This is What It’s Like to Fix, an occasional series detailing the different kinds of work, and people, needed to fix the world.
When I started work as a newspaper reporter in 2002, my editor told me about a near-mythical crew who worked in the building.
These men (it was all men, back then) could read and write tiny newspaper text, upside down and backwards, faster than I could dream of typing right-side-up. They cast the next days’ news in hot metal, and they had the scars to prove it. They worked late, they worked hard, and they brooked no nonsense. By the time I arrived, however, they were fixing office printers, or the modern printing presses that had made them obsolete, thanks to union job security. These men, my editor insisted, were to be respected.
Like most people born after the original heyday of letterpress printing, I took for granted that printing something required anything more than a PDF file. That changed after I made a couple posters at the WNY Book Arts Center and got swept up in the letterpress renaissance. Rummage through some cabinets, line up a few glyphs in a chase, run some ink over them, and you, like me, might realize the huge, rich world of pre-digital printing, a world still available to us today.
David Seat lives in that world. He’s been working and fixing Linotype, Intertype, Ludlows, C&P (Chandler & Price), and other printing gear for 50 years. He started in print right out of high school, then was hired by a check printing company in 1974. The company needed to teach a new generation of technicians how to fix their Linotype typesetting machines. Seat and another maintenance man actually fixed everything at the building—including air conditioners and toilets. “We were to try first, and if we could not get it fixed, then we called someone in and stayed with them while they repaired the item, so we could do it the next time,” Seat wrote.
46 years later, machines like the kind Seat started on are still typesetting and printing, but he’s one of the last people who can fix every part of them. Seat started traveling around the country with his wife, Beth, to fix type machines in 1995. He typically fixes around 100 to 200 presses per year. Many are in museums, though some have been left in basements or warehouses for decades.
His parts come from various printing company buy-outs and closures over the decades. His major source, a 5,000-square-foot factory in Atlanta, could be junked at any moment. Seat has to know the very latest news in modern printing so he can keep old-time printing alive.
Everything on the Linotype typesetting machine was made to be fixed. “This machine was made to last hundreds of years, and many hours of operation. They were designed in 1886, and with proper care and maintenance, they are still running today,” Seat wrote. The oldest Linotype he works on is in Denmark, originally built in 1905.
“The main problems that I run into on Linotype Machines are sticky keyboards, dirty mats and magazines, transfers not lined up properly, or bad heaters in the pots,” Seat wrote. “These make up about 75 percent of the repairs that I have to perform.” The most difficult fixes are replacing the pot’s mouthpiece or plunger. Cleaning out a keyboard is one of the most time-consuming—a reassuring bit of continuity with today’s technology.
Because he’s traveling the country, and because each machine is thousands of parts, Seat doesn’t always have what he needs to finish a job. Sometimes he doesn’t have the time for the full repair, either. It’s one of the worst parts of the job. “Being on a job and knowing the machine needs many hours of work to be proper, but getting limited to a few hours to try to make it function a little, when you know it could be so much better.”
While the travel, part-scrounging, and limited access take their toll, Seat gets the same kind of thrill out of making typesetting machines and presses run as he once got at that check-printing job nearly 50 years ago.
“Taking something that has been in storage for 25-50 years and bringing it back to life,” Seat wrote, when asked about his favorite part of the job. “Or taking a machine that has been running but not to its full potential. Getting it back to where it needs to be to operate properly and then hearing someone say, ‘This machine has never run so good,’ when you know it has, but the present owner has never seen it so.”
“I learn something on every job I do. I have been doing this for over 50 years, but have not quite learning about these awesome machines.”