Tales from the Print Room by Jeremy Chotzen
TALES FROM THE PRINT ROOM – PART 1
In the series of articles to follow, I'd like to introduce you to the world of early 1980's print technology, the nineties revolution, and the people who were a part of that era. These tales are about the machines and the men and women who ran them. The tensions, the tantrums, missed deadlines, reprints and broken presses.
Let's start with how I ended up a prepress apprentice growing up in North West London. At seventeen, my mother felt I needed to expend my teenage energies on getting a career. She was right, of course. While in my last year at high school, I was offered to go on a work experience program. Entering the program was simple, select from a list of trades your preference, and the school would match me to a local business for two weeks. I begrudgingly accepted the offer, but before I had time to choose, my mother ticked the little box next to the word printing. I was exiled a month later to Krisson Printing, located in the industrial heartland of northwest London, Harlesden. To say I was utterly uninterested does not do justice to the word or any related synonym. This I imagined was going to be a truly horrible experience. It wasn't. I not only managed to survive but fell in love with printing.
I completed my high school certificate six months later, and my mother encouraged me to apply for an apprenticeship at Krisson Printing.
After a brief interview, the company director was reluctant to employ me (my lack of enthusiasm, perhaps?). Still, my mother persuaded him otherwise, and I was accepted. Around October 1980, I began my apprenticeship in graphic reproduction, processing offset plates and various film planning tasks.
A little aside about the founder of Krisson Printing and we will have established the Australian Connection. The business was founded by Demetrius Comino, an Australian engineer, philanthropist and the inventor of commercial shelving known as Dexion racking. A man with a remarkably long career which you can read about on Wikipedia.
Krisson's primary business was letterheads, magazines, and supplying garment tags for many large retail stores.
The pressroom had a Heidelberg GTO 46 (1 colour), and GTO 52 (2 colours) offset press. An Aurelia 400 press with four stations and a Heidelberg converted for die-cutting purposes. Beneath the stairwell sat the aged star of many a print room, the stalwart, a Heidelberg platen complete with moveable type. More on that in my next episode.
The pressroom was hot, especially in summer. The air smelt of sweat, inks, chemical cleaners and oils. The presses were noisy, and operators worked all hours to keep them running to meet deadlines while managers looked on, reminding us time was money. As apprentices, we were expected to learn fast and work hard. This was no place for slackers, so turning up one minute past the allotted start time because of a late-night dalliance, a missed bus, or a hangover the next day not only saw your pay docked but a dressing down in the manager's office.
Little did I know back then, but a decade later, most of my acquired skills went out of the window, replaced by digital printing and desktop publishing. My story begins at that juncture. A swift and silent revolution, and I'll have more to say about that in my later episodes.
It's a sobering thought, but without museums like the Penrith Museum of Printing, much of our heritage would be lost forever. Spare a thought for those who dedicate their time and energy to make their expertise accessible. Sure, you could jump on to youtube and learn that way, but you won't experience the absolute pleasure and surprise of watching these presses run. It's an experience in itself.
TALES FROM THE PRINT ROOM – PART 2
It was my first week on my apprenticeship, and I had been assigned to the print room to learn about the Heidelberg Platen, the stalwart of printing, loved by generations of printers. The first step in my apprenticeship was to know about moveable lead typefaces. My teacher and compositor was a gentleman called Henry Bickram. Fijian born his family had migrated to the UK when he was just a child. Well into his later years, he had spent a lifetime running Heidelberg presses and could assemble or disassemble one with his eyes closed. He was the most respected printer in the company and the only person able to compose moveable type. After being introduced, I took my place beside him in front of several large wooden draws. These were the type cases in which each letter of the alphabet was stored.
I watched his hands shuffle across the various compartments selecting the lead type. I learnt that typefaces came in point sizes. 12 points made a pica, and the benchmark for this measure is 12pt Roman Type. The capital letter M is the standard spacing (called the nut space). Half an Em is an En, so obviously half the length. My head was spinning, and it wasn't even time for morning tea. Next, Henry pulled out a composing stick, also referred to as a setting stick, a long narrow metal tray which he held in one hand while with the other hand he arranged the characters along the bottom ledge, adding spacers (blank blocks) between words. He measured the length of the line with a metal type gauge and adjusted the spacing between the rows by using narrow strips of lead (leading).
I had a momentary childhood flashback, an ominous sign my destiny in print had been foreshadowed. One Christmas, my parents bought me a John Bull printing set. It contained an inking pad and tweezers. The letters could be arranged into words on a small handheld chase. The problem was that the letters were tiny, and my fingers were fat. In no time at all, I lost the pieces down the back of the sofa. Here I was having a deja vu moment watching Henry handle tiny bits of metal type. Suddenly, his voice grew series, almost threatening. Never, he insisted, place the letters back in the wrong compartment. I gulped nervously. Misplacing a letter was tantamount to heresy among letterpress printers, and it wasn't too long before I felt Henry's burning wrath over a missing full stop.
