Archive for August, 2007

Flattened Noodles

August 31, 2007

With all the heavy machinery, sharp tools, and scary moving parts in the printshop, the last thing you expect to get you are the flat files.

Yet here lies the body of Shop Boy, hands clutched to his beet-red ears, welts swelling on the back of his skull, tears in his eyes … laughing his fool head off. That would be the noggin nearly three sizes smaller than usual.

It’s moving day at Typecast Press’ secondary studio, the … um … overflow space. The letterpresses have all been positioned. Next come the tray cases and workbench. A corner rounder here, a perforator there, a drill press over there. And a 10-foot stack of wooden flat files, 41 inches wide and 30 inches deep. Perfect for storing paper and samples, lovely and handy as heck.

You already know enough about Shop Boy to not be much surprised by what you are about to read.

Instead, let’s just talk a little about a brother-in-law, Tom Beal: New Hampshire guy. Machine Whisperer. Brings them back from the dead. Never met a stranger. Extremely generous. He gave us the flat files, press motors, other equipment, his expertise and more hours of free labor than we can count. Oh, and he’s a freakin’ lumberjack.

I mention that last part only so that, the next time you’re guiding a mammoth stack of flat files into a corner and Tom Beal is braced against an immovable object on the other side and pushing with his legs toward the target wall, you do not — and let me try to be clear about this — don’t lean your body toward the back of the stack to help guide it. Before I could scream, the flat files had pinned my head to the wall. Not hearing a scream, and not able to see me from the other side of the files, Tom kept pushing. How I got the old coconut out of there I can’t tell you — but it nearly cost me both ears.

(Cue the chirping birds.)

Speaking of which, did I mention that Tom plays the autoharp? Always strikes me as … oh, I guess the less said about that, the better.

I love the guy, but my head hurts already.

At Arm’s Length

August 29, 2007

It’s happened to me more times than most pressmen can count on one hand: five.

During a run, the paper jumps the guides on the tympan sheet, dropping toward the greasy guts of the C&P, and the first instinct is to reach in, grab it and reposition it before the press closes. Success means:

1. The paper doesn’t become garbage (key if you’ve cut it way too close on the paper order).

2. The tympan — which holds the guides and any packing on the platen — doesn’t get inked (and thus print a ghost image on the back of the next 25 copies).

3. You get to keep all your fingers.

Failure is messy. Kind of like for the golfer who, instead of taking a penalty stroke and a $4 hit, decides he can beat the alligator to the ball.

So far I’ve been lucky. But somehow I’ve got to shut off the reflex. It’ll take work, since it’s been with me a while. During college, I worked a few semesters in a dining hall at the University of Rhode Island. One day, I dropped a ladle into a screaming hot cauldron of spaghetti sauce. Zip! My arm went in after it. Let me tell you … no, let’s not summon the sense memory. But know this: The stain was still on the 25-foot-high ceiling when I graduated a few years later. The ladle was uninjured, by the way.

Mary has been helpful in my retraining on the C&P, promising to put my head in the press the next time I try my little trick. And it’s illuminating to meet printers in Baltimore and beyond who know firsthand how quickly you can lose a digit. One guy who saw the tips of several fingers get mashed to a pulp in a paper cutter says his colleagues welcomed him back from the hospital with congratulations: He was officially a printer now.

High-fours all around.

The Phantom 1/16

August 29, 2007

Late at night, deep in the woods, huddled around a dying campfire as the gloom descends, they tell in hushed tones the tale of the Phantom 1/16. It’s a story full of blood and menace, howls and moans, vengeance and forgiveness. And gallows humor … appropriately, since it involves — dun-dun-dah! — the guillotine.

The sweep of the arm, the flash of razor-sharp metal, the hollow thunk as the instrument does its deed. The scream as the executioner takes his measure. Ooh, I get chills every time.

See, it wasn’t so many, many years ago — OK, it was yesterday — that I, Shop Boy, recoiled in horror as a good woman cursed her God and her fate as she stood before the blade, decrying the crookedness in the land. “Why? Why? Why?”

In her hand was a piece of paper, upon which an image had been imprinted. A beehive dingbat, a name, a business, an address and a phone number. Witchcraft? Nay, for the agony was not over the image but the paper itself.

