The Letterpress Roundtable, Part IV: Printing Dilemmas

No one knows Murphy’s Law better than a printer. Rarely does a day in the print shop or studio go by without some hiccup or problem to be solved. And while most problems are a speed bump, there are those doozies that hit us, challenge us, and make us wonder why we ever thought printing should be our career choice. For this next discussion, we asked a handful of printers for their ultimate letterpress disaster stories. The one that can now be looked back on with some humor and possibly even a good lesson learned. So read on, enjoy, and please share your own “oops” moment with all of us. You’ll feel better for sharing.

Mark Olson – Innerer Klang 

My worst letterpress disaster occurred in September 2004. I had just moved my shop from Charlestown, Massachusetts to Asheville, North Carolina in August. The move itself was traumatic enough, but it got done. I had just finished painting the shop, getting everything moved into place, and was ready to go when, on September 7, the remnants of Hurricane Francis moved up from the Gulf and it began to rain, and then it rained some more, and then it continued to rain. My shop is about 100 yards from The French Broad River. The water rose on its banks, and continued to rise until the water made it over the banks and flooded the entire area. The next day I tried to drive to my shop but the road was blocked about 2 miles away. No one was allowed in. The entire area was under water. A week later I could finally make it to my shop. Opening the door there was about 6 inches of muck and water on the floor. Looking at the wall you could see the water line at about 4 feet. Everything in the shop below that line had been submerged in water. The fun was about to begin…

I have a few pictures after the flood and a broadside that I eventually printed titled Flood to “commemorate” the event.  The broadside was a poem by Robert Gibbons (a friend from my years in Boston). He sent me the poem shortly after the flood in my shop.

The photo of my office chair shows some of the muck that was left everywhere. The photo of the chipboard is the one redeeming piece of art from the flood. I had stapled chipboard over each typecase to keep the type in place during my recent move. After the flood I pulled this piece of chipboard off one of the cases and found this impression of the case transfered to the chipboard. The chipboard is framed and hangs on my shop wall.

Richard Kegler – WNY Books Arts Center

In late 2010, I was excited to see a Facebook posting for a show by Carlene Carter at the home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Carlene Carter is the step daughter of Johnny Cash (daughter of June Carter Cash) and ex-wife of Nick Lowe. Kleinhans Music Hall is a modernist/deco building desiged by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Being a fan of them all, I thought it might be great opportunity to do a poster. The Western New York Book Arts Center had been doing outreach to other cultural organizations to create posters (at no charge) for events as a way of getting our name out in the community and showing off our work, and as a good will gesture to help
other cash strapped cultural organizations who could not budget for a letterpress poster. I had emailed the marketing department at Kleinhans Music Hall but hadn’t heard back. We always try to get permission for
gratis posters (or even better, get hired to do actual paying jobs) but rarely would do a poster without some nod of approval from a promoter or artist. Since I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do yet did not hear back, I figured I would just print it, go over and show them one, they would love it and say “yes, we would love for you to print us a poster.”

The main idea was to use an assortment of oversized wood type that was particularly distressed as overlapping shapes in combination with a stylized guitar fretboard made from the backs of wood type blocks. The fret markers were made by drilling a shallow hole with a cordless drill into the back of a few blocks. The holes would not affect the the printing of the other side, and wood type often has some sorts where an industrious printer needed a letter so the back is hand carved; dilemma averted.

The combination of the homage to Hatch Show Print posters a la Johnny Cash and the Art Deco caption text evoking the Kleinhans Music Hall seemed to be a good fit. I confirmed the info from the Facebook posting and
then went to work to set up the poster in the bed of our Vandercook SP-20. To render the guitar strings, various width of printers rule was set to have a full bleed and printed in metallic silver/blue. After getting about halfway through the first color (chocolate brown), something made me double check the show date. Instead of Facebook, I went to the actual venue website. Sure enough, the Facebook date was wrong. Oh well, glad I checked before the second color went on. So in changing from Saturday to Friday, I discovered there were not enough letters to spell everything out that was needed. In fact there were not enough ‘A’s for the Saturday setting so there is a V in BUFFALO. Friday had to be set in the other color – again, not a major problem, just one that needed a solution. On day two, when the second color was underway, some old acquaintances came by the printshop. They loved the poster but rather shyly pointed out that Kleinhans was spelled wrong. At that point I figured this poster was not meant to be since I never heard back and I decided it would all be put away and never discussed again.

