Techie question from a nube/rube (AB Dick/offset questions) (1 Viewer)

Hey team --

So, I've been doing screenprinting for a bunch of years now, and have fooled around with some basic block printing and other 'crafty' type stuff.

But I'm interested in getting into big-league printing because
a) I own a used bookshop, so will have at least one venue to sell stuff in
b) I love paper and printing
c) for local artists, writers, getting small batch stuff printed means either overpaying or using print-on-demand that often looks pretty horrible. I'd like to offer 'at-cost' printing for local folks, in addition to the random zine/comic/writing stuff I do (yes there's some vanity here too)

All that being said, I don't ACTUALLY know what I'm doing. I found an AB Dick 8820 for sale, which is a 1-color offset that comes with the T-51 swing arm for doing a second color. And it's cheap as dirt, for what it is.

So, anybody who uses/used these things have any advice? How's the learning curve? How's the quality? How's the maintenance? What questions should I be asking the seller (have to travel to the next state to pick it up)?

Any help is truly truly appreciated.

I guess you could learn how to run that yourself, but I wouldn't bother if I were you. Especially a T-head. It's not like pressing buttons a Xerox machine, or even something like screen printing. Offset printing is a skilled trade. And on AB Dicks it's kind of an art.

I ran 360s and 8820s, and they are not newbie-friendly. I was an offset printer for 7 years before I got a job in a shop that ran AB Dicks, and it took me 3 or 4 months to get comfortable with the things. That's with 7 years of full time offset experience. Learning how to operate them is something that is going to take a lot more time than you might expect. You will absolutely need someone who knows how to run the press to teach you. You can't figure it out just by dicking around with it (no pun intended).

An 8820 can turn out excellent quality work, assuming you have a skilled operator. You may be able to eek out some kind of printed material if you don't know what you're doing. I don't want to make it sound like rocket science. But it won't be good printing. If you can't be dissuaded (in case you didn't pick up on it, that's what I'm trying to do), ask if the ink rollers are in good shape. New rollers will cost more many times more than you'll pay for the press.

You're also going to need a plate maker. And a good set of tools. You're good with tools, right?

Or you could just forget about it and have a few drinks. That would be my advice.
Thanks for the advice/tips and dissuasion. I think I was looking for that so that I would either a) get dissuaded, or b) push back on the reasons I'm interested in it & really comes to terms with the potential commitment here. I'm still making up my mind about it, but your input is really appreciated.
Kilgore: what he said about learning to run the A B Dick press.

About your reasons for wanting to run a press, this one: "c) for local artists, writers, getting small batch stuff printed means either overpaying or using print-on-demand that often looks pretty horrible. I'd like to offer 'at-cost' printing for local folks..." doesn't make sense to me. If the local writers and artists aren't into it enough to pay full price to have their stuff printed, they probably won't be looking to have you do it at cost. I doubt the mark up by professional printers is that much -- at least if you're looking at the most reasonable printers in town. It would be a small difference between your at cost price and the "economy printing" price offered by the pros. Getting and learning to use a press is a lot for you to go through just to save the locals a few bucks per project. What would be far more valuable to them (and you may already do this now) is to offer them free use of space in your bookshop to display and sell their art or to give readings, signings and other events. Accept books on commission and have them on display in your store. That would be a big help to the writers and artists and wouldn't cost you a thing other than the extra paperwork and the bother. Anyone who really wants to publish will find a way. Print on Demand books can be very attractive or ugly. It seems to depend on the company doing the publishing and the care taken by the author in setting it up for printing. Keep us posted on what you decide to do, and good luck.
What he said about your book store.

And here's why I said to ask about the rollers - there are a lot of them:


Some of those oscillate from side to side, so they have mechanical innards that can break or wear out. Not cheap. But the rubber on the rollers is what usually fails or becomes damaged. Especially if the press has been unused for any length of time. There used to be guys who could re-cover rollers - put new rubber on them - but I have to wonder if there are still resources like that.
What you both said. Here's a little more background --

Part of the reason we opened the shop was that when I went to the King Independent Bookstore in Denver and asked if they carried comics, they said, 'no, people don't buy them'. Not even LOCAL comics? No. What about smaller press stuff - chapbooks, zines? No, no, no.

Our mantra is, 'if you make it, and if it's paper, we'll sell it for you'. So we have two nice big racks full of zines, comics, chapbooks and the like. Once I joined this board, I hooked up with Bill and now have a nice little Bottle of Smoke Press display right next to the counter. We host events as often as we can, and do them in conjunction with our landlords/friends/neighbors over at Wax Trax Records. We'll do a reading or signing here, and have bands over there. When we do events, we believe in two things. Free beer and free cake. Both are handed out liberally.

