November 29, 2008

Heidelberg Envy (Part 2): Brandon's Heidelbergucation at Hello!Luckiversity

I am about a half-second away from giving an historical "thumbs up."

Let's begin this blog with an answer to a question that came to me in response to Part 1 of this Blog, that came from one of our readers in Lyle, Washington, Kyle Durrie:

"Hello Lucky sounds pretty rad - was that guy really a hunchback?"

Yes! Real hunchback! He lifted his shirt and let us have a touch. Bubbled flesh and extra bones, as one might expect. And ladies, despite the deformed backside, in the front you will find an irresistible blend of mustache and spectacles that will make you wanna say, "Come hither, James Tucker, come hump my back."

A photo of James Tucker from his
High School Yearbook, Freshman Year

To quote the lad (without the spit and gurgling), "Ees up front wot matters." Word to your Mother Tucker, Mr. James.

Getting to the point

To continue the tale from where we left off in Part 1, the pressman three of H!L and I drank many a pint of PBR and geeked-out on the subject of letterpress. As the gathering of press nerds dwindled down to Aaron and myself, I learned that just like the BBH studio, the H!L crew was allowed access to the letterpress equipment for their own stuff after hours. At some point I mentioned that I was on a quest to find someone who could show me the ways of the Heidelberg, to which he replied "Train you, I can."

Following that fateful eve, on two separate occasions I served as Padawan to Hello!Lucky Heidleberg Master, Aaron Cohick, on a 10x15 Heidelberg Windmill.

Readers Be Warned
I am about to get nerdy on some technical letterpress stuff, and this next section is intended for folks like me trying to educate themselves about an art that hardly anyone is teaching anymore. If you are not into this stuff I encourage you to skim right along to the next post and look at the pretty pictures.

Day 1) How to NOT use a Heidelberg
After a thorough training session on feeding paper and setting up the plates, we were pretty much ready to roll, but were having trouble getting a discernible impression on an A6 sized design. We pretty much maxed out the amount of impression the press could take, and when the press grabbed two sheets at once it caused the press to seize up in the closed position.

This phenomenon is something we experience with the C&Ps at BBH-- where if you are printing with too much surface area and are trying to get more than just a kiss of impression, you know you've gone too far if the platen closes and doesn't open again, and you have to force the flywheel back and ease up on the impression.

This is the image that gave us a hard time. It's difficult to get much more than a kiss impression with a solid image this size (4"x6.25") on our 10x15 C&P, and unfortunately it doesn't get much better on our 12x18. The lesson here is your chase size does not equal total printable area, if dealing with images that take up alot of surface area. I thought that a powerhouse like a Heidelberg would have a larger printable area but it seems that the problem is universal. I talked to the expert, Fritz Klinke of N.A. Graphics, who informed me that a 13x18 Heidelberg has about 4 times the impressional strength of a 10x15. I may go this route when looking for a new press, but may not be able to get something that big into my shop.

Most of the Heidelberg's mechanical guts are hidden, and when the press froze up on us, there was nothing on the outside we could tinker with that would free it up. The place we needed to get to free up the platen was guarded by a plate in the back of the press and the plate was held in by a number of bolts that refused to turn. We spent two hours trying to loosen the bolts using an inadequate array of tools in a variety of combinations before we decided to call it a night. The following morning Aaron was able to loosen the bolts using a breaker bar borrowed from the auto repair shop next door. As soon as he had the plate removed he was able to free up the platen. We agreed to retry the lesson after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Take 2) How to use a Heidelberg
Start with something small and easy!

So the second go round we spent about six hours in the H!L studio- we went through a single round of printing & scoring, and then finished up with some oiling and general maintenance.

At first the press can be pretty intimidating. When operating a C&P you pretty much have four tasks, putting the press in motion, throwing your trip/print lever, watching and adjusting your ink, and feeding and retrieving paper by hand.

The automatic feeder of a Heidelberg adds a complete new array of tasks that have to constantly be monitored, all of which are variable according to thickness of the paper you are using, and need fine tuning throughout the print run. The list of a pressman's duties while operating the press includes watching your feedtable height, controlling the speed at which that feed table raises, adjusting the angle at which the suction feeders hit, turning the suction feeders on or off, engaging and disengaging the clutch lever, adjusting speed, starting and stopping both the swift moving windmill arms and roller action in crucial positions, watching for misfeeds, and monitoring the quality of your prints. It's not the added functions that are intimidating as much as it is the speed of the press while you have to perform these functions, and you have to quickly rifle through a mental checklist before performing pretty much any task.

But the payoff is huge: Automatic roller cleanup, automatic inking, lightning quick & precise printing, adjustable roller bearers, lever controlled impression; on some models you can lock the roller movement at the top so there is no need to pull them in and out (or clean them, for that matter) when die cutting and scoring. The list of bells and whistles on this thing is pretty endless.

