Jumbled Numbers

Brick Wall


The Pantone corporation has owned the color-matching business for as long as I have been printing, and us screen printers have used their standard coated & uncoated fan books to match spot colors since the dawn of the mists of time. A designer in Philadelphia can call on the phone & say “print it with green 368c,” & we know exactly what they’re talking about, because he & I both have fan books.

For umpteen of those years, the colors in the books were arranged sequentially from the lowest number to the highest number, so finding a color in the fan book was a matter of seeking out the number, in sequence. A fairly simple matter. 3 or 4 years ago though, Pantone decided that with all the new additional colors being sequestered at the back of the book, it was becoming unwieldy for designers to pick colors by color family, so they re-arranged the books so that all the newer colors (they add 10 or 20 a year) were mixed in with their color families, and the fan books since them have not been arranged numerically. At first I thought “huh, the paper on this new book seems thinner,” and I hardly paid any attention to the rearrangement of the colors in the book. Until I needed to find one. Where the hell was it? The printers were waiting for me to approve a print, & jobs were stacking up while I dug & dug through the book.

Fortunately, there is an index now added at the back of the book with a list of numbers, & a corresponding page number, but man, it’s cumbersome. Let’s see.. Blue 2727, page 142, flip, flip, wait what page? dang it… wait, what number? With 6 or 7 spot colors to proof on a t-shirt job, I had numbers bouncing around inside my eyeballs, while printers & jobs waited & waited… page 346… no wait pantone 346… page 220… no wait PANTONE 220… page 346… ugh.

I have been heard to vocally express my dismay on the pressroom floor, and I noticed how much it was bugging the hell out of my printers, too. They have a work order with 6 colors listed on it and need to find the cans or mix the colors, and the same thing — it was taking them time to dig through the index, then dig through the book, & by the 4th color, everyone’s eyes glaze over, & you forget what you’re doing. Time wastes away, and nothing gets printed.

It occurred to me that the simple, obvious solution would be for Pantone to issue two editions of the fan book — one with the colors grouped in families for designers, and one grouped numerically for printers. An idea! A solution! Pantone Coated, Printer’s Edition! I would pay extra money for this, at this point. Back in September, I floated it via email to the support address at Pantone, more or less not even expecting a reply. It read thusly:

Hi folks,

I may be one small voice in the wilderness, but I feel like I need to speak, regardless. I am a printer — I work in print production.

The old Pantone fan books, for many years, had the color chips numbered sequentially in the book. For reasons that seem logical to you — i.e. easier for designers to search for color families — you re-ordered the book to where the numbers are totally out of sequence, and we are directed to an index at the back of the book that tells us what page to find a particular swatch on.

I can’t even begin to explain how greatly every production person I’ve spoken with reviles this decision. It is a huge waste of time on our parts rifling through the index, then rifling through the pages trying to find the swatch we want to match. The excoriations towards the new books by everyone I’ve spoken to about them are basically unprintable, so I won’t repeat them here. Know that they are universally detested by anyone working in production that I have spoken with since their introduction — hundreds of people.

My solution: Please, for the love of all that is good & right in this world, issue a “printer’s edition” of your fan books, restored to their former ordering, with the swatches in numerical sequence. I would buy two of them the day they were released, just out of gratitude.

Thank you for your consideration,

A very frustrated consumer,
Chris Vreeland

Sure, some of that was me just venting. Believe it or not, just a day later, I got an actual response! They were listening. Well, no, actually they weren’t.

Dear Christophe:

Thank you for your comments concerning the PANTONE PLUS SERIES publications.  We appreciate your writing with your concerns.

The chromatic reordering of the PANTONE colors was done in response to continuous user feedback requesting a more logical arrangement of the PANTONE colors.  As the PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM color palette has been expanded over the years, the chromatic order has suffered greatly.  As a result, we essentially ended up with reds, greens, blues, etc., in various different sections of the guides, making color selection and specification more complex and confusing for those who choose PANTONE colors for their projects.

By ordering the colors chromatically as we have done, we have made the selection process much more straightforward, and in fact we have had mostly positive reactions from those on the selection/specification end of the process.  This was the only way that we could maintain the existing PANTONE colors with the descriptions that users have known and used for over 45 years.  The alternative would have been to change the numbering system, and it was felt that this would be a nightmare for long-term users of the products.

We understand that those in the printing industry who have grown accustomed to working with the previous PANTONE products are frustrated with this change, and that initially it will cause some confusion.   However, as with any change, it is our feeling that over time, users will see the benefits of the new PANTONE PLUS SERIES products, and this will become less of an issue.

Please do not hesitate to write us at any time if we can be of further assistance.

Best regards,
Pantone, LLC
Wholly-owned subsidiary of X-Rite, Inc.

Basically, Not. Gonna. Happen. Thus endeth this wasted missive.