“Damn it!” she cried, slamming the pica pole on the wooden workbench. “One sixteenth!”

Yes, there was no denying it, though try I did. From one side of the sheet to the other there appeared an incline. Just slight enough to catch the eye, but extreme enough to drive Mary — dun-dun-dah! — insane.


Let me tell you, Marie Antoinette wasn’t as scared to approach the guillotine as we’ve been some days. The Typecast Press cutter, a Challenge that can handle sheets about 22 inches wide, is one I purchased from my brother-in-law. It’s a fine machine, with a blade sharp enough to have cost me a fingertip one day. All right, I’m being dramatic. It was just a little flap of skin … say 1/16 of an inch?

Anyway, we’ve spent hour upon hour, day upon day trying to rid our world of this dark force. It’s absolutely maddening. We’ve adjusted the back and blade guides to within an inch of their/our lives, changed blades, rebuilt the arm (was it somehow out of line?), tried countless channel guides and still, the Phantom 1/16. We’ve tried to outsmart the device, angling the paper just slightly. It won’t be fooled. We’ve set the paper along the left guide, in the center, to the right. We’ve used short stacks, deep stacks; soft paper, sturdy paper. The Phantom has mocked us to our faces … as it has others before — dun-dun-dah!

Yes, we’ve seen the Phantom’s dark work elsewhere, in business cards, party invites and other materials that we’ve collected, cut in other shops. The tiniest bit of crookedness. Some are clearly less afraid than we are to cut and run — and clearly less dogged than Mary, for she will fight the demon of the cutter to last tick of her final hour on Earth.

Or mine, whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, we’re salvaging a larger, much older cutter. It’ll give us a bigger cut, about a full yard wide. We’ll knock off the rust, sharpen and adjust the blade, synchronize the back gauge, oil it up real well. Then we’ll give it a go.

If the Phantom shows up, you’ll hear about it from a mile away.

Perfectly Fine

August 29, 2007

Don’t get me wrong: Perfection is a great goal. Really. But you wouldn’t saddle up even a gifted donkey for the Kentucky Derby. You wouldn’t hit up a highly decorated IRS agent for help in being “creative” on your taxes. And you wouldn’t ink up a glorious old-time letterpress looking for the slick sheen of an offset printing job. That’s not why we’re here. We like the appearance and handmade feel of letterpress, the “happy accident” that gives us an even cooler effect than we’d imagined. The punch. The arty one-of-a-kind-ness. The imperfection.

Or did I miss a memo? Apparently, yes.

For there we were at a little after midnight, facing a 10 a.m. deadline, loupe in hand, sweating over whether one more piece of tape on the left rail — or one less on the right — might make the impression just a tiny speck of a smidgen better … on a cheapo party coaster with a drink recipe that we were giving away! Should we adjust the platen? (Me: “No!”) The inking’s funny. … Is it too cold in here? (Me: “Not where I’m standing!”) I’m not sure, but I think I’m seeing a slur. (Me: “Nothing like the ones against God and man you’re about to hear out of my mouth!”)

Of course, I’m saying these things to myself. Sigh. Suck it up, Shop Boy.

Results: Half a piece of tape off the left. Test. Platen backed off one tick here … test … one tock there. Test. A little tack reducer. Test. Make-ready. Test. Loupe check.
Mary: “See? It’s perfect.”
Me: “You were right, it’s better.” (Translation: It’s $#&@% 2:15 a.m. Whatever.)
Mary: “Perfect.”

My attitude at the moment? Not so much.

Coin Keys

August 28, 2007

Yes, I know how to spell it: QUOIN. Actually, I had to look it up. But I knew that I didn’t know, right? Points for that.

Anyway, I’m thinking coin because that’s what we’re going to get from eBay, if history is any judge. See, when we started the printshop, we had a press, ink, paper, a form or two, a chase, some quoins and a key … to some quoin or other. It certainly wasn’t for ours. Drat, or other four-letter words to that effect.

