Efficiency and the Small Printer

There are familiar themes running through the British Printer and other contemporary magazines from the last hundred or so years of letterpress. There are two that intrigue me: precision and efficiency. This article looks at efficiency.


It’s easy to dismiss the large-scale efficiency drives that the industry employed: the Letterpress Productivity Team Report from an American study trip in the late 1940s advocates better use of line-casting machinery; better industrial relations; and specialising in a few small areas rather than be spread too thinly as a firm.

Well before this, the British Printer ran an article in 1901 called How to Keep an Ideal Printing Office that covered the use of accounting systems and some general business advice: again stressing the need to do fewer things better. This was easier said than done for the small-town jobbing office that might print everything from the smallest gents business card to the local newspaper and posters.

As modern letterpress printers we can only marvel at the efforts that went into ‘lining-up tables’ that were used to position formes to print tens of pages; or the work involved in eliminating static so that paper would feed better in to presses. These all seem to be on an industrial scale while we work on a craft scale.

I also wondered about what a brand-new letterpress-only printing works would look like: would we take the equipment and methods from the past or do more modern techniques like lean production have a role to play? I hope to show the larger principles at play and the specifics that we smaller printers can use.

I should add that efficiency is typically a driver to earn more money. For those of us printing for pleasure, efficiency is no less important. My time is limited and I value every moment I spend printing, so time wasted is no less important to me than the ‘Master Printer’ overseeing a large firm.

Identify What Your Customers Want

It’s easy to say that people come to us for printed articles: it’s more difficult to say what makes customers come to you for them. Using a PC or a web publishing house to produce a document is within almost everyone’s reach. What are the specifics of my work that are unusual? My basic statement is this

My customers want jobbing work using imaginative, unique typography, reproduced in small runs using a traditional process.

The implications are clear, but not obvious: I don’t like producing books or multi-paged works; I like to use metal types; and I like a free rein in terms of design. I should concern myself with this purpose. Your purpose might be different: you might enjoy working with just a couple of faces; or miniature books; or railway printing.

This echoes the Productivity Team Report that recommended that UK printers should specialise in smaller areas – their experience of US printers was that a narrow field of work led to efficiency gains.

It follows from this that anything that does not work towards this purpose is waste, and the name of the game is to reduce and eliminate waste.


Waste comes in many forms, and the clever people behind lean production have identified a number of types of waste to help us look at this. Some are more crucial than others in our letterpress world, so I will cover those where we can get most benefit.

Note: Lean Production is a development of the Toyota Production System that allowed Toyota to become the world’s largest car manufacturer while constrained by resources. It’s been adopted by many industries and is applied in many fields outside manufacturing.

Our usual view of waste is a broad and amorphous idea, but to illustrate the degree of examination we should go to, Shigeo Shingo pointed out that only the last turn of a bolt tightens it: the other effort is simply movement. We need to focus on our purpose and look carefully at each operation to see where we can eliminate waste.


The Lean people call this Muri: the re-work and problems that come from poor planning in the set-up of your printing operation. Our best example is the capability of our equipment. Adana were keen to advertise that their presses (especially the QH) were capable of printing everything from a ‘chemists’s label’ to a poster or magazine. In reality these machines are best suited to work of one sheet around 8” x 5” and in small runs. Every printer has an example of taking on work that’s just outside the capability of the shop whether that’s in terms of skill, size or volume.

The advice from 1901 remains:

“…if you can do the business of your locality in a creditable and satisfactory manner , … you have reached the little ideal.”


  • Have a look at your equipment: what are the limits on size, impression, feeding, inking and so on that should lead you to avoid certain jobs? Draw up a list of limits so you don’t accept work in future that will cause you problems
  • Consider your own skills: customers might like you to bind their work, but can you really do it? Will you be able to hand-set six pages of 6pt type? At what point will you have to defer to another expert?

Think carefully about making some personal standards to make work more efficient. In larger firms it’s possible to document detailed process flows and work instructions so that everyone works in the best way possible. For the one-man printer, standardisation might come in different guises. Recognising that letterpress printing is almost wholly non-standard means that these would be guides rather than prescriptions.


  • Can you settle on a single paper size or series? The A-series of papers has the broadest possible application, but can lead to modern and anodyne looking work. I’ve been experimenting with a standard 10” x 15” sheet (Crown), and working on multiples of that
  • What stock must you carry? Will a smaller range of papers in different weights be suitable? Must you have many shades?
  • Avoid standardising on types and ink: these are some of the most precious elements of the letterpress process and turning out each job in black, Times, A5 will be little better than using a PC to do the printing!
  • I have thought about setting my lay gauges in one place, and using corresponding furniture in the chase so that each job starts at a datum: much like the Heidelberg. It would mean each job from A6 to A4 always had a top left-hand corner about 6ems from the bottom left of the chase.


