Heavy Metal Madness: Waxing Nostalgic Over Paste-Up

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In every profession people date themselves by the work practices or technology in place at the time they entered their chosen field. We say things like "but then, I was a surgeon before they invented anesthesia," or "my first computer filled three rooms, and generated enough heat to power a small city." In the rest of our lives we tend to want to minimize our age and experience, but in things work related, longevity is a badge of honor. That is until you become a cranky old whiner.

As much as I sometimes want to, I can't honestly date myself back to metal pages in any way, shape, or form. I worked in shops that still had letterpress presses, but they made plastic plates from film by then. No, my coming-of-age in the graphic arts is definitely the paste-up era. And though I'm mostly thrilled it's gone, I also feel a little sorry for those who didn't experience it. Paste-up is not a technique that will likely enjoy boutique revival someday, though there is a moderately active market on eBay for old waxers.

Paste-up, in all its glory, was more than just a page-composition technique. It was an art form. It had a social hierarchy of sorts and took place in a unique work environment. When the history of page composition is written, paste-up will be just a footnote compared to the reign of metal (300+ years) or the coming longevity of digital pages. But for anyone who worked in a high-production paste-up department, the memories will linger like the smell of Bestine and hot petrochemicals.

The March of Progress Rolls On
It was sad for me to learn that the San Francisco Chronicle recently celebrated the paste-up of its final physical page. The Chronicle was one of the last large-city papers to run a composing room, thanks to an unusual mix of union contracts, ownership changes, and timing. But an $8 million pagination system finally signaled that it was time to put away the sharp knives and pica poles, scrap the light tables, and turn off the waxer.

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Figure 1: One of the last physical galleys goes through the waxer in the composing room of the San Francisco Chronicle, the beginning of the final pasted-up page. All pictures courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle. Special thanks to Gary Fong, Director of Editorial Graphics Technology.

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Figure 2: How many printers does it take to paste up an ad? This last page gets special handling on its historic final trip through the "back shop."

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Figure 3: The last proof. Final editorial sign off being witnessed by a small crowd gathered to mark the end of an era.

The San Francisco Chronicle has always been a bit of a hold out. They still had green and pink sections until a few years ago, the family owners only recently sold out, and the downtown facilities still reek of old newspaper charm. At one time the composing facilities there employed over 700 printers, and the construction of pages was a huge undertaking. As many as 60 deaf people worked in composing, having been trained specifically for a job that required little talking and was accompanied by high-noise levels.

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Figure 4: In 1926 the Chronicle employed a bank of Linotypes to get the pages constructed. The last metal machines were dismantled in 1976.

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Figure 5: In the plate room of 1926, stereotypers formed curved metal plates from flat composed metal pages.

There Was No Hazard Pay Back Then
Not all my own memories of paste up are positive, I must emphatically state. If you work around sharp knives, glass tables, and steel rulers, you're eventually going to take a trip to the emergency room with your fingertip cut off or a slice so deep you can't get up the nerve to even look at it. "Don't get blood on the boards!" someone would invariably yell, and if you were lucky, the stitches got you out of work for a few days.

When not amputating small chunks of flesh, the paste-up artist could count on any number of other work-related setbacks. Accidentally putting the galley in the waxer upside down meant scraping wax off the type for an hour rather than facing the wrath of the typesetter and asking her (mostly) to run it out again. Or having to put your hand in the molten wax to retrieve a wayward correction without which you could not go home. The God-forsaken heat and glare generated by all those light tables took its daily toll, and in my time paste-up jobs were pretty transient.

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Figure 6: Wax gets in your eyes. And on your hands, and in your clothes and on the type and on the glass and in your purse and everywhere except the back of the galley.

The Tools Make the Man
Some of the trappings of paste up were fun. I worked briefly at a large union printer in Los Angeles, and the composing room there was full of veterans, mostly men, who had stood behind a light table for many, many years. They knew how to miter a corner of border tape like magic, they could piece together even the smallest correction from scrap type, and they could burnish down a page with a flourish and style you'd have to see to believe. And they all had a little area on their workbench where they made humorous collages of discarded headline parts, pictures, and artwork, sometimes with very funny results.

The focal point of any decent-size paste-up operation was the waxer, a communal gathering point where, at any busy moment, there could be a backup several people deep. Waxers came in several styles and brands, and the smoothness, thickness, and pattern of the wax coating varied from perfect to "oh shit." A good waxer could make your page firm and secure. A bad one meant either small pieces of type falling off the page, or wax so thick the camera guy had to opaque around every cut mark.

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Figure 7: The size of your waxer said a lot about the size of your shop. A 17-inch Wax-Tec (below) with an expanded 6-pound wax reservoir was the workhorse of most newspapers.

Wax is a bit like chewing gum -- once you get it on you, your clothes, your work surfaces, your lunch and anything else, it's tough to remove. That's where the Bestine came in. Bestine is a brand name for Heptane, a volatile chemical now requiring a Material Safety Data (MSD) Sheet. A clear, petroleum-based liquid, Bestine will strip wax (and any number of other things) off of just about any surface. You could tell from the smell and the fact that it vaporized in seconds, that this was bad juju. And we didn't need any fancy government safety sheet to tell us it was absorbed by the skin and the lungs. Or that just inhaling it can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and asphyxiation. The recommended handling procedures now call for chemical-resistant gloves, an apron, respiratory protection, and splash goggles. We slathered it on every surface, and used it to clean wax off our hands. No wonder I'm so fatigued.

