Heavy Metal Madness: Waxing Nostalgic Over Paste-Up

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.

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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.
  • MaryO says:

    This brings back so many memories, I can smell the thinner. Well, that could be because I still have a can on my desk. I also have a few Gaebel rulers and a line gauge, my old rapidographs (saw new sets on sale recently at the local art supply store), my lucite roller, and a jar of Pelikan Graphic White, all tucked away in my taboret. I never liked Olfa knives; I used a surgical scalpel instead (resulting in only one instance of nerve damage).
    I would email this article to coworkers, but none of them are (or would admit to being) old enough to remember much of the content.

  • anonymous says:

    Boy, did this article bring back a lot of memories! When I was in community college getting my degree, we had to learn to set type on an IBM Composer, print the content on clay-coated paper (which was rationed like meat in WWII) and paste it up.

    When I began working, I still had to cut amberlith and Zip-a-tone (finding scraps of it in weird places), shoot my images on a process camera and paste everything up. I also had to make mock-ups of POP pieces for photo shoots using Pantone paper, photos and press-type.

    I am glad of the advent of desktop and electronic publishing (I started learning the Mac in 1986; we imaged the type onto RC paper, then pasted it up). Life is so much easier now.

    I consider my Mac as another tool (like a template or Rapid-o-graph) and apply my traditional knowledge to the way I create pages. A lot of the new kids don’t understand how print works and how they can improve the lives of their service bureau people (and keep costs down) by generating documents that will actually image without some poor guy having to troubleshoot the document to death. I wish schools would apply real world techniques in their cirirculum instead of just going through the tutorials.

  • anonymous says:

    Fun to remember the good old days and also realize how happy they are gone.

  • anonymous says:

    Thanks for Gene Gable and his recollections of what it meant to be a Graphic Artist back in the day… which really isn’t that long ago.

    I was explaining to my kids about how software and personal computers came along and changed my working life forever, and they just can’t grasp the concept. I don’t know if a technical revolution will happen like that to them, but I hope to prepare them for it.

    I too, started out as a paste-up artist. I was a Schaefer wax, X-acto knife, Pica rule kind of guy who just rolled with the changes and ended up becoming totally digital. I don’t think anyone who was a casual observer of our industry 20 years ago would ever dare to imagine the changes we’ve encountered. I just hope that we don’t get “obsoleted” by software someday…

  • anonymous says:

    I started my design career in the mid-80s, when we were still pasting up boards but starting to experiment with the Mac. Gene’s article brought back a flood of nostalgia for me–I too remember the special attention given to my “good” Rapidograph; the hell of having to ink a curving border again and again until I got it right (and hiding all my ruined boards from the other designers); the horror of waxing a galley on the wrong side, or accidentally slicing through some type with the xacto.

    I always enjoy Gene’s articles as I have a keen interest in retro art and methods, and this one was especially meaningful.
    Thanks Gene!!

  • CMcCue says:

    Gene, you and I are proof that “old dogs” can indeed keep learning new tricks. I made the same trek from Olfa knives and rubber cement, red litho tape and red Grumbacher opaque (hated that other stuff, the black shiny slime–think it was made from pencil sharpener leavings). I’ve survived Crosfield and Scitex systems and many years of Photoshop and QuarkXPress. (It’s made me appreciate InDesign all the more.) I still can’t bear to throw away my stainless steel T-square and French curves, or my precious Ulano knife. I cut myself just last night with my Olfa silver, but my fingers are sort of immune to pain by now. You know you’re old when your first Pantone swatchbook has only 6 colors in it…
    Thank you for the flashback.

  • anonymous says:

    I went to art school 83-86. The first two years were hell because of my professors fixation with the ruling pen. This appliance looked like it belonged more in a dentists office than a drawing table. His gentle flourish with this device was admirably frustrating. His carefully crafted accidents left my meager skills in the dust. In 1984 a small box showed up on the doorstep that changed everything. Today I create mathematically correct and precise lines by the dozens. Each time I endlessly play with a bezier curve handle trying in vain to find the right slope I remember this teacher and his ability to kick out the perfect line and curve from eye — to hand — to board with the experience of a master craftsman.