This is about the pipeline of work or ‘flow’. Considering most printers work on many jobs at once, it’s difficult to imagine a world where each job is completed before the next is started, but consider the advantages –

  • The whole capability of the works is available to every job: type is not tied up in standing formes; a press is not left with half the run complete, blocking other work; you can concentrate on just one thing
  • You’ll know when something goes wrong: let’s say we leave four jobs stacked up for corner rounding – then we find the blade needs sharpening. With those jobs stacked up we are delaying four jobs; with a single stream of work on we are delaying one and we know about the problem immediately.
  • Less space and money for stock it tied up in jobs that have started but are not yet with the customer.
  • You can give the customer your full attention at an agreed point in the future: no more discussions about being too busy – you can say they will have your complete focus from next Wednesday and they can expect the completed job two days later.
  • You can look at your order book to see to the day when you need more work or when you are tied up: no overlapping of tens of jobs

Naturally, there will always be some delay in a single stream of letterpress work. Customers will want to see proofs of finished articles before a run. Perhaps you could operate a single flow of work with a single item out for approval. In terms of waste, our customer wants to see the proof so this is not wasted effort.


  • Think about the practicalities of ‘one piece flow’. How would your work be affected if you worked on one thing at once? How much space and equipment would be freed up?
  • If there are operations that you batch up (like numbering or creasing) what can you do to cut the set-up time so that they can be performed as part of your work on the job?
  • Is there a reasonable number of jobs you could run: perhaps one main job and another waiting for customer approval? If the customer delays their approval what can you do to reduce that time: agree a slot for approval? Preparation work for the run while waiting for the approval?

Eliminating Waste: Transport

While completed jobs are in the office, they run the risk of being damaged and it delays the customer getting what they want. Establish a routine for despatching finished jobs

Eliminating Waste: Inventory

Keeping hold of stock is a waste because it ties up space but also money in something the customer has not yet paid for. The ideal is to order stock to meet demand, but no more than that. While it might be realistic for the large printer with paper merchant’s accounts and daily deliveries, the reality for smaller printers means we have to find a happy medium.

Take an inventory of what you have on hand and see whether that can be used for upcoming jobs. Run your stocks down to a limited level (say to cover the next four jobs) and order as little as possible. Maintain low stock levels by keeping a record of what has been used; and what will be used for future jobs.

It’s true that ordering in bulk will offer discounts, but this has to be balanced against the cost of storage, risk of damage and the money tied up in larger stocks.

Eliminating Waste: Waiting

Waiting is one of the major areas for a small printer to attack. Running multiple jobs at once means jobs often competing to use a machine that’s already tied up, or has to battle for space. Concentrating on one job at a time will cut waiting dramatically. I’ve mentioned elsewhere approaches to get customer sign-off on proofs in a reasonable time.

Eliminating Waste: Over-Processing

I spend a great deal of time adjusting my formes once they are on the press. It’s disappointing because this is the worst time to make adjustments! I have been experimenting with more precise approaches to avoid having to tinker at the latest stage of the process. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

  • Using setting rules and special galleys to ensure lines are a consistent length dramatically reduces problems in lock-up. At the very least you should set the measure in the stick and not adjust it while assembling the job
  • Setting the whole job at once allows me to see that I have enough type and also to send a full proof to the customer. This does need more type, though, than setting a page at a time
  • Using duplicate chases and furniture I’ve been able to set the press once to print on an A5 sheet and then used the same set-up in the duplicate chase to avoid having to re-adjust the press

Eliminating Waste: Over-Production

Printers’ terms were typically geared to a tolerance of 10% in quantity, and guidance was that around 20% run-on should be added to jobs for the first colour in a two colour run for smaller runs. Think about where you might over produce, and how this can be limited. Do you always use that margin when printing? If you do, what other steps can you take (see above) to get it right first time?

Eliminating Waste: Defects

Finally, we might produce work that our customers simply do not want! How often have you presented a job to the customer to find they are unhappy with the colour, types used or approach to the work? Defects like these cause us to repeat ourselves and that is simply waste. Find ways of eliminating defects at each stage of the process: can you send computer proofs of work to them for early approval; refer to colour charts or proper proofs before committing to the final job?

Alternatively we cause defects ourselves when we don’t care for our machines: we might over or under-ink because of bad setting; use poor rollers; set the impression incorrectly. It’s possible to reduce these by having some standards, or rules of thumb, to work to.

