen-plotter-1

And one I wrote for Python: https://bitaesthetics.com/posts/surface-projection.html

One of my favorite parts of plotting is the community; there's a bunch of good tutorials and GitHub repos for someone getting started.

There’s also a community around a python hpgl library called “chiplotle”:


They’re involved with plotters as part of interactive art displays.

In early 00's I went for cycling/drinking trips with few friends and wrote DOS program for collecting data from bicicle "computers" (manually transfetered, obviously), it produced charts in all the glory of VGA mode 12h and had export to HPGL, because the HP DesignJet we had access to (which was sold as "plotter", but in fact was giant InkJet printer) understood HPGL. Originally the input was simply text file with records separated by new line (produced as a note file on Casio data-bank), but later I wrote DOS immediate-mode GUI "spreadsheet" for capturing that data (on some random-ish mid-90's subnotebook).

This seems like a tangible way to introduce a young child to programming. It immediately brought back memories of drawing shapes on a grayscale display with Logo.


It's still not as fun as a real turtle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtle_(robot)) But there is a decent turtle lib for python, used in the Rasberry Pi book my son has and a few online tutorials like: https://projects.raspberrypi.org/en/projects/turtle-snowflak...

I’ve been been pushing processing.org to everyone I think might care - I feel like it fits a similar niche in providing immediate feedback like logo. I prefer the offline java version - although the environment has language plugins for python, r and JavaScript.

And to bring it full circle, there’s an HPGL filter that lets you record vector drawing to send to your old plotter.

It’s seriously the most fun I have with computers these days.

This is absolutely fascinating. It got me all excited about pen plotters and I’m thinking of ordering to hack around with it. Would love to try attaching water pencils to it for example. How about hacking 10 of these to move a long a real person’s hand so you can sign multiple pages. This one article is going to hijack so many of my upcoming weekends...

> hacking 10 of these to move a long a real person’s hand so you can sign multiple pages

You may already be familiar with this, but the "Autopen" is a commercial device descended from older machines which did exactly that.


I'm not sure how current ones work exactly, but the 1940s through 1960s ones used a system of cams running against a template. It's more complex than just the 2D motion of a pen plotter, as I believe it can also alter the pen angle and pressure somewhat.

It descends from older devices which go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who used various mechanical aids to make simultaneous multiple copies of handwritten documents.


They are quite clever, although today largely forgotten outside of their historical connections.

If you order a kit, pay a bit more to get one with instructions! The quality of the kits seems pretty hit and miss. I would go with a branded AxiDraw instead of a clone if I had it to do again.

Back in the mid 90s, the company I worked for used to plot our circuit diagrams with the pen plotters. It would plot it out on an A3 and takes about 30mins per page. The results were beautiful, almost an art piece.

This twitter account does exactly that: https://twitter.com/FogleBird

Michael Fogleman's in this thread, you know? :P


There was a period of a few years when I used HP pen plotters to make transparencies for presenting on an overhead projector. There was something sort of relaxing about watching it work. As I recall, there was also a lot of screwing around with non-standard serial interfaces.

> There was something sort of relaxing about watching it work

I came here to post exactly this. Not forgetting the almost musical accompaniment of the stepper motors.

Just as well really, as they weren't exactly fast.

Yes, you could get a reasonable idea what people were plotting on our Benson(s) from the sound. Many yards of spectra we plotted, even before Versatec matrix plotters came along.

When we got an A4 flatbed plotter (early-ish 80s), I remember using it to produce the first computer-generated overhead slides anyone in the group had seen, but it was also useful in reverse for digitizing plots from papers by moving the pen and recording points.

Anyone know of a good service for getting custom large format plots from a machine like this? Looking to make a custom poster in this style but would rather not invest in a whole machine.

Go to a local sign store, the kind of place that advertises making vinyl signage, and ask.

The cutters used to cut vinyl signs can be used as pen plotters with inexpensive adapters. A busy shop may not want to mess around with one of their cutters, but there are lots of mom-and-pop operations that would doubtless do it for the right price.

There are Youtube videos of people in the vinyl cutting industry using Sharpie markers and cheap rolls of butcher paper to try out designs before committing themselves and slicing up lots of expensive vinyl. Some show the pen adapters for various models of wide-format vinyl cutter in detail.

If the drawing you want is relatively small (less than 12" or 13" wide by any length) someone with a hobby/desktop vinyl cutter could do it. You'll have to ask around or try some of the various web forums dedicated to plotters, though, since 3DHubs (which is what I'd recommend if you were looking for a one-off 3D print or laser cutter job) doesn't have vinyl cutters / cutting plotters as a category.

Pen plotters are pretty much extinct in commercial use as far as I know. They've been almost entirely replaced by large format printers, which are also called "plotters" but are really just large laser or inkjet printers.

I just tried looking a decent amount and couldn't find anybody offering contract pen plotter services. Your best bet would probably be to write some code to simulate the way lines look with a pen plotter and render it into an image, then print it with a modern large format printer (which plenty of places offer). They generally have very high print quality and should be able to print enough detail that it'll look like it was drawn with a pen.

Edit: maybe you can use Inkscape to get the pen line effect? I've only used it a bit but it sounds like something it'd be perfect for.

Not entirely. I dragged one out of storage at work a few months back to make a run of large format ARCH D-size assembly drawings for the shop floor - no sense in buying a large-format inkjet just for this task. The machine is older than me by a long ways, but is still in good working condition. AutoCAD ships with binary drivers for most of the common plotters of the day, so there was no real effort involved in setup.

I had a good amount of fun watching it go, though as others have stated, they can take forever to run. The output is gorgeous, and generating real honest-to-goodness engineering drawings on one is a special feeling.

