waxing nostalgic

I love working with my hands.

When I started my first job in high school, I worked at a family friend's custom framing shop. The shop was just down the hill from where I lived, less than a hundred yards away. In the afternoons, and on Saturday mornings, I learned to cut glass, mats, and moulding; drymount posters and art; and fit the mats, glass, backing, moulding, and art into a finished, pristine framed object. It was surprisingly physically taxing, and required an attention to detail that I did not, and never will, innately possess. If I let my attention slip, I'd earn myself a slice from razors or glass or paper, or a stray nail from the air gun. I had a bandaid on every joint of every finger, the first month. I left that shop exhausted and bloodied every time, for the first three months.

I would take the mats, attach them to the art with acid-free tape, making hinges; laboriously clean the residue off the cut glass; then match the mats and glass up to the art and its backing. Then I'd fit the glass, art, mats, and backing into the frame, sealing it in with staples or nails, and gluing protective paper to the back of the frame. I'd slide the finished, framed pictures into their huge plastic bags, sealing them, writing the customer's name on masking tape on my hand, then sticking it to the package I'd made, then hefting the package into the series of slots where it'd go until the customer came for it. When I walked out, I'd have done that at least twice; most days, three or four times. On a really good, quiet Saturday, five or six. Looking at the rack full of my work, I felt like I'd done something useful, and filled me with a sense of accomplishment. Before I showed up, there was nothing; now I had worked, and Made Something.

It was a similar rack which led me to working in graphic design. I was taking a class in magazine production, and had to come see the professor in his office, which of course was Wossamatta U's publications office. I walked in, and saw a rack full of proofs by the front door. After I'd seen the artists, art director, and typographer all Making Things, I knew it was the place for me.

There was only one problem: no interns were allowed.

So I simply started showed up every day, in between classes, for an entire semester. I watched the designers and asked questions. In the face of my stubbornness, my future boss relented and said I could intern, once the semester was over.

I learned design during its transition from paste-up to digital, in what I refer to as The Bad Old Days. I learned how to use a proportion wheel, the difference between a pica pole and a ruler, and to do surgery with an X-acto blade. I came to love making proofs, and putting them up in the bin for clients, just as much as I'd loved assembling frames. For you kids out there, instead of doing your layouts in Quark or InDesign, you used to have to take your copy to the typographer, who'd type it up on a typesetter, then hand you the photostat to cut out and paste up onto your board. You'd use a waxer to smear the back of your layouts with hot wax, which you'd then carefully stick to the board. It was messy, painstaking, and it took forever to do a simple layout. Which is, I suppose, what made it so rewarding when you finally had an assembled proof, and then a finished piece to hold in your hands.

I do very little of that these days.

I work at a computer for roughly 10 hours a day, most days. And while I'm producing work, to be sure (else, I'd be out of a job), I don't get anything like the satisfaction of holding something tangible, until the thing I designed has been printed, bound, and delivered. Even that is fading; today I have to get in touch with a print rep I used to work with, and tell him that I just don't do enough print work to make it worth keeping me as a contact.

Back when I started, if you'd told me I'd miss pasteup, I'd have said you were on crack. But I do, and it's nice to see that someone else misses The Bad Old Days, too.

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.

I still have Bestine in my office, by the way.