Archive for September, 2007

Left-handed Compliment

September 27, 2007

It’s kind of like going to England, driving your SUV 80 mph on the right side of the road, ignoring all the signs, swerving, skidding vehicles and, um, helpful car honks because the right side just works better for you. You’re an American, and Americans drive fast — on the right side of the road. The Brits can’t adjust for once? Please.

Well, call me roadkill.

Mary is not right-handed. She is really left-handed. In fact, she’s somewhere left of left-handed on the handedness spectrum. So left-handed that a 100-year-old woman she tried to interview in her cub reporter days wondered aloud — as Mary took notes — if she was of the devil. See? I’m not alone here.

Oh, she’s learned to use scissors with her right hand, mostly because true left-handed scissors don’t exist. But mostly, she’ll be gosh-darned — or words to that effect — if she has to adapt to the righty lifestyle, even in the printshop.

Yes, yes, any (political) lefty will tell you that a policy or operation that favors individuals of one persuasion or ability over others is inherently wrong. And letterpress printing seems to have been designed and built by the righties and for the righties. Like Shop Boy, for instance.

But if it there’s any way at all to manipulate a mechanism or process, Mary’ll find it. Thus, on our imposing stone, where we mix inks and set up the chase, all our tools are on the left. The rolls of tape? On the left. The computer’s on the left side of the type cabinet we built. Guide books are on the left side of the shelves. “Shop Boy, can you reach across (over, around and through) and grab me a piece of blue tape?”

Everybody limbo!

It turns out that we even feed the C&P letterpress left-handed. See, normally — “normal” as in “right-handed” — the stacks of paper to be printed are piled up on the feed tray to your right as you face the machine. Gauge pins are positioned on the left side and the base of the tympan, the sheet that wraps the platen to hold the pins and whatever packing you’re using to adjust the impression depth. It’s all so that the right hand grabs a piece of paper, slides it neatly and in a natural motion into the inverted “L” embrace of the gauge pins, a firm impression is made, then the lowly left hand cleans up the mess, simply pulling the printed item straight back to the tray at the printer’s belly. Been done that way for eons, I’m told.

Not in Mary’s letterpress shop. It’s exactly the opposite.


Look, Shop Boy’s a flexible guy. It’s just a matter of adjusting my head, my hands, my arms, my back, my feet, my eyes, my hips and my attitude to something that’s completely foreign. I can deal.

In fact, it might not bug me at all, maybe, if Mary wasn’t forever doing the equivalent of a touchdown dance in my grill every time we share press run duties. Oh, she tries to be subtle about it. Like after I’d recently run hundreds of coasters left-handed, with a hellish registration margin between colors (she’d put the registration marks on “her side” after she’d printed the first color):

“Nice job, Shop Boy. Some day you might even be able to feed the press almost as fast as me.”

Right … thanks.

Letterpress List No. 3: I’m a Believer

September 26, 2007

Breaking news: Shop Boy’s musical genome has been decoded.

I am descended from Monkees.

Hey, I’m as shocked as you are. Mary? Not so much.

See, Mary reduces the entirety of my musical oeuvre thusly: goofy/theatrical/fast. If a song has one or two of those things going for it, Shop Boy is all ears.

The web site for Love God’s Way has also boiled down my musical library.

Harrumph to them both.

I’ll listen only to Pandora.

(An aside here: Shop Boy is no one’s shill but his own — and that of letterpress, naturally. So, see for yourself. No purchase necessary. Results may vary. Past success is no guarantee of future earnings. Professional drivers on a closed course, etc.)

Sometimes, no matter how vast or varied your iPod library is, you want something a little different to listen to while you’re in the printshop. A song you haven’t heard or thought about in years, maybe, or bands you’ve heard about but never experienced. Say you had the opportunity to simply throw your musical preferences — by artist or song title — into a centrifuge, let it spin and let whatever pops out of the speakers play. Pandora, which calls itself a Musical Genome Project, creates playlists for you this way. You click thumbs up or thumbs down as songs play to fine-tune the list as the program narrows and splices your musical preferences.