    The sad side-bar of this story is told by the 60 or so trained and certified compugraphic, linotronic typesetters, who graduated the same year I did into a dead profession.

  • anonymous says:

    I loved this article! I just missed the experience of paste-up by going to beauty school instead of art school during high school. (work program) A friend of mine was one of the last classes at her school to learn about paste-up. She lords it over me all the time! I love my job and would never have bothered with graphic design if it was still like that, but I feel I missed out on something magical, not to mention any old shemp with a computer thinks they can do layout. lol

  • anonymous says:

    Many, many stories but one that really stands out for me about this period of time in my graphics history is about my first real graphics pasteup job. I had experience using press type to do an entire brochure (four friends over a weekend did about 20 pages of type!). I had lots of experience with rapidiographs having gone through architecture and working for an architect. But no typesetting or pasteup skills to speak of. But I was hired to work on a weekly newspaper of 32 pages called LA. Roger Black was the art director and he had previously hired a designer who was assigned to do some of the ad pages. The first issue we ended up spending three days and nights up and were really wiped out. At 3 am Roger was handed the flat containing the restaurant ads. Now Roger was intimidating enough in that none of us had any typographic skills nor experience with this kind of production. Of course he didn’t like the layout and started to move things around. The designer had gone nuts using chartpak rules. In early July in Westwood it was hot; but by 3 am it was much cooler. Pasteup boards would change with humidity and temperature–curling and shrinking all that was upon them when cooled. So as he started to move the rules, they started springing and going all over the place. He started yelling, then progressed to a real rage. Bam! windows flew open and the entire flat was hurtled onto Westwood Blvd. Never to be seen again. From that day forward that was known as the “eat-me-page” and one prayed with fear that Roger would never hurl that epitaph your direction.

  • anonymous says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Your article described some of the best days of my life and brought both smiles and tears. Wow. What a lost art it truly is.

  • anonymous says:

    Gene does a really good job here of describing the way graphic design used to be. It’s hard to believe I started in ’68 as a photoengraving apprentice at a newspaper and am still working in the printing industry (for the gov’t – still as a photoengraver!). Not many of my colleagues from that era are still around. One thing he did leave out was that the printing/graphics industry used to be much more enjoyable than it is today. Economics and technological changes have changed the landscape forever. :(

    But I can’t complain, printing has been very good to me…….

  • Cathy says:

    Until I read this great article I thought I was the only designer left on earth who relishes in her olfa cutter. Love that sound. And long retired Schaefer waxer!! I love nostalgia, but i love my MACs more! i agree, the current tools are loved just as much if not more.
    Thanks for the time travel. I enjoyed it.

  • anonymous says:

    I totally agree with Mr. Gaebel.The one thing about paste-up work he didn’t mention
    is the rubber cement pick-up.After pasteing
    up pages and preparing them for the printer
    one would make sure there wasn’t a speck of dirt,grime or dust to ruin the pages for their filming.Thus you either used a store purchased rubber cement pick-up.It was shaped like a square or if you were a real
    Paste-Up Artist, you used your own personal pick-up made of dried rubber cement droppings rolled over time into a ball
    and added to with each job.It was like making a rubber band ball.You added to it whenever you could.Contests were held to see who had the largest ball many times in
    our ad agency.You could tell who cheated by the cleanliness of their ball.The pros ball always looked like dried snot rolled through
    dirt and you know they did bounce like a rubber ball.Good times!

  • anonymous says:

    Thanks Gene, a great story. I was always a surgical scalpel man (#11 blade). They were pretty much the norm here in Australia (though many preferred the 10A blade!). X-actos were fiddly. Olfas were wobbly (didn’t try the stainless model though). There’s definitely an art to fitting and removing scalpel blades safely though.

    I can still cut a straight line by eye, and cut through plastic software wrappers without marking the printed box. Comes in handy for stir-frying (which I do a lot of!).

    A few more things I recall: the IBM Composer; Letraset headlines; and of course the mighty bromide camera.

  • Anonymous says:

    X-Actos were only for cutting intricate Amberlith® or Rubylith® masks. Once the sharp tip got messed up, they were useless. Some people kept a sharpening stone around to resharpen them, since the blades weren’t cheap.

