Okay, the title is a gross exaggeration since I certainly hope to print CD packaging again, but I've learned some valuable lessons in what not to do next time and I'm enjoying my DFW shoutout. Basically everything that could go wrong did, including getting this post out - I've been looking for parts of this to photograph for 2 weeks now! All in all I think the finished product is swell, especially for a first time effort.
So many, many months ago now I printed CD packages for my friend Matt Schickele's newest album. We used arigato packs from Stumptown printers because Matt already knew he wanted to use recycled stock and he didn't want to have to deal with glue or anything too tricky. We looked around for comparison's sake, but Stumptown really seemed like the cheapest, best option for what we wanted. Matt is also responsible for the design, and I think the finished design is the 3rd draft of us going back and forth on what would and wouldn't work for letterpress printing. His first design included a dark green wash over the entire cover, so that was obviously problematic for letterpress. I do believe I'm getting better at explaining to clients what does or doesn't work for letterpress printing, and I told Matt the likely result of trying to print that large a solid and then sent him images of other peoples' results doing that on similar and stronger presses.
Since we were trying to keep costs down it needed to be printed on the Pearl and not a design for which I'd have to rent time on a Vandercook. Another part of my cost saving measures was convincing Glendon to do the blocks for me on the laser cutter. Honestly, this is where the majority of problems came from, and with non-friend and non-flexible clients, I will be purchasing plates in the future and prices will just have to be higher. There were a couple problems caused by having the blocks made on the laser cutter, but the simplest one is that Glendon really didn't have time to do this. I'm not sure if he was just too accommodating to say no to me, or if he just didn't realize how busy both he and the laser cutter would be. Neither of us realized how time consuming these particular plates would be - or how many times we'd have to re-do them! Naturally, once word got around his department of what the laser cutter could do, people started lining up to have their projects printed, so there isn't tons of downtime for my personal jobs during official hours of operation. Quite reasonable, of course, but it meant that Glendon had to stay late to do my plates, which was often hard to schedule as he does have other commitments. Since there were six blocks, and each takes 30 minutes or so (I think), and since he had to re-do many of them (details follow), this was a long process.
So yes, that's the whole time management issue, but the big problem was with the wood blocks themselves. Sort of. Well, there was lots of user error too, but I blame the wood! That plywood blend we've been using works very well for larger, bolder typefaces and images, but we should have listened to Winking Cat Press when he said that he didn't like plywood. We should have thought a bit more about why he doesn't like plywood and about the thickness of the lines and typefaces in the design I was preparing to print. I'd just like to confirm for everyone that plywood, even really high quality plywood, is not the way to go for type smaller than, say 10pt. Some of the first blocks Glendon cut looked weirdly muddy or wavy and printed that way too, and with the super small font, the counters of the letters weren't deep enough and would fill with ink, even if I had very little on the press.
We actually had to go back and change the thickness of the song numbering because the "1" was so thin that Glendon could not cut it. He did it twice and both times it basically crumbled if you looked at it. Glendon ended up having to play around with the depth the laser was cutting or how large a shoulder to add more than we bargained for, resulting in too many do-overs. Quite a few of the blocks got random letters smushed or broken here or there between the time they were cut and when they got to me, and he'd have to redo the entire block then as well. Since we also had to mount them onto other wood to be type high and then chisel off part of the block's non-printing face (or else a bit of it would, on occasion, print too), there were some regrettable chisel accidents, resulting in more waste. We wasted a lot of wood, and the environmentalist in me feels ashamed. I've bought a few of the expensive type high maple wood blocks, and we'll do a bit more experimenting - perhaps those will go more smoothly. Glendon actually has some very nice cherry wood, but it's taller than .918" and he doesn't have any way to bring it down to type high.
Now that I've explained all the horrible parts about our DIY, I must say that cutting the blocks ourselves using found/free materials did come in handy exactly three times. Once was when Matt realized he'd left off a production credit and copyright information, and Glendon was able to quickly re-cut that block. It would have been expensive to resend to a platemaker and Matt would have had to eat that cost. The other two times were when I, behaving like a complete moron, smashed two different plates with a gripper bar (the same gripper each time). The first time I did this was right at the beginning of the print run, and I had just carefully reset all the gauge pins but neglected to move the gripper bars further apart. I was doing a test impression and slowly turning the flywheel by hand when I heard this crunching noise that I've never heard before. The crunching was the gripper compressing the wood block. Of course I stopped and backed the platen away as soon as I heard the noise, but it was too late. That gripper is strong, man; it squished that wood like it was a marshmallow. The second time I did this, on the final block of the whole print run, I really thought I'd learned my lesson, and I had in fact adjusted the grippers properly, but then I moved the block in the chase by a centimeter or something. I ended up forgetting to recheck the gripper, and I smashed the first letters in three lines at the very edge of the plate. Very frustrating. So I would have had to eat the cost of two new plates, but I believe that I may now have learned my lesson.
