A Life In Print
Although not in totally correct timeline order and having the dates missing due to memory loss 🙂 here is a run-through of my working life in the print industry, well, most of it, and the wonderful machinery I had to play with.
Where it all began – Total Office Printing Services Ltd
About a year before I left school, I got a part-time job in a trade print shop in Finsbury Park called T.O.P.S. Ltd which stood for Total Office Printing Services, they were a small business that mainly printed promotional material for a line of chemist shops. Only a staff of three, it was busy, very busy but a great place to learn, one of the others was my elder brother who worked in the studio side, type-setting, paste-up and film-prep for the printing plates.
My first tasks were the menial ones like cleaning the press rollers at the end of the day, tidying up, coffee making, bringing paper deliveries in, post-office runs and so on. One of the earliest ‘real’ tasks was operating the massive Hunter Penrose process camera (pictured below).
This behemoth of a camera was large, about 6′-6″ high, 15′ long and 4′ wide, it was not even a very big one apparently. This era of print was after lead type and compositing but way before digital was even thought of. The artwork was ‘pasted up’ on sheets of thin card, these were then placed in the process camera and an image was taken onto large sheets of black and white film. The film was then developed in large open trays of chemicals and passed on to the platemaking guy.
It also took images of actual pictures using a halftone conversion screen, this enabled colour or black & white photo artwork to be reproduced. In the museum picture above, the two arms at the top left held very large and bright floodlights to illuminate the artwork held on the copy-board, the film went in the wooden panel at the right end.
Other tasks included running the large folding machine, a “Camco RDC” buckle-folder. Sadly, despite many hours of searching I can find no images of Camco folders of this era at all! The partial image below shows a woman working at the straight-fold delivery table of the RDC folder, the right-angle folds are not in use but can be seen to her right.
The RDC was a big machine, the paper size was Double Crown or 20×30″, I believe the “R” in the name stood for Rotary as opposed to Knife action folding. I was folding sales flyers and sections of catalogues that were then taken for collating by hand and stitching, then brought back for trimming and dispatch. It was noisy and temperamental, ear protection was needed and being in a shed meant it was freezing in winter and hot in summer 🙂
In no time, I was introduced to print, the first machine was the Gestetner 211, a small A4+ press but very popular. My father spent many years of his life working for Gestetner both as service engineer and later as service admin, I was taken on many trips with him as a youngster to print shops and factories as he attended service calls, great times indeed.
The 211 was a great little machine, capable of some good work output and also ideal for learning the offset process. It was a very busy little press and I spent many long days running jobs on it, it was fast to set up and fast to change colours etc.
Once I had cut my teeth on the Gestetner, I was moved up to the Solna 124 press. This was a single-colour RA2 size (430 x 610mm) press, it was in a totally different league to the little Gestetner. The image below is pretty much identical to the one i operated, minimal guards back then although my one did have a guard over the delivery. I was taught to have much respect for moving machinery.
Shortly after the 124 I was side-moved onto the Solna 125, a slightly larger sheet size press at 450 x 640mm but pretty much the same as the older 124 model. These were the presses that I was tasked with cleaning the rollers from in the beginning, and still did as it was pretty much a team effort to get the work done.
Pan Britannica Industries Ltd
It was about this time that I decided a job change was in order, I can’t recall the reason why, but I applied for and got a job as printer at Pan Britannica Industries – better known as PBI, they made agricultural fertilisers and garden products like the well known “Baby Bio” houseplant food. I printed many millions of labels for Baby Bio 🙂
PBI had a Gestetner 211 which I was used to, a smaller Camco A2W folder which was easy to use plus a Rotaprint R30/90 press (below). The Rotaprint was an SRA3 press (450 x 320mm) and was a bit quirky in its operation, I learned to dislike the Rotaprint pretty quickly, I printed labels for sacks of fertiliser on it mostly.
They also had a Solna 125 which I was put in charge of plus a larger Solna 225 two-colour press. The 225 was basically two 125’s bolted together, this press was at that time operated by the head printer.
Working in part of a large company like PBI was totally alien to me, nothing like the smaller print shop I came from. The manager was great but there was little time to slack, deadlines and quotas were always there. I did meet Dr Hessayon, author of the great “Garden Expert” series of books once, he was a decent guy and for the director of a large company, pretty friendly too.
I progressed pretty quickly at PBI, I soon had a junior operator under my wing and that meant no more roller cleaning for me 🙂 However, there was some serious friction growing between me and the head printer so after a couple of years I decided to move on.
Tower Press Ltd
T.O.P.S. Ltd, the first company, had undergone many changes since I left and my brother was now one of the directors, along with the other printer that worked there. It was now called Tower Press Ltd and did more general offset work after the demise of the Chemists. They specialised in work for the petroleum and oil industry now. I applied and soon started work there, it was in the same building and had almost the same machinery so I knew pretty much all there was to know.
