Efficiency and the Small Printer

A com­pre­hens­ive look at 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.