    I only used single-edge razor blades until I someone turned me on to a stainless steel Olfa.

    I still have a couple of them around, mostly for cutting packages open.

    The three or four hundred singe-edge razor blades I have in boxes will be a legacy for my heirs. And their own heirs.

  • Anonymous says:

    Rubber cement, Bestine, Ink, hot waxers, spray glue…Yes, walking around with a paper towel wrapped with masking tape usually stopped the bleeding from an X-acto cut. The Pica Rulers were the perfect shape and thickness for using as a car lock jimmy – for those working late that had gotten locked out of the car late at night (that was before cell phones). 409 cleaner worked well for cleaning out airbrushes. And, let’s not forget the speedball pen set and the india ink either. Ahhh, the good ol’ days! When talent got paid well, and computers were for only large corporations!

  • Anonymous says:

    snowball was there. a wonderful time was had by all (Union Printers)

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this article, I loved it. Yes, I still have some of my tools, hand waxer, x-acto, pica rulers, etc. Centering rulers were the coolest. Yes and those 3×0 and 4×0 Rapidographs gave one fits. I miss working with my hands. Later, I had my own design business and did typesetting. I still dream sometimes of the galleys coming out of the processor it seemed like magic. I guess we have gone the way of the cart wright, the carriage maker and the ship builder. Technology marches on. On thing that has changed though is deadlines. I understand they can be even worse now! I loved this work and miss it sometimes still. I hand inked a logo for someone for the web and they didn’t know what to do with it. Strange. Hey, even my watercoloring is becoming obsolute with filters in Photoshop. Time to move on.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thank you. I can’t say I’d like to return to my days as a pasteup artist, but it was a pleasure to read your article. I can still mitre corners in my sleep.

  • Anonymous says:

    I remember all of these products! Thank you for this great article. I loved doing paste-up for hours and hours–trying for that balance of perfection and rhythm in the work, and being together in a roomful of workers all at our drafting tables. We took pride in not wasting the extra time to take out the pica ruler, but easily laying a rule exactly one pica below a photo or cutting in a single line of type and making the leading perfect. Oh, and what about searching around on the floor for that single comma you dropped?

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, that comma that went flying through the air when you flicked it wrong with the knife…would always find it later at home, stuck to my elbow. Fuzzy sweaters were notorious for collecting lost waxed letters. This was fun to read, I first started in paste up in 1974 working for a book compositor where they did early photo composition. The headlines were set on a Phototypositor, and the page text was set by a computer (in a large room, floor to ceiling). There were punch cards and spinning discs, very impressive at the time. Hard to believe how everything has shrunk, and how cheaply and easily type can now be set. Remember doing cast offs and copyfitting? You had to know before you bought the type if it would fit into your layout, and you had to be a good guesser and planner–you couldn’t buy that type twice! I remember in the mid 1980s when computers finally were able to create curved corners, no more inking the corners by hand! Wow. In the 1970s all vertical rules had to be applied manually to the page, it was impossible for the programmer to set those (this was way before WYSIWYG). In terms of 5000 years of written communication, it was a very narrow window of time, this 30 year era of paste up. I worked in it from ’74 to ’93 when we finally got computers at the publisher I worked for. It was hard to give up that drawing table. I still have one at home. Thanks for all the memories here. We’re like a little tribe with ancient knowledge that few understand or remember. I hope your story gets archived somewhere.

  • Anonymous says:

    I never worked at a print shop or for a newspaper but my wife has and I enjoyed this article. Her dad owned a small town newspaper and print shop that went out of business in 1973. She worked there from when she was eight years old until she was 21.

    I always remember the time we visited a print shop in the late 80’s. My wife said ” Ah, the smell of printers ink…. it brings back memories.

    We still have a few items from the old days around our house. Most of the big things went to a fellow who was starting a print shop. I do not know if he is still in business. If so I am sure he has gone to computers by now.

  • Anonymous says:

    My first job was in 1977, I worked in the darkroom, shooting PMTs and photostats. Next I went on to Paste-up. And now I am still a production artist, albeit using a Mac computer. The tools you show bring back so many memories. I still have my Shaedler rules and loop. I also have my ulano glideliner on my drawing table. I do have my rapidograph pens but I never use them anymore.

