Last weekend my partner and I were hiking near Kluane National Park and practically bumped right into an abandoned cabin. It had a unique structure using three living trees to support its walls, but more unique was the green paint used to decorate the ends of the logs and the knots where branches had been removed. It struck us as odd that someone would carry decorative paint all the way out here–we'd hiked and canoed for two days at that point. This mysterious trapper or recluse must have had graphic connections.
Our next clue was the metal sheets that had been used as roofing–they were printing plates from a 1984 Whitehorse Star paper.
It sparked an explanation about the printing process, but now that I'm out of the woods I thought I'd use the opportunity to interview Trevor Sellars, one of the printing gurus at aasman.
ER: Trevor, what can you tell me about these metal plates?
TS: Metal plates from both local newspapers have been used by Yukoners for decades (in fact over 50 years or more) as roofing materials, shed walls, table tops, and many more ingenious uses. Metal plates replaced movable metal type which was first used in 1377 in Korean and in a similar form by Gutenberg in Germany about 1450.
ER: So there's a metal plate for every piece of paper for every news paper? What happens to the plates afterwards?
TS: These large metal plates are used on the web press (a printing press that feeds large rolls of paper through four or five or six printing units) for each 4 pages of the newspaper. The two local newspapers each have their own printing plants and each uses many metal plates each week – I would guess between 50 and 70 each week. The newspapers still provide them to the public (for a small cost) while many plates are collected for recycling.
ER: Has the process changed since 1984 when these ones were made?
TS: Somewhat. The plates and the chemicals that are used to treat them are pretty much unchanged for the past few decades. Before metal plates were used, movable metal type was used and set in frames which were mounted on the printing presses. I recall watching a friend in Nanaimo about 40 years ago set metal type for the Nanaimo Daily Free Press and damaged type was returned to a melting pot where it was later recast.
There are other plate types on the market that are not metal including paper, polymer substrates, paper, etc. and are used depending on the printing technology a printing plant has in its shop.
ER: How come people use them for roofing? Have you heard of other creative or bizarre uses?
TS: Let's say that these plates make a good temporary roofing material for a shed or lean-to but they have of course been used on homes by people wanting a quick fix to a small or big problem with their roof. I have seen them used to repair holes in cars and trucks, used to sheet the walls of sheds and buildings, used on table tops at camps and workshops, fashioned as rain gutters, as liners for garden boxes, and other things.
ER: Awesome. Thanks Trevor!