I've been mulling over in my mind for the last few years as to whether automating the letterpress process takes out the human (i.e. love) element but after racking up some hours on the Heidy, it's quite apparent that if anything the amount of care and human involvement is amplified. I'm really excited to take it to the next level. I have a long way to go with this press, but I think with a general understanding of all of its features, I'm pretty confident I'll be a whiz at this in no time.

As a closing note, while Aaron was out having a cigarette I played around with the Hunchback's press- and almost immediately realized why the pressman three of Hello!Lucky keep to their own presses. Who knew he was contagious?

Fucking hunchbacks.

November 28, 2008

How to say Happy Birthday without sounding like everyone else.

I don't know why I'm drawn to images that are difficult to work with, but the facial expressions in this image are too priceless to pass up. (Click on the image for a better look). So now another entire day has been devoted to a single design. The original image had a large chunk taken out of a critical corner so I had to fake it using Photoshop.

Original Image

Fran over at Zeichen Press had recently blogged about setting a goal for designing 25 new birthday cards by January 1. This is an admirable goal, as there are already 6 million Birthday Card designs out there, and its difficult to keep things fresh. Though I'll admit I've been inspired, I'm not going to be masochistic about it. I've set out to do 3 by the end of the weekend. We'll see how it goes.

November 27, 2008

When Humans Were Turkeys

This is what I spent thanksgiving day working on. Because of the limits of the polymer plates we use, the highly detailed etchings we have been using as of late are coming out muddier than what I would like them to be so I'm trying a new technique that accentuates the figures... I trace the objects I want to stand out and then lay a white transparency over the stuff I want to drop back (in this case I dropped back the floors and walls). It took about 8 hours to trace all the figures and torture devices in this picture.

Original Image

The only thing I don't like about this blogger site is that the image size is limited, which makes the text of our greeting designs incredibly small. But if you click on the image you can have a better look.

November 26, 2008

Hilarity, Tyler be thy name...

Hey everybody, meet the mind of Tyler Dockery, the ace in the BBH hole. Tyler is a 7 foot tall albino with a wicked white afro who writes many a greeting card for Blue Barnhouse.

And yet in the two years he has been on the payroll he has spent less than an hour in our studio, and I'm fairly certain he has not been seen by anyone on the current BBH roster but me.

There are some who believe he is a figment of my imagination, but I promise you, he is real. I have no existing photos of him, but here is a picture my son drew of him:

We give Tyler a whole bunch of images--he comes back with about 20 pages of (handwritten) lines, usually about 3-5 lines per image (which is why we end up with stuff like the Pogo Boy series--sometimes they're all too good to pass up.)

Most of what we get is way too funny. Also, most of it will never see the light of day, because if you think we are constantly crossing the line, we are actually are holding back some pretty unholy stuff. There's a note (to me? to himself?) on the back of one of his recent submissions that says: "I do not in any way condone sex with minors. I mean honestly, they have no experience. Where's the fun in that?"

Here are two that tickle my pickle but didn't make the cut:

This was from his first writing session two years ago.
How he associated the image with this line is baffling...
but a classic example of Tyler's genius and appeal to
our audience-- perverse, intelligent, and from so far out of left field that it smacks you upside the head. Tyler side-steps clich├ęd
comedy like a nimble matador.

Ha ha, Tyler, but who do you send this card to?

So every time we get a manilla envelope with Tyler's return address, it's christmas morning. I have the joy and privilege of rolling on the floor in hysterics and then the sad duty of deciding which ones NOT to print.

Anyhow, the images in this blog is all new stuff, probably written in a single sitting, not yet printed, and there's more, but jesus... you'll just have to wait.

We pretty much owe our success to the dude, on the other hand, he may be responsible for an STD or two, so we try and keep our gratitude on the DL.

November 23, 2008

Heidelberg Envy (Part 1): Brandon pays a visit to Hello!Lucky

I had some time to kill between days I was scheduled to teach at the SFCB and shot an email to my friends at Hello!Lucky to see if they'd be willing to give me a tour of their facilities, located in the SOMA district (south of market) San Francisco.

BBH, Hello Lucky & Delphine after some Margarita Chuggin' in ATL.

We had met/had drinks with Hello!Lucky at the Atlanta Gift Show in the summer of 2007 and have been rubbing elbows at several shows since, including the National Stationery Show and the New York International Gift Show. Blue Barnhouse has been carrying their super chic greetings in our stationery store more than a year now.

I knew from what I had gathered on my own that their business was doing extremely well: they have a London office, I've seen them in just about every shop I've ever dreamed of placing my cards in, and this summer I saw a job posting from Hello!Lucky for a printer on the letterpress listserv that offered full benefits and two weeks paid vacation, among other perks. Having a letterpress business might sometimes feel glamourous, but we at BBH ain't exactly eating caviar, and I'm pretty sure a job with full benefits outside of the realm of academia is a rare phenomenon in this niche profession.