  • Anonymous says:

    This article brings back some good memories. I miss the “old” way of doing things in the pre-press industry. I can still remember the first discussion our company had about how things were about to change. At the time I thought.. “no way.. it’s not possible for a computer to do what I do!” Typesetting, layout, darkroom, stripping, proofing, platemaking.. everything starting changing. It took several years of headaches to realize I was wrong.. things did change, and fast! I love my MAC but miss my pica pole and opaque jar that had that perfect rounded spot in the middle after it’d been used for a while. I miss taking a layout with 10 overlays, shooting it on the camera, spreading and shrinking, stripping in 4/c scans, angled screens to make pms colors, composing the film and being proud when everything turned out perfect the first time. A LOST ART!

  • Anonymous says:

    it’s attractive design, color scheme and it’s informative post. Our Orange County web design expertise Creative and dynamic web design.Orange County SEO 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,

  • Anonymous says:

    Fun to recall those days, I was lucky enough to start pretty much right out of high school in 1980 and learned to use all the usual equipment and paraphernalia described above for about 10 years until they became obsolete. I did some darkroom stuff as well, and remember using a carbon arc to expose plates in the vacuum frame… it seemed such a crude (and somewhat dangerous) way to generate a strong light source. I certainly don’t miss having to painstakingly cut part way between letters to bend a headline, but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed those years being a paste up guy.

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, the paste up artist career might be dead, but just about all the tools (except Letraset) still are being used and manufactured (Daige is still selling them!) Architects, Designers, Model Builders, Craftspersons, Scene Designers and Painters, Mural Artists, etc. all still use glues, wax, metal rulers, X-acto knives, proportional scales, light boxes and rapidographs….they aren’t dead!

  • Anonymous says:

    Yes, the paste up artist career might be dead, but just about all the tools (except Letraset) still are being used and manufactured (Daige is still selling them!) Architects, Designers, Model Builders, Craftspersons, Scene Designers and Painters, Mural Artists, etc. all still use glues, wax, metal rulers, X-acto knives, proportional scales, light boxes and rapidographs….they aren’t dead!

  • Anonymous says:

    A great and nostalgic article. I started as a paste-up artist in 1972 after leaving art school. In the UK the blade of choice was the Swan Morton surgical scalpel with a 10A or No.11 blade. As a real scalpel it was more than adept at removing the finger tip if you got a little distracted while mounting a few visuals. I well remember the waxers coming in but for us the leap was from Cow Gum to 3M Spray Mount which I suspect wasn’t exactly good for us if the state of the spray booth was anything to go by. When I look back and look at how long it took to put together say a 4 page A4 brochure compared to doing on the Mac today – we’re talking days compared to hours. The leap really sums up how fast life and business moves today. A very enjoyable trip back to a slower age. Thanks Gene!

  • Anonymous says:

    Just read a few more comments and thought I’d through a few more names in to see who else remembers them. What about tracing your type from the Letraset catalogue under the Grant Projector. They cost a fortune but once the Mac took over you couldn’t give ’em away! Certain Letraset items stick with me Letratone LT30 was our halftone of choice when creating line illustrations of cornish pasties and strawberry tarts for a particular client. Remember crossing the halftone to create the shadow? A real art that I couldn’t wait to master. Typefaces too – Davida Bold, very fashionable around ’70/’72 especially with window display. The frustration of running out of a particular letter and making up a ‘C’ from an ‘O’ with your scalpel. The fortunes and hours spent in the darkroom with Agfa PMT paper. I remember a really hot summer, a huge brochure and hundred prints – not good! Okay that’s it, let’s re-introduce paste up…for Mac!

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks for bringing back so many memories. I do miss the old days. We are a rare breed of people.

  • Anonymous says:

    I used a Rapidograph for calligraphy. I bought it on the recommendation of a friend who was an art student with the BEST professor. They claimed the pens would work with only one kind of ink, so I bought some. It clogged anyway.

    I think I will preserve it for future generations by enshrining it in concrete.


