Archive for the ‘Miracle of Printing’ Category

Printers & Publishers Prepare to be Amazed!

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Seeking Glimpses of the Future

I have my crystal ball out. It is sitting right in front of me on my desk. I’ve been searching its depths for some clue about the future of printing, publishing, and related industries. You know what I get? Nothing.

The only thing I know for sure is that things will change. This little prophesy doesn’t mean much, except to say that time is a river and we can either find a way to float with the current, or test our strength against it. (Pretty poetic wouldn’t you say?)

I’ve spent a lifetime, so far, learning all about offset printing. I now know quite a lot, but what is that worth? What is it worth really? When I think back, I can remember people who were expert typesetters and others who were great with scanning drums for four color separations. Their hard won knowledge became irrelevant almost instantly with the changes in technology.

I used to laughingly pontificate that someday Bill Ruesch Print Broker, would consist only of an equipment filled Winnebago. Customers would provide me with art files. I would drive over to the paper merchant’s warehouse, load-in the stock, and by the time I arrived at the customer’s dock the job would be completely printed, folded, and bound.

Book in a Box

That used to be my weird vision of the future. It made me and my customers chuckle at the absurdity. It isn’t so funny anymore now that the Espresso Book Machine exists. In one machine a whole book is created; from file to finished product in less than seven minutes.  Seven minutes–printed, bound, and ready to read. That is if you have hot pads. I understand that the books come out pretty warm and need to cool down a bit.

My vision of the future has come true. What do I see in the future now? I haven’t a clue. I think my predictor must be on the blink. I’d be willing to go out on a limb by stating, “It doesn’t matter what crazy, ridiculous, impossible notion we conceive, someone is probably already a step or two ahead of us, and are right this moment building something to make it happen.”

I’m prepared to be amazed. How about you?


Here’s to Flyboys, Printer Talk, and Web Breaks

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

In a previous blog post, I referred to catching the printing bug as having printer’s ink in your blood. There is something about printing that gets one hooked. You can stray away from printing, but eventually you’ll circle back around and find yourself umbilically attached.

In my case, my printing career began right out of high school. I heard from a friend that a newspaper printer was hiring. I was the second to lowest employee on the totem pole, just ahead of janitor. I was a jogger. I think the hourly wage in 1968 was around $.75, maybe a buck and a quarter, I don’t really remember for sure. A jogger’s job was to stand at the delivery end of the press and scoop his hand between the conveyor belts, gather a stack of papers, and place them on the string bundler. There was a kicker that would knock a paper a little askew every 50th signature. This way we knew how many papers we were stacking. When the right quantity was reached the flyboy, (another name for jogger) pressed the foot pedal on the bundler. Heaved the bundle by hand over to a pallet, and scrambled back to the press to do it all over again.

Soon, because I looked bright enough, I suppose, they began teaching me how to make plates, hang the plates on the press, shaft the paper rolls, and fill ink trays.

OMG -- that really smells bad, and not in a good way.

It was dirty work, and because I was still the low man, I usually pulled the dirtiest jobs. When I think about it, I can still remember the smell of the developer, the ink, and even the paper.   The developer fluid was the most pungent. It made the entire press area smell bad. With today’s presses, they’ve either done away with plates, or plates are processed in a totally contained plate processor that doesn’t smell. Not at all. Whew — I thank you, my nose thanks you, and my clothes really thank whoever invented that dandy machine.

Part of the reason I chose a career in printing was because I thought it was a stable industry. After all, people will always need to get things printed — right? What I didn’t count on were all the technological changes in the business. Now they happen so quickly that it puts a kink  my neck as I whirl around  just trying to figure out where they are coming from next.

Negotiate This

It feels like Han Solo negotiating the asteroid field in the movie Star Wars. When he found what he thought was a nice safe cave to land in, it turned out he was very, very wrong, and barely escaped with his ship, friends, and life. I’m not saying that printing is life threatening it’s just difficult to know which way to go.

I was doing a press check at a web offset printer the other day. The presses are ever-so-more sophisticated than in my cub days. Many of the adjustments can now be done off of a computer console which keeps the press operators from running back and forth turning ink keys or adjusting registration.

Other things have also improved, for example, web breaks were common in my day. A web break occurs when the paper coming off the roll snaps apart. Snap is the right word but it doesn’t do justice to the event. It’s like a starting gun was fired. Pressmen scrambled like the Keystone Cops to get to and whack the big red STOP button. The goal was to limit how much re-webbing they’d have to do. No one breathed until they found out how much tail was left to splice before the whole (*@#&) press had to be re-webbed.


If the broken web wasn’t caught fast enough, it would take precious time, and many four-letter, red-faced printer words to fix it. Mule skinners had nothing on printers, I can tell you.

Today’s web presses have sophisticated roll changing systems that not only automatically splice, but keep a constant tension, so that the web won’t suddenly jerk when a roll bump suddenly happens. Have web breaks been completely eliminated? Ha, it just means that they happen less frequently. Are there fewer emissions of printer talk? Double ha! Web breaks aren’t the only things that go wrong. I like to say that printing has so many things that can go wrong it’s a miracle anything goes right.