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Figure 8: We use to refer to Bestine as "cancer in a can," a nickname I'm sure the Union Rubber Company, who manufacture this fine product, would dispute. Originally made to thin rubber cement, Bestine became the best clean-up tool in the paste-up artists' arsenal.

(Bestine, by the way, is also a city on the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars universe. It is known as a stately gem of Imperial politics and the most cosmopolitan and cultured Tatooine settlement.)

And of course we had the curse of the Rapidograph to contend with back then. For anyone not familiar, the Rapidograph is a branded technical pen sent to this earth to torture us and test our patience. When it worked, it laid down a perfect line, in exactly the right width. It started when you first touched it to the paper, and ended when you lifted it up. Rapidographs, like steel wool, came in numbered sizes, a 3 or 4 being very thick, and a 0000 being so thin that I never actually witnessed anyone successfully getting ink to come out. A multi-pen Rapidograph set was a huge investment, and pen-thievery was so common that many artists locked them up at night.

From what I can gather, however, the successful drawing of a line with a Rapidograph pen only happened once, if you were lucky, when you first filled the precious chamber with black ink. From there it all went downhill until you tried gently freeing the ink by moistening the tip with your tongue, then tapping it lightly on the glass, then jabbing the end with a paper clip, then spending half an hour taking the tiny little ink wire out of the shaft only to never get it back in, then admitting you were licked, and finally dramatically throwing it in the dead Rapidograph drawer. These pens could bring you to your knees and drove many paste-up artists to take up smoking.

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Figure 9: The pen point from Hell. Technical pens, particularly the Rapidograph, were no match for the dirty, waxy environment of most shops. Those of us who used them became very familiar with the many parts as shown here.

"Thank God for border tape" was always my motto, and I'd layer it on five levels deep before tackling the Rapidograph to draw lines and borders.

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Figure 10: Border tape was the quick and dirty alternative to drawing real lines. Learning how to miter a corner was a small right of passage among paste-up workers.

Hello Sharpness my Old Friend
But the most important tool in the paste-up artists' arsenal was the knife. The choice of cutting blade says a lot about an individual. Are you a snap-off Olfa, retractable, cautious practical type, or the refined, neat, and somewhat-uptight X-acto-knife user? Are you good enough to carry your own knife, like confident pool players tote their own cues? Is your name on your knife, just your initials, or the words "THIS KNIFE BELONGS TO GENE. DO NOT TAKE!"? Proper handling of the knife, after all, was where most of the skill in paste-up resided.

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Figure 11: When the new X-acto Models would come out, lines formed at art dealers and black-market prices went out of control. Not really, but for some of us, a new blade design was pretty exciting.

Myself, I'm an Olfa man. From the first time I spotted one of those thin silver professional models, I had to have one. You couldn't get them just anywhere in those days, you had to go to a fine art store, and then they'd have plenty of the cheaper models, but only a few of these top-line babies. You could run the retractable blade back and forth repeatedly while you waited for some type, or nervously considered a layout challenge. The click was solid, clean and unmistakable -- the kind of craftsmanship you just can't get from plastic.

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Figure 12: The Olfa lineup of knives hasn't changed much since 1956 when the company released the world's first snap-off blade. Inspired by the breaking off of chocolate bar sections (no kidding), these knives are all great. But the SAC-1 stainless steel graphics cutter (bottom) is the "choice of professional graphic artists" says its maker, and is guaranteed forever!

Of course you can't make a clean cut without a good straight edge. And though it is just a coincidence, my favorite steel rulers have always come from the Arthur H. Gaebel company in East Syracuse New York. I love a good ruler or straight edge, and there are none finer than those produced by this 56-year-old company. At the Graphics of the Americas trade show last month, I was thrilled to see a Gaebel booth -- same great rulers, same great prices. I dropped $100 and spent an entire afternoon trying to figure out how to get five long rulers on the plane home.

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Figure 13: The Arthur H. Gaebel Company has provided reliable pica poles and other graphic arts tools for over 56 years.

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Figure 14: Here we go loupe de loupe. In addition to rulers, Gaebel has an assortment of loupes only an obsessive compulsive could love.

Not-So-Early Retirement
At the Chronicle they had a little party to say goodbye to the era of paste-up, applaud the final board going to camera, and to swap stories about the old days. It's always bittersweet to say goodbye to another craft, especially one in which many people invested their entire careers. But steel rulers gave way to digital ones, and the smell of wax gave way to the sound of a hard disk spinning. And that's a good thing.

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Figure 15: And away it goes. Amidst a round of applause, the final physical page of the San Francisco Chronicle goes to press. Don't forget to turn off the waxer on the way out.

But please don't try and take away my Gaebel rulers or my Olfa stainless-steel knives. They still have some life left in them, and besides, I haven't been to the emergency room in a long time.

Read more by Gene Gable.

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