Scanning Around With Gene: Throwing Away the Pasteup Books

I hate to throw away books and do it pretty rarely. But the sheer lack of space in my life has forced me to take a look at my book collection and be brutal – it’s time to weed through the volumes and get rid of those books that are not likely to ever see the light of day again.

I’m keeping various graphic arts books that have to do with design – it’s always interesting to look back at those to get ideas, even if they are dated (remember the “grunge type” movement?). But I decided during this round of purging that several books on graphic arts production simply had to go – the information is no longer relevant and I’m over the nostalgia of it all. But of course I had to thumb through the books one last time and decided to scan some of the images to share with you today. Two of the books, both on pasteup, are featured here. Next week I’ll take a look at the “bible” of the photocomposition era, by John Seybold. All of these books brought back fond memories and a little bit of consternation as well. And of course it’s interesting to note that there was a disagreement, even back then, on whether it was “pasteup” or “paste-up”. Click on any image for a larger version – these books are dated 1987 and 1982.

It’s hard for me to believe there are graphic designers out there who didn’t have the joy of experiencing pasteup, but then I’m getting old and have to admit it’s been long enough now that not just one, but perhaps several generations of designers never learned how to mechanically construct pages. It all came together on the light table or drafting board, where elements of the page were adhered to a paper board.

Sometimes the adhesive was rubber cement, but more often the elements of a page were run through a waxing machine which applied a coat of thin wax on the back, which could then be positioned and easily moved. Waxers were the source of much frustration as the wax often went anywhere but where it was supposed to, and ended up everywhere, creating a continual sticky mess.

Everything had to be cut, measured or rubbed down in those days – each element on the page was a separate entity – so constructing pages was a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It was best to know where things went long before you started handling them.

One of the more difficult processes was the cutting of color “overlays” which were done with amber or red-colored film on clear substrate – each color requiring a new layer. Those who take color separation for granted these days have no idea what it meant back then to use spot colors.

Even cropping a photo was a mathematical undertaking requiring some geometry skill, or at least a good proportion wheel.

All graphic elements had to be enlarged or reduced by a process camera of some sort – so you had to know what exact size to make it before you started constructing the page. Each new shot cost a few bucks, so there wasn’t a lot of room for experimenting. And halftones came in a variety of styles, as shown below in the violinist picture. These days you don’t see many halftone special effects, but they were pretty common back then.

I found this photo of an early digital scanner to be quite interesting – not your average little flatbed we take for common these days. But even line drawings had to be enlarged or reduced mechanically.

Perhaps most different than today is the fact that designs had to be well planned out in advance – there was no playing around with different layouts on the screen. You couldn’t order the type to be set or the artwork to be enlarged or reduced if you didn’t have a good idea of what the layout would be in advance. Often someone other than the designer was actually constructing the pages and needed instructions to follow.

And at the end of the process there was even more construction – film had to be “stripped” into forms that could then be made into plates for the printing press – mostly these days page files go direct-to-plate without the film step.

In one of the books there was an appendix talking about the new field of “electronic” page construction. And there was a photo of the beginning of the end – an early Macintosh. Nothing would be the same after that.

There are certainly times when I miss the whole pasteup process – the actual construction part was fun and required a different set of skills than designing does today. But mostly it’s a good thing that we don’t work with knives, wax, and overlays anymore. Less blood from cuts and your hands aren’t all sticky when you go home at night.

Posted on: September 14, 2012

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

27 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Throwing Away the Pasteup Books

  1. I was a paste-up artist, then a journeyman film stripper (which made for interesting introductions –“But you seem like such a nice girl!”), then Crosfield and Scitex operator. Buying a Mac and learning Photoshop, Illustrator and [in those days] QuarkXPress changed my life: my hands finally healed up. I still have a roll of Rubylith somewhere, but I’m sure it’s fossilized by now.

