Reviewing the iDraw pen plotter
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
Uunatek recently sent me one of their kit plotters and I've been keen to share my thoughts on their product, the build process and overall experience.
Many newcomers to generative art have been asking me which plotter to get started with. Could the iDraw be it?
The Axidraw, one of the most popular pen plotters used in the generative art community, is priced in the $450-$600 range. The LY Drawbot is definitely the cheapest A4 plotter around but you get the quality you pay for. The iDraw is priced in between, with options ranging from $150-$350. Let's see how it compares.
The model I'm reviewing is the iDraw A4 Metal kit (I also got the additional laser head which I haven't used yet).
Highlights of iDraw
- A4 drawing area
- Comes as a pre-assembled kit
- Controlled through Inkscape plugin via USB port (Mac, Windows or Linux)
Uunatek offers free shipping and announced a lead time of 5-10 days for EU/US. The parcel got delivered in less than a week (London). The parcel was in good condition and the packing was sturdy. So far so good.
The iDraw Metal A4 comes as a kit, which you'll have to assemble. Here are step by step instructions to put it together.
The iDraw runs on a custom controller board that is based on the EBB board of the Axidraw, with 2 stepper motors driven by Pololu A4988 drivers. It comes with a 12V/1A power supply (US format, with an EU adaptor). The structure is made of aluminium extrusions and most parts are either machined or laser cut.
Although it's a DIY kit, most of the assembly is already done. Both axes are mostly ready, all bearings are already pre-fitted so much less work needed than with the LY drawbot.
1/ Untighten the end block on the small axis by using the provided Allen key.
2/ Insert the rods through the linear bearings. It's normal if there is a bit of resistance until the rods are well aligned. Push them through entirely.
3/ Engage the end block again and tighten the pressure screws. Make sure the bearing if facing downwards.
4/ Now it's time to set the belt through the inner bearings of the central block. This is a bit fiddly, and I found it useful to use a flat screwdriver to guide the belt where I wanted.
Pull the belt all the way and around the bearing of the end block on the small axis.
Now make sure that the belt is well positioned on the bearings of the central block. I overexposed the photo below to show where the belt is supposed to be.
5/ Now on the pen holding block, we are going to tension the belt by screwing in the two replaced bolts onto the threaded bore.
The belt has been pre-sized by the manufacturer so it should have a good amount of tension without having to redo the cable ties.
6/ Next step is to route the cable by fastening the end of the black plastic ribbon on the central block. It will act as a flexible structure for the servo cable to not get in the way when you plot.
Once in place, undo the twist tie that holds the servo cable. We're going to keep it in place with a few cable ties.
I placed one at the base of the central block, one in the centre and one on the base of the motor block.
The cable is now secure and will stay close to its plastic structure for the full range of motion of the plotter. Your set up should look like this now.
Make sure to clip them with pliers to get a clean look.
7/ The next step is to install the controller board onto the motor support. Remove the protective film.
Install the brass standoff spacers onto the metal block.
Mount the acrylic plate on the standoff. There should be enough clearance with the moto bracket.
Now place the short nylon spacers in the corners of the acrylic plate.
Fasten the controller board onto the spacers. It should fit nicely.
8/ Let's connect the motors. The servo is connecting on the three pins at the bottom of the board. Make sure to plug it the right way around (brown cable on the outside)
Now Stepper motor #1. Nice touch from the manufacturers, they have written which motor is which on the white connector so you don't have to research which is which (unlike the LY Drawbot).
And stepper motor #2 on the top socket.
9/ Let's mount the pen holder plate onto the end block of the short axis.
10/ Stick the silicone pads to the feet of the plotter to keep it stable on your desk.
11/ Voila, your iDraw is assembled!
To control the iDraw you'll need to use Inkscape 1.0. The manufacturer provides links to the right version for your OS, but for simplicity here are the Windows and Mac links. Here I'll show you the run down for macOS Catalina 10.15.6.
1/ Download and launch "AxiDraw_Mac_v122.dmg". Drag and drop the Inkscape file to the Applications folder.
2/ Download the extension zip file, uncompress it and copy the content of the "extensions" folder (link)
3/ Launch Inkscape, and click on Inkscape -> Preferences
4/ Under System, click on Open on the line that reads User extensions.
4/ Paste the files in the folder.
5/ Relaunch Inkscape, and under Extensions, check that you see AxiDraw Control.
6/ You're all set. Next step is to start plotting!
Time to feed our plotter some generative art! Open any svg file you might have already created. Or if you don't have any, why not use the generative benchy to test it out.
Open the file with Inkscape, launch AxiDraw control and go to the Setup tab.
There you can set the Pen Up and Pen Down heights, so that the pen is clearly touching the page when done and well above when it's up.
Now jump to the Plot tab and hit "Apply" to launch the plotter.
Let's try a generative artwork:
What I like
I'm quite impressed by how well this plotter performs. I was expecting to have a harder time assembling it but unlike the LY Drawbot, it is already mostly preassembled so only a few steps to get it running. The build quality is good, as expected between the Drawbot and the Axidraw.
The drawings are precise and sharp. The pen holder is 2-3mm bigger than the Axidraw so you can fit a wide range of pens in there.
The fact that it works with Inkscape is a big plus, as it fits my workflow very well. This means that I can control the order in which the paths are drawn, which matters a lot for timelapse videos.
The "prog" button on the controller board acts as a pause button (as there is no way to do this from within Inkscape).
The motors run smoothly, and surprisingly the servo is quieter than on my Axidraw A3 V3.
All in all, this feels like the type of gear I'd have loved to get started on when I jumped into generative art.
What I wish
It looks like you need to stick to Inkscape 1.0 and the supplied extension files, so unlike the Axidraw I'm not sure we can expect regular updates.
The extrusions are thinner than on the Axidraw, and the small axis consists of two rods rather than an aluminum extrusion, so the rigidity is lower than high-end plotters, but the quality is still very good for an A4 plotter.
To sum up this review, the iDraw is definitely a good choice if you're looking to get started with pen plotting. Newcomers to generative art can expect a sturdy machine that works straight out of Inkscape. Its pen holder will allow you to experiment with many different kinds of pens and bring your gen art on paper.
Assembly is really easy, so unless you absolutely want a plug and play experience, the iDraw should work for most artists. On the other hand, the makers will definitely enjoy building their plotter and understanding its inner workings.
The drawing area (A4) is plenty to start with. I usually plot with the A3 Axidraw, so A4 feels a bit tight but the iDraw comes also in A3 if you're interested.
Where to buy
You can get the iDraw A4 Metal on uunatek.com for $224.10 instead of $249. Get 10% off with Coupon code GENERATIVE.