Archive for December, 2009

Job Description

December 30, 2009

He was known as the Printer’s Devil, the printshop apprentice who was always getting into something and making a mess. Always trying to help but often doing something far closer to the opposite.

This Shop Boy learned one day from Donna Murphy, printer sister of one Vince I. Pullara III — or “VIP” to Mary. In addition to a wave of offset jobs for various clients, their Inter-City Press graciously makes negatives for Typecast Press. And Mary’s green with envy over the programmable paper cutter Vince has bailed us out with on several occasions. Plus, they’re really cool people … and they always have a plate of candy out. Shop Boy will notice candy wrappers in Mary’s car and know to ask, “How are Vince and Donna?”

Anyhow, I was dispatched by Mary to pick up some negatives from Inter-City one day, and was greeted at the entrance by Donna. She handed me the rolled-up film, looked at me kind of funny and asked, “So, how did you get the name Shop Boy?”

I gave her the short version.

“So, you’re sort of the Printer’s Devil,” Donna said, offering me the above definition.


Another guy might have been offended.

Shop Boy’s thinking maybe I should change the name of this blog.

Heavy Pile

December 24, 2009

We live on a hill in Baltimore. We’ve been there 16 years. The hill’s been there much, much longer, of course. So long that you’d think, over time, at least one of the city’s snowplows might have found it by now simply by — I don’t know, taking a wrong turn or something.

After a snowstorm, it’s a wrong turn for everyone.

So Shop Boy was literally sweating out the arrival of Mary’s folks for the holidays. The 20 inches or so of powder on the stairs and sidewalks wasn’t all that heavy per shovelful, but man, what a bunch of full shovels. Then Shop Boy had to dig out Mary’s beloved junker, the old Volvo, and create a path for it toward the icy center of the street.

That was plan A: Pray the Volvo up the hill and to the printshop for a few hours, then head to the airport, pick up Wayne and Mama, drive to the bottom of the hill and gun it, bouncing halfway up the block and slipping backwards into the cleared expanse that Shop Boy had dug. That is, if nobody else had taken it by then.

Plan B: Um, there really wasn’t one.

So Shop Boy stewed.

“Oh, it’ll be fine, Shop Boy,” Mary said smugly. “It’s a Volvo. They know snow in Sweden.”

They probably know how to plow hills, too, but don’t get me started. As Mary reminded Shop Boy, the mayor of Baltimore is looking at hard time on a felony rap. She’s not being re-elected. What does she care about disgruntled voters/taxpayers or cleared streets?


Well, somehow that stupid old car got us up the hill, with Mary, again smugly, pointing out that she didn’t even need the car’s “winter mode.”


At the shop, a heap of recyclables and full trash/rag cans awaited us from the late night before. Shop Boy ran those around the back of the building, returning to see Mary waiting out in the cold on the loading dock.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” she called out.


“Bruce Baggan’s guys can move the presses into the new space.”

Awesome. We’d had friends offer to help, but you know how that goes. Something gets damaged, somebody gets hurt. Besides, these guys are the best.

“But they can’t do it till February …”

Shoot. We need the move finished by the new year.

“Or, they can do it at 8:30 tomorrow morning.”


See, one of the reasons we need the new space is that we’d gotten so cramped that, when not in use, the No. 3 and SP-15 Vandercook presses had been serving as tabletop storage for paper and supplies. With them out of the way, there might even be room for tabletops. And the No. 4, in storage across the hall, had itself been snowed under by the usual phenomenon that occurs in storage spaces during hectic times: Set it down, um, over there and we’ll sort it out later.

Did she say tomorrow morning?

I’ve found it best through the years to just go ahead and get the panic out of the way first. You know, scream, holler, throw fits, just basically freak out. It gets your energy up. Then you can get to work.

Alas, there wouldn’t be time for even a short freakout this time. Shop Boy bounced inside and began making mental notes about what was possible. We’d sort of mapped out where the presses would go in the new space down the hall. It was time to get serious. We measured the presses once more, then walked around the big space with the tape measure trying to imagine how they’d align best for our own production needs and for the foot traffic of the people we hope will come take classes in letterpress from us starting in, say, February.

Perhaps this means you.


Shop Boy and Mary poked their heads into the storage room, where the scent of lavender and the size of the job that clearly lay before Shop Boy were overwhelming.

But now it was time to pick up Mary’s peeps, so off we rolled. It was a real sleigh ride until we got to the main roads, Mary cursing all the dummies who clearly should have stayed inside rather than drive around scared and indecisive. (And, naturally, those who should have just bought an old Volvo like we did.)

We gathered up Mama and Wayne from BWI — great to see them — and turned for home, where the jalopy conquered the hill again easily, Mary guiding it back easily into Shop Boy’s cleared zone.