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I have lost my mind…

And have begun to catalog & preserve my entire T-shirt collection. I’m in the early stages of this project, but I have so many shirts, and for so long have wondered “where is that shirt? What became of it? Do I have two of them? Should I keep this one or take it to the goodwill?” and this will help provide me and future generations (Hi Erin And Jacob!) with answers to these important questions.

I’ve started with the oldest ones first, as well as some of the ones I’ve already blogged about here, because I have pictures of them already at hand. I ended up choosing Filemaker Pro as the way to go because it seems pretty customizable. Everything is getting:

  • A catalog number
  • An official design name
  • The date printed, if known
  • The artist’s name, if known
  • The name of the shop it was printed at, if known
  • A freeform description filed for any historical notes
  • A condition rating, as some are new & some are pretty ratty.

Here are a couple screenshots of what I’ve got so far — the main catalog data entry view, & a table view with sorting options.

Data Entry View

Data Entry View

Table View

Table View

And at long last, I got a bunch of heavy-duty 12 X 12 4-mil. re-sealable bags from Uline so that I could keep them clean & preserve them as best as possible. I’m working on a method of printing stickers from the catalog so that I can attach them to the bags.

Folded, bagged & preserved Austin Chronicle Shirt from 1985 or so.

Folded, bagged & preserved Austin Chronicle Shirt from 1985 or so.

This may strike you as insane, and rightly so, but I anticipate when I am done that I will have one of the largest catalogued T-shirt collections known to man. Like having the world’s largest ball of twine, or something. 99% of the collection is stuff I have personally printed, but some of it is also old shirts from when I was a kid, concert shirts I’ve bought at shows, and a few Goodwill acquisitions that I just couldn’t pass up for a buck. Obviously, lots more of these will be showing up here as I work my way through them over the next, oh, 10 years or so.




Posted in Design and Art, History | 3 Comments

You know you’ve made it when:

Your credit union puts a guy on their front page in a shirt you printed. Not much else to say here. We printed for Roky Erickson, I think through his brother Sumner, who takes care of his business stuff, in the early-mid 2000’s at Vreeland Graphics & this was a popular design. UFCU has a revolving set of images on their website & I was so stunned when this slid into view I mis-typed my password.



Here’s a funny one. Did you know there was a wikipedia entry for High Five? Not only that, but down the page a bit, there’s a section on “variations,” including the “too Slow move, illustrated enthusiastically by a couple of young, hip models. The  dude-bro fooling the poor girl by pulling his hand back before she can give him one “down low” is wearing a Glennz shirt that we called “Nessie” when we printed it at Amplifier.

Victim Misses:


What a jerk!

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Mexico 1984 And A New Start After The Fire.


So, anyway. (previously) We flew into Guadalajara on Aeromexico, from San Antonio. We took a greyhound bus to San Antonio, & somewhere near Buda, the bus’s brakes got stuck, and started to burn. Sitting on a bus gradually filling with the smell of fire the day after running from a burning building was pretty jarring. The bus pulled over & we sat in the grass near the frontage road & waited for another bus to retrieve us for about an hour, almost making us miss our plane.

Jeri’s dad picked us up from the airport. She broke the news to him about the fire right after we de-planed, so it was a pretty tense & uncomfortable few first minutes. We had brought Lou a VCR & I forget what other electronics, as “gifts” because their general importation was frowned upon, & we had trouble retrieving them at baggage claim. All I recall is Lou swearing a bunch, disappearing into the baggage offices of Aeromexico for nearly an hour, then eventually emerging with his VCR. I’m assuming he paid a bribe.

The airport is on the southern side of Guadalajara, right near the highway to Chapala, so all I saw of town at first was the last bits of it as we turned south for Chapala, where Lou lived. At the time, one of the worst slums in Mexico was in this area, and it seemed like we drove through it for over 5 minutes, even at highway speeds. I have a strong memory of corrugated tin roofs over hovels made of found wood & occasionally cinder block, with dirt roads barely wide enough for cars, electric wires strung willy-nilly, & open sewers. It was very eye-opening to 21-year-old me, & I never have looked at poverty in America the same again. I heard the city came through & cleaned up the slum some years back, & now I can find no evidence online of it ever having existed.

Lou lived on a golf course just west of Chapala, up the hill a couple of blocks from a really charming little village called San Nicolas. It wasn’t too far from his place into Chapala proper, so we spent some time in town there, too. I have a few pictures I took on that trip, no idea whose camera I borrowed. Bored, on about the third day there, we walked down to San Nicolas, ate lunch at a little Palapa that served fried minnows as an appetizer (crunchy & good) then caught the local bus into Chapala for the afternoon. Apparently, white people did not ride those busses in those days. The only seats were in the very back, & most of the people on the bus turned around & stared at us for a good ways. I don’t think they meant to be intimidating, but were just genuinely bemused by the sight of gringos on the local bus.