For example, let’s say you key in “No Matter What” by Badfinger (an old fave), “Talk Dirty to Me” by Poison, “Breakout” by the Foo Fighters, “Bounce” by System of a Down, “Panama” by Van Halen and, just to be weird, Neil Diamond (he did write good songs way back).

OK, class. What are the lowest common denominators?

Male singers;
Simple lyrics;
Um, romance.

Basically, they’re all from the same family tree as, yes, the Monkees. Their songs and those of their kin will now begin playing. Loudly. If the Partridge Family’s next, I’m gonna have to hide somewhere. My guilty pleasures laid bare.

I’m not saying this will happen to you. But be forewarned:

Your musical DNA doesn’t lie.


Shop Boy is pretty hot/cold at this Music Tuesday business so far (today’s Wednesday, for instance), but bear with me — again, you’ve got no choice. It’s my blog and I’m determined to make it work. See you next Tuesday, musically speaking. For now …

Letterpress List No. 3

The following would be unacceptable to Love God’s Way — even if the group might be pulling our leg. (Mary thinks I’m a bit gullible sometimes. I’m not ashamed.) However, if those good folks and other concerned religious groups would just listen, they might find that these songs and others like them affirm life and the freedom to love God much more fully and openly than their way does. I’m not preaching … just saying.

Don’t KillHamell on Trial (God spells it out for us.)
Chocolate Jesus Tom Waits (Really satisfies … the soul.)
CraigStephen Lynch (Jesus’ Cain-raising brother.)
We Are Building a ReligionCake (Where do I sign up?)
Highway to HellPatty (Acoustic AC/DC! She rocks!)
Personal Jesus Depeche Mode (Reach out and touch faith.)
MiracleFoo Fighters (Love shines down.)
Magic Kingdom in the SkyDa Vinci’s Notebook (Disney World, on a skewer.)
God Is in the Radio Queens of the Stone Age (Don’t touch that dial.)
Losing My ReligionREM (“Oh no, I’ve said too much.” Been there.)
The Beautiful PeopleMarilyn Manson (Size … of the steeple … matters.)
Hymn 43 Jethro Tull (A sinner among sinners.)
Sin WagonDixie Chicks (As usual, not gonna take it anymore. God bless ’em.)
Stephen Lynch (Hell’s boss. “The reason that the Boston Red Sox even had a chance.”)
Sabbath Bloody SabbathBlack Sabbath (See above.)
CloserNine Inch Nails (Meat is murder … or something.)

See? I’m not a total wuss. (Stop giggling, Mary.)

Pulling It Off

September 21, 2007

Truckers Don’t Be Fooled. You Are Not Down Yet.

If you’ve traveled Interstate 70 through Colorado, you’ve read that before. Driving out of the mountains — east on I-70 — from, say, a dip in the hot springs near Steamboat, you first come upon a warning about the steep grade ahead. Soon come the “suicide ramps,” the wacky roadside paths where truckers whose brakes have failed are supposed to ditch their runaway rigs. After a tense few miles, the road plateaus, everybody relaxes and speeds up and then:

The Sign.

Man, I’ve never looked so often in my rear-view mirror as I did for speeding trucks in that second drop-off headed into Denver.

What brought this nightmare back to mind was actually a rousing success. Typecast Press had been asked to produce the printed materials — menus, napkins, coasters, favor boxes — for a magazine’s photo spread on seasonal entertaining. Great PR opportunity. But, we had only one week to brainstorm themes and materials, design the forms, get plates made, gather all the stuff, print it and add the fussy finishing touches. I mean, we’re talking handmade boxes, sealing wax, grommets, ribbon, wire, gold ink, scissor-cut acorn medallions … the whole 27 yards.

Well, there we were, finished. Just after midnight. The stuff wouldn’t be picked up until the next afternoon.

Shop Boy sighed, then relaxed.

Mary: “OK, get out the art paper. We need the same color paper as the gift boxes.”

Shop Boy: “What for? I thought we were done.”