(OK, she can keep the car a while longer. Sheesh.)

So now we were 15 feet from getting Mary’s parents in without incident. Previous Christmases have featured various of us toppling over or slipping upon various obstacles. And of course, while we were away, snow and ice from the roof had crashed to the pavement, creating a bunch of slick spots. Shop Boy figured some gentle advice on navigating the icy sidewalk would be good, so I turned to Mary’s dad and said helpfully:

“I worked too hard to see you on your butt out here. Be careful.”

I think it inspired him.

Soon, Mama and Wayne were behind a steaming bowl of soup, and Mary and Shop Boy were off to the printshop, her to handle thinky stuff and make plates for a job that was looming and Shop Boy to clear the way for Bruce Baggan’s boys (with Mary’s guidance, of course).

And when the lavender powder storm had cleared at last, we declared victory — something of a miracle, actually — and retreated. Man, were we beat. Back home, Mary’s parents had gone to bed. We’d warned them not to wait up (and they run our house better than we do, so there was no worry about them entertaining and feeding themselves).

Mary and Shop Boy brainstormed a little more before going to bed, trying to work through any possible problems before the move — which could only be done once, after all.

It felt as though our heads had barely touched the pillows when Mama called down the stairs at 7 a.m. Mary groaned. Shop Boy couldn’t muster the energy to do the same. But soon the house was humming. Wayne wanted to come along for the move, even though chances are both of us — as guys — would be bored, and made to feel like weaklings, as John, Al and Jason did their thing.

The roads were a bit better, and we made it to the shop well ahead of the riggers, who’d had some truck trouble and ended up having to reload all their equipment onto a second truck for the journey. Then they hauled it all up the stairs to the Fox Industries building and — not being the types to mess around — had the little No. 1 Vandercook popped up on a pallet jack, down the hallway and into place.

Plan A for the bigger presses: Same as the first. Except the presses wouldn’t cooperate, size-wise, with the pallet jack. And they’d surely crush the wooden dollies. That meant these very clever fellows would need to get some different equipment. Or …

Plan B: Listen to Shop Boy, high priest of the carpet square — those little remnants that stores give out so you can see how the carpet will look with your furniture and walls. They’re rectangular, actually.

Well, turn them pile-side-down and …

“You know these presses will slide,” Shop Boy said to John. “Just put a carpet square under each leg and push. The floor’s smooth.”

He looked skeptical, but agreed to give it a try.

Boom. The SP-15, the lightest of the three larger Vandercooks, was in its new home. The No. 3 resisted a bit more, and I could see that the guys were sweating and breathing a lot harder than if they’d put the thing on wheels. But it sure was fast. Still, I apologized for the hard labor, and said they should just move the final, heaviest press the best way they knew how.

Turns out the best way was carpet squares again. But the No. 4 was a beast, Shop Boy jumping in to help push, and accidentally elbowing the cylinder gears-first onto Jason’s hand — yikes — as we maneuvered the press through a doorway and into position. More apologies all around.

“Oh, it’s no problem,” John said. “I just can’t believe we brought all this equipment and we ended up only using carpet squares. I gotta invest in some of these.”

Jason said he’s had worse injuries, which was nice. You know, especially when compared to clobbering me with his dented hand and all.

Done in an hour, and off they went to the next job. Another of Bruce’s crews was having trouble lifting some multi-multi-ton object onto a truck, and the boss was calling in the cavalry.

Hey, you forgot the carpet squares!

Sachet on Over

December 18, 2009

Where does a 15-pound bag of lavender sit?

Anywhere it wants to (ho-ho!), but preferably it will choose a room with good ventilation.


It sure covers up the smell of musty old stuff in the storage room,
so that’s something.

The huge sack is part of a grand product scheme by Mary, which I guess Shop Boy’s been enabling. (Honest, I feel like Barney Rubble to Fred Flintstone or Art Carney to Jackie Gleason. OK, she’s had some great ideas. Blah, blah, blah.) As part of the first appearance by Typecast Press at an arts and crafts fair, we’d print little cloth bags — sachets — and fill them with, you guessed it, lavender. And did I mention the pine? The ginger? Orange peel?

A regular funk farm. Jeez, Shop Boy’s lungs were seizing up.

First order of business was the bags. We’d brainstormed how to adorn them. Mary had designed a gorgeous lavender plant for a wedding invite a while back, so that was a gimme. We even had some of the ink left. Ding-ding-ding! Then came the “stinky shoe” idea — you know, for guys’ smelly insoles. (Shop Boy did not take this personally.) Finally, a decorative thingamabob from an old, copyright-free book.

The bags were flat tweaky. Not flat, mind you, but tweaky for sure. They come 250 per order, all bunched together in a plastic bag, meaning Shop Boy had to all but steam iron the darned things individually to make the wrinkled edges stay in the C&P’s guides. Had to reeaaallllly slow the big press down.

