Tricks of the trade

magic-trickBack in the early days of my print career, I worked in a small-shop environment, which allowed for more, well, horseplay than you’re allowed to do in a larger print shop.  By the time you get to more than 25 employees, you generally have an employee manual and managers who frown on horseplay or teasing.  It’s seen as too risky or as something that could potentially lead to an injury, with disability or even a lawsuit resulting from it.  So, they discourage horseplay.  But when you are in a smaller environment with maybe only 10-15 employees, sometimes a little fun is not a bad thing.  In my early years there were things like ink being put on control handles or coffee mugs.  Sweatshirts were shrunk-wrapped and then taped and tossed up to the ceiling so they’d stay up there.  And, then there’d be the occasional full-moons flashing across the small pressroom.  All in good fun, of course.  But the best tricks were the ones played on the newbies, the non-print people hired from outside the print industry.  And here they are!!!

HALFTONE DOTS260px-Halftoning_introduction.svg

I’m sure most of you know what a halftone is.  For those of you who don’t, it’s the way continuous tone images are transformed into something that can print.  You see, you can’t print continuous tone in the print process.  The halftone process was developed a very long time ago where small dots are used, and the size of the dot (and therefore the amount of ink on the paper) would create shadow or highlight.  The process involved putting a photo on a large flatbed camera, exposing it to the litho film, with a screen between the film and the image.  The darker the image the heavier the dot, and the lighter the area on the image, the smaller the dot.  Anyway, unless you were in traditional prepress or a press operator, you didn’t know about halftones.  So, the trick was to tell some young, impressionable new kid to go to the local self-help Kirk, La Salle or Kelly Paper store and tell them to get some halftone dots.  Usually, you’d tell them to get a bag or something like that, and the paper stores were in on it.  They’d tell the driver they didn’t have them there, or say they were out of inventory.  Eventually the driver would return, downcast that they couldn’t get the dots.  You’d grill them, asking them why they didn’t go to one of the other self-help stores.  Eventually they’d wise up, or be told by a kind employee that it was a joke.



Now, I know that in the art of watercolor painting there are such things as paper stretchers.  And in printing, paper will stretch through the press, especially if it’s a light basis-weight and you’re doing multiple passes in the press.  But to some young kid, telling them to get a paper stretcher, or borrow one from another print vendor or supplier, is a good trick.  We’d often send our young, impressionable drivers to one of our broker clients, or to the self-help paper stores, and tell them to get a paper stretcher.  And, just as the halftone dots, the brokers or self-help stores were in on it.  Sometimes, as an added cruelty, you’d ask them to get BOTH the halftone dots and paper stretcher on the same trip, and you’d even do up a purchase order to enhance the trick.


But by far, the BEST trick played on newbies was the hot ink trick, and usually it’s a two-man play.  The trick is done by a pressman mixing ink for a print job.  Most companies, large and small, now buy ink pre-mixed in a specific PMS color.  But smaller shops often mix it themselves.  PMS books give specific formulas to follow to achieve specific colors, and you kept the base colors on hand for mixing.  On either a sheet of 12 point board or a glass table-top you’d dole out the amounts of process yellow, reflex blue, or rhodamine red, and with an ink knife (just like a putty knife) you’d mix up the colors to get the desired PMS.  Now, ink has a certain viscosity, so the trick is as you mix it you tell the newbie it’s getting warm.  The 2nd man then places his hand over the gob of ink to verify that.  Naturally, the newbie is curious too, and places their hand over the pile of ink to feel the warmth rising from it, and when they do, their hand is slapped down into that mess of ink by the pressman or the 2nd guy.  And, of course, ink is tough to clean off skin.  The BEST thing I ever saw was when a newbie was having that trick played on him, and while the pressman had his hand over the pile to demonstrate the heat, the newbie pushed the pressman’s hand in the ink pile!  After that happened, that particular pressman never did the hot ink trick again!

While many large companies frown on tricks like this, I found them to be wonderful ways to gently haze a new employee.  The ones that laughed with you became valuable team members and friends.  The ones that reacted negatively, or even responded with a more vengeful trick themselves, were soon gone.  It’s been a long time since a good trick was played on me, and I miss it.

So, don’t let a day go by without a good joke or something to make you smile, but more importantly, build up the team spirit and team approach.

Connect with John on Google+Twitter and LinkedIn.


About John Prothero

John Prothero is a print professional with over 30 years experience in the print industry. Starting out as a driver delivering jobs, he worked in bindery, proofing, plating, traditional prepress (camera and stripping), scheduling, job planning, job management, account management and digital job production. His skills also run in the area of blog authorship, social media management, and lead generation and qualification of prospective clients. John is also a contributor to Rhode Island Creative Magazine, a digital publication that highlights the creative spirit of the state of Rhode Island. You can read their online issues at
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