    This is the part where I usually go off into my “you kids don’t know how good you have it” speech, but you’ve illustrated that nicely!
    –Claudia McCue

  2. hahahaha!
    I too, remember those days, though not as fondly as you. I welcomed the “computer age” with open arms. No more, “Are you sure, that line of type is straight?” “Can you clean the art board, so the wax does not stick to my camera glass?” No more wax drippings on floor, clothes, under fingernails… yep, do NOT miss it!
    Interesting to note… with all our technical advancements, the quality of typography and design has taken a step backwards.

  3. Ahh, the memories… of driving the finished artwork to the printer and discovering all the elements of the page had fallen off because the wax had melted in the sun on the back seat of the car.

  4. My first teaching job was a Production class. I got the position because I was so fast at the magazine where I freelanced. Though I don’t miss the clutter and mess of pasteup along with the inflexibility of designing to the board, so to speak, there were a few skills that I wonder how many novice designers have lost touch with.

    Even back then I found students who really had no idea how to use a ruler and trying to get them to produce an ad to spec size was a lot of fun when they insisted that since it was only off by one-eighth of an inch it was close enough. Doing thumbnail roughs of a design was another part of the process that many students thought was superfluous. And, though it was tedious, I always felt some satisfaction in being able to “cut in” corrections to a column of text type and keep everything on the baseline.

    No, I don’t really miss all that mess, but there were virtues to working methodically and accurately with actual tools in hand. And now, when I do talks about the history of printing and how things were made, I can at least convey a small idea of the work and trouble it used to take to produce a piece of ephemera. Something that might now be considered a classic piece of illustration or printing.

  5. Stat cameras, #11 Xacto blades, hand waxers, sheet waxers, burnishers, and the ability to make minor typographic corrections without having to re-output the whole file! Thanks for the tour of so many old friends. Although I’m spoiled by the typographic choices we have now, and the ability to fiddle with a layout beyond all reasonable options.

  6. Man, those were the days! Thanks for taking the time to share this. I happened to find my Pocket Pal yesterday that I first got in college and consider tossing it too. It was fun looking back and reminiscing on those early days when I used a typositor, wax sticks, Letraset letters, vellum overlays and rubylith.

  7. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Gene. I, too, have recently faced the dilemma of what to do with my old paste up “How to” books. My local public library doesn’t even want them. And I just recently sadly parted company with my old waxer, light table, and a veritable fortune in Letraset transfer lettering sheets. But I guess time marches on . . .

  8. I finally threw out the last of the border tape. And several of us old newspaper people are planning a waxer-bashing party with a waxer so tempermental that it was not turned off for thirty years. And my california job case now holds thimbles.

  9. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I was lucky enough to start in ’88 using a CG typesetting machine and doing paste-up. I even got to help in the camera department, stripping and cutting “rubies” from time to time! We got the Mac in late ’89. And, although I initially wanted nothing to do with them, I’m so glad I have my Mac to do the heavy lifting for me these days!

  10. I actually solved a problem due to my skills from “back in the day.”

    We had printouts of a black only file from the client and we could not get the file to print, it was damaged in someway. It goes without saying the deadline was tight and it was late. After futzing with the file(s) for almost an hour, finally it occurred to me: can’t we just shoot a negative and make the plate?

    Also had to show an intern how to figure out proportions using MATH on the calculator.

    Ta-Da! “Here I Come to Save the Day….”

  11. Just like your phototypositor column this column on pasteup brings back many fond memories as well as some not so fond ones (clients leaving paste up in a hot car for example). A lot of the younger folks these days don’t have a clue as to how we did it back in the days of dinosaurs. Thanks for sharing, Gene. Cheers!

  12. Man, this brings it all back. I feel like I should be about 90, but I’m only 56! I went through about eight typesetting systems in the course of my career, including that Macintosh above, one of which I still have in my closet. Thanks for the memories!

  13. I love the smell of bestine in the morning

  14. Early on, I worked in the advertising dept. at the HO of Western Auto, rubbed elbows with paste up, retouching and photography folks, some of the best times there. In 1987, we got one Mac as a test, Quark, Adobe PS/Illus., like your story states, it all changed after that.

  15. This sure brings back memories. Todays young designers have no concept of how tough it was in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to great the art the we can create with a few key strokes.
    Thanks for taking back down memory lane.