We host the Cowtown Comix Fest, which is for small press comics and comic-related stuff, and for everything we buy from people, we pay cash up front, not consignment.

So, when we opened, my buddy and I had talked about housing a small press in the back of the shop to print up...whatever we wanted. For the first few years, we've been focused on getting customers, making sure we had the best stock possible, and just the general upkeep of a shop. Lately, as we've settled in a little, we've re-brought-up the press idea, spurned on by a local cartoonist.

He kept bringing in his comics and we kept buying them and they kept flying off the shelves. His stuff sells as fast as single-issue Crumb stuff does, so we kept asking for more copies.

He was working at a bagel shop and doing the print on demand thing. As such, he was getting his comics 10-15 at a time, and paying $2.50 an issue or so. With a $4 cover price, and a shop like ours paying 60% for wholesale, he was losing money. Forget about it when he was covering shipping to other out-of-state shops.

I started looking at the economics of it all, and it's frustrating (as I'm sure you both are all too aware). The smaller the print run, the more expensive the per issue cost is. So that means a higher cover price to break even on an issue. But people don't want to pay $5-6 for a comic or chapbook by someone they've never heard of. The want to pay $3, so with a higher cover, you sell fewer copies.

To get the costs down to the point where a $3-$4 cover price is doable, you need a bigger print run, which requires a bigger financial investment and means larger distribution, which is ALSO a challenge for a relative unknown.

And to be clear, 80-90% of the stuff out there is perfectly appropriate to be copied off at a copy shop, a handful of issues at a time. I'm talking about this weird nether world of artists for whom a small batch is simply too small and big print runs are hard to afford.

So, with this guy, we just said, 'look, we'll cover the cost of a print run of 2,000, and do this like we're ACTUALLY publishers'. I scoured around and found a printer I like, the cost was good, and we'll all come out it well, I believe.

Now, the reality is we can afford to do that, MAYBE once a year, which isn't terrible, but I started thinking again about our interest in actually getting into the printing, which would help cut cost on stuff we'd like to print. To be fair, it wouldn't quite be charging people cost, but rather cost+expenses, to help recoup the cost of the machine and all of that.

I'll sneak in here that the machine I found is $750. It was used by a public school to print off their newsletters, and I'm guessing was just too damn complex to figure out. So for me I'm going, 'well shit, I don't want to invest $3K in a machine I don't know how to use, but for $750 it's hard NOT to."

Ok, I think you both have all the relevant information. And again, I really appreciate the feedback.


PS -- That one comic we printed is Blammo #6, by Noah Van Sciver, and has been nominated for an Ignatz award, which is a decent sized deal in the small comics world. WooT!
The problem is that $750 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Letterpress and offset are similar in that the press itself is typically a small piece of the puzzle. You need (for offset) a machine to burn plates, bindery equipment (you do not want to hand fold or staple a 500 copy run of 8 or 12 - or more - pages), consumable supplies like paper, plate material, solvents and various nasty chemicals, inks, rags, etc., etc. Your start up costs will make your own printing more expensive than using a commercial printer. That doesn't include the time you will need to invest to become proficient on the machine(s). While you are learning, all the paper, ink, plates, etc. that you go through become wa$te.

You are aiming for a real difficult spot - somewhere between a commercial printer who has enough work to survive as a business and a hobbyist who expects to only spend money, not make it. If you told me you or your partner (or a close friend or family member) was already a printer, and had a press, some bindery equipment and a stockpile of supplies that would be a different story. You just have a tough road there, starting from scratch.

Is it doable? Sure. But it would be much easier with at least some press experience and/or a pile of equipment and supplies or disposable cash. The good news is, as you've seen, that kind of machinery is generally not very expensive (I've seen Multilith 1250 and AB Dick 360 presses sell for $100). So you can find everything you need in a junkpile somewhere, but it usually needs some kind of repair to get it into proper working order.

My punk rock DIY side says, "Go for it! It will be a great experience." My punk-rock-was-35-years-ago side says, "Relax and watch a movie instead." Ha.
wait you're kilgore as in "kilgore books" ?! i just read blammo #6 earlier this afternoon - i bought it from noah over the weekend and am hoping to get him to publish something with chance press (the small press i run w/justine, who also posts here).

also, for reference:

sorry to go off topic - i just got swept up in what an insanely small world it is, indeed.

edit - everyone should support this guy by buying Blammo #6 (and back issues as well) -
Jordan, I am one and the same. It's a great comic. We funded the first print of Blammo #5, and took over the whole printing of Blammo #6. On the side I've also been shooting a documentary project on John P. I checked out your site and really dig the mock ups. I might have a couple tips/suggestions for you, but probably better to take it off forum. Hit me up at kilgore books at gee male. Your books are lovely, BTW.
It is a crazy small world.

