Rod Olzendam

Rod Olzendam • Written in 1996

Rod Olzendam

My 40-year-plus career in the graphic arts industry has spanned three distinct phases: The first saw nearly all of the essential elements of production under one roof. The second featured the formation of specialty shops that supported the central printing plants in the areas of prepress and binding, in particular. And the third phase was seeing a return to the one-stop operation, that again, house most of the essential elements under one roof, often in an amazing array of capabilities. As they say, "The past is prologue" and there is no better example than in the printing industry.

I was asked to share my personal perspective on that evolution (better yet, revolution), as well as the names of many the folks that led us to the fast-paced and ever-changing environment of the moment. I’m a printer, not a writer, but I appreciate the opportunity to offer my perspective.

Phase 1, Self-Contained Shops: It was Fall of 1951 at Frank McCaffrey’s Acme Press on Fourth Avenue in Seattle. The 46-inch Meheile is quiet for the first time in weeks! Frederick & Nelson’s Christmas catalog is off the press and in bindery: 48 9x12-inch pages in full four-color process, 150,000 copies. It was the biggest job of the year, all printed on a one-color letterpress.

All of Seattle’s major printing companies at that time were basically letterpress. Some had small 17x22-inch “litho” presses, barely above duplicating-machine quality. They all had typesetting (both and machine), extensive bindery and camera and delivering capabilities.

But photo lithography was about to rear its head! Letterpress printing was direct to a raised inked surface; photo-litho used photographic negatives burned onto aluminum plates.

In 1952, Craftsman Press took delivery on a 35x45-inch Harris lithographic press, and McCaffrey a 25x38-in two-color Mann. Photo engravers like Western-Tacoma and Artcraft knew their days were numbered. And Ralph Van Dyke, Corde Harmsepreckle, Malcolm Clark and several others were about to take color separations to a new level.

“Brick” Ward’s Bindery would become Bayless, and George Sr. installed the equipment needed to finish what the new multi-color litho presses would produce. From two- to three-thousand impressions per hour, they could now run five- to six-thousand an hour. AMAZING!

Phase 2, Photo-Litho/Trade Shops: The advent of high-speed, high-quality multi-colored sheet fed presses and heat set webs introduced a completely new set of decisions for Seattle printers. They now could produce volumes of printed material in about half the time. The increased output had to be prepared: typeset, color-separated, images prepared and stepped, multiple plates made, presses made ready, paper inventory and multi-purpose bindery at the ready.

Rod Olzendam with Century 21 souvenir book
Rod Olzendam's Acme Press printed the official Seattle World's Fair souvenir book in 1962.

Out of these new demands were born a variety of trade shops. With color seps available, creative designing became a must. Some of the really great designers were Harry Bonath, Bob Mathiessen, Bill Werrbach, Niles Kelly, Nick Kritikos and Fred Walsh. And I’d be remiss not to mention David Strong, probably the most completely prepared art director of them all.

Souvenir book
Rod Olzendam's personalized copy of the souvenir book.

The there were the types studios. Great typographers like Al Jensen, Al Adan, Jim Pettit, Bud Kennedy, John Thomas and Betty Handly. Surrounding themselves with the most modern type faces and equipment, they led the Seattle-Tacoma are from Phase 1 right through Phase 2 and into what I like to call the “Bill Gate” Phase 3.

The color and prepress houses did sterling jobs as well. Van Dyke was the pioneer. Ralph installed the very first color scanner in the United States! Malcolm Clark of Farwest-Acme had led the industry into the scanner era. Now Van Dyke, Corde’s Color Control, Charlie O’Gorman and Frank Westgate taught us printers amazing ways to prep color that we’d never dreamed possible.

George Bayless took over from his father and moved the former Ward’s Bindery from Wall Street to a new installation on Ninth Avenue North, and then in the early 1990s to a huge plant in Renton, always adding incredible equipment to satisfy the every-increasing demand to finish the products that Seattle’s printing industry were producing.

Even the delivery systems advanced by leaps and bounds. The printers’ cars, trucks and motorcycles (some with sidecars) were replaced by numerous companies that did nothing else but pick up and deliver proofs and boxes or skids of printed material.

Lila Cassady’s Mail Ad slowly gave way to huge mailing and fulfillment firms. And paper became more on-demand for specific print jobs.

Phase 3 The Past is Prologue: “Do you have any questions?” I was asked as I toured the new 275,000-square-foot Trojan Specialties plant in Renton. I told Chet McHugh, my friend and guide, that I had so many questions “I really don’t want to know the answers!”

The digital revolution would rapidly telescope the printing process, from design to product, straight through to the printed and bound piece. The digitally driven print-on-demand concept became commonplace. Some of the eye-popping realities for an old printer included presses that hang plates automatically, make-ready reduced from several hours to several minutes. And you asked me if I had any questions!

Those new presses back in 1952 cost about $100,000. Today’s multi-color sheet fed presses are in the $300,000 to several million-dollar range. I have no idea what kind of money we’re talking about in the next couple decades of the ’Bill Gates’ era.’

But it’s clear that this era will be so cost-intensive that more and more printers will be unable to survive without merging or selling, as the valiant United Graphics “five” did in their buyout of Banta. It has taken vision, money and guts to stay in the game. My old friend Brian Dammeier was led kicking and screaming by his son, Kurt, into the new age of hi-tech printing and CD-ROM fulfillment.

Marv Hurtgen, with his own vision and super sales staff, made Trojan Litho an attractive property acquisition by Crown LTD. The Canadian firm parlayed its acquisition into the aforementioned and amazing one-stop Trojan Specialties Pacakging operation in a totally new facility separate from the printing plant.

Would that I were younger, what a time in the history of printing to say, “Yes, I have many, many questions, and lots of time for your answers!”

As they say, "The past is prologue" and there is no better example than in the printing industry.