Within a couple of days, I heard back from the people at Kleinhans and they loved the idea of the poster and were looking forward to it. I somewhat reluctantly reset the type, fretboards and the strings and tried to mix the colors…and make sure everything was spelled correctly. In the end, we gave the venue and Carlene Carter copies of the poster and she signed one and sent it to us with a nice note. Lesson hammered home once again — proofreading: not overrated.

Kyle Van Horn – Baltimore Print Studios

This is a story about a press move. These are always stressful, especially when it is a DIY operation. It starts when a woman named Virginia Sheard agrees to give me her C&P 8×12 NS for free. I convince three friends to help me, and we show up on a Sunday afternoon with some tools and box truck.

We were, of course, grossly under-prepared. I don’t recall how exactly we did it, but somehow we picked the press up onto blocks and placed it onto a dolly. After removing the doors from their hinges, and just barely squeezing it past the door frame, Virginia mentioned that “Ah yes, I remember now, it came in in TWO pieces.” Once out the ground-level basement door, it had to go up the hill to street level. We opted for the long way around the house, an uneven hill rather than up the steps.

With two sheets of plywood to roll on, and a lot of unorganized pushing, we finally made it to the truck. Here’s where the story gets interesting. The press was strapped to a very large dolly, upon which it moves quite smoothly. On level ground, one person can move it with little effort. And so logic would then dictate that TWO people could easily keep it steady as the lift gate lifts it up. We all agree and push it onto the lift.  I head up to the cab to turn on the engine of the truck (and the lift hydraulics).

In the amount of time it takes to walk back from the cab, the following has happened: The lift gate has lifted and slanted under the weight. The press shifted, and 2 wheels slid back onto the ground. Top heavy, and past its center of gravity, the press smoothly tipped off of the lift to land squarely on its back on the pavement.

We dropped the press.

One friend (wisely) let go, and the other (stubbornly) held on and was thrown 5′ from the lift. Miraculously he landed in a somersault and somehow jumped to his feet completely unscathed. The only fault of the third friend is that he didn’t take a photo.

Since I’m not insured for any of this, I’m not paying anyone, and I asked them all to help me, I can’t be upset. I calmly unstrap the dolly, winch the press back to vertical on the lift, and into the truck she goes. A handful of broken pieces came off with the fall, none of which are critical to printing mechanics. We move the press “temporarily” to the school where I work “for a few weeks”. It remained there for 3 1/2 years.

Finally this fall, 4 years after dropping her, this press is finally being put back together and into service at Baltimore Print Studios.

Here’s the press, just before she fell:

Macy Chadwick – In Cahoots Press

I was working on a new book edition with a tight deadline of 6 weeks. The images were of maps so I wanted to use an antique map color like orange, rust or ochre. I mixed up an orange and printed the entire press run of all 12 pages, edition of 50, only to decide that the color just wasn’t right and I had to start over. I had to buy the paper twice. The orange pages still sit in a box– I just can’t bear to throw them out!!

Margot Ecke – Smokey Road Press

Three years ago, when I was looking for a house to buy, I knew that I  needed a place that could accommodate my letterpress shop. I found a sweet little mid-century brick house in the sleepy town of Winterville, just outside of Athens, Georgia. It had a lovely little L- shaped yard and a decent sized workshop, which had been used as a  tinkering station for the mechanic who had previously lived in the house. Two birds, one stone. I was excited.

I closed on the house and moved my presses into the backyard shop. I  knew immediately that I had shown a lack of judgement when it came to the studio. Wind whistled through the cracks in the walls, which were
made of pallets and plywood. The cement floor was at such a severe slope (an 11″ discrepancy from wall to wall) that every press had to be shimmed, and the ceiling was too low to stand up completely. There were termites in the walls and the place was never clean. Plus, the previous owner had used the small patch of earth behind the shop as a compost and trash heap and so the ground was soft and full of building debris.

The building clearly had to be torn down and a new one would have to be built. However, with the recent move and the financial strain of starting a new business, I couldn’t afford much. I lured friends and past students over with the promise of beer and pizza and in one afternoon, we tore down the original structure. One wall was so termite ridden and water damaged, that it simply peeled right off.

