A printer pulls out metal block letters, spacers, and dies. He arranges the type on a chase, locks it in place, and turns on the motor. The letterpress hums to life.
The letterpress opens up like the maw of a beast. The printer pulls out the completed business card and, with the other hand, drops a blank one in. The press closes, impacting the plate against the card. It opens again; one down, hundreds to go. The printer cranks up the motor’s speed, and his hands move like lightning, steadily switching out printed cards for blanks. His hands are too quick even for the chomping press.
In the late 1800s, this machinery made bulk printing possible. Unlike the older hand-powered screw presses, this is quite fast, if your hands can keep ahead of the press speed. But this scene isn’t from 125 years ago. It was last week, at Burr Printing on Central Street in Bangor. The printer is Dennis Watson, who makes his living printing with equipment dating as far back as 1879.
“I’ve never turned on a computer,” he said.
There’s little modern technology at his shop. The hand calculator, the water cooler, and the television are about it. There’s no fax machine. There are two electric typewriters, but that’s almost like breaking the rules for Watson.
“In a way, it’s like cheating,” Watson said. “All I want to be is simple.”
In September 1991, the Bangor Daily News ran a business feature noting that owner Thomas Sr. had been in business for 50 years; yesterday, Dennis celebrated 40 years in business. Even when that story ran 21 years ago, Burr Printing was something of an oddity. Photocopiers were the norm. Print shops used automated offset presses for big jobs. And affordable inkjet printers were making it possible for more people to do their own printing.
Today, the same equipment still runs. That includes a Heidelberg press from about 1950, a Chandler-Price paper cutter from before 1911, and a Chandler-Price letterpress from 1879.
This business began in 1879, when newspaperman Thomas W. Burr purchased the remnants of the Bangor Democrat in 1902 to establish the T.W. Burr Times Job Printing Company. The company even survived the Great Fire of 1911 (along with a paper cutter that’s still in use today).
On Sept. 10, 1941, Thomas Watson Sr. began working at Burr on Franklin Street. He soon went off to serve in World War II, and later Korea; both times, the company held his job for him. In 1971, he purchased the company from owner James W. Barto; by then, his sons Tom Jr. and Dennis were working there. Dennis started cleaning the place and playing gopher before working his way up to printing.
In 1997, Thomas Sr. passed away following minor surgery. His work apron still hangs where he left it in the shop, with the knife, tape measure, and other tools he used still in its pockets.
At the time Dennis came onboard, the old equipment was still fairly common. But by the 1980s, offset presses and automated equipment were the norm; today, very few printers anywhere use such antiquated equipment, but for Watson, it’s equipment with up to 130 years of proven reliability that serves him well.
“My father taught me [that] if I took care of the equipment, it will take care of me,” he said.
After Thomas Sr.’s passing, business continued slacking off, and Dennis’ brother Thomas Jr. left to work for someone else. The brothers are still close, and Tom Jr. stops by to visit frequently. The workload is steady enough to keep Dennis busy at least 50 hours a week.
“I’m happy when I come in, and I enjoy going home at night,” he said. “I can sit down and take time when my customers come… I can talk to them and get to know who they are.”
As a one-man operation with little overhead, Watson owns all of his equipment, doesn’t have to service and replace expensive presses, and never has to pay for costly software upgrades. But he says it’s not about the equipment; it’s about the quality of the job and the dedication to his customers. And he does things people can’t do at home, and often that other printers won’t do.
For example, home printers can’t cut paper, can’t cut square holes for windows or doors in Advent calendars, and can’t perforate. They can’t do very heavy stock, napkins, and paper bags. In fact, Watson says that some bags have wires in them, and can’t go through offset presses or photocopiers.
Watson says he competes by doing jobs that other print shops don’t want to do, such as when jobs come in preprinted and need to be cut or perforated. Some come pre-numbered, and he can’t run the risk of losing just one sheet, which is impressive considering he hand-feeds each sheet — and still does up to 2,000 sheets per hour. And he doesn’t just do small jobs; last December, he did a 98,000-piece order.
“If people want it done and it’s in my capability, I’ll do it,” he said. “I will go down to one copy and print it [on the] letterpress,” he said.
At 55, Dennis’ goal is to exceed his father’s time in the business, so retirement won’t come before Sept. 19, 2027. In the meantime, he loves the everyday challenges of his job.
“Every job’s different,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get the next day.”
Correction: The 1991 story said the Watson family contained three generations of ministers. Dennis Watson says that there are no ministers in the recent generations of the Watson family. (Better late with a correction than never.)