(For those unfamiliar with the terminology here, a quoin is a little gadget for locking the form to be printed into place in the chase — a metal frame that fits on the press — so it won’t fall onto the floor. You turn the key to tighten or loosen it.)

quoin-key-web.jpgMary did some research and we hopped onto eBay to see if we could find either a key to match the quoins or quoins to match the key. It’s surprising how many variations there are on this simple tool. OK, maybe not so surprising when you think of how many different types of toilet brush there are. But the prices were undoubtedly a shock. Add in a type-high gauge — we got outbid in several auctions before finally snagging one for $25 — and we were a little put off.

But we took our medicine and got what we needed.

A month or so later, we were scavenging an old printshop. (Yes, we were invited.) We’d been told to take whatever we could use. The rest was going to be tossed. My job was to clear a bank of tray cases that hadn’t been touched in years. What a mess! I sneezed and wheezed my way through two cases of mostly nothing … old Sears and Red Cross logos, Notary Public emblems, bent die-cut forms, half lines of cast lead, dust, grime, mold and rust. I was pretty cranky as the third case beckoned. I yanked out the first tray … and the weight of all the quoins and keys sent it crashing to the floor. The second tray yielded the same thing, minus the crash. And a third … and a fourth. The fifth one even had a type-high gauge. “Um, Mary, you might want to see this.”

The truck was sagging in the back as we pulled out of that place.

Which is a long way of saying … “Anybody want to buy a quoin key?”

More Weight!

August 28, 2007

Micah’s is a old time Baltimore soul food buffet with legendarily cheesy macaroni — and commercials. A classic one features a chubby spokesman chirping: “I got a weight problem … I can’t wait to get to Micah’s!”

Well, welcome to the letterpress buffet, where your friends Mary and Shop Boy are gobbling up cast-off machines as if they were fried chicken. We like ’em cheap and greasy. And with trays and trays of lead type on the side. Mmmmm, good. We just can’t push ourselves away from the table.

Where’d the hunger come from? In the beginning, Typecast Press was a lean operation. Back then, it was still just Typecast, a graphic design business. Heck, Shop Boy hadn’t even been born. He was still known as the Guy Who Brings the Gin and Tonics (the importance of which will soon become apparent). We’d taken a Vandercook class at the Center for the Book Arts in New York. Set the type by hand. We loved it, and thought we might just get us one of them machines some day. Maybe rent a little garage space and stick a teeny-weeny press in there and print up a few of Mary’s designs for friends.

Then one night, after a visit — or two — from the GWBG+T, Mary drunk-dialed eBay. (Do not try this at home.) And there it was … 1,200 pounds of rusting metal. Vandercook. Love Potion No. 3. One hour left to bid. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Our hearts said yes. Our brains said … not much actually. With the lack of a dissenting vote, the measure passed. We drank to our success.

It wasn’t till late the next morning that we asked ourselves: “Where do we put it?”

You know how it goes from here: Find a friend kind enough to offer a corner of his studio. We got a tip that a C&P was available from a pressman’s widow. Sweet! A little Kelsey, just right for business cards. Snack time! A smaller Vandercook, this one stored under a leaking drainpipe in a printshop’s basement. Yes! Guy wants a Miehle Vertical gone from his modernizing printing plant. It’s free if you’ll move it. Delicious! (Where does a 6,600-pound press sit? Anywhere it wants … anywhere with concrete floors, that is.) Find another kind friend with a studio.

Ahhh. Now we’re full.

(But of course, we’ve left room for dessert. Better warn any friends with studio space that there are letterpress gluttons about.)

Bitter Pills

August 28, 2007

Based upon evidence obtained in archeological digs — mostly through old shops — we can now make certain irrefutable conclusions about the early printers of Baltimore:

They were flatulent and had bad breath, suffered from severe headaches and had agita, and bled … a lot, inside and out. Oh, and they had — yikes! — very lousy eyesight. Now you may ask, “So, what makes them any different from today’s printers?” Well, that’s exactly what worries me. When I look into the bottom drawer of our imposing stone cabinet — filled with ancient pill bottles, medicine tins, bandages and the like — am I gazing into my own future? Oops, excuse me.

