Archives for category: Book printing

This story can kill two birds with a single stone. In the first video you may observe the printing of pressure-sensitive adhesive labels, as well as receive a good introduction to flexographic printing. Now labels can of course be printed by any method, not just flexography (letterpress). The secret sauce consists in the paper stock and in the post-imaging processing, die-cutting, slitting into rolls and so on. Lithography and gravure are responsible for a large proportion of the labels you’ll encounter. More customized labels (shorter runs) will probably have been printed on a digital press.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The second video shows the detail of how the labels are applied — although in this video the operator is taking each label by hand. You can see how the adhesive labels are carried on a shiny paper carrier. The labels have been die-cut to shape immediately after printing, and the background paper simultaneously removed. When the carrier sheet (which has avoided the die cut and now carries only the labels) takes that final 300º or so bend out of the way the label continues straight on to where it meets up with its target, a bottle, a carton, an apple, or in this case the operator’s fingers.

The picture below shows the die-cut adhesive paper being separated from the carrier sheet, after the die-stamping which has just taken place in the unit to the right of the picture.

Avery’s website gives you a “recipe” for the construction of their adhesive label paper:

Here the face stock represents the label, and the liner is what I was referring to as the carrier sheet.

Surprising to relate, I guess, but when I was a young man, you’d still go to a tailor if you needed a new jacket, and he’d cut it out from a bolt of cloth and sew it up to fit you. Of course I lived in a wool town so such practices may have gone on a bit longer there.

In a post by Abner Aldarondo the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, introduces us to a sixteenth century Spanish manual of tailoring by master tailor Diego de Freyle, Geometria y traça para el oficio de los sastres (Geometry and patterns for the trade of tailoring) — which all looks nostalgically familiar to me. A digitized version of the book can be found here.

Here is the tailor in his workshop — OK the clothes did look a bit different in my youth, but what’s going on is what went on then. The tailor in the middle is holding a pair of dividers and a Spanish yardstick: la vara. (You can enlarge the image by clicking on it.) Obviously patterns were cut, and we are here given 48 of them. Below is one for a cape and doublet.

The book was printed in Seville in 1588 by Fernando Diaz. The format is unusual: it’s landscape, 10 x 29 cms. almost 4″ x 11½”, no doubt because they needed to accommodate all these woodcuts along with scant text. Mr Aldarondo also suggests that the format helped to keep the book open. The pages are numbered in leaves, so that folio 7 recto is followed by folio 7 verso, and also show signature marks at the bottom right. The 72-page book was probably printed two pages to view, four per sheet, so presumably the sheet was something like 8½” x 11¾” with two sheets gathered together to make a signature. I haven’t managed to figure out why four pages (folios 7 and 8) are printed so that only a diagonal chunk of text is shown. Here’s folio 7 recto:

It’s not like it’s some press error, for example having a loose sheet of paper lying on top of the forme and taking the ink intended for the book, because the running heads show up in the expected location, and you can see the signature mark C3 in the bottom right hand corner. It’s almost like you’d want to fold the page back in order to see something below — but there just doesn’t seem any target which would make sense of this. This page does seem to be a listing of yardage cloth requirements — maybe you were meant to cut off the blank part of the page, or write your annotations here. I still don’t get it though. Let’s assume the introduction explains it all.

Freyle advises tailors to sit with their backs straight on a stool half a vara high, and to push needles outwards away from their nose and cheek! You are told how many yards (varas) of material you would need for each pattern, though presumably this would vary depending on the dimensions of your customer. Apparently sixteenth century Spain was the center of the European fashion trade and there was some disquiet among the world of haute couture espagnole that by publishing such books all their trading advantage might evaporate — which of course it ultimately did.

Things are getting back to normal. Last year it was beginning to look as if you’d never be able to get a book printed again. Now publishers’ warehouses are choc-a-bloc because almost everyone responded to the supply-side crunch by overprinting. In 2022-23, although sales have been quite buoyant, the age-old problem of excess inventory has returned to haunt book publishers.

