An interview with a map printer

Keith Vranch - map printing at Dennis MapsWe have some remarkably skilled people here at Dennis Maps, some of whom have worked in the business for many years and seen dramatic changes in book and map printing.

Keith Vranch joined Butler & Tanner straight out of school in 1974, when he was 16 years old. He was the last letterpress apprentice to be taken on, and started as a minder operator.

He recalls his training and the developments in book and map printing technology:

I was fortunate to get the job as I had gone for a job in plate making but didn’t get it. I phoned a couple of months later to ask for some feedback, and they asked me to come in to interview for the letterpress role.

It was a 5 year apprenticeship and I worked 8am to 5pm. Half way through, the letterpress department was phased out and I was offered a position within the litho printing department, so my apprenticeship changed to that.

I was earning about £9 per week when I started, plus £1.50 per week for expenses. I kept my Sunday paper round as well for the first year! I spent 40 hours a week at Radstock College, and college holidays in the factory.

The second year I was on block release at Brunel College in Bristol. The course was structured as one month at Brunel, then two to three months in the factory.

When I started on the letterpress machine, we were printing books. Mainly medical and text books, always in a large format sheet size.

Keith Vranch - map printingOn the letterpress printing machine, I would spend all day ‘making ready’, adding overlays, underlays etc to get the printed image looking just right, and then print it the next day. So, it was one day to make ready and one morning to print at a speed of 1,200 sheets per hour.

In the letterpress process, even a tiny speck of dust would cause the letters to rise and make the text print unevenly. Each individual page would need to be set manually. On a 2,000 run, we were given 100 sheets of paper as overs. If we used more than the 100 sheets, we were asked why.

When I moved to offset litho, it was a big leap because the speed of the machine was now around 3,000 sheets per hour. But there definitely wasn’t as much skill involved in the offset process as there was on the letterpress.

I was only on the monochrome offset machine for 2 weeks and then I was moved to the two-colour machine. It was the first time I had printed in more than one colour outside of college.

Then in the early 90’s we moved to four-colour printing on the Roland 800 7b machine. We had four colours printing in the one go and it was a whole new world for us.

Keith Vranch - map printing on KBA printing machineIn 1996/97 I moved on to the KBA press. I spent a lot of time on KBA 4 from 2002. By the end of Butler & Tanner in 2008 there were 6 KBA’s running 24 hours five days a week.

The Heidelberg XL162 was installed at Butler, Tanner & Dennis in 2011, and was 30 metres long. The ‘make ready’ was only two or three minutes and it would print 14,000 sheets in an hour. It was used for both book and map printing, and the quality was revolutionary.

It was so automated that the skill level required was much less, but you still needed technical skills as you had to use the computer that controlled every operation of the machine.

It’s all map printing now at Dennis Maps, we don’t print any books. I am running a large format KBA press printing in 6 colours. A huge change from the old Butler & Tanner days of 40 years ago and printing books in one colour on a letterpress flat-bed machine.