Letterpress List No. 65: Old What’s His Name

By the third blank stare, Shop Boy finally figured out why his joke wasn’t working. Mary had never heard the legend of old John Henry, the steel-spike-driving fool who vowed to die hammering rather than be beaten down the railroad tracks by a machine … then did so, iron-forged pride intact.

Mary: “Of course I’ve never heard of him. How stupid! Who would do that? Must be some Yankee-Puritan work ethic thing they teach you up there.”

She said this, of course, as Shop Boy was about to keel over, exhausted, having just beaten the steam drill.

Blank stares out there? Jeez. Read the story, people. Better yet, maybe we should just ask Bruce Springsteen all about it.


We were doing a run of 1,000 holiday coaster/ornaments for Tilt Studios, a Baltimore design/branding outfit that’s trying to save the world one socially conscious corporate identity at a time. It was to be a solid, simple design with a web address at the bottom. One color (a sort of aquamarine, to Shop Boy’s eyes). Mary had sold Tilt on using Gane Coverboard, in gray, which we’d chop into squares and print, then drill a hole for ribbon and die-cut later.

The stuff’s thick and heavy. Great for a coaster. Not so great for a press gripper, apparently.

The Heidelberg, aka the steam drill, was the obvious choice for the job, as hand feeding the coasters on the big C&P would take hours rather than minutes and present inking and impression challenges that the Heidelberg laughs in the face of.

So, we inked it up, loaded up 10 squares of coverboard for a test run, threw the lever, pushed the air knob, pulled the red ball into impression mode and … Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack! Whack!

That didn’t sound right. And the printed squares? Yeesh! The image was all over the place. So un-Heidelberg. We were printing “to guides,” so our first inclination was to blame the guide pin. When this method’s working right, the windmill arm swings into position to grab a sheet, slides it across the platen, drops it into the guide, then picks it up again after the impression is made and delivers it to the out basket. Well, maybe the board was simply too thick and was coming to rest atop the pin rather than between it and the platen. A bunch of fiddling and test runs were inconclusive.

We noodled and tested our way around the press for an hour or so, then decided we should just try it without guides, which involves shifting the feeding mechanism this way and that and adjusting the plate location. A pain, but not a deal-breaker.

Whack! Whack! Whack! … Same crazy, tilted impression.

That was a deal-breaker.

But not before Mary picked up a screwdriver and a wrench and began taking sections of the windmill apart. (I swear, I don’t even know this woman anymore.)

Shop Boy: “What are you, a mechanic now? You don’t even know what that is.”

Mary: “Well, we have to try something.”

Shop Boy: “How about we try you putting down the tools and taking one full step back from the Heidelberg? Hands above your head where I can see them.”

We looked at the clock. By now we’d lost half a day. No way could we make the deadline. We’d have to call the client with the bad news and call in a favor from the Heidelberg owners we know, which would set us and them back a day. And that’s the tough part of holiday printing jobs: Too late is “too bad.”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Shop Boy’s old John Henry complex kicked in. I hugged Mary and told her in reassuringly heroic tones that we didn’t need the steam drill. And before I let that deadline beat me, I would die … impression lever in my hand.

First blank stare.

We shifted the works over to the big C&P. We’d need to back the perfectly adjusted platen way off (just stomp on my heart, why don’t you …) to make room for the thick coverboard. Oh, and a double hit would be required to maintain the color we needed to match. A few hours in, Shop Boy was wishing he’d never heard of John Henry — or Bruce Springsteen, who taunted us this rainy December evening with songs of summer love when what we needed was a dirge.

Hours and hours later, we began punching the ribbon holes. We could only do 10 coasters at a time because the thick paper “holes” clogged the drill press’ bit. Ugh. Stop, remove bit, insert poker to clear debris, reinsert bit, repeat.

Now for the hours and hours of hand-fed die-cutting.

Lord, lord.

“You OK?” Mary asked at one point.

“I thinking I’m going all old John Henry on you,” Shop Boy responded.

Second blank stare.

Early the next morning, we stood among the stacks of maybe 1,300 coasters waiting to be punched — again, by hand — out of the squares. (If your die does too complete a job, the coasters can fall into the guts of the machine or onto the floor and be ruined.)

Well, as sometimes happens with people who know Mary, Kate Cogswell, a graphic designer who teaches the trade at Stevenson University, had made a vague promise to come lend a hand at the printshop sometime. Shop Boy calls this “wandering too close to the letterpress vortex.”

Today was Kate’s lucky day to play Shop Girl.

Shop Boy: “Thanks for coming, Kate. Old John Henry could use a breather.”

Third blank stare.

True story: Mary and Shop Boy were off with one of her childhood chums when we started talking about a celebrity pregnancy and a dispute over who the lucky fellow had been. Apparently, there were more than a few, um, candidates.

Well, Shop Boy had recently been exposed to London tabloid journalism, where “bonking” is headline shorthand for “doing the nasty.”

Shop Boy: “Maybe they should jut put them all in a room, blindfold her, spin her around and let her play Pin the Tail on the Bonkee.

Get it? Shop Boy was purple with laughter. Mary and friend? Staring at me, baffled.

So, through tears, I kept repeating the punchline: “Bonk-EE! Wocka-wocka! Bonk-EEEE!”


Back at the printshop, I finally asked Kate and Mary, “You guys know who John Henry is, right?” They shrugged. Then I sang them the song, for crying out loud. That just left Kate and Mary laughing for all the wrong reasons.


Shop Boy’s talents are wasted on these people …


Letterpress List No. 65

How about just under an hour’s worth of music to maybe jog the old memory a little bit. New or old, most of these tunes should be available in the usual places. Goofy or great videos are from YouTube.

The JokerSteve Miller Band (Ho-ho, ha-ha.)
Girls in Their Summer ClothesBruce Springsteen (A 15-yard penalty for taunting.)
Gonna Make You Happy
Tripod (What’s with these Australian comedy crooners?)
C’mon N Ride It (the Train)Quad City DJ’s (Choo-choo.)
The Living YearsMike and the Mechanics (Schmaltzy, I know …)
Air Force Ones Nelly (Sounds nice, make hit it twice.)
MystifiedDamn Yankees (Ted Nugent and the Ted-ettes.)
Hey NineteenSteely Dan (So young she doesn’t know who the Queen of Soul is. Beyonce’s been there.)
What’s Her NameGreen Day (No clue.)
Don’t Stand So Close to Methe Police (Or the machine. Wrench down, hands up.)
U Can’t Touch ThisMC Hammer (Bangin’ … in its day.)
Time Bomb Old 97s (Must have been a blast.)

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