A Visit to the Printing Press (and Snowy Saskatoon)

by Chloë Filson

Over the winter holiday, I had the privilege of visiting and touring Houghton Boston Printers in sunny Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Houghton Boston is one of the largest printing companies west of Manitoba and their clients include book publishers (like Talon), trade associations (for whom they print catalogues), and large Fortune-500 companies (for whom they print flyers, coupons, posters, etc.) from all over western Canada. Houghton Boston is one of a handful of Canadian presses that print Talonbooks. Kelly Boon, our customer service representative at Houghton Boston, kindly gave me a full tour of the premises. Best of all, they were in the midst of printing a Talon title at the very moment I arrived!

Our book was being printed on the machine below, which seemed respectably large, but I was told it was the Variquik, a most compact version of a certain type of press. This press, one of just a few of its kind, was built in Scotland and has made its way to Saskatchewan, where it prints large sheets of high-quality (high-resolution) black-and-white type and images.

I arrived mere minutes after the cover of our book had come off the press. Below you can see the yellow ink – one of four colours (CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, black) – being applied to a roller. The ink adheres to a plate and is then pressed onto paper. This method of printing is called offset printing; each colour is in turn layered onto the page, or offset, via a metal plate that has been etched with the desired pattern. (Offset printing has its counterpart in digital or web printing, by which process the four colours are laid upon a page simultaneously – as in your home printer.) Offset printing is generally of a higher quality than web printing, though the latter is faster.

Most of the machines in the plant were Heidelbergs – a well-known name in the printing industry, and one with a long history.

Below is a plate that was specifically made for embossing the shape of the woman on the cover of M.A.C. Farrant’s latest collection of short stories, The World Afloat. You may recognize the shape, as I did! (This book was not being printed at the time, but I was happy to find the evidence of it.)

The large black-and-white sheets are then collated, glued with the cover, and then trimmed on all three sides to create the book. This particular book, a paperback, was to be perfect bound. The folded stack, which began as one large sheet, is now called a signature. Here are all the signatures, stacked on a skid, ready to be bound together with the cover around them:

Above and below are two different machines used for binding. They are very like conveyor belts, with a delicate touch. The untrimmed signatures rest atop a rail and travel along the machine being bound together in stages and saddle-stitched.

After binding, books travel for five minutes through a long spiral in order to allow time for the new glue to dry. On the other side of the spiral, the book is trimmed for the final time to make the cover flush with the inside signatures. If it gets trimmed before the glue has fully dried, parts may shift during trimming. You can imagine why that would not be good!

Naturally, I asked what happened to all the trimmings. Kelly took me to the room where vacuums spit the trimmings out and they are compacted into bales – wow! The bales are then sent to the recycling plant. (I was impressed by Houghton Boston’s recent efforts to become more environmentally friendly; their excess paper is recycled, and they have drastically reduced the amount of chemical processing products used throughout the plant. Plus, the whole place was very neat and tidy!)

Finally, Kelly showed me the library, where samples that Houghton Boston has printed are archived. Here is the Talon shelf:

And here I am with Kelly, in front of a shelf full of ink, with the plant in the background.

Many thanks to Kelly and everyone at Houghton Boston for the hospitality!