There were a lot of American & Canadian expatriate retirees living in  the area, & it’s a relatively well-off little corner of Mexico as a result. We went to some sort of 4th of July celebration put on by the American consulate I think, just for all the expats – I recall being bored out of my mind, but we were on Lou’s agenda.

Jeri And Lou Arsenault in Chapala

Jeri And Lou Arsenault in Chapala.

At some point during the week, we wound up at the Guadalajara Country Club, and I bought an embroidered polo shirt, which I still own. Apart from the crazy slum, Guadalajara was a really lovely city, though I did not know what I was looking at history-wise as we drove through town. Crazy traffic rotundas.

We drove back to Texas with Lou, stopping in Guadalajara at a local screen print supply house to load up on inks, screens & squeegees so we could start over & resurrect the shop from the ruins on our return. There was a brand of ink called Sanchez, we bought quite a few quarts of that, 5 or 6 squeegees & some pre-stretched screens. The screens were metric — the 71 count thread, being equal to about a 200 mesh? I don’t know. I still have one of those frames in my attic, as of 2014. There was a limit on importations, so the sales guy very neatly divided our purchase into three invoices, each just below the importation tax line, & we declared them as “art supplies” at the border, & got away with it. His cadillac trunk was full, is all I know, & it gave us a chance to start again. That ink was great, too.

On the drive north, we went though the giant barranca just north of Guadalajara, then up onto the barren plane south of Zacatecas. The drive was a blur because Lou really hauled ass & we only stopped a couple of times — once at the ruins at La Quemada, though it turns out we only saw a very small portion of the ruins. I need to go back there.

We stopped agin for gas outside of Zacatecas & Jeri & I grabbed roadside tacos from a little stand across the highway from the Pemex, & Lou freaked out when he saw what we were eating. “That could be horse, it could be dog, you have no idea what they’re cooking over there!” We shrugged our shoulders since we were halfway done. They were good tacos.

When we got back to Texas, we sifted through the remains of the burnt-out shop, pulled out the steel parts of our 5 color manual press (the aluminum bits had all melted — man, I wish I had pictures) & strapped them to an open U-haul trailer. After talking to the manufacturer in Florida, they determined they could refurbish the press for les than the cost of a new one, so Kevin and I got in a rent car and hauled the thing to somewhere near Orlando, on what I recall being a real death-march of a trip. We shared driving & drove straight through both ways, surviving a front-wheel blowout somewhere in Western Louisiana.

After we got the press back a few weeks later, we set it up in our one-car garage, got out the supplies from Mexico & set about starting over, as one does.

Chris in the Garage

This is the only known picture of me printing in the garage on Lawton. Circa 1985.

Pulled the old Mexican screen out of my attic yesterday & dug through the t-shirt archives. The screen features Danny Garrett’s Antone’s Little Walter design – a classic icon of Austin T-shirt design. The shirt in the gallery was definitely printed with this actual screen. The print went through a lot of iterations, but this was the first. Danny is a detail sort of guy. He took his inspiration from American money, thus the filigree swirls & the lovely engraving look to LW’s portrait. This is all done pen & ink on hardboard — I have held the original in my hand, & you can see a few light pencil guidelines on it, but this was just simply hand drawn by a master. I pretty much had to immediately get good at screen making & printing, having high-quality customers like Danny & Antone’s.

Posted in Design and Art, History | 2 Comments

M&R i-Image STE First Impressions.

i-Image_1I meant to start this a couple weeks ago, but I’m glad I procrastinated, because I’m still learning stuff about this device. Here’s the deal — Technology is moving forward, and it has crept into the printing world in many ways over the last 30 years. First, automatic presses got good enough to do quality printing by the mid-80’s, then the whole digital desktop publishing revolution happened in the early to mid-90’s, and in a way, Direct-to-screen making is the next natural extension of that. First, the robots came for our press-on lettering, Rapidographs & Amberlith, then they came for our copy cameras, & now they have come for our film output devices.

DTS 101 in a sentence — Rather than printing a film positive & sandwiching it between your photo stencil & your light source to image a screen, Direct-To-Screen images directly onto the screen’s photo stencil with a photo-opaque ink, via inkjet technology, eliminating the film step & the vacuum frame.

Direct-to-sceen machines have been around for a while, but have always had shortcomings whenever I looked at them during the last 4 years or so of contemplating implementation. It’s not a “mature” technology, but I’m ready to say that M&R has almost nailed it.

I’m going to talk about this in 2 separate sections, because they really deserve to be addressed independently of one another — hardware & software.

