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Rock Hill printing company blends old and new for success

It takes only one step for the smell to overwhelm you as you walk into the Reynolds and Reynolds operation on West Main Street in Rock Hill.

It is so overwhelming that some customers wear a mask when they come to do business.

But for this old newspaperman, the smell of inks, solvents and paper is as sweet as any perfume.

The tools of the trade are scattered throughout the print shop.

Ray Reynolds has a pica pole in his desk. He doesn’t use it to measure the width of typed columns anymore, or use the point scale to measure the height of a headline – 72 points to the inch. Sometimes he will use it to make sure things are aligned.

There are buckets of ink, numerous plates of type and several “C”-shaped magnifying glasses, which printers once used to finely check a negative before it was “burned” onto a printing plate.

There are several sheet-feed printing presses, some with a quirky but rhythmic mechanical cadence as they operate.

In the back of the shop, underneath a tarp, is a historic, 7-foot-tall behemoth with hundreds of moving parts. It’s a Mergenthaler Linotype machine that dominated the publishing world for a century before electronic typesetting took over.

Skilled operators could quickly type on the 90-key keyboard, setting a line of type at a time.

The type then would be used to cast impressions to be assembled into a galley, a line at a time. To cast the impressions, a pig – a bar of lead, antimony and tin – was melted.

A few 24-pound pigs remain in the shop. Ray and his brother Donnie insist they could, if needed, fire up the Lineotype machine to set type.

It might take them some time to remember how it all works. They inherited the Linotype from Record Printing, the previous operator at 1330 W. Main St. They’re not sure how old the machine is, but one of the handbooks has a copyright date of 1940. They have several spare parts catalogs from companies long out of business.

Ray, 64, never operated a Linotype machine, but he remembers traveling to O&R Printing in Charlotte and filling the trunk of his Plymouth with galleys of type, the bumper dragging all the way back to Rock Hill from the weight.

Donnie, 76, who said he is too old to retire, insists he knows how to operate everything in the shop. He learned the trade from his father, Don Sr., who taught his eight children – four girls and four boys – how to print in the garage of his Rock Hill home.

When it came time for the children to get jobs, most of them did what they knew. They printed for others before starting a series of printing shops. The latest effort, Reynolds and Reynolds Printing Co., recently celebrated 30 years in business.

For all the old technology, it was two computer-driven machines that kept Reynolds and Reynolds from going bankrupt during the last recession.

For years the brothers printed things the tried-and-true, elementary electronic way. Copy was typed into a simple computer and printed out. The type was then carefully glued to a layout sheet. A photo was taken of the layout sheet. The resulting negative was then “burned” onto a photosensitive printing plate that was hung on the press.

It was a time-consuming process requiring people of many skills. In demand were “strippers,” people who could clean a negative of imperfections before it turned into a printing plate.

In 2007, the brothers decided to invest $110,000 in a system that would allow them to go from computer to plate. Time to output a page from computer to plate was 10 minutes, days shorter than the method they were using.

The efficiency, which resulted in a need for fewer employees, kept the business going, Ray Reynolds said. There were fewer printing jobs during the recession, but the Reynoldses could turn around jobs quicker and at a lower cost, allowing them to increase their output.

Business is now steadier as the plant prints all sorts of things, from football programs to student handbooks to specialty magazines. One item in demand is printed envelopes, which Ray Reynolds says they can do as cost-effectively as anyone. Another item that remains a shop staple is printing a checklist on manilla folders used by local governments.

The shop will soon gear up for one its most secret – and rewarding – jobs, the printing of the annual Vernon Grant Christmas card.

They’ve been the official Vernon Grant printer since the 1970s. Ray remembers Vernon bringing the design to the shop. The Reynoldses initially started printing the card for free in exchange for using the Grant card as their Christmas card, too.

Now they print the cards for the Culture and Heritage Museum of York County, which sells them.

It’s not an easy job, as the reds Grant liked so much are difficult to print, Ray Reynolds said. Computer-controlled design and printing, however, have made the task somewhat easier, though not perfect, he said.

The design for this year’s card is already on hand. While they’re sworn to secrecy, Ray Reynolds said the card will be different and likely difficult to print.

How different?

You’ll have to wait until its official unveiling in November, the beginning of the Christmas season, he said.