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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The original M&R Challenger series 1 and Gauntlet series 1 presses shipped with “cycle interruption” safety cables that prevented the indexer from turning when they were unplugged, so that no one could step between the print heads and get hurt by the indexing pallets while the press was running. This all seemed well and good, but they used regular 1/4-inch phone jacks which were prone to failure. People karate-chop them instead of using 2 hands to pull them apart, maybe because they have stuff in their other hand, or maybe because they’re lazy, but they come unsoldered all the time. Sometimes, just the press running will cause enough shake that they spontaneously disconnect, the press will stop mid-print, & you have to scurry around looking for the unplugged safety wire. When this happens mid-flood, or mid-stroke, you can count on rejects.
Here’s a photo of a Challenger 1 with the old 1/4 inch phone jacks still installed:
The upshot of this was that although the machines need safety cords, they are frustrating, prone to breakage & way too much time is spent futzing with them instead of printing, so the vast majority of Challenger 1 owners simply bypass them, which is all too easy to do, once someone shows you the trick. (Don’t ask me)
There’s good news for series 1 press owners, though! The fast, simple & reliable magnetic cycle interruption cables that M&R introduced with the Series II presses are completely compatible with the series I machines, with just a tiny bit of work.
Here’s one of our Challenger 1’s with its new magnetic safety cables:
The end wires inside the first and last print heads are identical, so the only problem is connecting them to the heads, since the gigantic magnets don’t fit through the holes formerly occupied by the old 1/4 phone connector wires. I talked it over with my friend Joe from igitrfixed.com, and we came up with a pretty simple solution in just a few minutes. It took him about 2 hours per press to drill holes in the end caps of the print head arms, and attach the cables with zip ties, and now both our “venerable” Challenger I’s have fancy new safety cables!
Here you can see the custom drill & zip tie configuration for holding the new cables to the print heads:
I highly recommend this to any Challenger I owners out there, instead of simply bypassing the old cords out of frustration. We’ve had zero problems with them spontaneously disconnecting or shorting out, or coming unsoldered after 4 months, and I’m very happy we made this upgrade.
Recently, when I separated the file for my upcoming Maple Leaves shirt, I recorded my screen as I worked through it, so I could make this here instructional video.
The file is a scan of a black & white negative, but I discovered something with my slide scanner — if I leave it in color negative mode when I load it with black & white film, it imparts some really interesting color casts to the resulting scans that look antique. The original RGB file wasn’t actually tinted by me — it was tinted by my scanner.
So, what I wanted to do in the separation process was to preserve this tinting as much as possible while setting it up to print as a halftone process screen print. It ends up being 5 colors in the end. I will always use at least a black & grey doutone for printing black & white photos, because it gives me so much more on-press control than just a simple greyscale halftone. The theory here is that if there’s less black in the highlights, you won’t kill them with excessive dot gain attempting to get the shadows dense, & by moving some of the midtone & highlight information to a grey screen, you can control perceived dot gain by adjusting the brightness value of the grey ink. So, if the print is looking just a tad too dark in the midtones by the time you’ve got good solid coverage in the shadows, you can just put a lighter grey in the grey screen, and presto! In offset printing, duotones are also used to alter the hue of a greyscale photograph. These will actually have black toning the image across the tonal width, but the black will be underlain with a second halftone screen with a color in it, like yellow or orange, to give a sepiatone effect, for instance. (General ink mixing hint: Bright orange and black always makes the best deep browns. Wilfex’s fluorescent orange + black is my favorite brown of all.)
With this file, I really need to do both — I need a medium grey to control the highlights & midtones, & I needed an orange & a tan to tint the image. So, anyway, to the video. I used captions instead of a voice-over, because I hate doing voice-overs. Deal.
The video is a bit long at 15 minutes, but it’s an edit/speed-up of what was just over an hour’s worth of work, undo’s notwithstanding. Command-z is my friend, as is Save As…
The steps you see here: 1. Desaturate the file, using the Black & White adjustment dialog, which offers more control than just converting straight to greyscale. 2. Covert to greyscale, which is necessary before you can convert to duotone. 3. Convert to duotone, which opens the duotone dialog, where you can pick ink colors, and add up to three additional colors, but choosing the quadtone option. 4. Convert the file to multichannel mode, which allows you to make selections based on individual channels, and make adjustments based on those selections. Key here — Command-clicking on a channel in the channels pane makes a feathered selection based on the density of the contents of that channel. Then, you can switch to other channels and make adjustments based on that selection. (Shift+command-click another channel to add its contents to the selection, or option+command-click another channel to subtract its contents from the selection) Also, the Select by Color Range… tool is very useful. If you use the Sampled Colors option, you can pick a density with the eyedropper, then adjust the sensitivity of the selection with the slider. 5. General dot-gain adjustments. T-shirts are coarse, they wick the ink, & gain is much worse than any of the paper settings in Photoshop’s color settings. 6. Add a white channel for a total of 5 colors.
Coming up “soon” (ha!) I actually print the thing.
These are some pretty awesome videos of printers rockin’ it Old Skool. Amberlith! Cameras! Wooden frames! And those old oval machines — they were rock solid, but watch the press in the first vid — one long bar controlled all the squeegees at once, so you had a choice — single stroke all the colors or double stroke all the colors.
Here’s one from Winterland, who for a while had the whole music industry sewn up. Early in the video, they pan by a Dangerous Toys shirt, which was an account that they stole from me when they signed their major label deal.
They also had the old ovals, but also some of the more new-fangled Arrow Multiprinters. Winterland actually did some really good work & pushed multi-color printing on dark shirts in some new directions at the time. I still have a Neville Bros. shirt that I’m pretty sure came from Winterland, and I learned a bit about sepping halftone underbases for dark shirts by reverse-engineering their prints.
Both of these videos are courtesy of this fun thread at The Shirt Board, which is turning into my favorite T-shirt printing-related message board. Lots of experience there, & a nice bunch of folks.
I’m sorry, those vinyl air-dry inks are really expensive and difficult to work with, so we really don’t do bumper-stickers. Okay, thanks for calling.
Hello, Wearables Printing.
Gosh — I’m sorry. Our margins are really slim & it only takes a few rejects on those expensive sweatshirts to gobble up all our profits, plus they’re slow to print, & we’ve got to change all our settings on the press. Okay, thanks anyway.
Hello, T-shirt shop.
Yes sir, just T-shirts. Great! Wait, no — 4 color process doesn’t work well on fabric. We get too much dot gain & the colors always come out muddy. I do appreciate you calling, though.
Hello, Spot Color T-shirt Printing Incorporated, may I help you?
We do — I mean we can, but we’ve got to charge a lot for printing on darks because of all the challenges with opacity. I really can’t come down on that quote. Well, thanks anyway, have a nice day.
Hello, Spot Color on White T-shirt Printing Incorporated, how may I direct your call?
Color matching? Well, our ink manufacturer makes a range of stock colors, but we haven’t had a need to invest in a Pantone matching system until now, so I can’t guarantee we’ll get that color exactly. Okay, thanks for calling.
Hello, Spot Color Black Ink on White T-shirt Printing incorporated.
I’m sorry, when I tried to open your file I got a missing font message, so we just printed it like that. REFUND? GOOD DAY, SIR!
Hello, Spot Color Helvetica Bold Black Ink on White T-shirt Printing.
Youth sizes? No, we can’t fit those on our platens. Okay, then, goodbye.
Hello, Spot Color Helvetica Bold Black Ink on Adult White T-shirt Printi…
Huh… they hung up.