So that's most of the drama with the plates, except for one final thing, which actually has a happy ending. I was doing the very last run, and I had about an hour and a half to get it done before work, and I REALLY wanted to get it done that day and hand them all over to Matt the next day. For once, everything was going well, and I was listening to NPR and feeding the cases one after another, boom, boom, boom. I'd gotten about half way through my stack of 190 when I noticed a small bit of wood on the rollers as they were returning to the ink disk from the form. I pulled the throwoff lever (I love the throwoff), and plucked the bit of wood from the roller, and noticed that it was the letter "y." Yes, the letter "y" from the "by" in the middle line of the three lines of production credits had somehow completely come off, all by itself - the rest of the plate looked perfect.
Now this is the same plate that Glendon had to re-cut with the extra production credit (and he'd had to cut it twice too), and it's also the same plate, and the same section of the plate where I'd smashed three letters just a day before, causing Glendon to re-cut the plate again. AND NOW THIS ONE RANDOM LETTER JUST POPS OFF!? How is that even possible - thank you plywood!? Amazingly I kept my head, and decided to try and glue the letter back on. Apparently the last few years of bookbinding and messing about with tiny pieces of type have paid off because I actually popped it right back in place on the first try, and it was only after I called Glendon to get his opinion of how long I should wait for it to dry and brag about my dexterity that he reminded me that there was crazy glue on the kitchen table. It might have been better to use that than my bookbinding glue. So I ended up waiting a week to finish up, but when I finally did, the plate behaved fine and I was all done in an hour. I was also able to give Matt the half that were finished when I had originally planned since he didn't need all of them at once anyway. Hooray for happy endings.
As I mentioned above, I split the design into 6 printing plates. This may have been overly cautious, but since this was all so new to me (the weird size and the stock), I wanted to be sure everything printed properly. Obviously the solids needed to be separated from the text, so that's one blue plate right there. Perhaps I could have printed the large orange solid with the two smaller orange solids on one plate, but I wasn't sure if the Pearl, operating with only two rollers, would have the strength or the ink coverage capability for that, so that's two more plates, current total: three. The orange text plate makes four. Finally, the blue text was placed just far enough apart so that I thought it should be split into two sections as well for a grand total of six. Yikes, right?
This is where I need to give a plug for transparency sheets. Do you guys remember those? From high school with over-head projectors? Well they are the best tool for registration, and I love them. You just print out your proof on a transparency and then you can line up your printed proofs as they come off the press. Makes it easy peasy. I'm kind of wondering how much longer the sheets will be around though. Does anyone ever use overhead projectors anymore in this age of powerpoint? Will transparency paper go the way of the dodo bird and the Polaroid?
Okay, printing. Printing the blue text went pretty well except for the aforementioned problems. The only other hiccup was lining up the text on the edges of the CD case. This is actually another block I had to redo because our original measurements were somehow off (which is weird since Matt got the template from Stumptown) and the two bits of text were too close to each other. I solved this by chiseling off the text from one side and printing the rest of the block. Since we'd done another version of that block which had other problems (that honestly I can't even remember at this point), I chiseled everything else off of that block and just printed the remaining edge text. Obviously getting the registration perfect on those edges was a huge bitch and lining up the orange and blue text was tricky. Mostly it worked but sometimes it...was not the best alignment in the world. But a little unevenness isn't too bad; gives it that 'handmade' look?
The orange ink had been very difficult to mix, and I'd ended up having to add massive amounts of transparent and opaque white so that it wouldn't be carroty-red. Matt really wanted the resulting bright orange, but it was rather transparent and quite goopy which proved difficult to work with on occasion. The instruments next to the performers' names were originally supposed to be orange, but the ink was so light that it was almost illegible and we switched that text to blue. While the album title and the side text on the CD are sometimes difficult to read, I do think they look right in most lights. I did have to double ink all the orange text however.
Now printing those solids is something I really wanted to discuss, partly because it's probably more useful to most of you (since I think most people aren't making their own blocks with a laser cutter). The results from this print run are also probably a pretty good marker of what my press is capable of right now, so I must write it down for posterity. Obviously the results will change if I use a different paper stock, get a third roller or perhaps even all new rollers (speaking of, how can you tell when you need new rollers? Is it a if you have to ask, you don't need them because you would know by your crappy prints type of thing?).
Anyway, so if you look at my pictures, you see nice, fairly solid coverage, right? Why yes, yes you do, BUT ladies and gentlemen, don't go thinking that you or I can just pop our paper in and print that way, oh no! That was the result of my complete insanity - DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. That nice solid coverage is the result of me inking the plate a couple times before printing and then overprinting anywhere between two and six times. And that's with packing and proper makeready. The solid area is just so large for both images, and the recycled stock was not super-receptive to cushy printing. I think with a Vandercook or a Heidelberg it wouldn't be an issue, but for my own mental health I need to be more aware of my press' limits. On certain prints you can kind of tell at the edges that I printed each multiple times, but I honestly like the effect and I'm pleased with how well the coverage turned out.
Um, yeah. So that's how I printed those way back in October. It took 8 months to post this because it's the longest post in the world. Does length make up for delay? I also decided that it was time to get more serious about professional picture taking, and that took a while to procrastinate. If you have comments/tips about that (or anything), I'd love to hear it.