1. Hardware. This thing is a beast. We went with the single print head to begin with, since adding a print head to speed up the printing process at a later date if needed is no big deal. I based this on an average of 40-50 screens per shift, with occasional peaks of 70-80 screens per shift, & it has absolutely kept up. Not that any of our images are all that big, but it tends to ink a screen in less than 30 seconds. Quality so far has been great. I haven’t pushed boundaries with it yet, because it’s spring (OMG SXSW STARTS IN 2 WEEKS & WE FORGOT TO ORDER SHIRTS!!) and we are just getting work done. I can say that it is an improvement over the film we were using, across the board. Lines on vector are cleaner & the halftones have improved by a % or two. We’re holding highlight dots that we are losing with our Oyo Aspect, which to be honest, is a very good film output device.


ink printed directly onto a screen – love the sharpness!

It’s very sturdy — the build quality of the base & the print head are impressive. Nothing seems under-specced here to me, at all – I don’t see a single thing that jumps out & says “that looks like a design flaw.” It is physically very robust.

The STE is the model that comes with the integerated LED exposure unit, and I will say that sight unseen, I was skeptical, though cautiously optimistic after talking online to some people who had already purchased one. I did my homework, & made a leap of faith when I recommended to the owner that we go with the LED array. This is the thing that kicks this unit over the top, & where it currently smokes the competition. The screen images on the forward pass into the unit, then exposes as it emerges, immediately after imaging. The ink doesn’t have any time to wick or spread, it doesn’t matter if you smear it when you lift the screen off, because you are done, and it is fast. We’re using Ulano QTX, & it’s exposing a 110- mesh (threads per inch) in about 20 seconds — maybe less — I haven’t stopwatched it, but it is fast. Did I say that already? It is fast! The exposure is very even & exact, you can program presets for different meshes and emulsions, they are easy to recall, & our entire 12’ X 12’ exposure room has been replaced by a piece of plastic & bulbs that measures 4 inches by 26 inches, by about 1/2” thick. Mind boggling. Stock tip: invest in LED manufacturers — they are the future of lighting.

So if you work hard and stay organized, you really can churn out a screen a minute on this thing.

We’ve had very little trouble with the print head – it generally requires a quick auto-clean (a minute or so) & running a test print to check the head first thing in the morning, & then it’s off to the races for the day. Sometimes when it sits idle for an hour or two, we’ll need to do another auto-clean mid-afternoon. No big. We’ve lost exactly one screen to a clogged print head, & the lifetime counter was at about 2700 the last time I looked.

We have had exactly one issue where an auto-clean didn’t do the trick — this was just mid-week last week, and I botched the manual print head purge, so I had to call support. It was after 5 pm, so it was an initially frustrating phone call, as M&R uses a call center that doesn’t do the support themselves, but once I finally made it clear to the person at the call center that, “YES, THIS WAS AN EMERGENCY I have a full night shift that cannot image screens,” they finally took my name & number & had the technician on-call call me back. Marco from M&R’s digital dept. stayed on the phone with me until I had a clean print head & was making screens again — all in all, we were down 30 minutes, or so. While it was stressful at the time, really, that’s not bad. Thanks, Marco!

So, Hardware gets 5 stars, A++ WOULD BUY AGAIN!

2. Software. The i-Image relies on a chain of 3 software programs that interact in sequence. The ColorPRINT RIP program takes your files & generates the separations. These are sent, via hot folder, to the Print Production program, where you can actually view the separations & determine which separation to send to the printer, & the actual Printer Management software, which accepts the files & prints them. All 3 of these programs have to remain open at all times for the workflow to function, but fortunately, so far they have all played together very well.

What’s not playing together too well in the Dell PC attached to the printer & all the Macs in the art room. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge Windows fan, so maybe I’m a bit (a bit??) biased here, but the fact that M&R has bundled the i-Image with Windows-only RIP & printer controller software, in an industry dominated by Macs, is a tad disappointing. The workflow we are using is all a hot folder structure — the art dept. drops files in a hot folder that the ColorPRINT software detects, then rips automatically & sends the resultant *.prt files to another hot folder that the Print Production program picks up files from, then from that window all the operator has to do is find the job in the queue he wants to produce, select the separation, & send it to the printer. Supposedly. This worked great for the first 2 weeks we owned the machine, then it worked intermittently, & after an hour or two, ColorPRINT would stop “seeing” files dropped in its hot folders, then it stopped seeing them altogether. M&R had no solution to this. We had a couple remote login sessions where they poked around & looked at our file structure & where the software was pointing to hot folders, but got no results. Their first troubleshooting option was to have the screen makers manually pick up the files & rip them, as well as print them, but this is clearly not in their job description & not going to happen. Their next option was fro the art dept. to run on Windows as well, since it was “just a Mac vs. Windows thing.” quote/unquote. Hah. Not. Going. To. Happen.

