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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: Benefits of Using Print Spec-Sheets

A friend of a custom printing colleague recently asked a question reflecting his growing frustration. “When I send out emails about upcoming jobs, why do print sales reps always ask for information I’ve already covered in my email, and why do they ask other questions about irrelevant aspects of the job?”

I can appreciate this print buyer’s angst. After all, repeating oneself can be maddening. But I’d like to adjust his question a bit to the following: “Why is email problematic, and what is a better way to communicate with a commercial printing sales rep?”

First of all, email is fine as a communication tool, but the threads of back-and-forth communications can become confusing, and one can easily miss items of importance.

What I like to do, and what I used to teach the designers who worked for me when I was an art director, is to create a standardized specification sheet. Printers do the same thing when they provide an estimate. They specify every aspect of a job from materials submitted to proofs required to printing inks, press run, finishing, delivery, or mailing, and even where the samples will go. Why not do the same thing and tailor this document to your own regular print jobs? Create your own specifications sheet, which the commercial printing supplier can incorporate into his estimate.

What to Include

Each job you bid out will vary slightly, or even a great deal, from this specification sheet, so consider it a starting point only that you can adjust as needed.

Begin your specification list with the title of the publication, and then go on to specify the quantity (or multiple quantities, if you need them for estimating purposes) of your job.

Remember to also describe the flat and folded size of a job like a brochure, or the final trim size of a book. If your job is a print book, remember to specify the number of pages plus the cover.

Then go on to specify the kind of commercial printing paper you will need. This may be a 100# gloss coated sheet for a brochure, or a 60# uncoated white opaque text sheet for the interior of a book. If your book is soft cover, also note the weight of the cover paper. In this case you might choose a 10pt. or 12pt. coated-one-side (C1S) cover stock such as bristol. If you plan to print on the interior covers of the book (inside front and inside back, or C-2 and C-3), you might want to choose a coated-two-side (C2S) cover stock. This will improve the ink hold-out on the cover (the ink will sit up on top of the paper coating and look crisper than it would on an uncoated press sheet).

Next, describe the ink colors. Will the job be printed in black ink only, black plus one or more other (PMS) colors, or in full color (4-color process)? Black is a color, so remember to count this as such. Tell your printer whether the ink will print on one side of the press sheet or two, and whether there will be bleeds (ink, screens, solids, or halftones that extend off the printed page).

At this point also tell your printer if there will be a coating on the sheet (such as a varnish, UV coating, aqueous coating, or laminate). These press coatings can be used for design effects or to protect the printed product against fingerprints or other damage.

Don’t forget to describe the ink coverage as well. This can be anywhere from light (text only) to heavy coverage (if you include large areas of solid colors in your design work).

Next, list any binding or other finishing work you will need. This would include such processes as perfect binding, saddle-stitching, or case binding. Finishing work also includes folding, so, if you’re printing a brochure, for instance, you might want to note that there are six panels (three on each side), and the job should wrap fold (one end over the other) or accordion fold (zig-zagging back and forth).

Proofs, delivery, and scheduling requirements should always be included, and they are easy to forget. Will you need hard-copy proofs, or will PDF screen proofs suffice? Do you want the job delivered to your office or perhaps split between your office and a warehouse? Make sure your specification sheet asks for the cost of shipping, which is usually extra and not included in the printing estimate.

If you need mailshop work, note this as well. And then finish with a description of the schedule, including submission of art files, proofing, printing and finishing, and delivery. Remember that some printers will note the shipping date rather than the delivery date on their estimate, so if you need a job delivered to your warehouse on a certain date and time, note this as well.

Improving Printer/Client Relations

It can be very helpful to both you and the printer to review the job specs over the phone. In this way, both of you can ask questions, clarify specifications, and get to know one another in a pleasant way. Your printer can understand your needs, and you can understand his technical requirements.

Printing Spec Sheets Will Vary

Remember that specifications sheets will vary from job to job, depending upon the printed product: a book, pocket folder, poster, sticky note pad, brochure, etc.

Always Check the Estimate Carefully

Human error operates in the field of custom printing as well as in all other areas of human endeavor. Printers miss things in reading and responding to your specification sheets while generating an estimate. That said, you’re more likely to get a detailed estimate that covers all of your requirements if you create a standardized specification sheet that you can use or alter for every job. In addition, your printer will become accustomed to seeing these spec sheets, and it will make it easier for him to provide an estimate or to ask for clarification.

Beyond the Spec Sheet

Once you have all of your bids for a job, what do you do? How do you compare the estimates? Consider creating a spreadsheet matching the elements of the job to the pricing from all printing suppliers. I have always found that such a spreadsheet reveals job elements a vendor may have forgotten to include in the bid or inadvertently misunderstood, substitutions in materials, etc.

A Recap of What to Include in Your Spec Sheet

Here’s a recap of job elements to include:

  1. Title
  2. Quantity
  3. Number of pages (and whether the job has a cover or is a “self-cover” product–i.e., a book or booklet in which text stock is used instead of cover stock for the cover—i.e., thinner paper rather than thicker paper)
  4. Flat size and trim size
  5. Folding requirements
  6. Cover and text stock specifications
  7. Cover and text inks (4-color, PMS colors, black ink only, etc.)
  8. Light or heavy ink coverage
  9. Cover coating such as varnish, UV, aqueous
  10. Bleeds
  11. Bindery and other finishing requirements
  12. Proofs
  13. Delivery
  14. Schedule

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