The Work Environment

Quite aside from the wastes above, the small printers’ work environment is perhaps the biggest area for improvement. I’ve seen printers operate in the most oppressive of conditions, in one Yorkshire print works I saw the roof open to the elements (and birds) with some equipment covered in plastic, no lights in the upper storeys as the wiring had failed, little or no working space, and having to use an outside toilet. (This, by the way was in 2006, so certainly something of a current phenomena.)

Lean gives us the 5S’s as a way of tackling workplace organisation, and since it’s such a big area I’ll tackle each one in turn. The crucial thing here is that it must be ongoing:

Possessing an ideal [printing] office is one thing, and keeping it so is another and far more difficult.


Without exception, each printing office I have seen includes something that is broken or otherwise unusable. It’s easy for onlookers to suggest everything connected with letterpress is obsolete or has no place; but even as experts we still have to look critically at what we have in our printing works.

Using again our purpose, we have to ask whether the things we have directly contribute to producing what our customers want. My list here is of obvious and less obvious things to look at in your office:

  • Broken equipment
    There are some things we keep so we have spares that are otherwise unobtainable. Keep these if you must but try to do this in an organised way. There’s little point in keeping a full machine, but can you remove and store spares in a tidy and clean way?
  • Unsuited equipment
    Considering the planning of the operation, does all your equipment flow? Can your stitcher accommodate the maximum paper size of your press? Can your guillotine accommodate the sheet size for the press? Think carefully about which bits of equipment are needed to produce the work you want: is a corner-rounding machine useful if you only produce books?
  • Incomplete Founts
    In my ‘sorting’, I found that some of the cases of type I had treasured and used were worryingly short of some characters (lower case ‘p’, curiously). Knowing I could not use or salvage them, I had to melt them down. Have a check of the founts you have and see that they are useful. This will avoid saying yes to a customer on looking at the case front; but finding no way to set the type!


This is about getting everything in the right order to help with the movement of work in your printing office. We think about grouping (all paper cutting/warehousing etc. together), but looking at the flow, we usually need to cut paper at the start of the process and wrap the finished article at the end. Ideally, these two activities should be at opposite ends of the works!

Sweep and Shine

The old maxim of “a place for everything and everything in it’s place” is something that eludes most printers. I’ve seen seemingly-productive workshops in a state of near-chaos but can’t help but think that people would more enjoy working in tidy conditions. The best workshops I’ve seen have adopted this principle, and I can summarise the approach:

  • All furniture either treated (with oil and white spirit) or painted (black). It might sound oppressive, but there’s little worse than the horrible olive green/battleship grey combinations of most metal cabinets
  • White or light walls and good lighting
  • Wall boards with nails, so that quoin keys, rulers, rollers etc. can all be stored at eye level on the wall
  • Open spaces (like stones and cabinet tops) kept clear

It’s hard to get to this point, and a lot will depend on having the space to keep the things you need. Remember that this is achievable for most people but that the difficulty is in keeping this standard up. Make tidying and cleaning a regular part of your routine.


In some respects, printers have always adopted and use standards, like the height-to-paper of 0.918”. In others, they have allowed multiple variants to grow, like case sizes or layout, and storage. These are possible areas for standardisation:

  • Storage
    Consider adopting just one or two ways of storing type and spacing, perhaps one large and one small. Don’t use home-made cases. Use a single size and style of galley
  • Case Lays
    The sheer number of ways of laying type in the case is staggering. Think about adopting one lay; and work your way slowly through your existing cases. This will save time and confusion when you come to hand-set
  • Paper Size, Position in the Press
    As mentioned above, perhaps use a standard paper size and have the press set up so you can work from a known point in the chase and in the press
  • Processes
    It’s overkill for us to document our processes in detail, but why not have a list of the sequence of operations you’ll use. This will help you keep working on one thing at once; and any improvements you make will be recorded


This is about keeping on top of the other four Ss. It’s not a matter of a ‘spring clean’ to do this: it needs to be continual.


I’ve tried here to summarise the 1900s advice; the 1950s research and modern-day manufacturing practice to help the modern, small, letterpress printer. The theory of one piece flow, or the 5Ss seems esoteric; but I hope I have suggested actions that will help improve your efficiency as a printer, and bring you more pleasure from the process.

The advice here differs from the earlier views of the industry: we haven’t spoken about machine utilisation, for example.

I’d like to say that my printing works is a model made in the mould of efficiency. It isn’t. But I am working at this, and will update this article as I learn more. The small steps on the 5Ss, for example, have given me new pride in the space.

I hope you can apply some of these things in your letterpress enterprise.