Reminiscences of a prepress guy

I am an old prepress guy. I owned one of the first PostScript service bureaus in the U.S. I was there at the beginning. It was painful, but overall it was a great business. We had been traditional typographers, and then we adopted the Apple Macintosh and PostScript, and we prospered.

Over the years I developed a skill for reading and modifying PPD files so that our Linotronic machines could output materials that otherwise would not run. A PPD is a PostScript Printer Description file, all text, that describes the capabilities of a printer – its dimensions, color capabilities, resolution and more. These files are still in use in our print drivers. Though archaic, they still perform these functions so that the software knows the capabilities of the printer.

I am working on a cool project right now that involves prepress in a way that I have not explored in years.

This is my five-color postcard design. The colors are shown in the color bars above.
The challenge I faced was making color separation files from the Illustrator document.

It’s actually two projects. First is the restoration of an 1895 Golding Pearl printing press. This was part of a collection of printing equipment that was donated to our university by a local family. Their dad had collected the equipment, and stored it (and occasionally printed on some of it) in his two-car garage. When he died, it became a problem. I helped to solve that problem with the aid of friends from the International Printing Museum in Carson, California. In the end, some of the equipment came to Cal Poly’s Shakespeare Press Museum while the rest went to the larger museum further south.

This is my successful work flow for making color separation files
from the Illustrator document.

I got the rusted Pearl press. It has taken me about a year to restore it. First I tore it down to its parts, then I sand-blasted all of the castings, and repainted them. This was followed by a careful reassembly. I replaced missing parts with replica parts, I built all new wooden parts – the drawers, feed and delivery tables. My greatest challenge was the main drive gear, which was missing several teeth. A machinist friend found a gear blank and then machined it to match the original part on the press. It took months to find the blank, then several months to get the new one made.

And now the press is ready to print again, 124 years after its manufacture.

Project Two is a poster and postcard to commemorate the restored press as part of the 50th anniversary of Shakespeare Press Museum, Cal Poly’s working museum of letterpress machines and type.

This is the Golding No. 3 press in the condition in which we received it.
I have since restored it from head to toe.

I started by drawing from a blueprint of the original press from the parts catalog of the manufacturer. I did this in Adobe Illustrator. As I was rebuilding the press I took photos, and was careful to adjust the drawing to the reality of the printing press. It was detailed work, and the result is a an accurate side drawing of the machine with all of its working parts shown.

My plan is to print this art as a five-color poster, and a five-color postcard. The postcard will be printed first, on the Heidelberg Windmill press that I restored earlier in the year (not the press illustrated in this story). That machine, a “black ball” 1953 press, is now in perfect condition, having suffered from many abusive years in a Calgary printing plant while die-cutting parking permit hang-tags. The press wasn’t even oiled for many years, and it was in bad shape when I bought it from a machinery dealer in 2015. Several years of restoration work allowed me to bring the machine back to perfect condition.

The subject of the postcard: This is the nearly complete Golding press in my shop.
Included are all new wood parts, new rollers and trucks, new cast-steel ink plate
on the middle of the press. The ink distribution plate is missing in this image.
I had it on the surface grinder for refinishing.

I have run the Heidelberg press only a couple of times since its restoration, so jumping in with a five-color precise register job will be challenging. But I have the will, and will find a way.

The poster is planned for later in the year. I will print that on our Vandercook proof press with photopolymer plates. It should be a nice product.

This is the Dark Gray separation image. The other four colors are similar.

To print the postcard, I needed to make either photopolymer or zinc printing plates. I started with the photopolymer plates and had difficulty with those (still experimenting!). I decided to order zinc plates from an engraving company in Michigan. That’s where I ran into color separation problems that I had not encountered for years.

For the photopolymer plates, I used ESKO Artwork software, starting with a PDF file, then made a film negative on the ESKO Spark platemaker. Easy. I exposed the polymer plates in our DuPont Cyrel UV unit, and hand-processed them using water and a brush. This didn’t work well (still experimenting!).

To send out for engravings, I needed to separate the file into five separate Adobe Illustrator files. It seemed easy, but I had difficulty doing it. The company doing the engraving cannot separate from a composite color PDF. I tested; I tried; I failed. Several times.

And ultimately, I found myself working with PPD files again.

When you set PostScript file as the destination, the computer will default to a generic “universal” PPD for PostScript. That PPD will not work for color separations because “universal” is not a color-capable printer. Instead, you must choose the PPD for a color printer. I think any color printer will work. I have a Konica-Minolta printer here, and when I choose that PPD, my Illustrator document can be separated into individual colors, each one a separate file.

It was this process that allowed me to save each color as a separate Illustrator file, and to submit them to the engraver.

It’s not a one-step process. Using Illustrator’s Ink Manager, I exported each color plate as a separate PostScript file, then dragged each PostScript file onto Illustrator to open it. Then I had to crop the image to the artwork size (the page is letter-size by default). Once cropped, I had only to Save As in Illustrator format and send the files to the engraver.

Another rookie mistake I made was to send files with embedded fonts in them (it has been a long time!). After being alerted to this error, I converted the fonts into outlines, and saved again, then sent the repaired files back to the engraver. It worked perfectly the second time.

I now have five zinc engravings of my artwork, ready for printing. I will begin that process next week. My plan is to ink-up the Heidelberg Windmill, apply the lightest color of ink to the press, and make the first impressions. I’m making a 500-impression press run. Then I will let the sheets dry for a day and proceed to the darkest color (black), followed at the end by metallic gold.

I’ll post images here of the press run and will report back on how that press run works out.

p.s. For those who think I might be plagiarizing David Lance Goines with this press poster, I assure you that this is a coincidence! The fact that one of his wonderful posters hangs above my desk proves only that I am channeling him with this work.

p.p.s. You may be wondering why I am not printing the five-color postcard on the Golding Pearl press. Simple: though it is a lovely machine, it is not capable of holding precise register. The Heidelberg has register guides to hold the paper in position while printing. Those register controls make this kind of work possible.

About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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