Appreciating the Printer’s World

Marinoni printing press, vintage engraving. Old engraved illustration of Marinoni printing press with three workers operating it.

One recent day, while driving back from Hadley Printing in Holyoke, I said aloud to myself: “I love going on press checks.”

As the designer, when a client’s job goes to print, I often go to the printing company for a press check. I see this both as a responsibility and a privilege. I have a last chance to assure that the final result will be the best it can be, but from the personal side, it gives me a glimpse into a world that is steeped in history and craft.

Press checks are not the time to catch typos—although that’s been known to happen. This is the first and only chance to see what our printed piece will actually look like before thousands or tens of thousands will be delivered to the client or put into the mail stream.

Up until the time I send a job to print, the client and I have been viewing pdfs from various computer screens, or reviewing color laser proofs from copy shops or desktop printers. Those printouts won’t give a fair match: they are not on the final selected paper, and the toner cartridges will most likely skew the colors. The offset printer will also give us proofs for review, but neither will they be an exact match to what will actually get printed, for the same reasons. Closer, but still unpredictably different.

My knowledge of offset printing helps discern how to review these proofs to a fair extent, but going on press when the job is running is the only true way to see the outcome.

Nothing matches a printed piece except the printed piece.

These days, on press, I am always in the company of the sales rep from that print shop. Their job is to make sure my concerns are addressed. I appreciate these folks to no end, but what I selfishly enjoy even more is the less-common privilege of interacting with the people behind the scene—the actual guys on the printing presses. (Even today they are still mostly men.) I get a deep sense of appreciation when I am allowed into their world.

Of recent years, clients’ expectations around delivery dates have become driven by online digital printing, and to some extent, in response to that, printing equipment has become more time-efficient and automated. Most commercial printing can now happen during the daytime and still deliver jobs faster than ever. But not so long back, we designers needed to go on press checks into the evening or in the middle of the night—because jobs took longer to run.

Some of my favorite moments on press have happened then, when all other staff at the shop have gone home except for the pressmen and the press foreman. I would get instructions on how to get into the pressroom in the wee hours, through the loading dock doors, how to navigate my way through the shipping and receiving areas on my own, past the empty cafeteria, to find them at the press. They were the midnight cowboys of the company. I enjoyed and respected watching them work. Masters of huge loud pieces of machinery that they could nuance to amazing levels of subtle adjustments. A shared respect made those experiences rewarding.

I got great stories along the way, with no upper-level staff getting in the middle. I ate up these stories—from pressmen’s tips on local Ski-Doo trails, to a great recipe, to the best place for hominy and grits—that one at a press check in the Tennessee Bible belt. On that same Tennessee press check, as we were running a limited edition of a historical gun collectors’ book, the press foreman commented: “I never got the bug for firearms. I like knives, myself.” Turns out he was a serious collector of antique knives.

There’s a deep sense of appreciation that happens for me on press, a respect that comes from being let inside this world so rich with pride, skill, and straight-from-the-hip talk.

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