Printing Impressions has a forecast for 2023’s printing business. Kevin Spall, Senior VP at Scholastic, says “Publishers are full, having overbought because demand was high and capacity was low. We bought inventory to be prepared. And now, as demand softens, we still have inventory. The need to reprint is less certainly than it was a year ago when the demand was just starting to spike, and those are not issues that are going to go away quickly.”. . . “We’re in a very different place today versus where we were sitting last year at this time when, for any variety of reasons, printers were booked out for 12 to 18 months, and we just couldn’t find capacity domestically. About four months ago I started getting calls from print partners with pockets of capacity maybe once or twice a month. Now, I would say across the board softness is in everyone’s view for the year ahead.”

Schedules at book manufacturers have come crashing down: it’s back in sight of where it was in the good old days when you could get a reprint in a week, maybe two. But first of all, we’ve got to sell, or perish the thought, waste that excess inventory, or we just won’t be able to squeeze any more books in. Books are an awful business: you’ve never got enough of a bestseller, and you’ve always got too many copies of all the rest. All those books lying there gloating at you have got huge dollar signs written all over them — that’s where the capital driving the business is currently located. Too bad you can’t pay for a reprint of the latest bestseller with dead inventory from a thousand over-printed volumes.

The USPS is offering a 5% discount on your postage cost if a mailing piece is scented. This makes some sense when you consider that the postal services are competing with online ads, where Smell-O-Rama has not yet arrived. The more they can encourage scented advertising pieces, the more mail they get to carry. Allegedly scent is a powerful marketing tool:

  • 75% of the emotions we generate on a daily basis are affected by smell
  • 81% of consumers would choose a product they can smell and touch over one they can only see
  • 65% of consumers can remember a memory associated with scent after a period of one year
  • 90% of respondents indicate the scented advertisement stood out from the clutter
  • 67% said that fragrance print advertisements were fun
  • 80% of consumers actually interacted with the fragrance sample

Just where such powerful-looking numbers come from is not disclosed, but I suppose we can all see that the general contention that smell sells just might be true. I can be seen from time to time in the supermarket aisles sniffing laundry detergents and fabric softeners: am I ready for some scented mail?

Printing Impressions informs us that there are three basic ways of adding smell on the printing press:

  1. Rub’nSmell is a scented varnish that prints in-line like a fifth color directly on the piece itself, and you can feature multiple fragrances on a page. Approved for use on the outside and inside of mail.
  2. Scent-A-Peel Labels – Transparent, multi-ply label inviting consumers to experience the fragrance by lifting the label to smell. Approved by USPS for application to the outside of a mail piece.
  3. Scent-A-Coat is Ambient Coating, so no rubbing activation is required. Best when placed inside an envelope.

Be nice if publishers could get a discount on the cost of shipping a book if we added Scent-A-Coat to it.

I’ve done quite a few posts about smell and books. You can find them under “Scent” or “Smell” in the index if like me you are fascinated by the subject!

Between $325 million and $375 million-worth of work is subcontracted each year by the Government Printing Office to a network of commercial printers around the country. The GPO attended the recent PRINTING United Expo in Las Vegas partly to shore up their partner base. Like lots of businesses printing has had a hard time over the past couple of years, and without outside help the GPO would find it hard to get through the workload imposed by our government operations. From that meeting Printing Impressions has an interview with GPO Director Hugh Halpern which you can find at this link.

The GPO has been updating its technology in recent years, and now runs a digital operation which at last can link smoothly to systems running in Congressional offices, Federal Agencies and the White House.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c.1656) was a bit of a child prodigy: her earliest surviving work, Susanna and the Elders, was painted when she was seventeen. Her father was also a painter, and no doubt directed her early studies. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and developed an international clientele. Unusually she took a vigorous role in the breach-of-promise trial of her rapist, Agostino Tassi in 1611. Some suggest that her life provides plot features for George Eliot’s Romola. Her stock has risen in the last fifty years, and she’s now considered one of the most accomplished seventeenth-century artists.

An alumnus of St Catharine’s College recently donated to the college a reproduction of Artemisia Gentileschi’s self portrait as St Catherine. The “e” or the “a” in the name is not determinative: they both refer the same saintly person.*

The picture (the real one) hangs in the National Gallery in London, having been bought as they put it in the College newsletter The Wheel (duh!) in 2018 “with the support of the American Friends of the National Gallery, the National Gallery Trust Art Fund (through the legacy of Sir Denis Mahon), Lord and Lady Sassoon, Lady Getty, Hannah Rothschild CBE and other donors who wish to remain anonymous”. The reproduction, a “high-resolution print replica on canvas”, now hangs in the College chapel right above the altar where I observed it a couple of weeks ago.