The cloth actually took the impression quite well. Shop Boy had feared the ink would go through the muslin and make a mess, requiring me to stick a sheet of cardboard or whatever inside each and every bag and re-set all the packing. Talk about slowing things down.

In a couple of hours, I’d printed enough bags, in a couple of different colors, to get us through to the next millennium, never mind the craft fair, and Mary called in a couple of friends to seal the deal, filling each sachet with dried lavender or whatever noxious mixture Mary had stirred together in the potato chip bowl. “New in your favorite grocer’s snack section: orange peel and ginger-flavored chips!”  (We’ll clean it before your next visit … swear.) Tiny drawstrings closed the bags to prevent spillage and voila!

Shop Boy mostly steered clear of that mess, coming in at the end to knock out 50 or so lavender sachets of, as you’d imagine, the highest quality.

You know what? People bought ’em. Not all of them, of course. We’ve got a ton left over, overflowing a couple of cardboard boxes like tiny sandbags ready to hold back a flash flood of foul-smelling liquids or something.

And we’ve still got half a bag of lavender. (Cough!)

“Do you think it will attract mice?” Mary asked.

Shop Boy’s thinking it’ll do just the opposite — send the little buggers running outside, screaming for fresh air.

Now, if you don’t mind, I think Shop Boy will join them.


Rolling Back the Clock

December 16, 2009

It’s human nature, I suppose, when things aren’t going so well, to question exactly what you were thinking when you decided to become a letterpress printer. And Shop Boy, it should be clear to all by now, is unfailingly human.

So, when I had finally, officially, miserably failed in my exhaustive effort to make a worn and curled-up polymer plate print just one more time — please! — Shop Boy angrily cleaned the wasted ink off the big C&P, whipped the inky rag into the safety can, slamming the lid, pulled off the rubber gloves and kicked them into their bucket, slammed the factory door and stomped to his truck and …

Calmly drove home.

No, I did not lay rubber, sling gravel or any other signs of frustration. Driving is driving. It is not talking on the telephone. It is not a car-racing video game. It is not “taking it out” on anyone or anything. It is a privilege and a tremendous responsibility. Shop Boy is not a perfect driver, and neither are you. Knowing this should keep us honest. Be careful out there. Amen.

Where was I? Oh, fuming. Ready to kill letterpress and its whole family on the very night Shop Boy was to once again meet the woman who got Mary so fired up about this in the first place:

Carol Sturm.

She was an instructor at New York City’s Center for the Book Arts when Mary decided it’d be a kick for us to go and be printers for a weekend. Carol, a smart, wiry, sarcastic and no-nonsense dynamo, won us over immediately. Soon, she and Mary were riding herd, Carol expertly showing us how this Vandercook stuff worked and Mary choosing ink colors, paper and such and convincing our indecisive classmates that they’d come up with the ideas.

Mary always brags on Shop Boy for being chosen by Carol to proofread the poster we were creating — a word guy amid “artists.” Like a lot of printers, and fewer graphic designers, Carol was dead serious about grammar, spelling and punctuation. (In fact, these days she’s an English teacher in upstate New York.)

Anyway, through the years, her Nadja Press has produced limited-edition books of poetry and the like — absolute masterpieces of printing — so when Mary was thinking of a boffo guest speaker for the final class of the semester at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she kept coming back to Carol.

But it had been, like, a decade. She wouldn’t remember us from any of the million others who come through the Center for the Book Arts before and after us.

No matter. Again, Mary is, um, fairly persuasive.

And thus, steaming mad as Shop Boy was, he was also eager to greet (confront?) the reason for his current anguish. Mary called to say that the class was running late — they were having too much fun, harrumph! — and that I should meet them outside Dolphin Press, MICA’s printshop, at 10:30 or so. At least that gave me time to cool off.

Carol’s friendly hello and first sarcastic comment did the rest.

She’s a “pip,” as Shop Boy’s mom used to say.

Back at the house, I whipped up cocktails. (If you’re new to this blog, the url is short for Guy Who Brings Gin & Tonics. Man, Shop Boy is dangerous with a bottle of gin. You’ve been forewarned.)

Soon we were laughing about teaching, about that old class we took (Carol kept unconsciously referring to one young, tomboyish woman, Marie-Claude or something, as “Jean-Claude” — we were dying, even as the poor apopleptic student appeared closer and closer to going all Van Damme on the teacher), about drinking, about how cool it was to be back together.

Just like old friends.

Isn’t letterpress great?

Taking a Powder

December 8, 2009

Imagine buying a super-expensive sports car because you like the rear defrost feature on the side mirror. Well, Shop Boy swears that Mary bought the Heidelberg Windmill for the little drawer on the side.

You know the one I’m talking about, right?