I noted, while on the phone with one of their digital support guys that whenever I moved a file from a directory that was already on the PC to a hot folder on the PC, it ripped successfully every time, and asked “what if the artists dropped the files into a different folder on the PC, then when it was done copying, they could move it to the hot folder of their choice?” Their response: “Yeah, that’s the workaround.” It’s kludgy, but they could have offered this up on the first phone call, instead of waiting for me to identify it as a solution on the third or fourth phone call? So, anyway, that’s what we’re doing, now, & it’s working. I still wish this thing would have come with a Mac Mini running a Harlequin RIP package that generated a widely-used file format like .pdf  instead of a Dell making proprietary files, but such is life.

ColorPRINT only accepts .eps files, & the only format that Photoshop format that will work is DCS 2.0 files with spot channels – a file-type I had hoped would have been long-abandoned forever, so to see DCS 2.0 rear it’s less-than-lovely head in this day & age is a tad disappointing.

Yes, we are having to make adjustments, though honestly, some were to be expected. The biggest adjustment is that the art staff has to basically prepare a file as best they can, send it on its merry way & hope nothing goes wrong — we’re saving the cost of film, but we’re also now short one safety check, so a few mistakes have slipped through. They can’t look at the ripped files because ColorPRINT spits out a proprietary file format with the .prt extension & the only program that will view those files is dongle-protected on the PC attached to the i-Image. We’re trying to find a solution to that so that they can double-check the seps after they are ripped but before the screen-making staff gets them in their queue. It looks like we need to buy another dongle for $500.00 & install a Bootcamp partition & Parallels on one of the art Macs so that they can view the output before it goes from ColorPRINT to Print Production. The art department is physically removed from the screen room in another building & down a flight of stairs, so it’s inconvenient to say the least, to expect the art staff to make the trudge to the i-Image whenever they send a file for output, so we’re hoping that solution works. In the meantime, they have been laying out the .eps files on an InDesign page & using the separations preview as a stop-gap.

We have had a few isolated cases of unexplained weirdnesses — one job where one separation was printing 1/4” lower than there other separations, and 3 different files that stop printing altogether at exactly the same place, on the same separation every time. We haven’t been able to isolate the corruption with these 3 files, & neither has M&R, who has had the files in their hands for a while. All in all, I use the word “isolated” because there haven’t been all that many troublesome jobs that weren’t directly related to user error — maybe 6 total out of several hundred? We’re still hoping to get to the bottom of the corruption, though.

So Software, because it basically works, but is kludgy and proprietary, gets a B minus, 3 stars, “nice doing business with you” grade.

In the short-run, life has been a little more painful for the art staff than I had hoped, & the screen guys have had a bit of a learning curve, but are adapting well. We’re getting a lot of good screens out of it, with a few hiccups along the way, but we’re all adapting and things are smoothing out a little more each day.

In the long run, I don’t see how any shop will be able to do anything to adapt & survive in a competitive market without moving into Direct-To-Screen, and I’m glad we made the move. I feel like hardware-wise, we bought the best machine on the market at this time & have no regrets choosing the M&R over the competition, with the deciding factor being the LED exposure array. It’s a thing of near-ultraviolet beauty.

LED exposure unit in action.

LED exposure unit in action.

 Update: “Dottonedan” at The Shirt Board wrote a nice lengthy addendum to my article in a comment there, going into a few things I didn’t yet understand about the i-Image. Learning on the job, & on the web! Thanks, Dan.


Posted in Equipment, Reviews | 2 Comments

Planet Money Makes a Shirt

I found this buried in my bookmarks folder, having meant to post it quite a while ago. It’s a pretty informative series of videos produced by NPR, so the production values are excellent. While it doesn’t have much to say about the actual printing process, it covers the global journey of a bunch of cotton from the field to the mill, to the container ship to its final destination. (Check out the old Hix dryer at the beginning — probably made in the 80’s)

Planet Money Makes a Shirt

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By Way of an Explanation

I’ve spent 3 months not updating this blog and not talking about the elephant in the room, but I guess it’s time to get it out there. Last October, I voluntarily left my position at Amplifier as Director of Screen Printing and moved on to another thing. A lot of my blog posts here have been about things I/We did at Amplifier, which is a big part of why it lay dormant. A lot of the images & ideas I’ve posted here were done while I was in their employ, but the words written here on this blog are all mine, so I’m not thinking of taking anything down, and have decided to resume writing.