The whole experience, minus Henry's burning wrath, was humbling. It reminds me we may have these compositing skills due to advancing technology, but not the vocabulary. Many of the words I mentioned above are still in everyday use, and their etymology gives us a clue to their origins.
For example, uppercase and lowercase are used to describe capitalised and none capitalised letters. Uppercase letters went in the top half of the type case, and yes, you've guessed it, the lowercase letters in the lower half of the type case box. In printing, we still refer to leading as a unit of distance between lines of text, but its origins refer to the lead strips placed between lines of type, hence leading. Point sizes (Punto), was first standardised in the 15th century by the Milanese typographer Francesco Torniella da Novara. One point is 1/72 of an inch. Point size is still widely referred to in the print industry.
It's worth noting that the Heidelberg presses are enjoying something of a revival. I suspect it's the tactile feel (holding a letter of the alphabet), composing words by hand instead of typing them onto a page, and the way the metal type stamps into the stock, creating a subtle relief. It is a pleasure only those who have worked in this field will know.
There is little indication that these workhorses of the pressroom will end up idle in museums gathering dust so long as people are interested in learning about print history. Some companies have put them to good use cold foiling and die-cutting wedding invites and business cards. I must give the nod to D&D Letterpress, who have done an incredible job restoring vintage presses and giving them a new lease of life. Please visit their website. It's stunning.
While you're at it, make a mental note to visit the good folks at Penrith Museum of Print to learn more about our great heritage and a humbling reminder of how past generations thought to develop mass printing, one of the primary means of communication in a pre-internet world.
TALES FROM THE PRINT ROOM – PART 3
Becoming an apprentice served no great honour among men or thieves. As a new recruit, being teased was all part and parcel of an apprenticeship, and every apprentice bore it with good humour. It was the tradition in the eighties.
Within months of my arrival, my first mistake was to accept the task of collecting a box of halftone dots from Andy Parkin, who ran the GTO 52 offset press. He was, of course, in on the joke. Obligingly he shuffled around under his bench looking for the oblique box, then, shrugging his shoulders, said, what size do you want? Minutes later, I returned but only after consulting a colleague, and Andy told me I would have to see the manager as large euclidian dots were not cheap. Elliptical dots were much more affordable but difficult to source. I was, of course, none the wiser. If that wasn't ingratiating enough, the manager was also in on the joke and referred me to the director's office but not before telling me his personal preference for square dots. Oh, the humiliation that followed, having to explain to the secretary (who had heard this a thousand times before), I was after a box of euclidian halftone dots. I left with my ears ringing to the peels of laughter from the office staff.
One time I was made to measure the led in every pencil and, on another occasion, every ruler in the factory to find out which one's were the correct lengths. I recall the worst one was a fellow apprentice sent down to the local fire station to get the fire extinguisher refilled.
This merely foreshadowed the right of passage conferred on every apprentice at the end of their apprenticeship. The traditional 'banging out' ceremony as it was known. Its earliest origins were derived in Fleet Street around 1910 in Great Britain, whereby retirees were farewelled on their last walk through the office with employees bashing the hell out of anything they could get their hands on, even their desks. Innocent enough, except it morphed into something much more ominous, a tradition that would have left today's health and safety experts aghast. The practice I am about to describe was banned the year I finished my apprenticeship.
My poor colleague, friend and mentor, Andy, who worked in the art department, completed his apprenticeship a year before me and had no choice but to submit to the ceremony or endure eternal ridicule for not complying. It was a late Friday afternoon, and like a man on death row, Andy stepped into the wheely bin then bound hand and foot to an office chair. The ceremony began with him doused head to foot in waste inks, paper, machine oils, and various chemicals. Everyone participated, even the directors, managers and cleaners. It was my job on the day to wipe the gooey mass from Andy's eyes and mouth, to keep him alive, and deter our die-hard smokers from getting too close to the action.
Pause for a moment to consider the plight of poor Odysseus in Homer's epic masterpiece, the odyssey, bound to the ship's mast, ears plugged with wax against the irresistible sirens' song for the sake of his crew and his vessel coming to ruins on the rocks below. Odysseus suffering, in comparison to the banging out ceremony, was nothing, and I don't think he could have endured what followed. The poor hapless apprentice covered in ink was carted out of the factory's back door and down the high street, stopping traffic in all directions. Sometimes, the unfortunate victim was tied to a lampost, set of traffic lights, or stripped naked. It took nine months for Andy to scrub out all the ink stains for his skin, and he ended up having to shave off his long locks of dark curly hair.