I was lucky to find a carpenter who would to do the work for about $1500 and a trade (for business cards). Next, I hired an electrician who was willing to do the electrical work in exchange for a lasagna-a-week for six months. That trade also appealed to the guy who painted the workshop’s exterior. (Tip: the lure of lasagna even works for non-home-improvement trading: a haircut for a lasagna and hair coloring for an apple pie! I will add that it definitely helps when the person you are trading with is way too used to eating Ramen Noodles for dinner.)

I purchased windows and doors at Habitat and Southern Surplus (the guy gave me a discount when he turned down my offer of the lasagna trade). Lights were purchased from IKEA. And, of course, I did lots of the work myself: from the design, to the removal of debris, to helping the carpenter and pouring concrete. Pressroom patience paid off when it came time for me to operate the bull float…that floor is super smooth! The compost/trash heap was cleaned up and leveled and I brought in a bunch of white gravel and created raised beds. Enclosed within a tall white picket fence and shaded by the branches of a Chinaberry tree, that space is now one of the loveliest spots in the yard.

The total cost of the project came to about $5,000 and was well worth the price. The irony of this story is that I had only worked in the space for about a year before realizing that it was too small! Smokey Road Press will be moving to a new space in downtown Athens, Georgia in January of 2013.

Michael Schwartz – Czar Press

Way back in the Czar early days…one of my first decent sized projects was to print about 40 new greeting card designs.  Each card was two colors, with a one color envelope.  This was way back when I first started (and we weren’t cool enough to be using photopolymer plates : ) …we were using wood mounted magnesium.  These were new designs that were launching at the National Stationery Show.  As any typical important job goes…we were not given enough time by my customer to reasonably complete the job. We had about 10 days to print the approximate 120 different plates, which consisted of at least 30-40 different ink colors…so we had a lot of set up on our hands.

As the plates arrived, I quickly got started, and then noticed that just about every other plate was ruined.  Turns out…and as luck would have it…that the company we were using at the time for plates switched to a new washout solution, but didn’t have it quite dialed in. So the plates were basically being washed out too much and much of the copy was being washed away.  The real killer was, I could not tell if each particular plate was good until I had it on press.  I’m pretty sure I had an overnite shipment arriving every day with replacement plates to replace the bad ones.  So now we were having to do all new set ups for the replacement plates and reprint about half of the colors….so the job turned into more like 200 plates and 60 colors…in less then 2 weeks.  Kinda of a big deal, considering at the time, the company consisted of just me!  Lots of coffee ensued…

I finished everything, barely.  I like to think that I pretty much learn something new everyday that I’m printing…but I learned a lot on the fly from this disaster.

Mark Herschede –  Haven Press Studio

A while back, a printer friend of mine referred a friend of his customer to me. This was in the difficult first 2 years of being on my own and in business for myself. This customer – let’s call them “Customer B” from here forward – had designed a stationery/identity set for a writer.

While several “red flags” went off at the start of the courting, such as the designer being out of the country, as well as the actual end consumer of the production being in the country, but out of state, and the job was an ultra rush (2-3 days to turn around a 4 piece, 1000 piece per style, 2 color suite? Oh, not to mention multiple paper-stocks+envelope runs? Hand cranked on a Vandercook? And I couldn’t gang them up, because the designer sent pre-cut paper?!?!) WHAT was I thinking.

And even though I hadn’t been sent the paper yet….. I somehow decided that this would be a profitable endeavor and thought it would be okay to do the job. I honestly don’t know why I didn’t just turn it down, but I took the job because I like working under pressure, enjoy a challenge, and thought what the heck – it’s good money. When something is that difficult, but I still know I can accomplish it… I can’t say no! It’s a weakness, this can-do-attitude….

Unfortunately, while I did lay out rush terms and made sure the contracting party did tell me about her vision and collected proper direction/art/supplies, I didn’t have the foresight to request any kind of down-payment; I also failed to ask the designer who would be settling the tab at the end, and didn’t really lay out terms that were clear. It was a rush job! There simply wasn’t time for me to turn around and ask all these things of them. Or so I thought. I guess at this point I was green enough not to really thoroughly vet the ‘business side’ of things, and hadn’t really been taken to the cleaners by a customer yet. Live and learn!

