1980-81 ~ Tonge & Ellam

1980-81 ~ Tonge & Ellam

My first job. Hired as a racker for a screen printing shop at $4 an hour, starting the Monday after school finished. Tonge & Ellam, a well established sign shop at 130 E. 3rd Ave in Vancouver, their bread and butter was retail signage and bus metals. For 15 years, the five Coen brothers had worked for the company, running it like their own private club. There had been a major a blowout and they were all gone by the time I got hired. It was an ongoing shitshow, as after two weeks I found myself second in seniority in the shop… Not bad for a new hire… Ended up staying for a year and a half. Met some cool people and learned a lot in that time. The main lesson being I didn’t want to be a screen printer for a living any more…

I started, as I said, the Monday after graduation. I showed up that first day, on the heavy limp after being hit by a car on the way to my first real girlfriends house a few days before. Deke-ing through traffic on my 10 speed I was launched into the air over the roof of a car that suddenly appeared in my path. My girlfriends mom, annoyed that I didn’t show up, said to Cheryl that “I better have been hit by a car” to stand her up like that. To be fair, Mrs. Stinson did feel bad after she heard what had actually happened…

Prepping stock with the roller-coater. I hated that fucking machine…

Starting any job with an injury you couldn’t ignore was bad enough. Starting your first real job in the big bad world with a severe Charley Horse was infinitely worse. I had no idea what to expect so I grit my teeth and hobbled around the shop for a solid month before my leg was completely healed. I guess I must have shown that I was keen enough because I wasn’t hassled too much about being a gimp. They were just happy to have me show up every day ready to work.

Roller coater fun times

The job itself was no picnic. The job of a racker in a screen printing shop is to basically do everything except actually print the stock. Tape out and set up the screen in register, prepare the stock to be printed, set the stock on the table for the “printer” to print, take the printed stock off the table and put it in a drying rack. After the job was done, the screen needed to be cleaned with Varsol, Lacquer Thinner or another more gnarly solvent and returned to the screen prep room to be stripped. Open buckets of solvent were the norm with no gloves or masks provided and little to no ventilation in the shop. I literally bathed in the shit… It wasn’t really a problem though as I kind of enjoyed the huffing high. For a while at least, until I started to notice the pounding headaches I developed on my bus ride home to Richmond at the end of every day.

Drying racks on the shop floor

The first  job I racked for I ended up washing out the halftone dots on a four colour separation every second print because they were drying in. The fellow I was racking for, who had roughly the same ‘experience’ I had at the job but was a better bullshitter, had added too much extender to the ink, fucking it up. The print job was 150 two panel, king size “bus metals” (large ads that appeared on the side of Metro buses) for Foremost Dairy. 300 individual panels, each panel 80″ x 36″ of primed and painted galvanized tin, four prints per panel. 1200 impressions total and I was washing out the screen, lying on my back on the table under a 10′ x 5′  screen with a varsol rag to keep the mesh open every second print. Brutal…

5′ x 5′ and a thing of beauty

After a while, as I learned the trade, I was “promoted” to being a printer and received a massive $2.00 hour raise. $6/hr in 1980 was a couple of bucks better than minimum wage but it still sucked shit. Most of the work we got was for repeat customers like Mariposa clothing stores or BC Forest Products. Mariposa always had a “sale” going on and they insisted on using hideous ink colours in all of their promotions. BCFP was a little more interesting. I did all of their road and mill info signs and a lot of their internal safety signage too. The mill signs were mounted on 14′ cedar 4×4 posts which needed to be the same colour as the 4’x8′ Crezone signs. Regular printing ink didn’t stick worth shit to the green Cedar posts so I started using 1Shot sign writers paint. Leaded paint as it turned out… Got Lead poisoning for my trouble. Changed the paint I used after that, good times. The coolest job I ever printed was the 8 aluminum run signs for Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises that adorned the mountain the first year they opened. Portents of the future as it turned out. I still have one of the paper samples that were used to make sure the ink was correctly mixed and the registration was tight.

Randy Parr in the washout room

We tried to print some ridiculous stuff too, Al Watson, the owner of the company simply couldn’t turn down any contract that he had the chance to get. A refrain strangely familiar for many of my subsequent employers… One job  in particular stands out in my memory. One hundred and twenty, 110′ x 42″, 3/4″ thick tempered glass doors for a new Downtown office building. We were expected to print an acid etch block pattern on each door that weighed almost 200 pounds each. After printing each door we then had to carry it into the washout room and spray it off with the pressure washer. The floor was slick as snot on a doorknob but we managed somehow to not drop a single door (which were printed on both sides to boot). After the etch had done it’s job there was supposed to be a frosted block pattern on the glass. Unfortunately we could never get the glass de-greased and clean enough for the etch to look right. Streaks, lines and drop-outs were unavoidable and caused the contract to drag on and on.

The Cameo38 press and One-man printing table. Where the magic happened…

The doors themselves took up a huge amount of room in the shop and were leaned up against any sturdy wall in the place. One day, while I was trying to liberate a long steel straight edge that had been left pinned behind a stack of doors, I managed to make one explode… There was a 4″ wide slot in each door for the opener hardware to live. The straight edge got wedged in the slot which was almost the same width. I wiggled the ruler to try and get it out and KABOOM! Two hundred pounds of tempered glass shrapnel bounced off the side walls of the shop and, subsequently, into garbage cans. Al was not impressed as each door cost about $400… Shortly after that, all the doors were loaded back on a truck and sent away to be sand blasted, as they should have been in the first place.

Jose Faria

Although the job generally sucked ass most of the time, most the guys and girls I worked with were a hoot. Jose Faria in particular, was my original Homey. 17 years old at the time he was first hired, of Portuguese stock and the oldest of 11 siblings, Jose was my wingman. One fateful day we were both sent out to cut up 4’x8′ sheets of foamcore in the dingy basement of another shop in what’s now Yaletown. Tinfoil on the 7′ ceilings to help reflect the shitty lights was a nice touch. I was using a boxcutter and a rubber edged T-square to score the foam board and cut it down to a usable dimension. Ten minutes before afternoon coffee the end was in sight.

2015-07-30-0006I drew the knife along the T-square. The blade ran up on the rubber edge and across the middle and index fingers of my left hand, coming to rest against my left thumb. Never really appreciated how sharp those fuckers were until that moment.  Blood, exposed bone and tendons (but no pain) so into a taxi(!) to St. Pauls emergency I go, leaving Jose to finish up. So, here I am sitting in the waiting area waiting to be attended to when I spy Jose and Ivan, the darkroom guy from T&E, striding toward me. At first I thought they were just coming to make sure I was OK until I noticed that Jose has his left hand elevated and in a bloody bandage… Ten minutes after I had butchered myself, Jose had managed to cut off the end of his left thumb. Two weeks on Compo for both of us ensued. That was awesome!

Phil James – Shop foreman. Matching Naz-Dar ink to Pantone colour swatches in the ink room.

After a year and a half of servitude (I was still making only $6/hr)  things were about to change big time. After being screwed over by Al for so long, everyone in the shop had had enough. Rather than quit outright, we all decided to join the Painters and Allied Trades Union, Local 138. Only trouble was, after seeing what everyone ended up looking like after 10 years in the biz, I decided in my heart of hearts, that I didn’t want to look like that when I was their age. Two days before we ratified our collective agreement which would have seen me become a ticketed, Journeyman Screen Printer, #1 in seniority in the shop and making $18.50/hr… I quit.

Best decision I ever made.




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