The Barbie tool kit.

Oh, they don’t call it that in Germany, the machine’s birthplace. It’s the Brunhilde box or something. Anyway, it’s this tiny container that disappears into the side of the machine with its store of odd, teeny little doodad-y tools — for tweaking things on the windmill. Just Mary’s style.

And, thanks to Shop Boy’s, um, special arrangement with the
Georgetown Sephora branch, the box also holds the blush brush.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a Beauty Insider, right? Well, now I’m like the king/queen of beauty insiders, a “BIP.” Swear to god. I’ve bought so many beauty products there (what, you thought this look was natural?) that they added a little sticker to my Beauty Insider card, meaning more free samples. Sparkly lip balm, eyelid lifter, perfume … whee!


See, one day, one of our interns, a guy, mentions that, hey, if you put a little baby powder on the tympan after you — doh!  — ink it, the powder dries up the mess and the offset disappears much more quickly. And to think, Shop Boy told Mary that male interns would never add up to anything. It flat works.

And the perfect vehicle for putting powder to tympan: a blush brush with a little reservoir to store the powder. Mary was so impressed with this trick that she immediately sacrificed her brush to the gods of letterpress. Which meant that the BIP was dispatched to procure a new one.

So I got two, slightly different models but with the same basic operation. Or so we figured. But when even Mary — a girl, for heaven’s sake — couldn’t figure out how to open one of them to put in powder, it quickly became apparent …

Shop Boy was about to get a one-on-one, in-store, BIP lesson in how to operate a refillable blush brush.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me, Shop Boy. Take it back and make them show you how to open it.”

Great. Being a dude shopping in Sephora isn’t a weird enough experience as it is. At least they’re always nice at “my” Georgetown branch. Take the large gentleman who, uh, clearly knows his way around a makeup mirror. The pretty lady at the checkout desk called him over when she couldn’t figure out the blasted brush either.

He cheerily took the brush in his huge paws, taking time to explain the basic mechanism to Shop Boy as though there were no other customers in the whole store — stopping just short of explaining how to get an even color tone on my cheeks. Then he twisted the two ends in opposite directions … snapping the thing in two.

“Must be defective,” he said. “Let’s try another one.”

This one worked, but the big fellow was taking no chances, making me show him that I knew how to work the brush. Satisfied enough with my clumsy fumbling, he packaged it up and threw it into a Sephora bag with even more funny little free makeup samples.

Mary’s going to need a Barbie tool kit for the side of her dresser at this rate.

Shop Boy? Suffice it to say that I’d better go work on my speech for induction day at the Beauty Insider Hall of Fame.

Guide Dog

December 3, 2009

Sometimes you get in the zone, and maybe slip just a little bit into autopilot mode. On those rare days when the inking is going just right for long stretches, your back doesn’t hurt, the iPod’s hit a sweet stretch of music (hush, Mary!) and you’ve got, say, only another 45 minutes to go in a run of 1,000 or so menus, feeding one after another into the big C&P.

Reach, place, remove, stack; reach, place, remove, stack.

Well, Shop Boy has an expression for this zen state: “pounding the guides.”

In essence, you’re just trusting the gauge pins — and your hand-eye coordination — to keep the paper straight again and again and again. A nice, firm feed. Shop Boy was feeling so good he shared the good news of success with Mary as she entered the room to use the paper cutter.

“Whew, that was a good run.”

Mary picked up a menu and grimaced.


By “pounding the guides,” I had actually managed to move the gauge pin on the right, knocking it loose from its masking tape bonds. Like, a half-hour ago, apparently.

The menus are two-color, meaning I would never have noticed the damage — about 200 menus wrecked — until the second color was applied. It was a subtle crookedness. But Mary picked up on it right away. Autopilot isn’t really her thing.

And this isn’t cheap paper we’re talking here. I felt like an idiot, especially since now I’d have to go back through the stack one at a time with a ruler to determine on which menu, exactly, the gauge pin first slipped.

As is my way in these situations, I began to pout.

“Don’t worry, Shop Boy,” Mary said, trying to cheer me up (and keep me working efficiently — nothing less efficient than a pouter, after all). “Just turn them into specials paper.”

I hadn’t thought of that. The menus are 12 inches square. The paper we cut for the restaurant’s nightly specials is 4 inches by 12. (Geez, it was almost like Mary had planned it that way or something. ;-) ) And since I had been printing only at the top of the menu sheet, I was able to turn the ruined pile of menus into two very healthy piles of specials paper, minimizing my mess-up by two-thirds.

Shop Boy, now two-thirds less pouty if not quite as serene as an hour before, set about cleaning the C&P for the second color. Forty-five minutes later, I was right back in the zone, pounding the guides.

With Mary checking about every fifth menu that came off the press, of course. Sheesh.