Apprenticeships have a long history in the UK, as far back as the 15th century. Putting aside the horrors I've described, apprenticeships were a great way to learn a trade and enter college. In Australia, apprenticeships didn't really gather pace until the late nineties. Sadly, there has been a marked decline in printing apprenticeships worldwide. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald published in May 2020 suggests apprenticeships have fallen by two thirds across most trades amid looming skill shortages. The pandemic hasn't helped.
The craftsman skills associated with moveable type has long passed, and students graduating from an art college often have only a theoretical understanding of traditional methods. Here at the Penrith Museum of Printing, you can gain hands-on experience and observe many of those techniques in action. There is nothing quite like the sound of a platen or trying to assemble type by hand. At the very least, you'll never have to endure a banging out at the end of it all. That's a promise.
TALES FROM THE PRINT ROOM – PART 4
It was bright, sleek, a rectangular white box with a large monitor mounted on top, and it arrived without fanfare or pomp in the spring of 1992. Its only rival sat in the opposing corner, a CRTronic 360 phototypesetting terminal linked by a wieldy cable to the Linotype-Hell Linotron for outputting film. Before we talk about the rivalry between old and new technology, let me explain how the old technology worked. Lyne was our department typesetter who entered text via the CRTronic keyboard. The text promptly appeared on a tiny green luminous monitor. It was about as exciting as watching my mother knit sweaters. That typed information was transferred to the Linotype-Hell, where the real magic began. A photo strip, or a wheel, contained the entire alphabet, including punctuation marks and was mounted onto a rotating drum. As the drum rotated, the letters were exposed onto a light-sensitive paper. The results were then fed into a film processor. The Linotype CRTronic replaced the need for the moveable type used in traditional letterpress and hot metal typesetting and was faster for composing whole paragraphs of text. It was perfect for offset printing and, as I shall discuss further down, the production of photopolymer plates used nowadays in letterpress printing.
Meanwhile, its sole rival sat solitary on the desk opposite, waiting, watching with indifference. It was a Macintosh IIci with around 12 megabytes of ram and 512 megabytes of hard disc storage. Breathtaking figures at the time! My manager, Peter, assembled us around the new terminal to watch the demonstration. Other staff members, equally curious, joined the huddle. We watched in awe, no, utter disbelief at what followed. Instead of waiting for the photographic paper to be processed the conventional way, images and text appeared on the monitor precisely as they would on the printout. Coloured text and graphics resized with the click of a mouse. Whole pages reorientated in an instance, crop marks added, colour bars included. I imagined primordial man experiencing much the same feeling at the discovery of fire.
Looking back, we had witnessed the dawn of the desktop revolution, up there with Stephenson's Rocket and the railroad. With the advent of trains, the railroad served a host of industries by transporting raw materials such as coal, goods, and services to remote communities. So likewise, Desktop publishing created new access to the internet, the sharing of media, the growth of digital printing and one-stop print shops. Files could be transferred via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) anywhere in the world. Turnaround times increased, and newspaper publications were edited and shared online between graphic designers and print companies at the click of a mouse. This meant a publication edited in one city could be printed in another location halfway around the globe.
I could almost hear the CRTronic let out a faint whimper from the other side of the room, knowing its fate was sealed, and in less than a year, it was history. Which reminds me, remember the lyrics to that catchy 1985 Buggles song, 'Video 'killed the radio star... we can't rewind we've gone too far?' Of course, you do! Thankfully, there's still plenty to sing about when it comes to printing. The advent of computing technology did not kill letterpress. Instead, it merely transformed the medium. First came the moveable type, which eventually gave way to hot metal. Then came photopolymer plates replacing the hot metal. Photopolymer still had the familiar raised surface, but it could be produced a lot faster and with less expense. A photopolymer plate is a light-sensitive material. When a negative film with an image or text is laminated onto the polymer plate and exposed to UV light, the material hardens. The unexposed areas are washed away in a tank leaving a raised surface
There is no doubt in my mind we have lost and gained a great deal in that decade. We have lost the art of mounting type letter by letter, which is incredibly tactile and satisfying. Not only that, the metal type stamped an impression onto the paper, something not achievable on a photopolymer. This is easily observable under an eyeglass, where the familiar soft halo around letters is most noticeable.
On the upside, the new methods provided faster turnaround times, and soft proofs ran out via a laser printer created hard copies for proofreading. Mixing typefaces on a page and calculating line length required far less time and skill to perform.
Print museums exist not just as a repository of old artifacts. They communicate mankind's remarkable achievements to the next generation. One day in the not too distant future, a child will wander up to a display cabinet. A wax effigy, not unlike our evolutionary cousin Homo erectus, will sit there gazing longingly into a monitor. The child will tug on her grandfather's arm. Is that where you made words? she asks. He smiles, remembering the halcyon days of crashed hard drives, once misspelling a client's business name (blamed it on predictive text) and cursing the director who promptly fired him for incompetence.