My Own History in Print

I’m 68 years old, and I probably never heard the word “blog” until I was 65, but my son asked me to write one about the printing industry changes in the last 20 years. Let’s go back 61 years, as that was my first experience in print. My parents were divorced when I was 6, so by 7 my Saturdays with my dad always started at the shop. I was barely big enough or strong enough but my first job was to kick open the corners of 23 x 35 paper boxes and stack them up. As I did this, my father would have a stick in his hand and be picking type from a California case and lining up the letters in the stick. From there, the type was locked into a chase, which would be locked into the press. Linotype machines were around, but for small jobs with minor typesetting, hand setting was the way to go.

In those early days, we had a Gordon, several Miehle Verticals and our premier press, the 10 x 15 Heidelberg Wind Mill, which was innovation at its finest for the time. This was 1957 and time rolled on into the early ‘60s when we acquired our first offset press, a Chief 15, which had become the new miracle innovation of the time. We could now take a piece of film, put in a vacuum frame, and burn the image onto a plate. The plate was then hung on the press. The plate would accept ink, transfer it onto the blanket, and the blanket would transfer it to the paper one color at a time.

As time went by, we added at least two Chief 15s, one Chief 17, one 19 x 28 Solna, and an 18 x 24 Heidelberg. This was in addition to all of our letterpress equipment. Then came the T-51 Head, which allowed us to print two colors at once. We were on our way to bigger and better things. When you were a small to medium size shop in those days you generally would have your film done on the outside and you simply burned it onto the plate. If you were a large shop you might even have a Rutherford step-and-repeat machine. These machines were monsters, but they could take the single piece of film and step it automatically across the plate – this was great, because if you only had a vacuum frame you would have to hand step the repeat on a pin system. If you were running a 4-color job with multiple up, it could take between 2-3 hours just to make four plates.

As we moved into the ‘70s, we went from 2-color work to 4-color work and we were able to print all four colors in a single pass. WOW! Then came the ‘80s and the invention of the Misomex Machine, which cost a whopping $500,000 at the time. While the price tag was hefty, the Misomex allowed printers to plate a 4-color step job in 15 minutes instead of 2-3 hours’ time. As a note, the danger to this film process in these days is you could have a job with thousands of dollars in film work, and if someone filed the film wrong, you were in huge trouble. So the biggest change in the industry and the best change at the time was the elimination of the use of film.

With the advent of computer technology, we were able to move information directly from a computer to the plating process. Everything could be stored in the computer by job number, and the chance of losing film was eliminated. I could go on and on about presses, but frankly the offset printing process has remained basically the same throughout all my years in the business.

Then came 2003 (I believe) and Kodak, yearning for a way forward, came out with the digital NexPress—and we were told it would change the entire landscape of the printing business. So we bought two of them, and for 15 years we limped along with no great overnight conversion, as all of the marketing people were limping far behind the new idea.

So here we are in 2019, and in my opinion digital has staked out a prominent place in the landscape of printing. We recently purchased two digital webs and marketing people finally understand the capabilities of digital technology and the important role it can play in driving efficiencies and creating outstanding, high quality printed pieces for their customers. In my time in this business, we’ve come a long way. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.


Paul LeFebvre

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