  • Anonymous says:

    Our newspaper have two wooden composition or paste-up tables, collecting dust. Getting ready to sell. Any takers?
    Bill Callan: [email protected].

  • Anonymous says:

    Ahh, the good ol’ days! I started in paste up back in ’81. I remember handheld waxers. The smell of the melted wax is imprinted on my brain. We also had the large waxers. We had to occasionally put new bars of wax in the machine to keep the reservoir filled. Sometimes we were so busy that the task would be forgotten, and then, right near deadline, you’d have to wait nervously for about ten minutes while the new bar of wax melted to the point that you could run your galley through the waxer.
    I also remember the rivalry between Letraset and Mecanorma. The big, wide, flat steel drawers for the Pantone papers (had to keep them flat!) And, while not strictly paste up, I still have, and occasionally use, my trusty grey kneaded eraser. It’s a lump of natural rubber that softens and becomes more malleable as you work it with your fingers. You then shape it into a point, so that you can erase a single pencil line with precision, where there are other lines very close by that must not be erased. My co-worker at the time would mold his erasers into humourous erotic figurines, just to kill a few free minutes. He had a habit of throwing his X-acto knife into the top corner of his drawing table’s green vinyl cover. The blade would stick in the vinyl like an arrow in a tree. One day he missed, and the knife went whizzing by my jugular vein, as my table was immediately in front of his. Good times!

  • Mikke says:

    Found this outstanding (and throat-lumping) piece 11 years after it was published…and am so glad I did.

    Jut wanted to weigh in, for what it’s worth, on something. Although these technologies were increasingly defunct in the 1980s, I did volunteer service to many tiny organizations that continued to use these tools and skills well into the ’90s…and even the Aughts.

    I’ve been using the elements of Adobe Creative Suite since their beta versions (no kidding!), so am pretty good with them…and the other, now mostly abandoned packages (CorelDraw, Quark). Still, from time to time I whip out the old toolset for this or that. For instance, one never knows when having to lay out and produce a legible sign will come in handy, and one has nothing but poster board, a marker pen, and somebody’s stencils–or no stencils at all.

    Having the hardwired skill of close-cutting with an X-acto has come in handy so many times–from field surgery in the backwoods (minor injuries, thank goodness) to a wide range of fiber uses (wood, fabric, laminate, paper).

    Among the tools not mentioned here: the various scaling tools, like the proportional scale wheel, or the one that was two L-brackets mounted via swiveling/tightenable nuts on a metal bar. Also the non-photo blue pencil.

  • Leann Kruger says:

    This is funny becuase we still set our newspaper up this way! I found this article because our waxer stopped working this morning and I’m trying to find one forsale!

  • Diane Tjerrild says:

    In Fresno, CA we had to drive FAST in the 100+ degree summer heat to arrive at the printer before our entire paste-up curled up and off of the boards!

  • Steph says:

    I temped at the Orlando Sentinel, just before they went totally digital. Really miss laying out the pages! I came in late to the game so I never got to cut an editor’s tie!

    That was ART!

  • JR says:

    I started my career in late 1984 at a small newspaper just filling in for someone out on medical leave. It was a weekly paper and they had some type of typesetting equipment that had no memory. I happened to be working there in the wintertime, and when it was cold the typesetting machine would only type gibberish until it warmed up. There was no set time, so you just turned it on and waited for what you estimated was an appropriate amount of time and then prayed that it didn’t print gibberish. If it did, well, you just had to start over. Second time typing was faster, though, hahaha.
    I loved paste-up and cutting Amberlith. I still miss it sometimes. I do NOT miss having to type it all over though. Thanks for the memories.

  • Sally Ride says:

    I really love this! I was a paste-up/typesetter/process color negative stripper…graphic artist in the publishing sense. I have run a die cut press, collators, darkroom negative/plating…all the goodies! What a trip down memory lane! So sad that the last major paper had to end the process.

  • Debbie Hatfield says:

    I remember using all of these items. I even taught commercial art for 12 years. Besides a mini waxer l also had wax sticks that were packaged pretty much like today’s glue sticks. My question is: does anyone know of a company or brand name that one still purchase wax sticks?

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