Mary: “Oh, just one more little thing. Remember I told you (No!) that the house they’re shooting in has a chalkboard? I know I told you we picked a quote for them to write on it.”

Shop Boy: “OK, I remember. But we already gave them that.”

Mary: “Well, we’re going to do a paper chain to go around the chalkboard. You know the kind they do on Christmas trees? We need to cut paper — how many little segments do you need for a 6-foot chain? Then we’re going to punch holes in the medallions and weave them with this string through the loops. You’ll love it. We’ll be done in no time.”

Must … get … to … suicide … ramp …

Letterpress List No. 2: Numb the Pain

September 18, 2007

It’s Tuesday, so how about a little more free musical advice? (Hey, iTunes does it, why not Shop Boy? Besides, you’ve got no choice in the matter.)

Anyway, you know how sometimes things don’t go your way in the letterpress printshop? It makes you want to drink that botched polymer plate away. You know how sometimes they so don’t go your way — say, a 500-card run fed upside-down — that you want to melt a powdery white substance in a spoon, wrap a rubber cord tightly around your arm, fill a needle and poke a vein? No? Me neither.

Maybe we’re not taking our work seriously enough.

While we take about an hour to think about that one, let this serve as the musical accompaniment:


Drunk and Lonesome AgainSouthern Culture on the Skids (Sounds pretty at closing time.)
I Wanna Be SedatedRamones (Hurry, hurry, hurry — too late.)
DownsHamell on Trial (Havin’ a ball with the Demerol.)
RehabAmy Winehouse (Amy Crackhouse. Heartbreaking.)
Gin and JuiceSnoop Dog (A contact high.)
StrawberryEverclear (A heroin-fueled gutter crawl.)
PsychoSystem of a Down (Cocaine crazy. “Makes you really wanna go … Stop!” Want to test Mary’s reflexes? Put on this band. She can change the song before its third note.)
Beer RunGeorge Jones/Garth Brooks (“I guess half a dozen cases doesn’t last that long …” Oooh. Gotta pee just hearing it. Mary’s even quicker on this one.)
Have a Drink on MeAC/DC (Thanks, but sounds like it’s all gone.)
Tequila SunriseEagles (The booze won’t leave you like she did.)
I Drink AloneGeorge Thorogood (Destroyed in Delaware.)
About to Give Out Tom Petty (“Woke up in the bushes, beat to hell and nude.” Been there, eh guys?)
99 Ways to Die Megadeth (Hung … over.)
AlcoholBarenaked Ladies (Permanently accessorized.)
Union Square Tom Waits (Whiskey in church … with an eternal damnation chaser.)
On the WagonGreen Day (Blame it on sobriety.)

Tune in next week for another Letterpress List!

‘Round the Corner

September 14, 2007

It’s the designated hitter of the printshop, the letterpress version of a baseball player who can’t do anything but hit well. Perfectly one-dimensional, by design.

Now batting for Typecast Press: Corner Making Contraption.

OK, that’s just its nickname, based on the manufacturer’s initials — Challenge Machinery Co. It cuts corners and it’s stiff and heavy. What else are you going to call it? Maybe “Jason Giambi“?

(Sorry, Yankees joke. It’s reflexive.)

This corner rounder fascinates me. Is it ugly or beautiful? The most amazing piece of machinery we’ve got — or dead weight? It’s got one very particular skill, turning sharp papers corner into a rounded edge, a whole stack at a time. (Oh, it can also scatter bits of confetti all across the floor, but is that really a skill?) It helped us turn simple peel-and-stick labels and unadorned shopping bags into classy dress-shop totes.

The Corner Making Contraption does its thing, then sits quietly until it’s needed again. In six months, we’ve used it just that once.

We bought it from Wayne Phillips of Oliver Press, yet another venerable Baltimore letterpress printer closing down his business. Can’t blame Wayne too much for wanting to leave this particular neighborhood. A drug dealer eyed us as we pulled my truck up to the building. To an outsider, the look might have seemed like suspicion. If you spend much time in the rougher parts of Baltimore, though, you know the look means, “What can I get for you?” He’d sized us up as two more white suburbanites trying to score.