Leaving Amplifier was a very difficult thing to do, and I still have conflicted feelings about it, but at the time, I was out of options. I’ll be honest — it was killing me. Maybe I just don’t have the stuff, or maybe it was the Client From Hell, who I will refrain from naming. I love all the people who work at & own & operate Amplifier, though maybe it was partly our collective inability to manage and communicate with The Client From Hell, so there is some resentment that what was essentially the best job I’ve ever had, & where I expected to work until I retired, got ruined in the span of 2 years, but really, it was killing me. I was losing weight & sleep because of the stress — when you’re staring at your dinner in silence and you can’t even figure out how to answer when your wife says “what’s wrong?” then maybe it’s not worth the money I was making. Amplifier was paying me well — well enough that I put my daughter through engineering school, and with their help have loosed a new rocket scientist on the world. That was kind of a thing that I feel like me & Macon & James & Jef & Joel & Jud & Duane & Topher & Matt… and dammit, now I’m… fuck it… we were doing together. I owe Amp a debt of gratitude for that. But alas.

I behaved & felt too much like an owner of a thing I was really merely employed at, and it’s obvious why. In 2007, I came into Amplifier 3 weeks after closing down my own printing shop, which I’d owned for 15 years, and set about building pretty much a new company within a company from the ground up. I started with my Powerbook G4, a desk, a telephone and a budget. 6 weeks later, we printed our first shirt on a very used 1992 Challenger I. By the time I left, we had 7 presses, and occasionally cracked 15,000 prints a day. And we were doing world-class work. It had become immense, and I was immensely proud of why we had done there, and that was really hard to let go of, but it was the most freeing thing I’ve done in a long while, because no matter what I did it was never enough for The Client From Hell and I had to just get that knot out of my stomach.

I now find myself in much less rarified air, but I’m still here plugging away at the T-shirt thing. I talked to Ed Hargett at Austin Screen Printing in early October, and he pretty much moved heaven and earth to make a spot for me at his shop, and I’m extremely grateful to him for giving me a new home. ASP is much more of a typical T-shirt shop — small local orders, lots of them, schools, clubs, bands, whoever needs at least 36 of something. They’ve been there for 40 years, so I know that if I died in a car crash on the way to work Monday morning, they’d all be very sad, a few of them would come to my funeral, & on Tuesday, they’d get back to printing. I’m somewhat relieved to be non-essential personnel for the time being.

It has been a very busy 3 months there. When I arrived, they were at the end of an especially busy year, and stuff was held together with bailing wire & duct tape in places, & I’ve had my hands full with catching Ed’s screen department up with production and just generally assisting Dan the production manager as we plough through the day’s work. It’s 6 blocks from my house — I drive there in the morning, clock in, do an honest day’s work on my feet, clock out and roll down the hill to my humble abode. I’m not at a computer much any more, but it feels good (after the intense pain of the first 2 weeks subsided) to be working hard with my hands again. I even manually printed for a couple of days, because it was what needed to be done. Old man can still pull a squeegee with the best of ‘em.

The next thing I write, once I’ve collected my thoughts on the issue, will probably be on our recent & ongoing transition from film to a new Direct-To-Screen printer. I’ve been up to my elbows in this thing for about 10 days now, and the dust hasn’t settled yet, but I think it was a damn wise move on Ed’s part now that I see what’s coming out of it. More on that soon.

Stopped at Goodwill today to peruse the used t-shirt rack, and from the looks of it, over the last 2 years of browsing thrift shops for t-shirts, I printed about 1 out of 100 shirts hanging in Austin’s vintage clothing establishments. Picked up & repatriated a shirt we printed at Amp circa 2011 for 5by5. The wife is loving “the collection” which continues to grow out of bounds.

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M&R Breaks record again — a follow-up.

In my last post, I spent some time de-constructing M&R’s claim that “one operator” had printed 1909 shirts in an hour. They re-did the world-record attempt again in 2013, and fortunately, this time, put together a much better video (motivational industrial background music notwithstanding), with Rich Hoffman going into some detail about what they were doing, & why.

Mr. Hoffman’s voice-over beginning at the 1:35 mark makes a lot of sense: “What we do here is very much like the automotive industry. They go into racing, Formula 1, Nascar, etc, they’re taking the machine to the maximum, and that technology trickles down to the machinery that you run currently on the streets as you drive your cars today. With Manufacturing equipment, it needs to be the same. We need to drive it to the extreme so that we can understand what the product is capable of, the longevity of it, & when it’s going to fail. […] You take it to the point where components are going to fail. At that rate, you can tell what to change & how to blend that into your equipment that you currently build.”

This is an impressive piece of thinking about how to improve their product, rather than just a shallow marketing piece about how many shirts, you, the customer, will be able to print each hour in your humble shop in Peoria, or Dimebox, or wherever you may find yourself trying to scratch out a living.

I’m really impressed with the Challenger III, and I think M&R remains years ahead of their competition.

Note again though, how it takes a village to print this shirt. In order to set this record, they ran on the back of the shirts so they didn’t have to worry about collar placement, the art was designed to look big, but still deposits a minimum of ink (Rich makes a great point later in his talk about how they partnered with Wilflex to push the limits of what the ink could do, as well. I’m a Union guy, but this is also some impressive thinking — the ancillary products matter as much as the machine) and this video more explicitly shows the helpers adding ink to the screens, & he still has his cadre of shirt openers, & Rich is again manning the output station to carefully monitor his Passport. So let’s honor the 8 guys who teamed up to set this record as well as the amazing machine they did it with!