The donor is quoted as saying “In a first for the National Gallery, the replica will be created by recording the painting in high resolution using the Gallery’s own image file and then reproducing the image on canvas. The National Gallery has also kindly agreed to create a replica of the 17th-century Florentine frame.”

My thoughts about this gift are not focussed on its price, though one assumes it was quite high — after all they threw in a frame too! What I wonder about is the reproduction process, which seems to have granted the object some greater respectability than a mere “copy” could have achieved. If you or I (assuming we had the skills) had taken up our paint brushes and painstakingly copied this painting, no matter how brilliant a job we had done, I suspect that it would be dismissed as a fake. (Or is a fake necessarily something you’ve tried to pass off as genuine?) What is the magic of a computer file that it can o’erleap such mundane concerns, achieve an authority greater than any highly skilled artist could command, and qualify as a big deal?

I have a piece of software called Camera Lucida. Using that software, which basically allows you to look through your iPad and copy what you see, you would get the proportions spot-on, and might well be able to trace the very brush strokes made by the original painter. Such a reproduction would seem to me a more valuable object than a copy printed from a digital file, though not as valuable as a good copy painted freehand.† Is the fact that they’ve never done this digital trick before relevant? Do they promise never to do it again with this painting? Or can St Catherine’s Oxford just come along and get one too? Or St Catherine University in St Paul, MN? I don’t beef at the donor, whose motivations are doubtless of the highest: I just wonder about the thing itself. And it is a handsome picture.

In a completely unrelated story we learn from Hyperallergic of plans to undrape the originally naked subject of Gentileschi’s Allegory of Inclination painted for the home of Michelangelo’s son in 1616. As art historians will do, this picture is also claimed as a self portrait, though who’d know? The drapery and veils were added around 1680 by Baldassarre Franceschini, known as il Volterrano, to soothe the moral concerns of a nephew of Michelangelo’s son. In order clearly to see what lies below the added drapery, investigators will use “advanced imaging techniques for restoration (diffuse and grazing light examination UV and infrared investigation; multispectral hypercolour imaging; X-ray and high-resolution reflectography), which will not only allow the acquisition of the technical and material information that will then guide the intervention on the painting, but also to virtually restore the original appearance of the Artemisia painting.” It seems that the painting itself will be left as shown, since physically to remove the paint added by il Volterrano would damage the image beneath, but it will be accompanied by a virtual, digital reproduction of the original original as painted by Ms Gentileschi. Is it something about Artemisia Gentileschi, or are all classic painters being given similarly sophisticated “advanced digital” treatment?


* I always like to claim that the e/a difference is another Oxford/Cambridge thing. St Catherine’s College in Oxford has the “e”, though the local map I was given a couple of weeks ago spells it with the “a”. Cambridge has an “a”. However it isn’t an Oxon/Cantab thing. When you transliterate, you live in a world of inconsistency. The “e” is much commoner. The name can be spelled in various ways, even, obviously, with a “K”.

There are actually several Saints Catherine. The one we are looking at is Saint Catharine/Catherine of Alexandria, a somewhat shadowy personality from the fourth century. She it was who was broken on the wheel (whence Catherine wheel) — actually the wheel broke, as Ms Gentileschi shows, during the process and she was ultimately beheaded. She earned this fate because she had refused to marry the Emperor. regarding herself as the bride of Christ. There are also Saints Catherine Labouré, Caterina Volpicelli, Katharine Drexel, Catherine of Siena, of Genoa, of Bologna, of Ricci, of Sweden, and Saint Catherine Tekakwitha, the “lily of the Mohawks”.

Saint Catharine of Alexandria** is reputed to have debated successfully with fifty philosophers who tried to persuade her of the error of her Christianity. Because of her argumentative prowess she is regarded as patron saint of students, especially philosophy students, and of the clergy, young girls, and nurses, as well as, rather obviously, wheelwrights, spinners and millers. It’s a busy afterlife.


