Printing & Design Tips: JULY 2008, #84

The Proper Press for the Job

Not all printers have all presses within their facility. In fact, most printers specialize in just one type of printing. It’s easy to forget this when you’re bidding out a job.

Some printers have web presses (roll-fed presses that are good for magazine work and longer-run promotional pieces but that don’t provide the quality of a sheetfed press). Other printers have sheetfed presses that will allow for higher halftone line screens—and, hence, more image detail—for higher quality promotional work, coffee-table art books, and the like. Still others have one or the other of these plus a digital press (good for shorter runs of promotional pieces and books). And most printers with the aforementioned equipment will not have silkscreen press capabilities, which is exactly what you will need for vinyl binders, certain kinds of signage, and novelties like mugs.

Then there are further subdivisions within these categories. For instance, one sheetfed press has five printing units but only takes up to a 20” x 26” press sheet, while another has ten ink units and a roll sheeter. This is a sheetfed press that allows you to start with rolls of printing paper (which are cheaper than cartoned sheets of paper) that are then chopped into sheets to be fed into the press.

With all these options, how can you possibly choose a printer for your job?

1. First try to find a printer close to the delivery point for the job. Why? Because paper is heavy, and freight is expensive. The shorter the delivery distance, the better.

Nevertheless, bend this rule if you find a printer—in Canada or the Midwest, for instance—with low overhead and therefore spectacular prices that make up for the long-distance delivery.

2. Make sure the printer’s capabilities match the general requirements of the job. If the job requires 150,000 impressions or so, choose a web printer. A sheetfed printer could usually do the same job, but depending on the page count and press run, the job could cost up to $10,000.00 more for a sheetfed product.

One caveat: If you want to print 150,000 copies of an 8.5” x 11” tri-fold brochure, you first need to (mentally) lay these out on a 25” x 38” or 28” x 40” (usual size) press sheet. Draw up a quick sketch if that is easier. Since you can get 8 of these brochures out of each press sheet, the number of press sheets (impressions) would drop in the following way: You would be printing 18,750 press sheets, not 150,000 (150,000 divided by 8 copies of the brochure), so you would be back in the realm of the sheetfed press.

Now if you were printing 150,000 copies of a 16-page booklet (8.5” x 11” again, for consistency), you could use the entire press sheet for the 16-page booklet (8 pages on each side of the press sheet), so you would be back to 150,000 copies of each book (150,000 impressions), or back to the web press.

Rest assured, the printers you contact will help you with this. If a printer declines to bid, you will know the job is inappropriate for them. If the price comes back and is $10,000.00 higher than another vendor’s price, it’s time to compare web presses and sheetfed presses, and consider the efficiencies of each.

3. If you have a very small print run (let’s say 500 copies of a single sheet--the 8.5” x 11” brochure again), look for a printer with digital capabilities. If the job is a small-format printed piece that requires the highest quality of ink, rather than toner, on paper, look on the Internet for printers with equipment like the iGen (color xerography), DocuTech (if the job is black only, not color), or a Heidelberg DI direct imaging press.

4. If you have something out of the ordinary, such as a 13 foot by 17 foot wall banner, look for a sign printer with pigment-based ink-jet capabilities. Or, if you need mugs, pens, or the like, look for a “novelty” printer.

Now this is by no means an exhaustive list or even a complete one. If you’re printing a job that I haven’t mentioned, ask the printers you work with regularly where the best places to go might be. It is in their best interest to send you to quality vendors that you will be satisfied with, since you will be more likely to return to them later with jobs that do “fit” their equipment. So ask, then ask again.

5. One final note: Choose a printer with the smallest press that will do the job well. This is a bit like saying that you should lay out eight copies of your 8.5” x 11” brochure on a 25” x 38” press sheet to avoid wasting paper. Specifically, it costs significantly more to run a 40” press than a 20” x 26” press. If you are printing a poster, for instance, that fits on a 20” x 26” sheet, you can save money (hundreds of dollars up to a thousand dollars for a moderate press run), if you can use the smaller press, unless of course you can get more than one copy of the poster on a press sheet. Then it might be more economical to use a larger press sheet and a larger press. Only your printers can tell you for sure. As a rule, the difference in their prices will make this clear.

In general, think about the size of your project, think about how many you can get on a press sheet, and go for the smallest press that can do the job at the level of quality you need for the best price.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]