Three doors down the block a house suddenly was on fire.


Baltimore’s like that: Well-to-do neighborhoods butt-to-butt with struggling ones. Mary’s working on it. She volunteers with a group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). Good organization. Rob English runs the show. Hope isn’t dead.

Anyway, we got off on the wrong foot, me and the Corner Making Contraption. While loading it into the truck, Shop Boy failed to notice that the metal rods of the foot-pedal mechanism extended out the back of the thing. So, rather than sit flat, it tipped and rolled. Bruised skin … and feelings. But that’s not the machine’s fault, I suppose. It was just following a rule Shop Boy apparently wasn’t aware of: Every piece of machinery, when moved against its will — and that of gravity — must leave a mark on the mover. This can be a cut, bruise, torn muscle or broken bone. Knowing this rule now, Shop Boys realizes it could have been worse.

It could still be. The CMC is sitting there waiting for the end of the month, when I have to move the Contraption so I can paint the studio. Still, I’m hoping I can get around the bruise/cut/tear/break rule just this once.

Knock on cast iron.

Letterpress List: Playing Favorites

September 12, 2007

Mary: “If there was only one band you could listen to for all eternity, which one do you think would it be?”

Shop Boy: “Foo Fighters, because the play list could range all the way from soft to really heavy metal, so whatever mood you were in you could find something perfect. And they’re such great songs. It makes me wonder if Dave Grohl wasn’t really as much of an influence on Nirvana as Curt Cobain. The Foo Fighters just seem like such a perfect spinoff — like Curt Cobain’s DNA is there, you know? Or I wonder what Nirvana would have become had Grohl been more aggressive in asserting himself or whatever. Supposedly, Grohl doesn’t even like writing lyrics … you’d never know that from the songs. If I had to pick three songs to play in a loop forever, it’d probably be “Cold Day in the Sun,” “The One” and “Stacked Actors.” What’s even cooler is that he’s the guitarist, not the drummer like he was in Nirvana and on that cool Queens of the Stone Age record. I wonder if he writes the songs as a drummer, like if the beat comes to him first. Wouldn’t that make sense? And wouldn’t it bum you out if you were so psyched to be picked as the Foo Fighters drummer because of your immense skill and creativity and now Dave Grohl was, like, dictating the beat to you?”

Then I took a breath, because air is important.

Mary: “You’ve got all of that swimming around in your head but you can’t remember which way to turn the nut to raise the platen?”

Fine. Be that way. Let’s see if I share my headphones when eternity comes.

Besides, there are cheat sheets for adjusting the platen. And I used to have a sticky note labeled “Ignition Sequence” for turning on the computer at home. Four simple steps that I couldn’t ever remember. Sue me.

But ask what song you should play at Shop Boy’s memorial service (“Whammer Jammer” by the J. Geils Band) or when my ashes are spread (“Let Me Go Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Kiss) or when I come out of the bullpen to save the day for the Boston Red Sox (“Gel” by Collective Soul — see, I’d hesitate during the intro, then punch the glove and kick the bullpen door open as the fast part started … ooh), it’s all right there. Why? Because it’s important.

OK, so, you’re dead, but you never thought about the funeral music. “Candle in the Wind,” anybody? You want the attendees to think you were a wuss? Not Shop Boy.

The bullpen door opens and you’re the Red Sox closer and the PA system starts blaring … “Venus” by Bananarama? Toast. Know what I’m saying?

I think you do.

Now, what in the world does Shop Boy’s musical soundtrack have to do with letterpress printing?

Essentially, this: You don’t want to be having deep philosophical thoughts about the musical backdrop to all of life’s most important moments while you’re standing over a roaring press. It’s too dangerous. But don’t take Shop Boy’s word for it:

“The best safety device is a clear mind, concentrated on the work in hand, with full attention on one’s own individual press, and intent on the best practices of pressfeeding. For such, there need be no fear, for there is no danger.”

Ralph W. & Edwin Polk, “Elementary Platen Presswork (Revised)”

I’m just saying.