† We appear to have settled on the view that an ebook is “worth” less than a printed book — that analog is worth more than digital in this context. Would anyone regard a digitized reproduction of Gutenberg’s Bible as anything other than a convenient reference? Nevertheless Book-io has apparently just sold 1,600 NFTs of this book at about $67 each (it’s priced in cryptocurrency so the price fluctuates).

I wonder if anyone has ever set out to reverse engineer the Gutenberg Bible — i.e. to copy it by hand. After all, Gutenberg’s aim was to make a book as nearly indistinguishable from a hand-written manuscript as possible. If someone had hand-scripted it, such an object would surely fetch more than $67 — though no doubt less than one of Gutenberg’s actual printed copies. We now have the ability to print a single copy of any book you care to name, and I doubt if printers are going to insist on seeing your title to the rights! The assigning of a value to such a “pirated” book will be interesting to watch.


** The Feast of St Catharine on November 25 is somewhat obscured by Thanksgiving. It is celebrated by the consumption of Cattern cakes. Here, from the College’s website, is a recipe. You’ve got a few days left in which to bake some.

Cattern Cakes

Makes 8–10 cakes.


  • 275g self-raising flour 
  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 25g currants 
  • 50g ground almonds 
  • 2 tsp caraway seeds 
  • 200g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling 
  • 100g butter, melted
  • 1 medium egg, beaten


  • Preheat the oven to 190C/Fan 170C/Gas 5. Sift the flour and cinnamon into a large mixing bowl and add the currants, almonds, caraway seeds and sugar. 
  • Add the melted butter and beaten egg, and mix to form a soft dough. 
  • Roll out onto a floured surface to about 2cm thick and cut out rounds using an 85mm biscuit cutter, then lay them onto a piece of baking parchment on a baking tray. 
  • Take a knife with a sharp point and draw a swirl into the surface of the biscuit, then sprinkle on a little sugar. 
  • Bake for around 10 mins or until they are browned and slightly risen. Cool on a wire rack.

EBITDA stands for Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization. It is a measure of the amount of operating cash in the business. QuickBooks tells you how to figure it, and why you’d want to. As they indicate, “Those who use the EBITDA formula prefer to analyze a company’s performance based on day-to-day business operations. They disregard debt (interest costs), taxes, depreciation, and amortization.” Printing Impressions has an introduction and the application of EBITDA in print acquisitions. Quite a lot of book publishers now use EBITDA. (My ex-boss, a fan, used to shout at me “Don’t say ‘a lot’. What’s the number?” Sorry, I know not.

To quote the exhibition Building the Book from the Ancient World to the Present Day at The Grolier Club “A sheet folded in half once creates a folio of two leaves; a quarto, folded twice, results in four leaves. Other formats include octavos, duodecimos, sextodecimos (16mos), tricesimo-secundos (32mos), and sexagesimo-quartos (64mos)—the smallest known being a 128mo printed by the Plantins in the 16th century.”

Folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo

Follow the links on the right side of the exhibition website linked to above.

The actual dimensions of each of these will depend on the sheet size you start with. The relationships will remain the same. Some sizes may be found here.

In a post from 5 June 2020 I wrote

In so far as they think about it, I imagine that most book-readers believe that when a publisher decides to print 5,000 books, 5,000 books is what they’ll receive. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Indeed one might almost say that of all the possible quantities which will be checked in at the warehouse, 5,000 is probably the least likely!

This is not because publishers and book manufacturers are really bad at counting: it’s inherent to the manufacturing process. If a car manufacturer sets out to make 5,000 cars, that’s what they’ll make. They set up 5,000 bits of metal on the conveyor belt, and stop adding more bits once they’ve reached 5,000. (All right; I dare say it’s a little more complicated than that.) A book is made differently. It’s made as a collection of different parts which end up being brought together and united at the very end of the process. And it’s made of rather flimsy materials any of which can easily get damaged at any point in the process. I’ll use as my example the now rather old-fashioned procedure of a book printed on a sheet-fed offset perfecting press, bound as a sewn hardback with a jacket. (Books printed in other ways have to go through the same steps but they are often made with a different sequence and significance.) For my example I’m assuming a 5% over/5% under allowance on final delivery.

