Remembering a classic: The Wax Machine

When I first started in Graphic Design – computers and desktop publishing software were just introduced to the industry and were about to change the face of design forever. Paste-up was a key element in the design process back then – and was an art form all its own.

The process was this — you would create the layout, and print it out in pieces.  Then you would assemble the pieces into what was called a mechanical. This is the final art that would be sent to pre-production, and thus the printing press, for reproduction.

In order to assemble (compose) the various pieces like a puzzle into your desired layout, you would adhere them to an art board which had a grid showing the columns and margins in a non-repro blue ink.  These grids were either drawn by hand or pre-printed on the boards. Newspapers and print shops often had full production teams who handled this task.  These people were craftsmen, and very proud of their work.

Because mistakes could easily be made, such as laying down pieces crooked or not spacing correctly within the layout, each piece had to be removable.  Rubber cement was a common adhesive, but often bled through to the type and left visible marks and shadows.  The best adhesive was wax.

The old wax machine worked like a feeder on a copier – you would stick in the sheet to be waxed, and it would pop-out the other end coated and ready to go.  Mind you – these machines were bears.  Too much wax and it would bleed through.  Too little wax, and your page would either not stick, or curl.  Too hot wax and the paper would discolor.  Too cool wax would leave chunks.  It was a delicate balance.  Waxers came in several shapes and sizes – even hand-held models – the larger the wax machine, the crazier the stories accompanying it.  If you worked with a waxer – your clothes would often be ruined, and wax was everywhere – from your hair to your hands to every surface you worked on.

Once the pieces were waxed and then applied to the board, a rubber burnisher would be used to roll over the layout – sticking the pieces tightly and securely to the board to ensure permanence.

Part of the fun was cleaning the wax monster.  Paper dust would settle into the machine, and old wax would clump onto the rollers, making the wax unusable if the machine wasn’t regularly cleaned.  It was messy, sticky, oozy and gooey all rolled into one giant ball – literally!  Thinner was a paste-up artist’s best friend, but oh boy did it smell!

As desktop publishing software (then QuarkXPress and PageMaker) became more prevalent, and printers able to handle large sheets of paper (and now digital production), the life of the wax machine quickly came to an end. The last newspaper (The San Francisco Chronicle) bid paste-up and the waxer a final farewell at the close of 2003.

There are times I miss the fun and the challenge of traditional paste-up.  (I don’t miss the mess.)  It gave a new dimension to the design process that many of the new graphic artists today will never experience.  In the end, I am most grateful that I will never again have to clean a wax machine.

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One response to “Remembering a classic: The Wax Machine

  1. Pingback: Adventures in English | Graham Phillips

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