I have a mind to try some blueprinting with it, if I can find a source of drafting film and compatible pens.

I wasn't suggesting buying a modern plotter, I was suggesting using a printing service as modern large format printers are expensive. Similarly I know pen plotters probably aren't totally out of use, but I can't find anywhere that offers them as a service you can rent (which was OPs question).

Pen plotters have actually had a resurgence lately among hobbyists with the proliferation of affordable CNC controllers and stepper motors, but I don't think many professional shops are operating them regularly. I bet there are some artists using them however, as well as occasional users like you.

i'd try to find somebody (local hackerspace?) with a 4'x8' CNC router who is willing to pop one of these https://www.rockcliffmachine.com/product/cnc-pen-holder/ into their machine.

A nice memory from my childhood (early 1980's) was doing a school trip to some sort of design shop where they were CAD and getting to take home a crisply plotted rendering of the US Space Shuttle. In my memory, it was pencil not pen, but I'm not sure if that holds up.

The 'perfection' of the drawing blew my mind and, as the author points out, does have a unique character. Definitely one of the early memories that got me excited about what computers can help us do.

The Space Shuttle drawing is so common that I have to believe it must have been a sample image distributed with some software suite or plotter. It comes up everywhere! Especially in old plotter ads.

Sadly I haven't managed to find a clean EPS or SVG version of it, though.

I believe it was a demo .dwg (Autocad) see:


Love watching that print.

Same memory, but from the local computer swap events in SoCal.

I remember the space shuttle and couple others in multi-color pens something like 30" x 40", had more than a few hanging up in the garage.

I don't really remember the software, but it probably was.

It was an HP pen plotter that first introduced me to computer graphics. Sometime about 1974 I think - probably the 7202A [1]. This was before HPGL, I distinctly remember the PLTL and PLTT commands to start and end the plotting sequence. The first thing I did for it was to create a font.

[1] http://www.hpmuseum.net/display_item.php?hw=83

This looks really cool. If somebody needs a free vectorizer, then check out ImageTracer (Unlicense/Public Domain). I think it would be realtively easy to convert from tracedata (path coordinates) to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HPGL .

Available in JavaScript (works both in the browser and with Node.js), "desktop" Java and "Android" Java:




Funny, I’ve been looking into vectorising bitmaps. Try potrace on Linux, and for a GUI ink trace can do this also.

The most insane device in this vein IMO is the Panasonic Penwriter. It's a four color typewriter (!) and plotter. Yes. It was using pens to write whatever you typed. And this was in 1985! If it'd been more reliable (surprise: it wasn't) it would've taken the world by storm. (I think Brother had one too.)

I wouldn't be so quick to write them off. With the attention this article is getting, hackers are going to be lining up on eBay to get their hands on one of these. A veritable penisance of plotting devices!

If you meant penaissance that'd be excellent wordplay :)

The language reminds me of metafont. And svg. Really cool to see the results. And now I'm tempted to get one of these. Pretty sure I don't need to spend the money. Or the time. Really want to, though.

A lot of people turn their 3d printers into plotters...here is one example: https://youtu.be/sXb9NDqn1Mo

I had the Lego Technic 8094 when I was a kid, good times. One of the things you make with it was a very simple pen plotter, but it actually worked for creating drawings (which could also be programmed into the controller).

Now ships for >500$ it seems: https://www.amazon.com/Lego-Technic-Control-Center-8094/dp/B...

PEN PLOTTERS. My dad's HP-7475A was the cat's ass back in the day. I still remember the sounds that thing made as it turned its carousel, snatched a pen, and then started making laser-sharp, perfect lines on the page. My dad used it for drafting.

Eventually I read the manual and learned how to command it using BASIC, because of course I did.

These days, my dad messes around with 3D printers, so a lot has changed, but then again a lot hasn't.

I ordered a plotter kit off of ebay a few weeks ago with zero instructions. I finally found an assembly video online in Chinese and managed to get it built, but still haven't been able to get it to print anything using Inkscape, which is what was recommended. I'm pretty discouraged and haven't messed with it in a few days, but this gets me motivated to try again.

This stuff brings back memories... as a junior dev, one of my jobs was to keep the Rotring ink pens working so that we could plot maps on tracing film on the Calcomp drum plotter. I later wrote some Fortran code to sort the data in order to minimize drum movement.

Goodness, but that's a long time ago...

My first job was AutoCAD drafting in the early 90s with pen plotters. I can't say I missed them when we replaced them with A1 inkjets and A3 laser printers (for quick small drafts). Very slow and noisy when you needed to get work done, but I can see how they'd be a fun retro hobby now.

I've been wanting to experiment using pen plotters and conductive ink to print circuits.

That's probably possible, but you may have better luck on non-trivial circuits using the plotter with a knife blade to cut or a pen to draw masks, and then do photoresist etching. Or maybe you could draw with a Sharpie directly on the photoresist paint and then expose it, without masking material. It's worth a shot anyway.

Plotter-printed photoresist masks were actually a fairly common way of doing PCBs in lab settings, back in the 80s and early 90s. Later, it became easier just to run acetate sheets through laser printers, but for a while a Rapidograph filled with India ink was the cleanest, darkest line you could get.

Perhaps more usefully today, quite a lot of people use vinyl cutters to cut thin plastic (mylar usually) to make solder masks. Even the cheaper cutters can do a surprisingly good job of this, enough to make solder masks for many SMCs.

have you considered/has anyone tried using a plotter with a resist pen on copper clad fr4? I do toner transfer and while its nice to be able to make a board in 30 minutes, the quality is pretty meh.

My first job out of college in the 80's was developing software that drove a big(ish) HP plotter for drawing maps for a mapping company.

That's super cool

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