Most people in publishing today don’t remember that there once was a time (only in the last century) when almost all books were printed on sheet-fed presses.

Heidelberg sheetfed letterpress press

Miehle 60 x 40 sheetfed letterpress perfector

Miehle 60 x 40 sheetfed letterpress perfector

The clanking and clattering made by these complex machines sticks in the mind of anyone who ever heard their massed music. The amount of metal they moved about in order to make their impression made you wonder that they really could deliver the precision that they certainly could under the eye of a craftsman press operator. The paper would almost float in as it was fed sheet by sheet into the press. You’d feel sure it would bounce and take a double impression; but somehow they would be able to time things so that the sheet had settled down before it came in contact with the inked type. My pictures show letterpress sheed-fed presses, but there were of course also offset litho presses fed by sheets. Sure there were a few web presses around, but they would be used for mass market paperbacks or the odd bestseller, not for the run-of-the-mill books we most of us worked on.

There are of course plenty of books still being printed sheet-fed today; just many fewer than there used to be now that quick-make-ready narrow-web presses have brought the break-even point down to somewhere around 1,000 copies. It just takes longer to make-ready a large web press, so in order to amortize that up-front cost you need to be printing a longer run to be able to afford to go to the web.

There has been a long-standing tendency among large publishing houses to forget that there ever was such a thing as sheet-fed printing. I remember being told in the early years of this century that corporate purchasing had proved that any book printing under 1,500 copies must be printed on the DocuTech (an installation of which we had in-house within the group). Having always made my living in a world where 1,500 was a pretty decent print run, I had to object that there was still in existence something called sheet-fed offset which at that time still offered considerable capacity in the USA, and where the break-even with DocuTech was about 250. Nonplussed they showed us the research provided by their consultants: they had taken all the group’s web scales and run them against DocuTech numbers: if you ignore the evidence you do of course get the answer you want.

This Sappi video gives an excellent impression of a modern 10-unit sheet-fed offset press in operation.

On a web press your only variable is the roll width, and that’s pretty invariable. There may also be a little wiggle-room in the cut-off. With a sheet-fed press you could run several different sizes of sheet on the same press. Having decided on trim size, you needed to translate that into a sheet size and then look around the suppliers you knew to see which of them could handle that size in a not utterly inefficient way. Paper supply was also a consideration which might determine where the book was printed, and even what sheet size you used. You couldn’t afford to buy paper on a title-by-title basis, or keep inventories of multiple sheet sizes and basis weights at several printers. The mathematics involved in figuring out sheet size was not particularly complicated, but help is never unwelcome. See this give-away from Halliday Lithograph Corporation. You’d pull on the two tabs to get the trim size showing in the little cut-out windows, and lo and behold the required sheet size would appear below.