  16. Thanks Gene for all the photos and explanations. I remember the day well. I’m so glad we have the comparative luxury of computers, aren’t you?!

  17. Thanks, Gene, for sharing. I’ve thrown out my old books, but somewhere I think I still have a small old hand waxer. Something about actually pasting up the page physically makes it seem more like a real art form. I miss it. Although meeting deadlines is easier on a Mac.

  18. GAILD
    I’m still having trouble letting go of a huge box of books and collections of illustrations. And I have one client who didn’t enter the 21st century until 4 or 5 years ago. All those nights of pasting up 8-page flats for a 380-page book. Wish he’d joined 6 months earlier. Know anybody who needs 10 pounds of wax?

  19. Sure it is “easier” to crate output on a computer. But the long, drawn out process (by today’s standards) forced a lot more contemplation about the finished work and allowed for a lot more proofing at every stage.
    The ability to knock things out immediately raises the expectations that things will be knocked out… well… immediately, goofs and all.

  20. I loved my pasteup class in the mid 90’s. We were the last group of students to go through the class and they cancelled the class for good at the end of the term. It was so much fun! The hands on approach suit me just fine. I still have my pasteup books, I can’t bear to part with them.

  21. Gene, thanks for sharing these images. They really bring back some memories for me of my early days as a “pasteup artist” of galley proofs, ruby liths and even the Mac computer (which I was the first in our department to order back in 1984). When I tell younger people that I was one of the first to use a Mac computer they look at me with wonder (not respect as I always hope) but just wonder! But since I’m still working in the field (I do everything on my snazzy imac now) I don’t want to date myself too much so I usually just keep my mouth shut and wonder if I’ll ever get to retire.

  22. Yes it was fun and challenging, especially when there were changes to make. Adding one line to a page may shift copy for several pages, and it all had to be done by hand. I’m glad to have experienced doing pastup for a number of years. But I’m also glad to be included in the digital generation. There is so much more we can do now that was unheard of in those days.

  23. …of paste-up (preferred spelling), half tones, graphic degree and the 1st mac. Thanks so much Gene, for this blast from my past. I’ve kept a few books, my art bin with Exacto knives and some charcoal for nostalgia. See you in the Clipart pages…

  24. Thanks so much for this article, it really bought home how much my job has changed since I started in graphic design. Even in the early 90s a lot of my job involved letraset, letraline, rotring pens and bromides. The frustration of knocking over the gum roller and spilling hot glue everywhere came flooding back too!

  25. I came accross your site because I’m looking to put a value on all my pasteup equipment…. and, voila! you have pictures of my equipment!!! I have the newspaper pasteup light table, the same waxer, some double truck flat files, even pasteup tape, Color wheels, burnishers, knives, caligraphy pen tips, EVEN my FIRST MacIntosh, which looks just like the one you have pictured; however, mine is a DUAL FLOPPY DISC DRIVE!!! Oh my, what memories! Wonder if there is a market for all my treasures? Did you sell yours or take them to the dump? Any buyers can call 772-453-5005…… I cannot find anything like it on ebay.

  26. Glad to have been there at the end of hot metal, through the peak of photocomposition and pasteup and today, 100% digital. In the process, I learned the the craft from the masters.

    When I started the transition to digital design around 1985-86, they said the Mac couldn’t be used for anything larger than a page and forget about 4-c. It worked fine for me since it was just another tool and could be easily incorporated into the mix.
    That foundation in hot metal and the evolution has been a great education that has served me well in the era of Photoshop and InDesign!
    Just wish we had same fine-tuning on the web other than using images and PDF. HTML is so limiting in the craft of type for design!

  27. I’m 34, started working in a print shop right out of high school where they still worked with the hand waxer, t-square and the light table. I was trained as a typesetter before moving on to graphic design, I transitioned as the shop’s clientele required more advanced graphics. I love working digitally these days, but I really appreciate my early days at the light table, I think that early training working with paste-ups makes me a better designer today. However, the waxer was always a mess and I don’t miss it one bit.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.