One last nit-pick — that final shirt, guys? That was an amazing run, but um, that’s a reject. It’s crooked & and about 2 inches off center.

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It Takes A Village To Print A Shirt

In this video, you will see 1909 shirts printed in one hour — a pretty amazing feat, really, but. M&R claims in the very first frame that this was accomplished by “1 Operator.” Let’s break that down by what we actually see in this video and look at what it actually took to print this (admittedly fantastic) number of shirts.

I’ll preface this first of all by saying that M&R really does make great equipment — I’ve printed exclusively on their automatic presses since I bought my very first auto in ’93. The Challenger III is a serious piece of kit — I’ve only seen one in action, but they’re fantastic machines that turn really, really fast. Each generation, M&R has done a great job of carefully analyzing the shortcomings of their previous presses and re-engineered them in inventive & smart ways. I had a long laundry list of things I wished were better about my series I machines by the time I’d been working on them for 10 years, and when i got my hands on a Challenger II, I can tell you that M&R fixed every single one of those shortcomings. I haven’t yet spent any time operating a Challenger III but I’d imagine that they’ve done the same to improve it over the II series, from the looks of them, and the list of new features.

That said, let’s look at our operator in this video, and let’s look at his help. Right off the bat, you can see that there’s not one person loading the shirts — there’s actually three. Once he starts running, there are two people to his right opening up the shirts at the hem & getting it ready for him to grab, & make sure it comes neatly off the pile without grabbing the shirt beneath it. Behind them, is yet another helper, getting more shirts ready & helping to slide the just-right-sized piles towards our Lone Operator. So, at this point, we have four people involved in getting the shirt on the press. Even with all this help, you can’t help but note that running at this speed, this shirts aren’t going on the machine exactly straight. Watch some of the overhead shots where you can see the collar after it turns to the right of him. Speed is great, but it ain’t everything. Prints have to be right, too. Again I don’t mean to disparage this athletic feat, but quite a few of those shirts are more than an inch or two off-center. Explain that to your client when they pick up. At the end of the video, they claim 26 rejects, but if they docked him the rejectable prints due to centering on a stricter basis, I’d bet the final number would drop below 1700.

Let’s now look at getting the shirt off the press. Normally, there is a person standing at the un-loading station, pulling the printed shirt off the machine & placing it on the conveyer belt to go through the curing oven. In place of this person, we can see that M&R has positioned a device they call The Passport, which is supposed to eliminate the need for this human puller.

 I will parenthetically contend that even with the labor savings this is a bad idea, because it eliminates you first point of quality control. Absent a pair of eyes at the unloading station, print defects aren’t going to be seen for another 20 shirts, when they emerge from the oven at the end of the conveyor. If a machine can print fast, take it from me by way of hard experience, a press can also print rejects at a dismaying pace.

 That’s not the only reason I take issue with the Passport, though. I’ve seen three of these devices out in the field, and none of them were being used. Rather, they were either (1) sitting on the floor beside the press after the company gave up on it, or (2 & 3) actively inhibiting the operation of the machine, as the printers resorted to elaborate work-arounds to get shirts off the machine without having to resort to the Passport. One guy was loading 14 shirts onto his press, then RUNNING around to the last print head, and pulling the shirts off out from under the flipped-up front screen bracket before they got to the Passport, & ferrying each one three steps to the dryer, then when the press was cleared, running back around to load another 14 shirts onto the press. He was effectively running at less than half the speed he would have been running at if the Passport had not been in his way & he had a helper. His succinct words were “It doesn’t work.” Another shop had arranged an “ergonomic” method where two people would work at the loading station — one would unload the shirt and rapidly step out of the way, while the other stepped in to load a shirt, then he in turn would rapidly step out of the way so that the next shirt could be in turn unloaded. It was a complicated, cramped ballet that enabled them to run the machine at almost 3/4’s of the speed it would have normally run at, if the Passport hadn’t been idly occupying the unloading station. Their words again were (paraphrased) “It tears shirts, it drops them in a heap on the belt & they don’t cure & get smeared, it misses shirts, it doesn’t work very well.”

 How, then, is the Passport in this video performing so spectacularly, you might ask? That brings us to the 5th person helping to print this run of shirts. See the guy in the video hovering to the left of the Passport with the aerosol spray tack can in his hand, carefully monitoring the Passport & carefully applying a small amount of tack as needed? That is none other than Rich Hoffman himself, the CEO of M&R. I posit that if you need the CEO of the company to monitor your labor saving device for each & every shirt, it’s not exactly saving you labor. I’d imagine Rich’s time is worth a bit more than you average press assistant’s. From what I’ve seen, the Passport is for all intents and purposes, a rare failure as a product.

