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Liz & Anna’s Catalog Press Check


I just realized that this was my 28th catalog press check for the Chronicle Books catalogs(!), and since everyone always asks me “What do you do on a press check?” I decided to write a blog post about it with Anna Carollo, who came with me to Los Angeles for some print production training and had never seen a web press before. She took lots of pictures and wrote captions for them, but first, a brief overview of what a press check is…

A press check is an opportunity for a client to check a job while it’s running on the printing press to make sure it is meeting their expectations. Our catalogs print on a web offset press (used for most high-print run jobs like magazines & catalogs). There are a million things that can go wrong on a web press because it’s a relatively organic process of laying down 4 layers of ink (CMYK) on paper and trying to match a proof that was made with different materials. The art is burned onto metal plates and then transferred to a rubber blanket, and from the rubber blanket to paper. The paper is fed through the press as one continuous stream pulled from enormous rolls of paper (weigh up to 2,000 pounds). The ink lays down on the page differently depending on the paper (some papers are more absorbent than others) and the images printing adjacent to each other (light images vs. dark/very densely colored images).

In between checking the forms, we got a tour of the facility. Here we are standing underneath part of the press as our catalog prints over our heads.

These are the enormous rolls of paper used on a web press, weighing up to 2,000 pounds each.

We spotted the aluminum plates for our gift catalog cover leaning up against the press.

Once your job is up and running, the presses never stop, which in our case meant about 20 hours on press starting at noon and going into the next morning. The client checks/approves the color of every signature (section) of 16 or 32 pages about every 1-3 hours, which means basically pulling an all-nighter with a few little catnaps if you can manage to fall asleep in between checks (after forcing yourself to be wide awake under florescent lights and loud machinery). You have to be very quick and alert when checking because the printer has a limited amount of paper to use (paper is very expensive) and the presses are running continuously. You have to check that all the type and images are there (occasionally, there will be a technical glitch and an image or piece of type will disappear when the plates are made), and look for scratches, spots (from scratches on the plate), and registration (i.e. all 4 colors are lined up perfectly and the images are sharp). When it comes to color, you usually have to compromise one image for another, because making an adjustment to one image will affect the ones adjacent to them. So, you have to make judgment calls (for instance, I want to make sure food shots look appetizing, so I make sure those are top priority). Also, knowing you have limited time, you need to choose your battles. Don’t fuss over the little stuff because you may need that time/paper for a more important adjustment later!

If you’re interested, check out HowStuffWorks for more details on offset printing.

I was promised that we’d have a swanky waiting room to explore while waiting in between checks; but when we opened the mini-fridge, all we found were water and old salsa.

Here’s our gift catalog cover running on press!

The adult trade catalog cover took a few rounds to get right; here’s one proof with the markups showing the pressmen to take out some of the cyan and black.

Some interiors from our adult trade catalog.

Liz working with one of the pressmen, pointing out color adjustments.

The scale of the print facility and its machinery was incredible. This is one machine in their bindery department that was about three stories tall.

We’re finally done! Here we are at 9a.m. after being up all night checking forms.

On our way back to the airport, we stopped for lunch and Liz ate her first bowl of matzoh ball soup.

Liz Rico
Design Manager, MarCom

Anna Carollo
Marketing Design Coordinator

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