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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: The Importance of Adequate Lead Time

Purchased from …

“The luxury of time.” Who has it anymore? Everything is a rush. Under the assumption that mistakes occur when you rush through something, if you buy commercial printing for a living, it’s vital to consider all facets of the job you’re producing and leave adequate lead time for each component.

In some cases your delivery date is flexible. Great. That’s a relief. But in other cases, for example a marketing initiative, if your job finishes just in time to get into the mail stream late, such that your prospective buyers (let’s say attendees at a conference) get the self-mailers just after the conference ends, you’ve failed. You’ve done two things, actually. You have missed the chance to sell the conference to so many thousands of prospects, and you’ve wasted money on copywriting, design, production, custom printing, finishing, mailshop work, and postage.

The Article

In this light, I just read a blog article on, the website of a local printer. The article, “Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect,” was written by Samantha Philipson and published on July 20, 2020. It not only addresses the need to plan ahead and start early when you’re shepherding a commercial printing job through the manufacturing process, but it also provides some general time frames to get you started.

My best advice to you is to consider these times, most of which will vary based on options you choose (some printing and finishing activities take longer than others), but equally important, I would encourage you to discuss your personal print production needs with your commercial printing supplier. (If you have several, pick the one you trust the most.) Do this early in the process.

Trust me. I spent almost a decade as an art director/production manager, and nothing makes you lose sleep like getting behind on a print project. Talking with your custom printing vendor early also takes into consideration his schedule. Maybe his plant is busier than usual, and a job that took a week last year might take longer this year. Chances are, if you discuss your project early, he can put you in the schedule now, with a turn-around time even faster than you might expect. After all, he doesn’t like surprises any more than you do.

General Time Frames

“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect” addresses the following aspects of a print project:

“Design/Copywriting Services” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

The article suggests a month for copywriting and design. I would add to that commensurately if the job is longer (perhaps a print book). When I was an art director, the writers/editors took several months to write our nonprofit educational foundation’s government textbooks. Then the designers took a month to a month and a half to design the book and produce press-ready art files. (This included all of the various rounds of proof corrections.) Then the printer took six weeks to print, bind, and ship 60,000 perfect-bound print books.

Smaller jobs fit nicely into the time frame Ironmark printing suggests. I would just encourage you to separate the various elements: copywriting, design (and I would actually separate out final art file preparation, since it involves extra steps that go beyond the design component of the job), prepress, printing, finishing, delivery, mailing, etc.

Also, the best thing you can do is (once you have created a schedule) discuss the schedule with the designers, writers, and editors. Then amend it as needed based on their feedback.

“Paper Size” and “Print Quantity” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Samantha Philipson’s article doesn’t specify time for all print jobs in this section, but it does note that the size of the press sheet and the number of press signatures (let’s say one 16-page signature per press run, depending on the size of the page and how many pages will fit on a press sheet), will determine the amount of time the job is on press. (For smaller jobs, like a mailer, speed is all about how many copies of the mailer can fit on a single—hopefully large—press sheet.)

Going back to the textbook I used to produce (as mentioned earlier), this (approximately) 352-page, 6” x 9” perfect-bound book comprised eleven 32-page signatures. That’s eleven press runs plus the cover even before any binding work could commence. In contrast, Samantha Phillipson’s article mentions the printer’s producing 5,000 postcards in two days or 10,000 in three. So, you see, more complex jobs take much longer to produce. Again, this is the best reason of all to discuss your job with your custom printing provider early.

“Stickers or Labels” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

According to Philipson’s article, these add a day to the schedule. I would also add that other items that require a printer to order and receive supplies not normally kept in stock (such as a specific paper you want to use) will also add time. So ask your printer about this. In some cases, by using materials he already has on the pressroom floor, you can save not only money but also time.

“Number of Pieces per Item” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article suggests that you consider the number of items in a promotional mailing. If you insert an invitation into your envelope along with a reply card and reply envelope, plus an informational card, the “inserting” step of the mailing will take longer. In most cases, inserting can be automated; however, if there are unusual size or placement needs, this might become hand work, which not only costs more but also takes longer. If your press run is long, this could cause an unforeseen delay.

“Is a Die Required?” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

If your job has a unique shape (anything other than a rectangle), your printer will need to have a metal cutting die made. (Let’s say the cover of your perfect-bound print book has a cut-out rectangle on the front cover through which you can see the first page. This would require a die.) Philipson’s article notes that such die making would add a week to the schedule. I’ve found this pretty consistent among all the printers I’ve worked with. In part, the delay is due to die-making’s being subcontracted work. Again, it adds to both the cost and the overall time. Philipson notes that the extra week does not include the printing or finishing steps of the job.

“Digital or Offset Printing”
(“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article notes that three to five days would be reasonable for a one- or two-color offset printed job, whereas five to seven days would be reasonable for a digitally printed job.

I’d encourage you to ask your printer. The offset vs. digital turn-around times will depend entirely on the specific digital and offset printing equipment he has, as well as his schedule at the time. Some printers are set up to produce digital work faster than offset; for some it’s the other way around. That said, in my experience three to five days for a small job (simple with a short press run) and seven to ten days for a larger one (more complex but not a print book) would be a good place to start negotiations with your printer. Keep in mind that these are business days, not calendar days.

“Number of Folds” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

More complex folds take longer on the folder (part of this is making sure they are accurate, since the first bad fold makes the following folds even worse). Some complex mailers require multiple passes through the folder, and this also adds time.

“Finishing Options” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”):

Philipson’s article notes that you should add one or two days for such finishing work as varnishing. To this I would add that complex varnishing techniques (like using both a spot gloss and spot dull varnish to make certain portions of a brochure cover stand out) also take extra time.

I’d also discuss binding methods with your printer. If you’re producing a textbook (as I did), perfect binding takes much longer than saddle stitching. In part, this is because a lot of printers don’t have perfect binding equipment in house and therefore have to subcontract the work.


Philipson notes that her printer can turn around digital proofs in approximately eight hours, but a hard-copy proof will take an extra day. In some cases a digital proof (on-screen PDF proof, which requires no shipping time or expense) is not enough. You need to see the actual color of the job. But if you do need a hard-copy proof, you need to set aside extra time for the proof to be delivered, checked, and returned to the printer. (However, if there’s a second round of proofs, I usually encourage clients to request a PDF proof for the corrections.)

Finally, “Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect” ends with wise words: “Build in extra time for any delays” (“Print Turnaround Times and What to Expect”). These can include delays on your end. (What if the main person who has to see the proof is on vacation when it arrives?) Or it can occur on the printer’s end. (What if the press is down or there are delivery problems?)

The two best things you can do? Pad the schedule, and communicate early and often with your commercial printing vendor.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: The Importance of Adequate Lead Time”

  1. HDBD says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience with us.
    I am being motivated by reading your article.
    Please keep on posting this kind of article.
    Let’s hope for the best.


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