For grins, let’s save us all time by letting me pick the music for your shop. It’ll be safer for your hands and your ears that way. DJ Shop Boy will just post one of these lists, say, once a week, about an hour’s worth of tunes — commercial free! If you’ve read this far you might be interested enough to bear with me. If not, you can go sulk away in silence, for all eternity.

List One:

We’ll call this list “Bad Hair Day.” Say you, like Shop Boy, have been kept at the printshop until 3 a.m., then get a wakeup call at 7 a.m. wondering why you’re not ready for work yet. And where’s the coffee?

I got your caffeine right here (iTunes should have most of these, though I, ahem, hope some of them will already be in your collection):

1. “The One” — Foo Fighters (Eternally yours.)
2. “Lifetime Problems” — Texas Terri and the Stiff Ones (Some call it “psychobilly.” Psycho, for short.)
3. “Bump” — Spank Rock (Baltimore’s nastiest.)
4. “One Shot” — Henry Rollins (Good advice: Do not give The Neck here one shot.)
5. “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” — Drowning Pool (Nuff said.)
6. “Fed Up” — House of Pain (Time to go headhuntin’. A flashback.)
7. “mOBSCENE” — Marilyn Manson (Be obscene, not heard. LOL.)
8. “You’re Speaking My Language” — Juliette and the Licks (A natural born killer.)
9. “Do Right” — Jimmie’s Chicken Shack (Frustrated, but fun.)
10. “Another Body Drops” — Cypress Hill (Life in the ‘hood, from a safe distance.)
11. “Bad Reputation” — Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (She still don’t give a damn. JJ rules!)
12. “Business” — Eminem (Can I get a witness?)
13. “Animals” — Nickelback (Band’s a bit old for make-out songs like this. But it’s fast.)
14. “Millionaire” — Queens of the Stone Age (Gimme some more.)
15. “The Lumberjack Song” — Jackyl (Don’t try this at home, kids.*

* Yes, Shop Boy needs to learn the “Ignition Sequence” for uploading a video link.

On the Hook

September 6, 2007

A smirking muskie taught Shop Boy everything he needs to know about letterpress.

Guess I’d better explain:

Elevenmile Reservoir is one of those places that just feels like nowhere else in the world. Colorado has a bunch of those. It’s about 40 miles west of Colorado Springs, part of the Pike National Forest. It’s at 8,600 feet. Crisp, thin air. Bright, bright, bright, bright sun. Cold, blue water. And trout.

The drought that Colorado’s been going through has played hell with it, though. The water levels are way down, turning outcroppings that’d normally be underwater snagging your lures into odd, above-ground rock formations. Haunting, if you know what the place looks like in wetter times. And the northern pike — muskies to some of us — are going bat guano as the big pond shrinks, giving little fish and even some bigger trout no place to hide from their toothy neighbors.

Anyway, Shop Boy and Mary’s dad, Wayne, who lives out there, stepped to the shoreline one lovely morning, wound up and cast red-and-white spoon lures into Elevenmile. Wham! Something jumped my lure seconds after it hit the water and the fight was on. Well, to make a long (big fish) story short, the muskie stopped fighting as it reached the shallows and just sort of looked at me accusingly. Then, with a sudden, violent shake of its head, it snapped the line. Gone? Not hardly. The fish just kind of circled a few times right there in front of me, sizing me up.

I took a step back from the water’s edge. Swear to God.

Later, I actually landed a muskie, which dared me to try to remove the lure from its mouth with my bare fingers. Yes, he smirked. I panicked a little, and fumbled around until the muskie sort of flopped off the line, then I picked the fish up warily and put that big, evil sucker back in the water ASAP.

OK, so … Letterpress Lesson No. 1: Inspect your equipment before using it.

Before the first cast, I’d forgotten to loosen the drag setting on the reel to give the line more “slack” to prevent it from snapping. It’s like the time I didn’t check the grippers on the C&P — flat steel arms that hold the paper steady at impression — and ended up smashing an antique, really cool magnesium die.

Letterpress Lesson No. 2: Know when you’re overmatched.

