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The positions discussed in this chapter have to do with the steps necessary to prepare a job for the press room, including the original concept of the job, typesetting, preparing the art for the camera, stripping the flat, and making the plates. This phase of printing is undergoing the greatest amount of change as new processes and machines come on-line to streamline the printing process.

If you are planning a career in this phase, you should emphasize your technical skills, particularly in the field of computers and electronics. A clear understanding of these fields will be an invaluable aid to your progress. If you find an unfamiliar word in the job descriptions that follow, check for a definition in the glossary at the back of the book (See Appendix E).
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (1996 edition), compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, there are some 169,000 pre-press workers in the United States today. Thirty-one thousand of these persons are employed as strippers and printers, another 22,000 as paste-up workers, 15,000 as camera operators, 13,000 as plate-makers, 20,000 as typesetting and composing machine operators, and 18,000 as electronic pagination systems workers. The remaining professionals are involved in photo-engraving, lithographic machine operation, and other precision aspects of pre-press production. The best outlook for job growth is in the electronic sector of the industry, as clients become more sophisticated with desktop publishing, and turn over to printers their ideas in a nearly-complete diskette format that requires sophisticated manipulation rather than paper paste-up design from scratch.


The term cold type refers to any method of type composition in which hot, molten metal is not involved. Cold type printing processes are the most common in the United States today, thus job opportunities will be more numerous and varied in this field than in traditional areas associated with hot type. Some examples of cold type composition are strike-on typewriter, photo composition, and electronic or computer-assisted typesetting.

Vari type Operator

Vari type machines are found in some weekly newspapers; magazine, book, and publishing companies; and printing establishments. The operator types master copy on glossy paper stock, stencils, direct plates, and tracings having the appearance of a printed type. He or she plans the layout of page elements from rough visuals, determines size and style of type, sets horizontal and vertical spacing and margins, and calculates anticipated dimensions of copy to be enlarged or reduced.

The operator attaches gear to the platen to control spacing between lines and moves a lever to control spacing between characters. He or she sets stops to control the right margin and changes style and size of type by pressing a type-change key and turning the font from reserve to typing position. The operator also may draw decorative or illustrative designs on copy and may layout and rule forms and charts using drafting tools. Salary is usually $10 per hour or more.

Phototypesetter Operator

This position is similar to that of photo composing machine operator, except that the machine is operated by a keyboard instead of by perforated tapes. The operator loads a roll of photosensitive paper or film into a camera magazine, positions the magazine on the machine, and pulls a lever to open the exposure slot. She or he then starts the typesetting mechanism, turns a dial to select the lens, and adjusts a gear that selects the type size to magnify or reduce the matrix letter. The operator also controls exposure and light intensity and may distort images to widen or condense letters and create special effects. He or she then depresses keys on the keyboard to select individual letters and form words from photo mats to photographic paper or film, and then removes the photo-paper or film from the magazine for developing. The operator performs user maintenance on the machine as required. The usual salary is $13.75 or more an hour.

Electronic Typesetting Machine Operator

The electronic typesetter is one of a proliferating series of machines that use electronic and computer-assisted hardware to set, develop, and print type for a variety of applications in printing newspapers, magazines, and books. The operator sits at the key-board of the machine and auxiliary equipment, such as photo composing and developing machines, to produce hard copy (words printed on paper) of text material. He or she measures lines of copy and size of type to be input to determine machine settings required, using a printer's rule. The operator then loads a disc or tape into the machine and activates the keys to input copy while scanning a video screen to monitor the input, correcting errors as they occur. The operator then loads tape into a photocopying machine, setting the font selector control to select the size and style of type. The machine automatically prints text from the disc or tape on sensitized paper. The operator transfers the magazine of exposed paper to the developing machine, which develops the image of the text. The operator then corrects any errors on the tape, using the typesetting machine and video screen. Salary is usually $13 an hour or more.

Photo composing Machine Operator

Photo composing typesetting machines are found in the editorial production areas of newspapers and other publishing houses, away from the noise and dirt of the press room. This production worker sets up and operates the photo composing machine to transfer letters and words from perforated or magnetic tape into black-and-white print on film or photographic paper. She or he loads a roll of photographic paper or film into the machine's magazine. The operator then places the roll of perforated tape on the machine reel and threads it through the feeder mechanism.