The petroleum industry seemed to have a voracious appetite back then for paper, documents, filing and technical drawings. Tower Press turned out a vast amount of tabbed filing dividers and had a very rare machine for cutting these tabs in bulk, sadly I can find no pictures though.
Computers were still growing up back then, microfiche cards for storing information with microfilm were still very popular. We printed many hundreds of thousands of these little cards for various customers, the little Gestetner press was well suited to this work.
They now also had a Solna 225 which I was very soon running, this was a big change from single-colour work. In those days, there were no computer controls, no colour-checking devices, it was all done manually by eye and relied on operator skill. Printing a four-colour job on a two-colour press means printing usually the cyan and yellow colours first, the magenta and black being placed on the second pass. Getting the colour levels correct on just two colours out of four took real skill but we managed it, mostly 🙂 Details on offset printing can be found here.
Business cards and letterheads were bread & butter work back then, neither are used much today sadly. I have printed stationery for some very well known business people including high-up members of large companies like Occidental Petroleum.
Sometime before I left T.O.P.S. I was introduced to the guillotine. This was used to cut the paper for the presses and also to finish the printed work. It was a “Perfecta” by Victory-Kidder, a large, intimidating machine that demanded a lot of respect in use. I could not find an exact image but the one below is very similar, just a little later model.
The guillotine had a mechanical swing-out guard (seen folded back over the top in the picture), a one-armed-bandit type lever to start the cut and no other guarding as they were not mandated back then. The swing-out guard would happily throw you across the room if you were careless enough to get in its way! The model pictured has been fitted with electrical start buttons and the guard disabled for some reason.
Pan Britannica Industries Ltd
Things continued for a good while at Tower Press but I was looking to get married and financial needs meant a job change was in order. I applied at PBI again and walked straight back in, the head printer had recently left. I was now in charge of the Solna 225 and also overlooked the installation of a Solna 425 – a four-colour version.
As with the 225, the 425 was just a 225 split with two 125’s inserted in the middle, these were basic but reliable machines. I was put on the 425 in short time and soon learned the ways of four-colour process printing on a manual press. Lots and lots of running up and down, checking and adjusting colours, water balance etc. It was very hard work but the money was there.
Craft Creations Ltd
Some time had passed and PBI was sadly going downhill, the print department was to be closed and the work farmed-out instead. Having recently got married, I did not want to be in a position without work so I jumped-ship before it sank, luckily my brother (ex of Tower Press Ltd) and his wife had recently started up a craft products business and I requested to work for them.
The business, Craft Creations Ltd, was growing and soon had a Gestetner 211, a guillotine and a Heidelberg GT platen for die-cutting duties on their range of blank cards.
Naturally the Gestetner was easy, the guillotine was mostly used by my brother as was the platen which was kept running pretty much all day, every day, I took over when he was doing artwork or designing new products. There was also a darkroom and more modern process camera (below) with film processor.
As the business grew so did the machinery. A solna 225 was purchased next and I was printing catalogues, Christmas cards and more on it. As time progressed, so did technology – a digital photo-typesetter was introduced along with a small foil-printing press and another Heidelberg GT platen along with a junior operator to assist.
Craft Creations Ltd was growing rapidly, more units at the small yard were taken, more storage, more staff, the print section was shifted across the yard to its own building, we got some new machinery – a couple more Heidelberg platens, a newer Komori two-colour press, a Heidelberg KORD single colour press, shrink-wrapping equipment and a large Crosland hand-fed platen.
The Komori was a far better built press than the now elderly Solna line, capable of far higher speeds and more accurate colour control.
The Heidelberg KORD 64 was an old model offset press but had some big advantages – it could print on anything from a single business card up to a full SRA2 sheet size – no other press could do this, it replaced the elderly Gestetner 211.
The platen line now consisted of three 13×18 GT platens plus a GT for foiling (above). As the company grew, I was advanced to production manager and had three staff under me. It was a busy room, the hum and clatter of three platens and a printing press thrashing away was like music.
Apologies for the poor picture quality but these are the only existing copies I have. As you can see, the print room was tight, very tight, but also very productive.
After some years, the business outgrew all the little units in the existing yard so a move was planned. This was a fantastic time, being involved in moving and expanding a running business is stressful but massively rewarding, I could plan the new print room in detail and be involved in it at ground level.
There was plenty of room in the new premises and following the move, machinery was expanded as needed. We got the first of what was to be two Komori Lithrone four-colour presses, the first one was a manual machine again but did produce a lot of work, after a few years it suffered a serious mechanical failure that rendered it scrap, it was traded in for parts and we got a newer model of the same press – this one featured basic electronic control of all settings and ink density which made a big difference.
The KORD-64 was replaced with a Heidelberg GTO-52 which although smaller, still offered a serious range of paper handling abilities.
