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The Vintage Stopwatch Predicament

I thought I had time (no pun intended).

Well, to be more accurate, I hadn’t thought as deeply of “the times” as I ought to have whenever I’d come across my dad’s broken stopwatch. I just carted it around, move through move, in a collection of memorabilia – the physical manifestations and prompters of memory that make their way with me physically and temporally.

I remember when the stopwatch worked – probably up through at least the 1980s or early 90s. I don’t recall when it stopped. The plastic has been cracked for a long time. I kept it because it had been my dads and it reminded me of his years as a pilot, and I remembered playing with it when I was a kid, timing how long I could hold my breath and how long it took me to skate around my elementary school on weekends.

One day, early this year, I came across it again and several things fell into my mind at once: one of the last remaining businesses in our dead mall is a watch-repair shop staffed by an older Vietnamese man. His business partner holds down the cash register-counter across from him, the two separated by a low bin of imported plastic “straw” hats, cheap white teddy bears, and plastic and chrome toy cars. The watch repairman gathers customers from those who need their watch batteries replaced, but he also fixes analog watches and clocks.

It occurred to me that he’s not getting any younger, the mall is not guaranteed to remain open to continue to host him, and who in the world younger than these men in their 60s is having anything to do with watch repair?

I hurried over with my small family treasure and he said he’d get it back to me in about six weeks. I felt relieved. I’d gotten there in time! On the downslope of our civilization and in spite of societal turbulence, something would be repaired and restored to be made available for the future – when there’d be no guarantee of finding someone with the requisite skills, knowledge, or network of learning, tools, or parts.

He didn’t call me, as I thought he would, so about eight weeks after dropping it off, I swung by and made my way through the cavernous, partially-lit, and echo-y mall. I handed him my claim check, explained what I was there fore, and he said, “Ah,” and turned to the drawer where he extracted the small envelope containing my watch. He slid it out of the envelope and I saw that the plastic was still cracked. He said, “I could not find anyone who manufactures the mainspring anymore, I’m sorry.”

I may yet find a way to repair this stopwatch, but it’s absolutely not a guarantee. I have family in Germany, and Germans seem to be among those who repair small machines or practice old, skill-requiring crafts. Perhaps, if travel ends up in our cards, I could take it there. Or maybe I could look around in one of the big cities not far from where I am. That’s likely to be an expensive endeavor, but I might decide it’s worth it.

I don’t have any better reason for that than the one I give here – maybe it will be of use to someone some day. I think that’s as good a reason as any to do things, to think about the benefits we might convey to those who are to come, rather than thinking of all the ways we can amass more, now.

So, this vintage-stopwatch predicament probably sounds as familiar to you as it does to me: an older technology, a few people who know how to use/repair/maintain it, a few (hopefully) spare parts somewhere… and some sort of disruption/disjunction/discontinuity in connecting those things because we’ve moved a bit too far “into the future” and that future has cut off certain necessary tendrils of possibility, the connective “tissue” so to speak. And so we witness things falling apart and cannot wish them back together.

A while back, I posted about a fax machine I’d gotten to serve as a thermal-stencil printer. New, in-box, and never used, it seems to have suffered from a slow battery drain over the years (and there is some corrosion is visible outside that compartment) and that’s affected its memory. It seems to not remember its functions – the buttons beep and do little else. Now and again I can get a varied response from it if I try some secret-code combination of opening the paper compartment and pushing either the “stop” or “copy” buttons. Once I got a reduced copy of an original, but repeating the pattern afterward didn’t get a response.

I’ve called a few fax-repair shops and none of them have even heard of this model and they’re not sure what I should do. One did suggest a battery replacement, though it’s a bit complex and requires soldering parts in – and wouldn’t be a guaranteed fex.

There are a series of parallels here, just under the surface, that have to do with a degraded power source and the resource issues that direct our collective energy and our energy use, with the machine’s lost memory and the loss of collective memory around particular technologies and their repair, and with the soldered and corroded connections and the broken connections between last-of-their-kind repairmen and the parts they once could get.

I struck out with another fax machine. It would probably work as a sending-fax, but its thermal printer is only spotty (and that, only after it spent 24 hours with “wait a moment” on the LCD screen). Luckily I’m still within the return/refund window for this one, unlike the first one. I’m still waffling over the cheap tattoo stencil printers. The reviews online are mixed: “plugged it in and smoke poured out,” “it worked for about three stencils,” “great purchase.”

