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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) 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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Book Printing: Choosing Sheetfed Offset or Web Offset

Photo purchased from … www.depositphotos.com

I mentioned in a prior PIE Blog article that a print brokering client of mine (a husband-and-wife publishing team) needed a shorter schedule for one of their books. This client’s publishing house has hard deadlines for final book delivery. If a printer misses a deadline for delivery to the print book distributor, my client’s books get rejected. Ouch.

Needless to say, crafting a production schedule with ample lead time to absorb anything bad that may happen (from multiple corrections at proof stage, to shipping final books through a snowstorm, to delays due to holiday schedules) must be addressed early. There’s no room for error.

That said, the book printer that had been manufacturing books for my client (a number of titles each year) first moved the projected schedule for a web offset perfect-bound book from five weeks to eight weeks (from proof approval to shipping) and then also moved the sheetfed printing schedule from five weeks to eight weeks. In both cases this was presumably due to smaller staffs (possibly due to Covid-19) or to prior commitments to other, larger clients.

How Does This Relate to Web Offset and Sheetfed Offset?

First of all, what is the difference between sheetfed and web-fed offset lithography?

Printers load stacks of press sheets (let’s say 25” x 38” sheets, even though there are any number of press sheet sizes) into their presses for sheetfed work. Unless their press is a “perfecting press” (which prints both sides of the press sheet at once), the stack of press sheets (having been printed on one side) first must be dried. Then the stack of press sheets must be flipped over and loaded back into the press so the other side of the sheet can be printed.

After printing, the press sheets can be folded, trimmed, and bound on separate, post-press (or finishing) equipment.

If you have a long press run (let’s say 60,000 copies of a textbook instead of my client’s 1,500 copies of a literary print book of poems or short stories), you may instead opt for a web offset press (and in the process save a lot of money).

Webs are rolls (as opposed to sheets) of paper. They are usually cheaper for a given volume of paper than cut press sheets. However, preparing a web press for a print job is a huge endeavor. (Also, the presses themselves are very large, so most printers don’t have them on their pressroom floors.) Therefore, the only way to make web offset printing an economical choice is to produce a long-run, multiple-press-signature print book, magazine, or catalog. For these situations a web press is ideal.

Web presses are either heatset or non heatset (also referred to as coldset). Coldset web printing involves drying the ink by having the liquid part of the ink (its vehicle) absorbed into the paper. One-color jobs printed on uncoated paper with no halftones or area screens of ink are ideal for this kind of web press. (Interestingly enough, that’s just the kind of book printing my client needs.)

An alternative web-press configuration is the heatset web, which has a drying unit (after the inking units) to flash off the solvent from the ink after printing. This allows printers to use coated paper and print the books, magazines, or catalogs in 4-color process ink. The heat of the oven allows the ink to dry and sit up on the surface of the paper rather than seep deeply into the paper fibers (as is the case with coldset web printing).

Still, the quality is not quite as good as in sheetfed commercial printing. But for a periodical (or marketing catalog) that will be read and then discarded, that may not be a problem. And if the run length is long, the savings over sheetfed printing (the cost per unit printed) can be huge.

But, to go back to the sheetfed presses, you can run thicker press sheets and far more varied press papers (coated, uncoated, textured, thick, thin) through a sheetfed press than through a web press. You also have to rigidly adhere to sizes for press signatures on a web press (for instance, you would print an 8 1/2” x 10 7/8” book rather than an 8 1/2” x 11” book to fit a press signature exactly on the web paper roll).

So there are trade-offs in quality, paper choices, book dimensions, and so forth. But if you’re printing a long-run magazine every month, you will usually accept the compromise to save both money and pressroom time.

So Why Is My Client Considering a Web Press?

The short answer is, “I don’t know.” My client’s perfect-bound books are all the same format: 5.5” x 8.5” with French flaps. They range from about 64 pages to about 300 pages. Their press runs are 1,000 to 2,000 copies. So they should be printed on a sheetfed press.

Nevertheless, for my client’s more recent print book titles, the printer who has been producing the work has offered lower costs for web-fed offset printing than for sheetfed work (even for a shorter run length than should be the norm for web offset printing).

This flies in the face of reason, which leads me to believe the printer:

  1. would rather lose some money on a job than have a web press stand completely idle (bringing in no revenue)
  2. may be printing the text of the book on a coldset web press (since my client’s book text block is black-only ink on uncoated paper with no bleeds or tint screens)
  3. can print a 1,500-copy run in the blink of an eye (web presses run significantly faster than sheetfed presses)

Perhaps because of any one or more of these presuppositions (or others), the book printer initially offered my client an 8.5 week schedule for web-fed offset (at a discount) or a 5-week schedule (at a cost premium) for sheetfed.

Granted, the printer then rescinded the offer, lengthening the sheetfed press schedule to 8 weeks, effectively negating the reason to pay the higher cost for sheetfed offset.

Needless to say, I held back the client’s signed contract (which I had received online about an hour after learning of the new schedule). I then approached another sheetfed printer I trust completely. I asked him to be my client’s “white knight.” He said he could do the job in three to five weeks. He said the short run (1,500 copies) and 5.5” x 8.5” format were ideal for his presses. This may mean the price will be comparable to the first printer’s (the lowest I’ve seen of late). We’ll see.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

There are actually a lot of object lessons here:

  1. This is why it pays to develop long-standing, mutually advantageous relationships with a few printers. They can sometimes help you out in a pinch. If not, they may suggest other printers you can approach.
  2. Learn the differences between sheetfed offset printing, heatset web offset printing, and coldset web offset printing. Learn the best formats (the ideal print book, magazine, or catalog dimensions), press runs, page counts, and papers for web-fed commercial printing. Be realistic about what you’re printing and the level of quality you need. For a periodical, a heatset web may be ideal (but maybe not for a high-profile annual report). Also, most people will still think a heatset-web-printed job produced on a nice coated stock is beautiful.
  3. Realize that even though the hourly cost to run a heatset web press is high, you can fold the publication inline and receive complete press signatures on the delivery end of the press. This means less post-press or finishing work. In fact, for paste binding, the press may actually deliver a finished product that needs no further binding.
  4. You can’t run every kind of paper on a web press. (For instance, you can’t print a pocket folder on a web press because the press won’t accept thick paper substrates.)
  5. If you want to add special coatings or perhaps special ink colors, you will need a sheetfed press rather than a web-fed press.
  6. If you need to print on super-thin paper (thin catalog paper for instance), you’ll need a web-fed press. Using paper from a roll allows the press to maintain tension on the paper to keep it flat as it travels through the press, even if it is thin. Using the same thin paper on a sheetfed press would just crumple up the sheet.

I realize that all of this probably makes your head spin. There are a lot of pros and cons to sheetfed, heatset web, and coldset web printing. Assume a periodical printer or book printer may have web presses in addition to sheetfed presses. Assume a commercial printer will only have sheetfed presses. But do make inquiries, and talk with the sales reps early in the process.

The best place to start is with the job specifications, particularly in terms of format, page count, press run, and paper selection. These few specifications will go a long way toward determining which kind of press you will need.

And you can always mix and match. For instance, in my client’s case, you could very well print the French flap covers on a sheetfed press (with special coating capabilities) and then print the text blocks for the books on a heatset (or perhaps even coldset) web press. Then you could bind the text blocks into the covers.

But keep in mind that if you’re producing an ultra-short run of an even shorter book than my client’s, you probably will want digital printing. For very small jobs, digital printing (inkjet or laser) is often an even better answer than any of these three offset lithographic options.

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