He or she chooses a type font and size and positions it on the photographic unit. It is adjusted for light intensity and then started. The machine automatically exposes type on film or paper, actuated by the coded signals on the perforated or magnetic tape. The machine may be equipped with computer interfacing that would control size and style of type, width of lines, hyphenating, and length of copy column. The operator removes and stacks the finished copy. He or she is responsible for performing user maintenance. Salary is usually $12 an hour or more.

Phototypesetting Equipment Monitor

These production workers monitor and control computer systems used in phototypesetting. They set control switches on optical character readers, computers, or typesetters. They receive and insert command codes to integrate and operate the equipment according to specific requirements contained in markup instructions from the designer of the piece. They select and load input and output units with material for operating the equipment. They operate switches to clear the systems and start operations. The operators observe the equipment during operation, looking for error lights, messages and machine stoppages, or faulty operation. They perform only the most basic user maintenance, such as cleaning the exterior. Salary is usually $12 an hour or more.

Word Processor

A term that refers to both the machines and their operators, word processors, are found at many modern newspapers, book and magazine printing houses, and publishers of every description. The operators receive copy and layout instructions and, using their knowledge of typesetting and typing, select the spacing on the keyboard of the machine. They adjust margins and other spacing mechanisms to set the line justification. They then type from marked copy, using an electric typewriter that simultaneously produces a proof copy (called a strike on) and a master tape. They make corrections by strike over on proof copy, automatically making the identical correction on the master tape. In some cases, they retype the corrected portion only, generating a correction tape that is spliced into the master tape. They then install the master tape into a composer-output printer. The operators insert coated paper into a composer and operate the composer in response to function light indicators, changing type fonts and format as the work progresses. In many plants, the keyboard function is performed by other personnel at various terminals throughout the plant, and the operator alone runs the composer as master tapes are generated.

Word processors, especially those with experience in object pasting, earn in excess of $14 an hour or more, depending on location.

Keypunch Operator

Many firms of all descriptions employ a keypunch operator to transcribe data from source materials to punch-cards, paper or magnetic tape, and magnetic cards, to record accounting or statistical data for subsequent printing. The operator attaches a skip bar to the machine and a previously punched program card around the machine drum to control duplication and spacing of constant data. The worker loads the machine with decks of tabulating punch-cards, paper or magnetic tape, or magnetic cards.

He or she moves switches and depresses keys to select automatic or manual duplication and spacing, select alphabetic or numeric punching, and transfer cards or tape through the machine stations. The operator depresses keys to transcribe new data in prescribed sequence from source material into perforations on cards or as magnetic impulses on specified locations on tape or cards. Salary is usually $8 or more an hour.

Photo-lettering Machine Operator

This machine and its operator may be found in any establishment concerned with the creation of art for printing. A photo-lettering machine creates display type and headlines on film or photosensitive paper. The operator secures a roll of stock in the machine magazine and inserts specified film fonts in the machine reel. By turning the reel to specified selector marks, he or she positions the letters to be printed and moves a lever to expose the specified letter on film or paper. The operator pushes a cutter button to separate the strip of headline from the supply roll. The worker removes foreign material from rollers to prevent irregular imaging and may be required to clean and refill the tank of developing solution. An operator may be designated to this position as an added duty. Salary is usually $9 an hour or more.


Hot metal typecasting machines automatically assemble individual characters or lines of type.

Hot, molten metal is poured into the assembled type matrices (molds) and, when it cools and hardens almost instantaneously, lines of type are produced for letterpress printing or for making reproduction proofs for lithographic and other printing processes.

Positions in this field are generally found in small newspaper printing plants and a few remaining trade typesetting establishments. Job descriptions in hot metal typesetting are not included in this book because hot metal typecasting is a declining technology in the United States and the opportunities it offers are quite limited. Indeed, the Occupational Outlook Handbook of 1996 refers to hot-type text composition as "nearly extinct."


The graphic arts industry provides many opportunities for artists of every description. Every newspaper, for example, has an advertising design department. Most commercial printers employ one or more artists to design, illustrate, and paste up direct mail advertising, letterheads, newsletters, and other printed matter. Every printed piece must first be visualized. After the visual is approved, other artists may be used to prepare a mechanical from which a plate is made. The following positions are involved in the entire process, from visualization to final rendering.