Lets assume our book has 320 pages, and is imposed to deliver 32-page signatures. Each of these ten signatures/sections will be printed separately, or possibly as two-up for five separate passes through the press. If there are two sigs on each sheet, the sheets will then have to be cut in half after they have been printed. Once you have your ten stacks of flat sheets each containing one signature, you send them off to the folding department where they will be folded down to ten little booklet-like sections. Let’s say there’s also an 8-page 4-color insert, which has been printed at a different plant and delivered already folded to the bindery. Now each of these eleven sections (10 for the text, and one insert) will be placed in sequence in a series of pockets on a gathering machine, which takes one from each pocket to make a book’s-worth of eleven sections, arranged we all hope in the right sequence without any duplications or omissions. Prior to gathering the first and last sigs will have had the endpapers tipped on. Now that you have lots of little piles of sigs, each making up an 11-sig book, they will go into the sewing department where they’ll be joined up into untrimmed book blocks. Cases are made from board and cloth, then stamped with foil. Thereafter the book blocks and cases go to the binding line where the book blocks are squeezed, gripped and trimmed, get their spine glued, and a liner applied, then get glue spread down the sides and have the case cover dropped and pressed onto the pages before they roll off the end of the machine. Here they receive a rapid examination as the jacket is applied, and the books travel on on a conveyor belt to where they are packed into cartons meeting the weight requirements of the warehouse to which they will be traveling.

At every one of these steps there is a risk of damage and loss, so you have to figure out what the loss risk might be at every stage and aim for a quantity at step one which will get you to the finish line with at least 5,000 copies of the book. Printing presses are big pieces of equipment and don’t stop and start on a dime. Makeready is required for every impression: you have to get the paper path perfect and adjust the ink/water balance to ensure an even black impression across the whole sheet. You’ll know from past experience how much paper you’ll be likely to need for makeready on this press: so you start off aiming for, let’s say 5,550 copies. (This is just a notional number used for this example. I don’t have access to any book manufacturer’s spoilage allowance data — and in any case it will vary from plant to plant, and press to press, maybe even from crew to crew.) You don’t want to make the spoilage allowance too big, because you have to pay for the paper you use, but you don’t want to make it too small, or you may be forced into a little (and killingly expensive) reprint of one sig to make up the count. Additionally there are accidents which can occur on press and have to be allowed for: a lump of dust flies onto the plate, or even a fly, and gets squashed onto the blanket where it starts printing. This we call a hickey — and as soon as they notice it the press minders will start pulling pages out of the press and throwing them away, while one of them cleans up the blanket and on we run guessing at how many impressions we need to add at the end of the run to keep our count up. You don’t stop the press if you can avoid it: if you do, there’s that makeready to do all over again.

So here you are, off press with between 5,250 and 5,650 copies of each of ten sigs. Sod’s law will determine that you actually have about 5,500 of eight sigs and 5,250 of two of them. You may loose a few sheets to makeready on the folder: it’s got to get the fold in at perfect right angles to the edge of the sheet: start with the sig with the highest count! On their way to the gathering department one of the skids of folded sheets may get bashed by a passing forklift truck, or waiting overnight, they may be dripped on when the roof leaks in a thunder storm — hey, accidents do happen. At each step you’ll lose a few more overall: fingers crossed the major loss will not be on the sigs you started out with 5,250 on.

The manufacturer will be aiming to deliver the maximum number of books permissible under the purchase order. After all the more they ship the more they’ll be able to bill: but there are limits. Most orders allow for a 20% slop, which tends to resolve into 10% over and 10% under, but more powerful customers will negotiate that down to 5% each way. In this example, worked on 5% over/under, the book manufacturer will be striving to be able to ship and bill 5,250 copies — and will be tearing hair out if the count drops below 4,750. The same consideration has been motivating the jacket printer, and the insert printer. They will aim to over-deliver against the ordered quantity, but not by so much that their materials costs will cause them a loss on the job. Publishers often like to receive extra jackets for refurbishment in the warehouse, so running out of jackets at the bindery line shouldn’t be an issue, though like everything else it has been known to happen. If you go into the gathering line with one or two sigs totaling only 5,075, you know you’re not going to be able to overdeliver too many, or any at all, and you also know that all those extra sigs from the other parts of the book are just wasted time and paper. They’ll be sent for recycling after the job’s completed. Storing partials is no longer an economically viable aim.

