Organisation of a Printing Office

Robert Smails Printing Works
Robert Smails Printing Works
Robert Smails Printing Works

Just to clarify, there is still no agreement on what one should call an establishment that produces printed articles.  My own view is that a Printing Works is the building in which the printing is done; and a Printing Office is the building in which that work is administered and controlled.  Others, especially small modern private presses, use other terms like: Studio, Workshop or even Laboratory.

A printing office is necessary in even the smallest commercial operation whether a one-man outfit or the vast thousand-plus houses of the last century.  Sales, planning and other processes are essential along with some system to execute these processes.  The BFMP said that “…skillful and imaginative administration is essential”.  The tasks can be divided and sub-divided and we look here at the major headings and the purposes of these.  Put to practical use for the small printer could mean the different between making a profit or a huge loss.  Naturally, the processes here can be tailored to high- or low-volumes of work and complexity.  The idea of administering work relies on a steady flow of sales and enquiries before any of these processes can be started.


Most demands for work would be for a new printed item (rather than a repeat of an existing order), and so the estimate must take the information available and turn this in to a realistic view of the charge to be made of the work.  Information might be scant, so the estimator has to use some assumptions and imagination to flesh out some bare requirements in to a finished article.  The estimate will have to take account of the processes, size, quality, quantity and cost of materials as well as the type of machine to be used and time needed at each stage of the process.  Further work might be needed to encompass processes that have to be performed outside of the firm: outwork.  Examples of this include binding, foiling or embossing.

Order Clerk

The order clerk’s role is to get the customer’s needs well-defined and then produce a schedule or plan of how the work will be tackled.  They will take the overall plan of work and break it down in to individual instructions for different departments.  This role is the link between the different departments that execute the work.


The right material at the right time on the best possible terms is the purpose of the purchasing area.  They can be commissioned by the order clerk to buy materials for the plan; but they can also be used to buy equipment or make other capital expense on behalf of the firm.  Examples of common tasks here are the purchase of paper and inks; but also type and equipment.


Costing is the allocation of all expenses of the business incurred directly and indirectly in the production of jobs.  Smaller printers were traditionally bad at this activity because they could not gather accurate information about some of the indirect costs like rates, heating and even janitors.  In missing some of the less obvious costs they under-priced their work and so gradually made mounting losses that took the firm under.  While this was going on they were undercutting larger, but more efficient printers and they did not like this state of affairs.  The BFMP published a Federation Costing System that went to incredible detail about identifying, recording and allocating costs to work.  They emphasised, though, that this was not an attempt to create uniform pricing because they said finding the cost was one activity but the price to the customer also included profit for the printer and that was to their discretion.

The essential principles of costing, and some illustrations, are:

  • Identify the direct costs of a job.  Obvious examples include time to print and set the work; along with paper and ink.  Less obvious examples include storage costs for that particular job (covering space but also metal tied-up in that job) and packaging
  • Add to that a proportion of the indirect costs like interest on loans, salesman’s expenses, heating and lighting, canteens etc.
  • Indirect costs should only be identified where it is impossible to make the cost direct. As an example, the floor space of each machine should be used to allocate rent and rates to that machine so a combined cost of running that machine for an hour is created including: captial, space, manpower, maintenance etc.  In this way there’s no possibility of efficient, useful machines subsidising older machines without anyone knowing

Pricing and Invoicing

This process is concerned with getting a price to charge to the customer and invoicing the customer accordingly.  The price will have to account for the costs, but also the original estimate and any variation in the job as it flows through the works.  Variation might come because another type of paper had to be used to meet the timescales; or because the customer asked for changes after a proof.

The typical structure of the activities of the printing establishment are shown in the table below.

Proprietor or Board of Directors
General Manager
Sales Office
Office Manager
Works Manager
Sales Reps Estimating Orders Buying Costing Pricing & Invoicing Composing Warehouse Machine Dept Bindery Despatch Wages Cashier Accounts