Layout Artist

Many commercial, book, and magazine printers employ a creative graphic design artist to combine art and copy in a pleasing, easy-to-read, and compelling composition. The artist may design the printer's own promotional material or may design advertising material for customers.

She or he studies illustrations and photographs to plan the presentation of the product or service, designing the headline for maximum impact. The artist selects the size and style of type to be used, based upon the available space, knowledge of layout principles, and esthetic design concepts. Then he or she makes a rough sketch of the piece and presents it for interim approval. The artist may then prepare a comprehensive layout that is as close to the finished printed page as can be made. The layout artist prepares notes and instructions for the paste-up artist, who will assemble the elements of the printed page ready for the printer's camera. Salary may vary from $15,000 to $35,000 annually.

Package Designer

Commercial and package printers may employ package designers to create graphic designs or entire packages. The designers receive assignments from the customer or an art director, studying traditional, period, and contemporary design styles and motifs to determine what concept will be most suitable to the product. They review marketing trends and preferences of ultimate customers. The designers create and modify some preliminary sketches, conferring with the customer or art director until a consensus is reached. They then prepare a comprehensive drawing of each face of a package and assemble the drawings into a model of the pack-age. They specify type size and style, provide instructions for ink colors and paper, or indicate other material selections. The pack-age designer may be responsible for engineering specs to insure that the package will stand up to rough handling. The usual salary is $18,000 to $45,000 annually.

Forms Designer

Business forms printers employ a forms designer to work with customers in developing forms such as invoices, purchase orders, production schedules, and similar paperwork. Using drafting instruments, the forms designer makes a preliminary sketch of the form and submits it to the customer for approval. He or she specifies type and art and prepares a paste-up for printing preparation. The designer may also be involved with formatting, interleaving, and other considerations based on the capabilities and limitations of the press equipment available. The usual salary is from $20,000 to $35,000 annually.

Paste-up Artist

Many larger commercial printers, all newspapers and magazine printers, and other printing establishments have an art department in which the paste-up artist works. Paste-up artists are responsible for translating the concepts of the layout artist into a form that can be photographed and plated. They produce a mechanical, which is an assembly of type and photographs or art pasted down on a sheet of illustration board. They use rubber cement or melted wax coated on the back of the art elements to affix the elements to the board. In some applications, they work with a video screen, calling type and art elements from a computer memory and positioning them with an electronic "pencil" into a completed page. They prepare over-lays for multicolor work and cut and peel away Rubylith or similar materials to create masks that will serve as clear windows marking the location of halftone illustrations. Paste-up artists may be called on to sketch simple line drawings, borders, and other adornments for the final printed piece. These craftspeople may earn $10 or more an hour.

Photograph Retoucher

This airbrush artist may be found in some printing plants, particularly newspapers, or may operate and own an independent studio. The retoucher sharpens and intensifies photographs, painting out unwanted details such as telephone poles and wires or other distracting elements. He or she also restores damaged or faded photos or colors or shades drawings to simulate a photograph, using the airbrush technique. The retoucher examines photos to determine the changes required and cuts out a masking template, using shears or a sharp knife blade, removing the mask from areas to be spray painted. Then she or he sprays color (or gray paint for black-and-white photos) over the area to be corrected, to change or alter perspective, color, or tone. The retoucher also builds up or tones down background areas to add contrast to the photo, restores details where required and adds highlights to improve texture. Some retouchers may specialize in product photograph retouching. Fifteen dollars or more an hour is the usual salary.


This specialized artist may be found in printing plants specializing in diplomas, award certificates, and other document printing. He or she letters key words directly on the document by hand, using pen and ink. This crafts person may be required to design and cut script and display type for reproduction. He or she may design and render floral and other adornments for book covers. Designing and rendering borders, scroll work, and initial letters (swash initials) for books and magazines may also be required. Salary may be $20 an hour or more.


These commercial artists may be employed in printing plants of all descriptions as well as in independent art studios. They paint or draw precise lettering of a style not normally found in type books.

Their work is employed in the headlines of printed advertisements or editorial material in books and magazines. Hand lettering is preferred over type because it can be tailored specifically to the space and subject matter of the article or advertisement it titles. These artists use lettering pens and brushes, working with ink or paint. They may be required to design lettering in an original face. The usual salary is $12 an hour or more.

