Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dead Tech: Waxers

If you’re younger than 35 years old, you might want to click off.
This is going to be one of those boring topics where geezers gather together and talk affectionately about “the good old days.”


The waxer was a basic tool that every graphic designer used in the analog era. Waxers applied a thin layer of molten beeswax to the back of a piece of paper.

At the bottom of the waxer was a roller that distributed the wax on the paper in a honeycomb pattern.

The piece of paper might be a headline or a column of type used in a newspaper or magazine layout.

This layout process was called paste-up. The waxer was a big improvement over paste or rubber cement, because it was non-toxic, it could be easily repositioned, and the adhesive didn’t turn brown.

The photo above shows a Lectro-Stick handheld waxer. There were larger sheet-fed waxers, but this little one did any small- to medium-size waxing job.

By removing the red plug at the top, you could push in a sticky square of yellowish beeswax. A heating element inside melted down the wax. It took about a half an hour to warm up.

You could leave the waxer plugged in all day and it didn’t hurt it. It gave off a friendly smell, reminiscent of candles.

This is one tool that still has some practical uses. If you can still find one (along with a supply of wax squares), grab it! It’s still the best repositionable way to hold down small pieces of paper, like thumbnail sketches, on a larger board.
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(Note: This is the first of an occasional feature called “Dead Tech.” In the future we’ll unravel the mysteries of such things as Rubylith, Letraset, Merganthaler, Zipatone, and Craft Tint. And if you’re under 35 and you read this far: I congratulate you. You are a person of rare spirit and curiosity.)

39 comments:

Reggienoble2 said...

Man, I get a kick out of all these obscure, but well thought out journals. So much so that one of these days i'll muster up the courage to stop lurking and let that James Gurney guy know it!

Limely said...

I am a person of rare spirit and curiosity!

I think it's pretty interesting to read about how things were done a while back. This tool seems sort of adorable, and better than tack-it gum.

E Colquhoun said...

If you remember that then you should check this out...The Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies.
http://www.drawger.com/show.php?what=shows&show_id=32

Ali Al-Selmie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
elizAbeth Atwood said...

Brings back the good old days. I really enjoyed being a paste-up artist. Makes one appreciate more the ease of computer work.

elizAbeth Atwood said...

Brings back the good old days. I really enjoyed being a paste-up artist. Makes one appreciate more the ease of computer work.

jeff jordan said...

I'm almost 60 Something, and I'm not sure I remember those tools all that fondly, but I used many of them as a graphic artist. Making print orders for various projects, PMTs and such......
On the other hand, I know NOTHING about present day graphic production, and so far I prefer to remain ignorant of them.
Bottom line, I feel incredibly lucky to have moved beyond the realm of Art Direction, doing what other people tell you to do.It was an important phase that ended, and now I get to paint what I want, every day.
I'll retire when I die.

Steve said...

For me (a 58 year old), paste-ups involved the school newspaper. It was a revelation when, after a few years of rubber cement and handheld waxers, we began taking our layout sheets with their blue lines to the local newspaper layout room. They didn't have just the handheld waxer in today's blog, they had table mounted waxers that laid down thin parallel lines of wax on the paper. This machine also had an autofeed. Its rollers zipped the stories, headlines, and half-tone photos through as the wax was laid down. For us, the stunning climax of this experience was to move the layout sheets and freshly-waxed rectangles of paper over to the room-length, angled light tables. We could see the entire double page spread at one time, the blue lines back-lit by the fluorescent tubes. We'd attained paste-up nirvana...and straight columns, at last.

Sue said...

I used to use one of these in my days as a graphic designer, then when I went freelance I bought one of my own. I think I still have it somewhere... I can't wait to see what else you dig up.

Frank P. Ordaz said...

Jim,

I read this and I started to develop a nervous twitch again...;v)

Connie M said...

Awhile back, Lou Brooks assembled a whole gallery of obsolete art tools on Drawger:
http://www.drawger.com/show.php?show_id=32
I used/had/have most of them --contributed the fluorographic pencil to the collection.

Dominic Philibert said...

Nice blog!!!!!!!!!!!!

S. Weasel said...

I worked for a company that was doing traditional publication paste-up with galley as late as the late Nineties. I think because their typesetting was unionized. Or maybe we were all just scared of them.

Ours was a desktop model that took an odorless white wax. Maybe twenty inches wide, with a foot pedal.

You could make wicked evil 'spit'balls out of long strips of waxed galley, folded over and crushed with a drafting arm. Big industrial-sized rubber bands. Oh, they would raise welts. How we made the darkroom techs hop!

Alida Saxon said...

Oh I remember using these too well! By the time I got into the field it was going to computers, but when I was young I helped in my father's graphic arts studio doing paste up prep or photo stats. We had the big full sheet model where it had quite a reservoir of wax and you'd feed the stats in, none of the hand rolling. I liked it far better than the rubber cement.

S. Weasel said...

That's a fabulous link, Connie M.

Eerie Eric said...

the death of a old tech, the birth of a new phrase "click off" haha, did mr gurney just tell me to "click off" because i'm under 35!!! haha!

Steve said...

I second S. Weasel's comment, Connie M.'s link is fabulous. My only question is how they got into my studio to photograph so many items without my knowledge...

