Hell’s kitchen – on the print-shop floor

Bedlam or Mozart?

Earlier, I described the hushed, clean zone of the pre-press department. Beyond the double doors, it is a different, almost primitive world with scenes straight out of the devil’s kitchen, a place moreover that often smells like a glue-sniffers’ convention. But above all else, this is a world coloured by one thing: the noise of many huge lithographic printing presses tirelessly grabbing, inking and ejecting thousands of enormous sheets of paper.

My first impression of such a ‘print shop’ was incredulity. How could anyone work in such punishing, epileptic noise? Of course, us visitors were the only ones listening. The shop-floor staff at this Danish printing works all wore headphones and went round in a calm, deliberate manner. For all I know, they were all listening to Mozart. This Danish print shop was immaculately clean and tidy, moreover.

This is quite a different picture from some of the printing works I have visited in Asia, for instance, where the work situation can be dismal. Certainly, I rarely saw headphones there and I shall never forget the sight of two miserable-looking workers enveloped in a haze of chemical dust as they shovelled a mountain of paper offcuts into rubbish bags.

Many different printing presses

Even at the smallest printing works, there are likely to be quite a few different printing presses. This is because it is vastly cheaper to use a press for one type of job all the time as it avoids the need to continually strip, clean and reset the machine after every job. Such down-time is incredibly expensive.

Typically these days, in any printing works will be found quite a few monochrome presses, printing in black and white only (as this is the most common type of printing job, especially in book printing). In addition, there will be a number of colour presses set up to print the four process colours – cyan, magenta, yellow and black – that are the basis of all colour printing. (Of course, a print job can involve the use of spot colours – special, pre-mixed inks of a specific hue – but here the printing press will have to be specially loaded with this spot colour and stripped and cleaned after its use.)

Of course, many printers want the latest shiny new toys and you can be sure that the latest German wunderprinter will be found even in the back streets of Chennai or Lima. Old presses take a long time to die, however, so all too often right next to the newest machine will be a press that is many decades old but still capable of churning out high-quality work; it too will fill a production niche.

There are, besides, different types of printing technology (and this of course is changing rapidly). Newspapers and magazines are printed on presses loaded with giant rolls of paper, for instance. But for book printing what you will typically see used is a sheet-fed printing press, i.e. the machine is loaded with a huge pile of giant sheets of paper that are then grabbed and pulled through the press, ink being applied in the process.

Printer setup

In this traditional world of offset printing, the presses must be set up for each new print job. Here, the printing plates created in the pre-press department are each – one after the other – fitted onto the printing press. Setting up each print job is time-consuming and thus relatively expensive because all the plates must be got ready, the correct inks and paper loaded, and special instructions (not least print quantity) taken on board. (Just which paper is loaded is hugely important. I’ll return to this in a later post.)

Moreover, the mini-setup/changeover between plates and sheets (described below) also takes time; that said, printers generally have developed routines and rhythms that allow this work to be carried out very efficiently. However, once everything is set up, copies can be printed off at a great speed and with very little additional cost.

Less for less

This has huge economic implications. There is a high initial setup cost to be distributed over the number of copies printed at low individual cost. The more books are printed, then the lower the share of initial costs applied to each copy. Offset printing is thus good value for print quantities of hundreds or thousands of copies, but ruinously expensive – indeed technically almost impossible – if you only want dozens of copies (let alone just a single one). If the number of copies to be printed is less than 400, then print on demand (using giant, glorified photocopiers) makes the most economic sense.

Sitting uncomfortably between POD printers and the big printing firms that churn out tens of thousands of copies in each print run (they are the printers of the Harry Potter books, for instance) can be found short-run printers. I remember a few years ago hearing such a British printer specializing in academic books complain that in earlier times 1,500 copies was regarded as a short run; now (such was the collapse in academic book sales) a short run was 400 copies. And yet the publishers still expected to pay less per copy than they had before. This printer looked old and tired. It’s not nice being in such a squeezed situation.

Printing process

After initial setup, the real work begins. If it is a monochrome job, the process is relatively simple. First, one side of the sheet is printed then a new plate loaded and the other side printed. (Modern duplex printers are able to print on both sides of the sheet simultaneously, being able to hold all of the plates required for printing a single sheet.) This process continues until all sheets are printed, each stacked separately. A typical academic book that is 288 pages in length would have 18 such stacks each of which eventually will be folded into signatures.

Colour print jobs are more complex because for each side of the sheet, four separate printing plates have to apply their own coating of cyan, magenta, yellow or black ink. Obviously, the colours have to line up perfectly, hence the vital importance of registration marks placed around the margins of each page to ensure pinpoint accuracy.

The presses do not run unattended but are policed by an operator (maybe even a master printer) who will periodically remove sheets from the printed pile to check them for problems. This quality check is not only for colour registration but also things like sharpness and ink density. All such sheets are discarded after inspection; they are not returned to the pile. As such, it is difficult to print the exact number of copies ordered. Indeed, printers always print quite a few extra copies (perhaps 10% of the total printrun) with there being a fair few overs above the number of copies ordered. For this reason, printers usually offer two figures in a printing quote: one price for the exact number of copies being quoted for and another price that includes an extra X run-on copies at a discounted price.

Yes, this is a wasteful process and arguably the term ‘green publishing’ is a contradiction in terms. But that is the subject for another post.

Meantime, it is time for all of those piles of printed sheets to move on to the bindery, the location of my next post.

(Post #7 of the Printing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)

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4 Responses to Hell’s kitchen – on the print-shop floor

  1. […] by Gerald Jackson and Marie Lenstrup. It was first referred to in the blog Getting Published in a post on printing and binding. Categories: Uncategorized Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment […]

  2. […] I noted in my earlier post, today the bindery is often located on the premises of a printing works though traditionally it has […]

  3. […] Hell’s kitchen – on the print-shop floor […]

  4. […] In your case, everything is fine; the proofs are approved and the printer gets the go-ahead to print. Now, finally, all systems are ‘go’. Time to descend into Hell’s Kitchen. […]

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