Lithographic Plate-maker and Grainer

All lithographic printing plants either employ a lithographic plate-maker or use the services of a trade shop. The plate-maker transfers positive or negative images from a flat to metal plates to produce a lithographic printing plate. He or she positions the plate under an arc lamp in a vacuum frame and places the negative or positive film over it under a bright light to transfer the film image to the light-sensitive coating on the plate. The operator washes the exposed plate in water and applies lacquers, developing inks, desensitizing etches, gum solutions, and asphaltum to develop the image on the plate.

Today, many of these operations are performed automatically. Salary ranges are as follows: black-and-white, $11 an hour; process color, $13 an hour or more.

Lithographic Stripper

This skilled craft-worker is a vital link in the process of transfer-ring type and pictures from originals to the printed page. He or she is employed in nearly all kinds of printing plants, including letter-press and gravure, where the worker may be called simply a stripper. The lithographic stripper positions negative (or positive) films on a layout sheet of goldenrod paper which, when it is completed, is called a flat. He or she works on an illuminated tabletop, using drafting tools and artists' work aids, such as a triangle, divider, straightedge, and magnifier. The stripper trims and fits negatives together and secures negatives to the goldenrod, using tape. Then he or she touches up the negative to opaque pinholes and other imperfections. Ruled lines and borders are drawn where required, using a scribing tool. Then the stripper inverts the flat on the table and cuts away the goldenrod behind the negatives to make an exposure window. Finally, he or she routes the completed flat to the plate-making department for further processing. If the job is to be printed in color, the stripper prepares a separate flat for each color. The usual salary range is $13 an hour or more.

Process Stripper

These specialized craft-workers are employed mostly by litho-graphic trade color separation shops. They evaluate and correct the color characteristics of four-color film negatives used in producing lithographic printing plates. They mount film negatives on an illuminated viewer to determine the quality and color gradations, comparing a proof print of the negative with the customer's sample illustration or standard color charts. They identify and mark color discrepancies between the print and the color separation negative. They select tinted film strips or combine several to achieve a specified color tone, trying them in turn until the correct color is achieved. The craft-workers glue strips over sections of the negative requiring correction and send negatives back to the camera for correction. They evaluate a proof print of the corrected negative and route acceptable negatives to the production department for making into lithographic plates. Salary is usually $18 an hour or more.

Lithographic Camera Operator

Most printing plants of any size have a graphic arts camera as part of their basic equipment, including printing processes other than lithographic printing. The camera operator uses a vertical or horizontal camera to produce film or glass negatives and positives used in the preparation of the printing plates. He or she mounts the original art or photograph on the copy board and focuses the camera to enlarge or reduce the image. The operator selects and places a screen at the focal plane to render shadings in black-and-white dots. He or she also places color filters in position to isolate each of the primary colors and black for full-color printing. The crafts person adjusts lights and exposes film for a specified length of time, and then develops film in a series of chemical baths or mounts unexposed film in a machine that automatically develops and fixes the image. The same camera is used for photographing pasted-up mechanicals. The usual salary is $13 an hour or more.

In some plants, a lithographic camera operator may also be given the task of operating a step-and-repeat camera. This involves the printing of one image repeated many times on a relatively large sheet. He or she positions and aligns the copy in the camera holder and operates the camera, which automatically moves incrementally to expose a negative in measured steps.

Scanner Operator, Black-and-White and Color

Black-and-white scanners are found in many newspaper printing operations, while color scanners are used in the printing of magazines and direct-mail advertising. The scanner produces a screened film negative with a dot pattern that duplicates the tonal values of a continuous-tone photograph or piece of art. The color scanner scans for each of four colors used in full-color printing by means of a filter that screens out three of the colors on each pass. The scanner operator examines the copy to be reproduced for possible problems and plans the work to include corrections that may be programmed in the machine. The operator evaluates the intensity of color areas using a densitometer, sets the scanner dials for optimum results, and starts the machine, producing a positive or negative film for each of the primary colors and black, or a single negative or positive for black-and-white work. The usual salary is $12 an hour or more.

