Printing to Plotters in Java

Carl juggles with his creation
One of the things our customers love to do is print our beautiful object graphs and tape them to the wall for discussion. What they hate to do is print 30 pages, line them up, and tape them to a poster one at a time. So we bought a plotter, and I started plotting.

I needed to print directly to a Java Graphics object. Unfortunately, the available information on large output printing from Java is thin at best. While there are lots of ways to successfully place ink on paper, I was only able to find one that reliably lets the application pick odd paper sizes that plotters use, like 24x19.7 inches. (The term “plotter” used to mean something with pens for printing blueprints and such. Now it just means a large format printer, commonly printers that can use roll paper as a source.)

One of the first things you’ll learn when you start working with printing in Java is that a language intended to be all things to all people (i.e., cross-platform) is utterly lousy at tasks highly specific to a given environment, such as printing. It will not surprise you to hear that native print services on Windows are pretty different from those available on a Mac, which themselves are pretty different from the CUPS system common to Unix systems.

So, by and large, you are reduced to the least common denominator of printing. Part and parcel of this least common denominator is agreeing on what constitutes a piece of paper and sticking to it. This is fine for people thinking, “My paper is 8.5 inches wide by 11 inches tall.” It poses a bit of a problem for people with plotters who are thinking, “My paper is 24 inches wide by as many damned inches tall as I need.” Even relatively powerful programs like PhotoShop or GIMP don’t seem to support plotters well. I believe Photoshop works by specifying the exact paper size you want to use, but any technique in which the easiest solution for the user is to pull out a calculator does not meet with my approval.

Advice in a nutshell

A tutorial by MartyHall provides some valuable insights into printing which I applied to my printing component. While it didn’t address my specific issues, props to a well-done starting point.

I’m starting with the assumption that you’ve got yourself a class that implements the Printable interface so that once the Java printing subsystem is coerced into accepting the appropriate paper size, Printable.print(Graphics, PageFormat, int) will be called correctly and your job will print properly. Since my usage was screen-visible as well as printable, I simplified and asserted that one screen pixel is equivalent to one point (1/72 inch), which is how Java prepares the scaling on the Graphics object passed to Printable.print(…), thus making printouts look about the size of onscreen displays. Then, knowing that the printout needed, for example, 1200 vertical pixels/points, I can automatically calculate that I want to use a paper size 18” tall or so (1200 / 72 dpi = 16.67” + margins).

Here’s a summary of the critical steps:

  1. Do the math yourself to get the paper size required in points (1/72 of an inch)
  2. Implement the Pageable interface to report page count (usually one) and the PageFormat using the computed paper size.
  3. Create a PrinterJob configured with the correct PrintService
  4. Set your Pageable on the PrinterJob instance
  5. Optionally display print setup dialog (PrinterJob.printDialog()) recognizing that changes to orientation or paper size will be ignored.
  6. call PrinterJob.print()

Generally, don’t use the standard dialogs

This might seem contrary to desired behavior, but I found that giving the user access to the usual native or cross-platform print dialogs can be a bit sticky because those are places where the user can alter the selected paper; in order to properly print to roll paper sources, we must override any paper settings the dialogs might provide. Ultimately this can be confusing for the user, but that’s an unfortunate side effect of supporting plotters.

Don’t take any advice too seriously

We still choose to display the dialog because complex printers like plotters have many options that the users may need to alter and would otherwise have no way to modify.

StickFigure: looking at plotting in Palantir

This work didn’t happen in a vacuum: we have a need to print large graphs for display. Being able to print them in a large format is one of the simplest and most beloved methods of collaboration.

To give an example of why plotter printing is interesting, we created a stick figure on the graph in Palantir. After creating this monstrosity, we went go print it and examined the layout. The first layout was with letter-size paper, and just by looking at the head, we could see that it was going to be a lot of pages:

letterzoom-thumb.jpgZoomed-in view of the head of the stick figure. (click for full image)

Zooming out to view the entire graph, it’s clear that it’s going to be 35 pages!

letter-thumb.jpgFull pagination of the stick figure. (click for full image)

Even switching to the largest standard paper size only gets us to two sheets:


Paginated out to largest standard paper size, still two pages (click for full image)](/wp-assets/wp-content/static/techblog/2008/08/arche.jpg “arche.jpg”)

When we switch over to using the plotter layout, we finally get to the one sheet we were looking for:


Paginated onto a plotter roll. (click for full image)](/wp-assets/wp-content/static/techblog/2008/08/roll.jpg “roll-thumb.jpg”)

And finally, Mr. StickFigure comes to life:

carljuggles-med.jpgCarl juggles with his creation