Book manufacturers will negotiate adjustment to the overage allowance. What I mean is they may accept an order for not-more-than, in which case the overage allowance of all goes to unders none to overs. In other words, in our example, the 5,000 will be priced at rates which would apply on a 4,500 run multiplied up. If the publisher ordered 5,000 exactly, the job would be priced as if it were a 5,500 run. In any case, if the manufacturer comes off with too many copies, they will be on the phone asking the publisher if they’ll accept overs over and above the overage allowance. If the book has subscribed well (i.e. if bookstores have ordered better than expected) the publisher may well decide to accept extra copies, so that the time when they’ll need to order a reprint is moved out a little. Tough negotiators will offer to accept these overs at no charge: I’d have agreed to paid for them at run-on cost; but I’m just a softie when it comes to supplier relations. Unlike many I regard the relationship as a partnership: if this sounds a bit old-fashioned, I fear it is.

The advent of digital printing, plus the forces of economics, which to some extent may be held responsible for the development of digital printing, have reduced the significance of overage. At the extreme end, true print-on-demand, overs aren’t an issue: the customer orders one copy, one copy is produced. If you’re printing a couple of hundred copies though, some of the pitfall-points listed above do come into play. Obviously damage can occur at random, but the crisis points are fewer, and it’s easier to get close the the ordered quantity on a digital press run than with other processes. Of course you may still have the spoilage allowances on the folding and binding lines to negotiate.

This is good news: less spoilage is good for us all, ecologically and economically, and being able to more accurately control your inventory makes publishing more profitable, or at least removes one hindrance to profitability.

In the olden days when you went to a lithographic print works, off to the side there would be this black metal revolving door, contained within a sort of huge tightly-filling barrel. You’d squeeze into the little space provided by the door and tiptoe around pushing the revolving door till it span you out into a wonderland filled with red light and tightly excluding all the white light from outside. In the middle sat a gigantic camera. As far as photographic film is concerned red = black, so here, in the darkroom, film could be handled freely in the open. (If you did this on the other side of the door all your film would instantly become exposed.) I wonder what effect life in a red-light environment might have on a person working there. Back in the days when photography was still analog, many keen photographers had their own darkrooms at home where they’d splash around with chemicals and photographic papers. I knew a few, but never detected any red-light craziness.

Gutenberg Museum Fribourg – Historic Repro Camera
Gutenberg Museum Fribourg – Historic Repro Camera

Here are a couple of photos of the repro camera in the Gutenberg Museum in Fribourg, Switzerland. In the lower photo you can see the copy, clamped vertically before the camera lens. Above you see the camera which will shoot it in order to create a negative which can be stripped up to make a flat. The focal length (enlargement) can be adjusted by moving the lens closer or further. Once things had been cranked into position, the arc lamps (white light) would flash exposing the film in those areas where there was something to be seen in the original — like words. Develop and fix the film and there’s your negative of a page of text, which can now be looked at in white light.

If the original copy wasn’t the whole page, but just an illustration, after the camera had shot it, someone would have to cut the neg into a negative of the type page which had had a blank space left where the picture should go. X-acto knives and red adhesive tape were the tools of the trade for a stripper.

Here’s a view of another camera showing the whole set up:

Photo Deutsches Kameramuseum

To shoot a photograph a gridded screen would be placed between the artwork and the lens, and this would break the picture down into a series of dots. A process camera would also add color filters to drop out all colors except the four needed for four-color process printing: cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow and black. After the camera operator had done his work the resulting film might be corrected by a color retoucher working principally with a tiny paintbrush. By the late seventies and eighties process cameras were becoming a bit of a rarity as color separation migrated to color scanners, and eventually the computer.

Color separation arranges the dots so they appear in a rosette pattern — so that they don’t fall one on top of the other blanking colors out. This effort begins at the camera with the different halftone screens being placed at different angles.

From Pocket Pal