The die-cutting line up was bolstered with Heidelberg Cylinder presses, these are faster than the smaller platens as they can cut multiple items from one larger sheet but still offer the great paper size abilities, the one pictured below was the first of three of these fantastic machines. They were built as letterpress printing presses originally and the machine pictured below still had the inking rollers mounted on the left end, we had these removed as it made die-cutting much easier without them.
Foil-printing capacity was expanded with a Heidelberg SB cylinder conversion (below), this machine had a chequered life in my room; after many years of work and headaches, we discovered it had a mechanical issue buried inside from a previous owners crash that prevented it ever working to its full ability.
It’s generally very rare that you get to buy a totally new machine, the Kluge platen (below) was not one of our best purchases. It was bought to increase our foiling and embossing ability, sadly something that never really happened properly – the training and backup was not there and being an American press there was very little knowledge of them in the UK. The build quality also left a lot to be desired.
Being heavily involved in paper handling we needed guillotines and in the heydays we had four Wohlenbergs – two 115cm machines downstairs and 115cm & 76cm ones upstairs.
In the later years I got to play with old-school letterpress printing. We had a GT platen that had the full print setup on it, a lovely machine, a little bit of practice and I was running insert sheets for greetings cards on it. Instead of lead type I was using polymer plates for the wording. A short video of me running a batch is shown below.
A side-expansion was made into self-adhesive “peel-off” stickers, used for decorating greetings cards etc. The machines were custom built in Holland and we had four of them at the peak, two staff were employed nearly full-time running these machines.
These fascinating machines used heat, pressure and foil to create self-adhesive designs like the ones pictured below, we made millions of these.
In later years I had a Horizon 10-station collator and booklet-maker line (below) which was used to make the catalogues and quarterly craft magazine.
The print section took a massive upgrade when we bought a new Presstek 34Di four-colour press – this replaced all the other offset presses with one tiny 34cm portrait-format press. The 34Di was a seriously advanced digitally controlled offset press. It was not a “digital” press because it still used conventional inks and offset plates, these plates however were processed inside the actual press – this meant we could get rid of the darkroom as well.
We worked the 34Di hard, extremely hard, hard enough that it was worn out within a couple of years! At that time, Presstek had just released their newer 52Di landscape-format press which was a completely different beast – far better build quality and a bigger sheet size.
The Presstek presses offered everything a printer from the manual era like me had ever dreamed of – no water to worry about as it was a waterless offset process, total computer desk control – no running up and down, high speed, reliable paper feed system, automatic clean-up, small footprint. This was cutting-edge litho machinery, sometimes however, that edge bit hard as it did have a few quirks and needed very careful maintenance to keep it going in top condition.
After a short period our existing print operator moved on and the 52Di was to be my main place of work for some years, mingled with running the print department. It was the cream on the cake of my 42 years in printing, most of the time 😉
At it’s peak, my print room had a total of 7 Heidelberg 13×18 “GT” platens, three Heidelberg 10×15 “T” platens, three Heidelberg cylinder die-cutters, a Heidelberg cylinder foiler, two guillotines, two Kluge platens, a large hand-fed Crosland platen, a Heidelberg GTO52 single-colour press, Komori Sprint two-colour press and Komori Lithrone 26 four-colour press, a darkroom and a total of nine staff I believe.
Following a steady market downturn, in 2019, Craft Creations Ltd was wound down; a lot of the machinery was sold to a company up north where the “Craft Creations” brand still lives on. Seeing that machinery going out of the door was heartbreaking; years of collecting, specifying, installing, learning, operating, repairing was all coming to an end in a very short space of time.
Tower Press was closed shortly after I left I believe, Pan Britannic Industries is still going but does no printing and is much smaller now, it was transferred to the Bayer company, the print building still stands but the main factory area is a supermarket and housing estate now.
So that’s about it: 42 years of work in a few paragraphs and pictures. I’m proud to be able to say “I’m a printer” especially one that can operate manual single to four-colour presses, letterpress platens and much more, all with some degree of ability. Many “printers” today are operating nothing much more than an overgrown photocopier – they have little idea of what real printing actually is.
What do I miss?
I miss the chemical smells, the machinery noise and the people I have worked with (mostly 😉 ) I miss most of the machinery I cared for over the years and the pleasure in seeing printed paper coming out of a machine.
What don’t I miss?
The deadlines and hassle at times 🙂
Who do I want to thank?
I would like to thank the following: Keith Gregory, the director at T.O.P.S. Ltd for giving me my first job, Gordon Knight, my manager at PBI, Paul Kearley and Steve Edwards, directors at Tower Press Ltd, Paul Kearley and Jenny Kearley, directors at Craft creations Ltd.
Will I ever return to print?
Simply put, No: the years have not been good to my body, the early time spent kneeling on damp concrete floors loading paper into presses has pretty much wrecked my knees, years of handling thousands of tons of paper have done no good for my back, hands and wrists although these have improved somewhat since retirement.
I still miss it though, thanks for reading 😉