As far as costs; I do not know offset, but can tell you that as far as letterpress, you can get a C&P like I use free if you have time to wait. Otherwise, you can get one for a couple hundred. Then you have to get rollers, which are about $80 each (mine takes three rollers). Then ink, supplies, type, paper, book cloth, etc, etc, etc. I have probably spent $10,000 on these things. You can never have enough. If my press ever just up and broke, I am lucky-the C&P is the most common press out there, so everything that I have including rollers woudl work on a new press, as long as it is the same size, which was made from the 1890's - 1960's. With Offset, the $3000 that you drop in rollers will do you no good if the press craps out and you have to get another press (unless you find the exact same model, which is unlikely.)

Maybe Get a letterpress for art prints.broadsides and small books and have the comic books printed by others. There have to be decent offset printers that will do a good job on this. Maybe talk to other smaller comic publishers?

Best of luck,
This might work: make friends with a commercial printer and get him to moonlight for beer on your projects. Rumba Train Press did a book like that. The author was buddies with the printer, not me, so it only lasted for one book, but it was a beautiful book -- nice paper, color inks, perfect bound. The author gave him a bowling ball inscribed "Rumba Train Press" when the book was done.

kilgore, you're right, small press books on consignment almost never sell. What they do, however (and I'm sure you know this) is make the authors, publishers and their friends feel good about your store and establish you as community friendly, and that can help sales in general. My wife has worked in bookstores all her life and seen this happen (or not happen when the shop is not local author friendly.)
Writing this from traffic court. God love the modern age. So, I've been convinced that what I'll do is find a printer to apprentice myself to, and take it from there. You know, cart, horse and all that. Thanks for allthe input folks!


Dear Dan
My husband found this post for me while I was up to my elbows in ink and grease, trying to get my AB dick 360 up and running. Perhaps he was trying to prove to me that I was truly nuts because people were kind of down on the idea. I will be finding out very soon whether or not this can be done. I own a fine art print studio called Pickwick Independent Press. The idea was to provide print facilities for artists and we started with a few little etching presses in a back room. We now have a 1200 sq ft studio with everything from letterpress to intaglio. My dream is to expand into a design fab lab/ self publishing facility. I want to get designers/illustrators and makers in the same room. I have had a lot of offset guys trying to talk me out of these old offset presses. I understand why, sort of, but I come with a background in fine art lithography so a portion of the learning curve isn't that frightening to me, and the rest is just mechanics. And what mechanics! These machines are amazing!!!! This press was given to me and I have had no problem finding parts and supplies for it as a lot are still available and what I can't find I have been able to get from eBay and craigslist. My question for you, as I am a little farther along then you were when you posted this in September 2010, is... what happened!!! Did you get the press or were you talked out of it?
Lisa Pixley
This is a poster design for the shop, we wanted to make the press less intimidating to people willing to learn, so we put feet on it. Maybe this will help others out there too.
I come with a background in fine art lithography so a portion of the learning curve isn't that frightening to me, and the rest is just mechanics.
Well then, as a lithographer you know that there are hobbyists, people who are adequately skilled and then there are master printers. Big difference between the first and the last.

Like I said a couple of times earlier here, yes, (almost) anyone can learn how to run a small offset press. But you kind of denigrate the printing trade, or art, or whatever you want to call it, when you say, "Oh, it's just mechanics." It's "just mechanics" like oil painting is "just squeezing color out of some tubes."

But good luck anyway. I dreamed every day of escaping those presses, so it's kind of funny to see people picking them up and being creative with them. It's a good thing. It makes me happy.

As long as I don't have to touch them. ;)
Having painted for many years I can say that machines are way easier. Machines either do what they are supposed to do or they don't. Then you troubleshoot with a list of variables. One can be poetic about machines, but machines in and of themselves are practical beasts. But yes, badass, and im probably a better Painter then mechanic. As far as the industry goes, this technology will be fully obsolete in a few years. I like to think of my shop as a sanctuary for tired old work horses that still have a few good years of light use in them. Besides I pay the guys who worked these things their whole lives to teach workshops. Not a bad gig... Right?..
P.S. I called AB Dick and they said they'd still send a guy over to service it. Do you think I'll be able to do that with my Hewlett Packard in 40 years?
I print on a 97 year old press, so I can appreciate saving old machines. I have never printed on an offset press, but can say that my press is nothing but mechanical, but it takes a lot of skill to get a good impression. Things like make-ready are non mechanical adjustments that make the difference between amateur and professional printing.

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