Laser Beam Color Scanner Operator

In many modern printing plants, the laser beam color scanner is replacing conventional scanners in producing sets of color separation negatives. The operator sets up the computer-controlled machine to enlarge or reduce and screen film separations used in the printing preparation of lithographic printing plates. He or she measures the original color transparency or color reflective copy to determine the square area of film required. Then the operator selects and cleans the specified scanner drum and head to insure dust-free processing and mounts the scanner drum and head on the scanner. He or she positions copy on the scanning drum and analyzes the original copy to evaluate color density, gradation highlights, middle tones, and shadows. Then the control knob of the computer is turned to obtain the desired effects. The operator selects a preprogrammed computer tape, positions the tape in the electronic screening section of the computer, and activates the console keys to input control information. He or she then loads the film into the chamber for exposing and activates the automatic vacuum system mechanism that loads and secures the film on the drum. The operator pushes a button to activate the scanner, unloads the film holder at completion of the scanning cycle, and develops the exposed film. Scanner operators are among the highest paid of the pre-press professions, with unionized operators earning an hourly wage of about $22.

Hand Etcher, Rotogravure

These production workers are found in the press room of large rotogravure or similar printing plants. They etch images on the surface of printing rollers that have been coated with photo or acid resist on which the image has been transferred photographically, using their knowledge of colors and etching and printing techniques. They study layout to determine etching requirements based on the color and the printing sequence. They lift the printing roller onto the brackets of the rinsing vat and tape the ends of the roller with masking tape to limit the etching to a specified width. The workers then rinse the roller to remove the coating from non printing areas. They transfer the roller to an acid bath, turn a valve to agitate acid solution with compressed air, and start the machine to rotate the roller in the solution. Periodically the etchers remove the roller from the acid bath to inspect the depth of etch. They scratch charcoal into the etched cavities to intensify the image for evaluation and transfer the roller to a rinsing vat to remove all the acid-resistant coating. The usual salary is $16 an hour or more.

Screen Maker, Hand and Photographic Process

Screen makers are employed by screen printing firms in the production of billboards, point-of-purchase displays, and textiles. They prepare stencils, using photographic equipment or cutting them by hand as required. They immerse gelatin coated pigment paper in a photosensitive solution and then press the gelatin side of the paper onto a transparent plate, using a squeegee. They position the photographic negative over pigment paper and expose negative, paper, and plate to bright light to develop a silk screen pattern on the plate. Then they strip negative and pigment paper from the plate and wash the plate to remove unexposed gelatin. They position the plate over silk screen material and press the plate, using a hand roller to transfer a gelatin pattern to the material. The workers fit and align a prefabricated frame over the silk screen, pour paint onto the screen, and force the paint through the pattern in the screen to make a sample print, using a squeegee. Salary is $16 an hour or more.

Photoengraver Retoucher

This production worker is normally found in a trade engraving shop or in large newspaper printers. The retoucher makes alterations to improve photoengraving film reproductions of sketches or photographs or to eliminate defects and distortions in design. He or she compares film negatives or positives with the original photo or art to locate portions of the images, such as dots and lines that were lost during processing. The retoucher also looks for spots on the film or excessively dark or light tones. He or she paints in additional lines or dots with opaque ink to increase the intensity of the image on the film, or scratches out lines or dots to reduce the intensity, following the colors on the original to restore specific tone values. The retoucher may sketch designs on trans-parent paper before transferring them to film. The usual pay scale is $18 an hour or more.

Photostat Machine Operator

The photostat machine, used for making glossy or matte finish reductions or enlargements of original copy, may be found in some printing establishments but is more likely to be found in independent trade shops and art studios. The operator places a roll of sensitized paper in the machine, measuring length and width of material to be copied. Then he or she computes the percentage of enlargement or reduction necessary, using a percentage scale. The operator mounts original material on an easel beneath the lens, turns on light, move controls to focus the lens on the material and estimates exposure time. He or she places the filter over the lens when making black-and-white prints from color originals. Exposed film is rolled inside the machine into a developer tank. The film is cut and cranked into a tray of fixing fluid attached to the machine. Then the operator examines the print for sharpness of line and places it in a heated dryer. The usual pay scale is $9 an hour or more.

Salary Differentials

You undoubtedly have noticed the significant variance in wages within each specialty. This is owing to a number of factors, including the location and size of the printing plants, the experience level of the operators and technicians, and the overall paucity of reliable national statistics. Many of the printing and related specialties organizations listed in Appendix B are compiling better data, which should help future printing professionals in their career decision-making. One thing, however, is clear. As the demands for more sophisticated technicians, computer operators, and savvy financial analysts grow, salaries will increase in order to attract talented and creative professionals to the industry.
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