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.