See, we acquired the old stone and its cabinet of drawers, wooden trays and racks of wood furniture from Reese Press, a longtime Baltimore printing outfit that was moving to a new building and wanted the old stuff gone. There it sat, under thick dust turned to a vile paste by decades of humid Baltimore summers. The thick bifocals of its “stoneman,” who by all appearances was simply snatched by aliens one day, sat abandoned there, his lab coat still on its hook.

But the most fascinating discoveries were in the cabinet’s drawers. Oh, lots of lead bits, odd dies, nuts and bolts and strange improvised tools, pencils, gauges, quoins and keys … and medicine, the old prescriptions and directions inscribed on the side of what seemed to be countless containers. The aliens beamed themselves up one internally challenged customer.

We’ve kept the medicine drawer as it was, save for a few additions like Barbie Band-Aids (not mine, I swear) and Advil — It’s happening already!!!! — as a shrine to the old soul. His spectacles are mounted on the stone’s steel framework. Our lab coats sit on its hooks. It’s like, if the aliens some day decide he’s just not worth anything without his meds, they can just beam him down again.

He’ll fit right in. Um, whoops. Sorry.

Platen Pending

August 28, 2007

So you’ve got a Chandler & Price 8×12 dating from the early 1900s. The platen, that which determines all when it comes to evenness of impression, is off. Considerably. All right, it’s almost sideways. Would you:
A. Use tons of make-ready to compensate for the uneven die-on-paper contact on all projects for the rest of your life?
B. Concentrate all your projects on the tiny spot on the platen you think is the most “true”?
C. Not sweat it: The charm of letterpress is that it allows for a little unevenness and the client probably won’t notice?
D. Use a different machine, as your shop assistant suggests — OK, pleads?
E. Tell your assistant to stop whining and to grab the wrenches?

If you answered E, welcome to my world.

Word has it that many pressmen, even old-time sticklers, don’t mess with the platen. Haven’t touched it in years, or ever. Can’t say that I blame them. It took Mary and me six months (!) to adjust the platen on our C&P: five months and 29 days just to work up the courage (mine) to try. Our little Bible of Letterpress didn’t help much, advising: “Ask your instructor.” Good enough for me. Let sleeping dogs lie, and all that.

See, in my book, the French have it right. Plumbers plumb. Sailors sail. Electricians electrify. Platen adjusters adjust platens. It’s all very democratic. I’ve pondered legally changing my name to Etienne, in fact. Do it yourself? Hah. Do that YOUR-self. I’ll just end up breaking it, or it’ll break me.

Well, Mary’s not French. And she’s not much into democracy either, at least in her printshop. So, I’m on my knees, a wrench in each hand, another tucked in my apron. My left arm reaches through the spokes of the drive wheel. (Machine unplugged? Check.) The right arm goes through the leather belt. (Check again.) I’m kissing metal and getting grease in my hair while trying to remember what’s clockwise when you’re upside-down. Bitter, bitter bile …

I stagger to my feet to find that, after all the twisting and cursing, adjusting the top-side’s not so bad. We test the impression. Nuts! Still off. Back under the press. Half turn, quarter turn, test. Ugh! Quarter turn, test. Half a quarter turn. Bingo.

“See? That wasn’t so hard,” Mary chirps. “We’ll just back it off a bit when we do coasters tomorrow.”

Pardon my French …

Impressions of a Shop Boy (intro)

August 28, 2007

Some days I feel like the Wicked Witch of the East, except it’s a 1,200-pound Vandercook No. 3 that fell spinning from the sky to crush me. Whose idea was this printshop thing? Not mine, that’s for sure. Ten presses later? Here’s a hobby for you: knuckle-busting platen adjustments. Scraping 50 years of black ink off the guts of a press with a razor blade. Getting gunk off a cabinet full of “rescued” wood furniture. Cleaning ink rollers … and everything within 10 feet of Mary — she who runs the place — as she learns to mix ink.

Oh, who am I kidding? I love this letterpress stuff as much as she does.

Just not all the time. I’ll tell you all about it.

Me? I’m Shop Boy. Just Shop Boy.

Mary? She’s the brains, the inspiration, the drive and the charm behind Typecast Press. She’s a regular force of nature, which might just explain my predicament here.

Speaking of which, would you please help get this thing off me?