Map Printing - Keith Vranch with KBA machine

From letterpress to map printing – 40 years in the printing industry

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.


Laminated and encapsulated maps

Behind the Scenes at Dennis Maps

An interview with Steve Burry MD of Dennis Maps Ltd

Steve Burry, Dennis Maps by Mark Kempshall Photography & Wedding FilmDennis Maps Ltd is the largest map printer in the UK, producing more than 2.3million maps and charts each year from our facility in Frome, Somerset.

Steve Burry has been involved in printing all his working life, since starting his career in book printing at the age of 18. He’s been involved in map printing since 2010 and Managing Director of Dennis Maps Ltd since 2014. Here he describes the day-to day activity at the site:

What does a typical day look like at Dennis Maps, or is every day different?

We employ 28 people involved in various functions from admin to manufacturing.

Our highly skilled workforce have expertise in pre-press reproduction and design, printing (both traditional litho and digital) together with map finishing.

Map printing is a very specialised sector of printing, with very different requirements and expectations. For example, in terms of printing it is almost a case of ‘less is more’, where accuracy and clarity of extremely fine detail is more important than vibrant high intensity of colour and visual impact.

A typical day for Dennis Maps Ltd in terms of operations is very structured and follows a repeating and rhythmic pattern compared with the experience of many printers.

This is because the majority of our business is contractually based. So we know what demand will be and that we’ll have a certain amount of business every day, week, month and year.

This means that the factory operates to a constant beat, with several weekly orders in various stages of production at any one time. So we have a fairly continuous production flow, albeit punctuated between the individual orders.

What are the highlights in the calendar?

Ordnance SurveyThe business is perhaps surprisingly seasonal, with production levels rising through the first quarter of the year before reaching a peak from April through to September. I’m never happier than when we are in the midst of that production cycle!

Demand can reduce a bit in October, which allows us to draw breathe and prepare for the onslaught of the Christmas demand for the online Custom Made product that we produce for Ordnance Survey.

A monthly highlight is when we receive the monthly Key Performance Indicator (KPI) report from our largest contractual customer. Every aspect of our performance is analysed and measured against a set of extremely demanding KPIs. It’s always very satisfying to see that we are able to achieve and maintain such high standards of quality and service without deviation.

What’s the best part of the job?

My job is immensely satisfying, whether it’s maintaining the high levels of service to our existing clients, or meeting a new client and securing a first order from them. This always feels like a true moment of someone putting their trust in us.

Laminated and encapsulated maps

I enjoy seeing those new orders being produced, and take a real pleasure in looking at the intricacies of the different styles of cartographic design. Some of the maps that we print are almost works of art in their own right.

Of course, I also feel immensely proud to be leading this company and continuing the heritage of large format printing in Frome that stretches back 170 years.

What does the future hold, and what would be your dream achievement for Dennis Maps?

The future of printed maps is a very interesting question, with rumours of their death so far having been greatly exaggerated!

Undoubtedly the growth of digital delivery systems has reduced the demand for the printed product. But this does now seem to have stabilised and even increased slightly over the last few years.

Perhaps analogue paper and digital delivery have found a means of peaceful co-existence, at least for now. Nonetheless I do feel that demand pattern will change, as will the method by which the printed maps are produced and brought to market.

I personally believe that we will see an evolution towards a more on-demand, highly customised and digitally printed map product gather pace rapidly over the next few years. I intend for Dennis Maps to be at the forefront of that!