So I knew I would be impressed with the operation, but what I ended up seeing was a letterpress business owner's wet dream: on the downstairs floor there were three Heidleberg Windmills, a Heidleberg Cylinder, three full time printers, an enormous stockroom of product and supplies, and a packaging area staffed with two full time employees filling wholesale orders; in the upstairs loft where the sales staff and designers worked there was a posh meeting room, five or six computer stations, a staff lounge, and another sizeable cache of product storage. The staff there totaled what I think might have been 8 full time employees, one temp, and an intern. The print runs on any given style of greeting card were between 2000-5000 a piece, which I was told would last 6+ months before they would have to reprint. As a matter of comparison, we at BBH start any given design with a run of about 250 cards to test the market. If we sell out, we'll reprint at about 600-800 cards, if its carried by one of our larger clients, such as Paper Source, we'll go ahead and print a 2K run.

Started in 2003 by sisters Eunice and Sabrina Moyle, Hello!Lucky has realized phenomenal success in a relatively short time, which is owed to both Eunice's uber-cute design aesthetic, and Sabrina's business saavy (being a Stanford Business School graduate), as well as being picked up by Kate's Paperie in their first year of business (a milestone for any letterpress printer worth a spit) and a string of awesome press from Martha Stewart Weddings, InStyle Magazine, & The Today Show (to name a few).

As one of the printers there informed me, he couldn't ask for a better employment situation, even during slow times such as this current sluggish economy, the sisters' Moyle have made sure that their employees have been well taken care of, sometimes having to forgo their own pay-- a phenomenon I not only can identify with but pretty much have been subject to for my entire letterpress career.

My tour of the place essentially took 15 minutes--and not wanting to interfere with the flow of business I thanked my tour guide and was on my way out when she offered to have one of the printers about to set up a job show me the ropes on a Heidelberg press.

Max Koch, son of Peter Koch (a well respected
letterpress printer of the bay area) operates a
Heidelberg Cylinder Press.

A Three Hour Tour... A Three Hour Tour...

Well, for those of you who are not in the know, the Heidelberg press, be it platen or cylinder in make, is the Rolls Royce of letterpress machinery. The popular "Original Heidelberg", manufactured in in Germany between 1950-1980, are highly complex, super precise (if in good condition), and at their highest speed can output up to 5ooo prints per hour.

James Tucker, "the hunchback of Hello!Lucky", is only let out of his cage on weekdays to operate this Heidelberg Windmill.

My realm of expertise lies with handfed C&Ps, (presses which were first built in the 1880s & dominated the printing scene for the first half of the 20th century,) as well as with the Vandercooks, (which were mere proofing presses for larger automated presses, and despite its painfully slow output is the mascot press to just about every letterpress learning institution on this continent.) Our biggest, fastest press, on a good day, is capable of producing about 1200 prints in an hour. I've been drooling at the thought of the Heidleberg in my shop for two years now, but up to this point the size, expense, and the expertise required to handle these monsters have been enough of a deterrent to make me hold off until one offered itself to me (which is how I acquired two of my three presses.)

As it turns out, the pressmen three of Hello!Lucky were a veritable goldmine of letterpress geekdom- consisting of two grads from the printmaking program at the Maryland Institute of College of Art (MICA)-- The first, Aaron Cohick, became the project coordinator at MICA's Dolphin Press before moving on to getting his MFA in printmaking at Arizona State University. The second MICA-ite, being the aforementioned hunchback, got his feet (and deformed backside) wet at Hatch Show Print, the third guy, Max, claimed birthrights to his profession as the son of a printer of good repute and had whored himself out to various letterpress studios in NYC before returning to the bay area and joining up with team H!L.

Jedi of the Letterpress Arts, Aaron Cohick

What had been intended as a brief introduction to Heidelberg operation turned into three hours of floating from press to press, talking shop, trading stories, trouble shooting, and playa-hatin': the mustachioed hunchback parleyed several amusing beefs he had with some well-known letterpress establishments.

Not only did I get a very good sense of how these presses worked but I also got see H!L's own approach from Design to Final Product, which is far more systematic than BBH's gonzo approach to letterpress- though it is clear they have the same rigid expectations for end product as we do. The pressmen each had their own approach and preferences on how to manage the craft, and each were assigned their own machine which was tooled to their personal tastes--another stark contrast to our own shop, where we do it my way or the highway, and are constantly jumping from press to press depending on availability, complexity, experience of press operator, size of job, etc.

5000 2 color cards in a few hours flat!

It was thoroughly entertaining, though at some point during the reverie, 4PM rolled around, I realized that I hadn't eaten yet, and thought it was a good idea to let the guys get back to work. But as my feet hit the sidewalk, I had thoughts of beer, so I went back into H!L to see if the pressmen three were interested in downing some pints after work to perhaps continue to geek out on letterpress.

Thus spawned Part 2 of this tale: "Heidelberg Envy: Brandon Mans the Windmill, but on another day, when he's not so drunk off his ass." But this is a tale that is half unfurled and will not find its full defurlment until post thanksgiving day, so here we shall adjourn this blog.

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