I completed the job to the best of my ability, which is to say it looked and felt great! I was quite satisfied with the results, and hand delivered this boxed set of brand spanking new stationery to the actual end customer – who happened to be in New York City, where I’m based, for a conference. This is why it needed to be rushed! She needed to pass out calling cards and write notes during her stay. She pronounced it to be of a quality that satisfied her expectations and then some, and even complimented me on the work. She went through the sets, fanned the printed matter on a table at her hotel, and I went over the parameters and pointed out all the details, and made sure that she was not only happy with the printing quality, but I went a step further- I spent some time educating her about letterpress printing, ink spread, impression, pointed out the back of the sheets and taught her about the qualities associated with “good” printing versus fine printing, and what she was receiving for her payment. When I left, she was a happy customer and had praised my efforts and seemed very appreciative.

….. But I had still not been paid, and verbal appreciation is NOT currency.

This is where the lesson should be learned folks: Always get paid a deposit worth at least your materials and labor; the other half or portion should be the profit, the fat you are storing for the winter, so that in the case you’re put into trouble you at least retain your investment…..

In this case, I contacted the designer and was given a run around for about a week, at the end of which she informed me that I had turned over “poor quality work” and that her customer was dissatisfied with the results. How would this customer have actually been given the opportunity to look at the results and be as excited as they were, and then turncoat in this way? I was not sure how it worked, and after a lengthy email chain back and forth during which the designer failed to take any responsibility, I realized that SHE had not been paid up front by the customer either, and that we were probably BOTH being taken for a walk – no matter how sweet and appreciative this person was at the time! What a PEST!

Moral of the story is, lay out your terms carefully in a contract looking official invoice format. Do not fudge this or leave wiggle room. Be clear about pricing and commitments/requirements, and ALWAY ALWAYS ALWAYS require a downpayment or a validated form of payment on file, because you never know how it will go at the end of the transaction – even with referrals and friends of friends. Never turn work over, especially hard work – rush work – unless you know you’ll be paid and have been paid a portion up front. It also really helps to know when you’re maybe out-gunned, or when too many red-flags actually do pop up – if you don’t recognize these things, it’ll maybe come back to bite you, referral or not!

We know you must have a disaster story or two that you can share, so tell yours in the comments section below!

3 thoughts on “The Letterpress Roundtable, Part IV: Printing Dilemmas

  1. I enjoyed reading each of these stories. It’s too bad every contributor had such harrowing experiences, but I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who endures such dilemmas!

  2. Hey Boxcar!

    Here’s one of my disaster stories-

    Upon completing a 3 month full-time internship at That Sky Blue – Fine Letterpress in Montreal, I was given an honorarium of the opportunity to print my own personal business cards. After putting lots of work into the design, for a very unique two sided custom die-cut card I was absolutely thrilled with my new cards and could not wait to show them off and give them out. The ink colouring was consistent, and the tight two sided registration was nearly bang on so that only a fellow printer would be able point out the faults. I had looked at the film, and then the plate several times without noticing anything out of ordinary. Didnt even spot the problem as the cards were zipping off the heidelberg 10×15 windmill. Wasn’t until almost a month later when I gave my father a card that he seemed to instantly notice my terrible typo. My heart sank, and that wave of nausea came over me when you realize the gravity of your error. Just one of those lessons that was a good send off reminder to triple check your work before it goes to print. Attached is the file including the mistake, tell me how long it took you to spot it.

    Matthew Mewett
    Viking Print & Press

  3. What a great post!! Thanks for all the stories!

    My favorite horror story happened when I was a lab tech in the letterpress lab at Otis College. A student had oh-so-carefully placed the 9×12 bunting magnetic base on the bed of a vandercook flat-bed press without noticing that she dropped it magnetic side DOWN!! Holy crap, that thing wouldn’t budge. Gerald Lange suggested that the easiest solution would be to sell the press for nice price, with the “FREE BASE INCLUDED!” LOL!! That probably would have been our only option! But for Linda, who is still the goddess of that print shop, who somehow wedged the base (you’ll have to ask her how, I don’t remember) far enough from the dead line that we could fit in a quoin. Tightening the quoin provided enough force to nudge the base down the bed about ONE pica. We loosened it, put in a thin piece of furniture, then tightened it again… ONE more pica closer! And again, and again, one pica at a time, for HOURS, down the 3 feet or so of the bed. It was nuts! You would think that once a few inches were hanging off the edge, we’d be able to get a grip on it and pull it up and off. But just to show how strong that puppy was, we had to nudge it all the way off the edge of the press until only 2 inches or so were holding on before we could lift it off. It ended well, and gave us a good laugh, so I guess it doesn’t really count as a disaster.

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