Printing Press Check Part 1

I traveled to Seoul for a press check and spent 72 straight hours on the job aside for a few hours here and there to get some sleep, get some food and take a shower. Those few days were the ultimate cure for jet lag.

Press checks for large print runs are arduous, even without international travel thrown in, because printing presses, unlike humans, don’t need to sleep. They usually run 24 hours a day with two shift changes at sunset and sunrise. When the day shift man (I’ll stick with man, because they invariably are men) goes home to a warm meal and a soft bed after his twelve hours of labor, the client–if the file being printed is of any importance–has to stay put and work with the night shift man to check, adjust and approve regardless of how tired or hungry or cranky they are until the job is done.

Some press checks are longer than others, depending on the amount of pages being printed. This particular print run went so long because the book I was there to get printed was a 300+ page hardback cover with more than 300 annotated project photos in full color. It was printed in signatures of 8 flat pages which are set up so that as the page is folded in half, then in half again, those pages will nest together, to be easily “stitched” and then trimmed. Because a signature must run flat on a press, there are always at least two pages running “in line” with each other. A book is never run where there is no color compromise because of the multiple-page press sheet of the signature format. If the color is perfect on the lower page but off on the upper page, for example, the printer will have to compromise the color on the lower one to correct the upper page. 

Actually being on press with the printers requires skills above and beyond just knowing whether colors are balanced or not. Printers that work the machines don’t really want clients around. First off, there is the perceived danger of the print shop floor. But mostly, they just want to put ink on paper and keep the machines going. They have great rhythm, and often move as if they are part of the machines, which in a sense they are. Clients like me tend to break that rhythm.

Don't get me wrong, the good ones care about putting out a quality product and will accommodate clients and strive for perfection. If you’re lucky, the excellent ones will even impart their considerable knowledge and there is a lot that can be learned from them. But bottom line, they are there to work, not stop the presses every five minutes to make changes. As the client one needs to be available (and alert), polite and assertive, but not intrusive. Knowing when to push and when to say something is good enough is key.

So, on press, it's important to know what you are talking about or the printer may look at you like you are wasting their time. Acquiring this knowledge takes years of practice combined with a naturally good eye for color. I know when an image is not color balanced, but I am always learning what to do with the inks to fix it. That’s where the printer comes in. The good ones get what you want, make a few quick adjustments and take things where they need be as if by magic. They can also help keep the whole book balanced in their minds so that each form closely color matches the forms that make up the other pages that it will appear next to in the bound book.

While printing has become very much a science then, there is still an incredible amount of artistry involved. At the end of the day, it's a human being telling a machine what to do. You either have the ability to nuance color or you don’t. One can learn to operate a printing machine, but color and tone and value can’t be learned rote, it almost has to be felt.

The American printers that I’ve done press checks at have client lounges where you can rest up, work and catch a few winks between checking a particular signature. What usually happens is that you’ll approve the color of a signature and then it will be run through the press. Depending on how long it takes (size of the run, speed of the press) you might get anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to watch TV, grab a bite to eat, or take a nap. Talk to the printers. Have a few jokes. Build camaraderie, you get the idea.

Not so much the case with this press check.

This story continues in a series of posts. Read the next installment. 

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

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