When you’ve got a difficult feed, running the C&P — or taking a hook from a fish’s mouth — at a slower speed doesn’t make you any less of a man. Better safe than sorry.

Letterpress Lesson No. 3: Read the directions.

That one seems obvious.

But all of these state-run fishing spots have a big board where they post the rules, regulations and such. Wayne and Shop Boy ambled right past it on the way in. Seen a hundred just like it, after all.

On the way out, we saw this: “Fishermen: Please help us preserve the trout population. Harvest any muskies you catch.”


Now the trout are giving me snake-face, too.

In Tatters

September 5, 2007

My underwear is showing.

But that kind of thing is going to happen when you run out of rags at the printshop and your partner digs through the dresser at home for a day’s supply, ripping and rationalizing as she goes — and they go.

“I’ve never liked this pair … that T-shirt is so over … look at the collar on that thing … disgusting.”

Well, Shop Boy could argue that they had a lot of wear left in them. He could argue that the ratty concert T-shirt will be a classic some day. (It’s saved my Are We Dead Yet?* tee … so far, anyway.) He could argue till he’s Pantone 287 blue in the face that it was unfair that his underthings were taking the hit again.

Mary would then argue that he could have remembered to pick out some rags himself — at the store.

Instead, Shop Boy remembers his place. And, under his breath, utters an unmentionable.

Heck, at least they’re dying for a good cause.

See, the humble rag is a key part of the printshop — and not just any shreds of fabric will do. Certain types release bits of thread or cloth dust while you’re cleaning that stay behind on the press rollers or the ink plate, waiting to grab ink and form little blobs that could mess up whatever you’re printing. This means you’ve got to stop the press, remove the offending matter, remove the chase and let the press run to redistribute ink to cover the bare spot. It’s annoying, and preventable.

So, here I am, cleaning the rollers with a patch from a favorite pair of my tighty-whities.

A friend to the end.

(* Are We Dead Yet? was my brother Matt’s thrash metal band way back when. Slogan: “Dance or Be Danced On.” See? Classic.)

Letterpress Gets Crude

September 4, 2007

It was the cheap look that caught my eye, the tight, neon-colored wrapping that called out, “I haven’t seen soap in a while. Take me home.”

Lust, lust, lust.

A heated dash back to the shop where, eager to get busy, I fumbled to take that top off …

Oh, stop it!

I’m talking about motor oil, people: SAE 30 motor oil. No detergents or additives.

Come on, now. Shop Boy’s been off the market for a while.

And apparently, so has detergent-free oil. The last time we’d met was at a really dumpy gas station/food mart. I’d been to service stations and home improvement places all over town looking for it. And we were close to empty in the old cans that we’d somehow acquired with the presses. It was like nobody was alive anymore who’d heard of detergent-free motor oil. Now here it was, at the local supermarket next to the mousetraps and the wasp spray. I nearly cried.

What’s the big deal? Today’s machines need the high-end oil to run clean. Old letterpresses and paper cutters? To a certain extent, clean kills. I’m told that detergents in motor oil can worm their way into microfissures in the metal and perhaps add to the damage. You don’t have to tell me twice. OK, maybe about some things.

Not this: The C&P likes its oil. So much so that there are, according to this mostly indecipherable but lovely old illustration we got, 37 oil holes on the thing. And if you take a flashlight and about a half-hour, you can find at least 31 of them. The rest introduce themselves one by one over time.

“What’s that noise?” Mary will say.

“Huh? Marilyn Manson. Why?” Shop Boy will respond.

“No, I mean on the press. Something’s different.”

I don’t need to hear it to know she’s right — and that we’re going hunting. Truly, it is amazing where they stuck some of these oil holes. With a few, all you can do is get within 6 inches, take a guess and squeeze the can, adjusting your aim and getting a little closer with each miss. Some spots look like oil holes but are instead designed merely to funnel the stuff directly onto the floor.

We make notes about each new discovery, pledging never to neglect the spot again. Lordy, that C&P runs smoothly when we’re done oiling. And we can get back to work without worrying about when the machine will need more.

It’ll tell us.