One thing that hasn’t changed though is the job of jogger. The joggers are still there at the end of the press scooping up the printed press signatures and taking them to the pallet. My hat’s off to joggers. At least something, so far, has remained the same.

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Printing’s Like a 3 Ring Circus

Monday, October 5th, 2009
Printing is never boring

Printing is never boring

A typical offset printing plant is like a 3 ring circus. I say that not because Barnum and Bailey was just in town, but because there are three basic workstations a job goes through before it becomes a finished product, and if you’ve ever visited a print shop you’ve seen people hurrying here and there, heard lots of odd sounds, and smelled unusual smells. Printing is not really a circus, but anyone in the graphic arts can see the similarities.

Ring No.1: Prepress

No job enters onto the press room floor without going through prepress first. Your electronic files may be perfect and prepared exactly in the manner that the printer has requested, but will still need prepress. For example, does your job have multiple pages like a booklet, or a book? Then the prepress department will have to paginate your pages. Is that confusing? After all your file was in order, probably in reader spreads, why then should it need to be paginated?

If I was sitting across your desk from you I would demonstrate what I mean by taking an 8 1/2″X11″ standard size sheet of paper and folding it in half to 8 1/2″X5 1/2″ inches. Then I would fold it in half again so it becomes 4 1/4″X5 1/2″ inches. This folded sheet of paper would represent an 8 page press signature. You can verify this by writing consecutive numbers 1 though 8 on the bottom right corners including the back. Don’t unfold it to do this, just lift each corner. It is easiest if you have the last fold on the right and the other folds at the top, this leaves the bottoms open for numbering. Now open your mock press sheet. On one side you should find the numbers 1, 4, 5, and 8. On the other side will be the numbers 2, 3, 6, and 7. You will probably also see that the numbers you wrote on the bottom right hand corners are no longer in the same place. The direction the number is in is the direction of the page. For example, page 1 and page 4 face one another, and so do 5 and 8. This seemingly unorganized alignment of pages and numbers is precisely what is needed to print the job so that it will bind as a booklet.

At this point you may think that it would be helpful to pre-paginate the files yourself. Don’t even go there. There are other complexities that come into play like the size of the press sheet, the size of your page, and the size of the press it is printing on. Trust me it is best to leave pagination to the printer.

Center Ring: The Press Room

Ah, the press room. The printing press is what it is all about. This is the place where ink hits paper.

Other than the name and the fact that they have machinery, no two press rooms are alike. Printing presses come in all sizes from small enough to almost fit in the trunk of your car to towering three story tall monstrosities, and everything in between. It is not true that if you’ve seen one press, you’ve seen them all. But, and here’s the good news–it doesn’t matter much. A cursory knowledge is all you need to be a reasonably competent buyer of printing. You don’t have to specify that the project be run on a 40″ eight unit press with a perfector and in-line aqueous coater. What you have to know is basically the dimensions of the job, the numbers of inks, the paper, what coatings if any, and bindery processes, i.e. does it fold, staple, or bind some other fashion? Then you need to shop around until you discover the printers who are best at that niche. Or even easier, contact a print broker like myself to get you to the right place.

You need to understand that I have no objection to a sales rep from a printing company serving as your source of information as long as you keep in mind that they are obligated to their employer to direct the work there. A broker on the other hand is independent and free to place your job where it fits the best. That’s why I became a broker. I hated working square pegs into round holes just because my paycheck depended on it.

Ring No.3: The Bindery

Again, binderies are as varied as much as there are printers. Commonly they will all have cutters and delivery stations. Other than that they could have folders, saddle-stitchers, perfect binders, collators, etc.

The bindery is where the paginated printed sheet turns into a booklet. The first stop is the cutter. A press sheet will often have color bars, targets, and tic marks for bleeds. You don’t want any of these things to appear on your product, so they are trimmed in the cutter.

The trimmed press sheet goes to the folder where it folds exactly the way you did in Ring No.1 except not usually by hand. The folded product looks very similar to the one you made, but one side will be a little longer.

The next step if you want a stapled booklet is to take it to the saddle-stitcher. The press signatures are stacked precisely to allow the machine to grab the longer edge. The sheet opens as it is pulled and drops onto the chain (it isn’t really a chain, but that is what it is called). If there are additional pages in your booklet there will be multiple stations filled with signatures. Each one stacking on top of the other. Once gathered they go through the stitcher. The stitcher doesn’t look like any stapler you’ve ever seen because first of all there aren’t any staples. You’ll see spools of wire like fishing line that feed into the equipment. You’ll hear a chunk sound as the wire becomes what you know as staples. The final stage is the trimmer, usually called the three knife trimmer. Until this stage your booklet still has the folds at the top, and the bindery overhang or lip on the face. Those things have got to go, so into the trimmer they roll, the blades come down and cut off the top, face, and bottom just to make it even.


The finished product is boxed, shrink wrapped, or skid packed and sent out for delivery. Is printing a career for just anyone? No. No more than just anyone joins the circus. Printing is a demanding, insane, deadline driven business. The three rings: prepress, press room, and bindery are the stages where the action takes place, but the real action, just like in a circus, happens with the people. It requires the attention of a juggler, the precision of a tight rope walker, and the humor of a clown to make it through the working day. Tomorrow it all starts over, but the show must go on!

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