Olaf said...

Ooo, the handy waxer. I haven't thought of it since I dumped it in the mid- eightees. Now I remember the smell and how painful it was to clean. And compared to real wax machines it was pretty awful. Please dig out some more tools from anno dazumal!

www.ritoprat.se

Smurfswacker said...

I still have my hand waxer AND a box of wax, but I'm hanged if I can find any use for it. Unlike Olaf I never had problems cleaning it because I never cleaned it.

I learned paste-up in Explorer Scouts and the skill came in handy during many lean years. I remember thinking often, "Well, if my comics career doesn't pan out at least I'll have paste-up to fall back on!" Then came computer assembly and bang! Within a couple of years the entire occupation had vanished! I still remember my jaw dropping when I went into the Art Store and saw hundreds of boxes of Zipatone and Letraset on sale for a buck apiece. And cussing because I didn't have money to buy any. If I had done, I'd probably still have several hundred sheets of unused pressure lettering in my garage.

Doug said...

We had a waxer in the art dept I worked in that you could feed a strip of headline type or a stat (another dead tech item) through. The real challenge was to feed through a small strip of type. Sometimes it would catch on the roller and go round and round... wax on both sides. Bummer. Of course the fun was getting some wax on your fingers and having to peel it off.. those were the days! :0)

r8r said...

so we're either persons of rare spirit and curiosity...
or we're just old.

Latter category here!

PMTs used to rule.

Sarah said...

I am under 35 - BUT I worked for a mom & pop printshop for a couple of years (in 2005!) and used this baby, as well as other antiquated machines. It was more of a novelty, though...

R. Adrian Z said...

i'm 30, this thing can make you a masterpiece , personally i prefer this waxers better than Spraymount.

Good old days ;)

Jeliza's said...

Oooh, I want one of those. (Being merely 35 and not a graphic designer, I hadn't seen them before).

I bet they'd be great for encaustic collage....

Joe Sutphin said...

thats fun! Im looking forward to it.

Erik Bongers said...

Thank you.
For a computer age person, the article clearly explains how the the aparatus operates.
But what is 'paper'?

yvonne said...

Wow! Haven't seen one of those in a long time...but when I started in graphic design there were no border tapes either. If you wanted a border on an ad you drew parallel lines and colored them in. Curved corners were done with a compass.

Am I dating myself?

Liddy said...

We still use rubylith at the screenprint co-op I belong to! I'll look forward to your post on it.

Rayford said...

I used to use Zipatone like there was no tomorrow only 15 years ago. I still like the feeling of scratching into it to get gradations of texture and value. Thanks for the memories:)

Ginger*:) said...

Well I am not under 35, but this was new to me. Thanks for the interesting look back. I am now on my way to the museum of forgotten art supplies to see what I might have left there.

jean said...

I might be wrong, but I believe the waxer was sort of like the 8-track tape, strong for a short time, wedged between rubber cement and desktop publishing. At least I remember it that way.

And I remember, ah, yes, I remember (from when I was a rookie editor) the layout artist going bonkers over having to paste down tons of "patches" because of the mistakes I missed on the first round. And sometimes they came off, or got crooked. Har, har, those were the days!

the plummer said...

i'm always fascinated by "dead tech" and lost techniques. i love the smell of beeswax too - i used to make pysanky (ukrainian easter eggs) that required beeswax in the process. and being 24, i'm definitally an odd one amongst all you oldies!

vickiandrandyrossart said...

Ah, the smell...comfort!

sfox said...

To the waxer, I would add a no.11 Exacto knife and dividers. I inherited my dad's mechanical drawing set. Really find compass, divider, etc. from Germany. I really put some milage on them in 15 years doing graphic design. Quit when computers came along because I just couldn't face having to start over again. Went back to school and got a degree in Illustration.

Still have my proportion wheel in a drawer somewhere in the studio.

And this post also brings back the memory of learning how to count characters to "flow" type around an image. Boy, was that tedious.

Did anyone else here buy typesetting from Solotype? He's still in business on the web, as it turns out. The type junkies dream.

Mileu said...

I do remember the waxer! I used the handheld device and bought the table waxer when i was freelancer. I'm 45 years old. The last year I was in school 2 teachers retired. Next few years almost everyone were replaced by a younger generation of teachers. We, students at that time, were kind of the lasts of the Mohicans of the graphic designers of the old generation. We had oldschool knowledge and when we went out to find jobs, everybody had the new technologies. Thanks for this blog. Quite interesting

First said...

I can still feel the wax under my nails. . . .Great post!

dkvision said...

I still have mine! But where can I get some wax for it. Can I just use regular bees wax?

fingle said...

I'd still use my waxer, if we still had a plate camera in the shop. Sadly, we went all-digital two years ago and I lost my offset press to the winds of time. I still call myself a printer, but I no longer go home with ink-stained fingers, and that's a little sad.

The print shop used to smell of ink, varnish, hot wax, coffee, blanket wash and a sharp overtone of deglazer, and sometimes the whiff of anhydrous ammonia (a smell that reminds you that you're ALIVE!) It was a very three-dimensional smell, but these days it's just coffee and ozone.

I'm so old school!

James Gurney said...

Fingle, thanks for recalling the smells. They bring back memories more than anything else.