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!