Now, let’s also note the design they’re running, here. It looks to be of average size, but despite being a five color print, there is actually very little ink deposit. It seems like the design was created specifically for this reason — to appear to fill up the shirt, but to have very light tack requirements, so that the Passport wouldn’t have to struggle to get the shirts off the press. Another benefit here is that during the hour they ran the machine, it does not appear that anyone had to load ink into a screen. It’s possible that they edited this out, and though it’s a thing that can usually be done on the fly without stopping a press, it’s yet a sixth person you’d need if you were printing a design that was, say 10 X 12 with 100% ink coverage in that area. The print we see here might appear to be 8 X 10 overall, but I’m betting that no more than 15% of that area is actually covered in ink. M&R very carefully set the stage design-wise with two things in mind here — less need to load ink into the screens during the run, and less need for tack so that the Passport could successfully get the shirts off the press, albeit with the help of M&R’s (hopefully) highest-paid and most important staff member.

Really, in the end, my complaint about this video is not that M&R didn’t successfully print 1909 shirts in an hour — it’s that it actually took 5 or perhaps 6 people to accomplish this feat, and it was still a hell of a feat for all of those involved. Yes, only one person is seen “operating” the machine I.E. Luis Omar Viera was the only person who touched the control panel, but to say that one person did this is disingenuous.

It creates a level of hype that’s impossible for people to realize under real world circumstances, and leads to disappointment when after you’ve uncrated & set up your fabulous new machine, your 3-person crew is really only averaging 600 or 700 shirts an hour, because you can’t sprint a marathon, & not all your clients are going to design prints that are optimized for speed — clients want what they want, & if it takes a double stroke & you have to tack every 4 dozen shirts & load ink every 6 dozen shirts to give them what they want, then that’s what you’ve got to do. An old Challenger I will turn 1000 times an hour if you set it up right, & I have actually gotten 1000 prints off of one in an hour, just to say I could do it, back in about ’94. It was a 1-color left-chest print that was a tiny line of text, & at the end of the hour, I was exhausted, & had to go sit down for 15 minutes. I haven’t tried that since.

All thanks to M&R for continuing to make an excellent product, but take this thing with the grain of salt it deserves, and let’s give credit to everyone in the village who helps print a quality shirt every day.

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More Shirts in the Media

My daughter has a VHS copy of Clueless she used to watch when she was about 12 — I was looking over her shoulder one day & spotted a character wearing a shirt I’d printed & hollered “Hey! I printed that,” but it was years before I finally tracked down a still photo from the film. Back when I owned Vreeland Graphics, we printed for Tesoros Trading Company, and I’m just about certain that this was a shirt we printed for them, based on a Tarot card, or some such thing from Mexico. It was one of the first jobs I ever sepped for process on dark in Photoshop, so I remember it well because it was a difficult thing to learn, though I’ve lost the file.

There was a recent Buzzfeed article about how cool & hip Austin is (bleh- not going to link to buzzfeed, sorry) and about 2/3’s of the way down the page, I spotted Johnny Depp wearing a Continental Club shirt.  I printed for the CC for over almost 15 years – up until I sold VG — but this wasn’t any old Continental Club shirt — it was from the very first batch we ever did, on spec, I believe. Steve at the club liked the shirts, but after we printed just 72 of these, he asked us to change the color scheme to more closely match the neon sign in front of the club, so here is Johnny Depp, wearing a shirt I printed in Gill Ediger’s shed, with my own bare hands, of which there are only 72 in the world. I cut the amberlith and applied the zip-a-tone & letraset type to this art, by hand, old-skool style.

He must have acquired this while he was in town filming What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which was filmed in Pflugerville and Georgetown, I believe, about the exact same time that we would have printed these shirts. My wife was impressed. It looks like Buzzfeed lifted the photo from this Austin blog which is the only other place I could turn up the image.

Next up, Neil Young in an Antones Jimmy Reed shirt. Johnny Depp is all well and good, but wow, this is a trifecta right here. 1. Neil freaking Young! 2. Design by the iconic Austin artist Danny Garrett, and yeah, Neil, Jimmy Reed, and Antones, are all the best. So, so proud of this one. I knew the photo was around, but drew a big fat blank hunting for a quality copy of it for years and years, until I posted this Ask MetaFilter question, whereupon it was solved in, like, 10 seconds, flat. I love MetaFilter. Seriously, though. Neil Young! I’m more proud of that than about anything in my life, except my children.

The good folks at MetaFilter actually turned up two different versions, one by photographer Chris Walter, from whom I quickly purchased a digital copy, and another by Mike Hashimoto, also available for purchase.

Keep on printing in the free world!

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