Until I decide something, I can’t move forward with any of my hoped-for projects. I’ll keep looking and evaluating, but in some ways, the clock is ticking.

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Supplies for the Home Setup – Part 1

Little by little I’m getting things set up to function, though there’s still much to be done before I get to that point. Although I didn’t get all the way through the boxes of books, I made room in the garage for a work table. Now I just need a chair and I’ll go sit in there instead of at the computer! That will lead to more getting done in projects department.

In addition to getting my machines to functional status, I’m obtaining the supplies needed to start print jobs.

The main things needed for stencil duplicating are (at the most basic) stencils, ink, a method of paper registration (alignment) and ink delivery, and paper. In my case, which is a few steps beyond the most basic mimeography, my method to assure paper registration and ink delivery includes actual mimeograph machines (truly traditional is similar to screenprinting, with a framed screen/print-making apparatus – see the image below, or Tomoko Kanzaki’s work).

“Edison’s Mimeograph”

Traditional mimeograph stencils are not currently available to any large degree, so I’m following the “stopgap” method. I call it a stopgap because it’s an option that I suspect is only available to us now* because we have easy access to electricity on demand, digital capabilities, and manufactured products from overseas. This method of duplication requires these supplies: a thermal-stencil printer, thermal-stencil paper, Risograph ink (or equivalent), and copy paper.

One tool being used among mimeograph enthusiasts is the tattoo-stencil printer.

They all seem to look like this, no matter the brand.

These things seem to be quite common (there are many on ebay right now).

The high-end option is to use a Risograph machine for its master-making capacity only. Risographs are expensive. and it’s likely that if you already have a Riso, you’re probably not going the old-school mimeograph route (unless your Riso’s print function is broken).

There are a mind-boggling number of Riso models. This is one of them.

The route I’ve decided to take is to use a quality fax machine (one that prints on thermal paper rather than regular copy paper), using Riso thermal paper (aka master). My reasoning is twofold, one aspect of which is founded on hearsay, but on relatively good authority (experienced mimeo folk in the mimeograph facebook groups): Riso masters make higher resolution stencils than tattoo-stencil paper. The other reason I’m trying the fax-machine route, though, is because I was able to find a machine that can work with three paper sizes (A4, which is 8.27″ wide; US letter and legal size, which is 8.5″ wide; and B4, which is 10.5″ wide) and that was still-in-the-box new (it’s been waiting for its chance to shine since ~1988) for the same price as the tattoo-stencil printers (though without the benefit of free shipping from China -eyeroll-).

Pitney Bowes 8050 fax machine. An absolute tank. Should last awhile.

Riso master rolls only come in A4 and B4 sizes. A4 is the standard paper size in most of the world and at 8.27 inches wide, it’s narrower than US paper. Given the need for margins on most documents, A4 will likely be wide enough for most of my print jobs. B4 paper (on which to print) is nowhere to be found here, so I’m unlikely to need B4 stencils in general, but if I were to ever get a Gestetner duplicator, that’s the size of stencil I’d want to use. I figured it would be a good idea to plan for the possibility of someday working with a Gestetner, thus my decision took this into account. Alternatively, since B4 is 10.5 inches wide, I might actually use less of the Riso master if I use a B4 roll and print my stencils sideways (trimming off the top and bottom margins of my original as necessary), particularly for my not-quite-letter-size projects. That’ll require some experimentation as there needs to be a little bit of extra length to attach the header.

It really doesn’t matter which way I print my stencils on the thermal paper relative to the way the roll unwinds – I’ll be cutting them from the roll and attaching each stencil to a header that fits my mimeograph. This header, made of heavier paper or light cardstock, will have the holes required to secure the stencil to the machine, and will give me a place to record what the stencil is.

This is the “Kelsom stencil” made and sold by Sam Keller.

The photo above shows a blank stencil ready for printing in a thermal printer. This one is a “Kelsom stencil.” As I don’t have a Riso master to compare it to yet, I can’t report on that; however here’s what Kelsom-stencil paper looks like.

Dull side.

It’s a very thin, nearly transparent, sheet of nonwoven fibers bearing a resemblance to a very light washi paper. The reverse side is coated with plastic and appears glossy.

Shiny side.

When I get the Riso master roll, I’ll compare the two stencil types in a separate post, and in part two of this series, I’ll be talking about either paper or ink.


*By “available to us now” I mean during the next 20-50 years. I may be idealistic here, though some will accuse me of being pessimistic.