The Chargehand’s Duties

Compiled from information supplied by Len Leach, who was a gravure chargehand at Sun, and by Jack Clarke, who was a gravure register-hand and second-hand and a web offset chargehand at Sun.

As might be expected, the chargehand was in charge of his press and all its crew and was responsible for everything that happened on the press during his shift. He ensured that every member of the crew was doing his job correctly. He was responsible for the speed at which the press ran, for mechanical checks, for the quality of the product, and much more. He had to be a good manager of people as well as a highly skilled technician.

Most chargehands at Sun came up through the ranks after completing an apprenticeship as a journeyman printer. They started as ink minders, went on to be register-hands, then second-hands (deputy chargehands), and finally, if management felt them suitable, chargehands. Given the responsibility involved, whoever took on the job had to want it and be able to do it well. (Some ink minders preferred to move no higher than register-hand or second-hand.) When a second-hand moved up to become a chargehand, he was already experienced in the role, having worked closely with his own chargehand and having filled in for a chargehand when the need arose.

In the Sun’s gravure machine room, which until at least the mid-1960s was the largest in the world, each press was run by a chargehand on each of three shifts. The size of the remaining crew on each shift depended upon the type of press and the number of units used for a particular production run. Let’s consider the case of the largest press, an 18-unit Goss hypothetically running 3 webs, two each of 4 colours backed by 4 colours, and a single monochrome web of black backed by black. The crew reporting to the chargehand in these circumstances and running, say, Woman's Own, in the late 1950s, was made up as follows:

In the basement:

• for each of the 3 reel stands: 2 reel hands and 1 floor hand (9 people in all)

Above ground:

• the second-hand (deputy chargehand)

• on each 4x4 (8-unit) group: 4 ink minders (later reduced to 2), 1 or 2 floor hands, and 2 register-hands (15 people in all)

• on the ‘fly’ or on stackers at the delivery part of the folder: 4 or 5 assistants

• at each end of the press: 1 oiler (a senior assistant)

The grand total: 30+ people (12 journeymen and 18 assistants)

Crews were allocated to presses a day in advance. Crew lists for all machines were posted outside the office, in the cylinder square. After chargehands and crews had clocked in for a shift, they made straight for the staffing board to check for changes – and there were often changes. The crews on every press were interchangeable, and crews or individuals could be placed on any press as the need arose, since almost every man was able to take on any job. A second-hand on a Goss one night might find himself working as a register-hand on another press the next. Chargehands, however, tended to handle only chargehand duties except in an emergency. Decisions for manning the presses were based on seniority and experience.

After checking the board, the chargehand changed his clothes and went out to the designated press to be briefed by the previous shift’s chargehand regarding any problems encountered on the earlier shift. He then took over the press. A shift change did not happen all at once but over a period of about half an hour as crew members showed up and relieved their predecessors. About 30 minutes into the shift, if the crew was found to be a man short, the chargehand advised the Chapel office and a reassignment of duties was arranged within the machine room to make up a full crew on that press. If a crew found itself short a chargehand, management or the FOC would assign a second-hand to fill the gap, and crews would be juggled further, as necessary. (Until the very last years of the Sun, a shift change-over remained a remarkably fluid affair. Workers clocked in but not out. Some crew members might even arrive early and take over early. One man might clock in 15 minutes early, check the board, change his clothes, and go straight to the press, at which point the man he was replacing could leave. Because the press was continuously manned, the first worker’s clocking-out time was deemed to be ‘on time’.)

At the start of the shift the chargehand had to familiarize himself with the details of the job already on the press. He had to know the obvious things– which job was in production, the total press run, the current status – and also less obvious things, such as which pages were on the gear side of the cylinder (for which he had to check a position sheet).

The chargehand mainly watched the folder, making sure that the fold was in the right place and that everything was lining up correctly. He and every other member of the crew constantly checked printed copies to see that pages were in the right order and that no other flaws had crept in. Such repeated checking of the product was essential and became even more crucial as presses became faster. When a press could turn out 72,000 copies of a complete magazine every hour, any mistake or lapse of attention could mean the scrapping of thousands of copies. Managers made regular rounds of the machine room to discuss with the chargehands how each job was running and to make progress notes. This information was used to determine the need for overtime if a job was running late.

Upon completion of a job the chargehand oversaw the press clean-up (mainly carried out by assistants). The press area had to be cleared of anything to do with the previous job, the press had to be washed up, the doctor blades had to be cleaned, prepared, and reset, the folder had to be cleaned and all paper dust removed, and so on. While this work was under way the chargehand went to the Process Department to learn the status of the next job and whether the cylinders were ready (or when they might be ready). If the waiting time between jobs was going to be long, he had the crew ‘blow the tanks.’ All old ink was removed from the press, and assistants cleaned the ink ducts with spirits and filled the reservoirs with fresh ink. The old ink was pumped into 50-gallon drums and carted away by lorry. The chargehand checked that the ink minder had stacked up all media, xylol, and so on in readiness for the next job.

The settings of the printing units had to be adjusted. The crew might even web up the press, going as far as they could while waiting for the cylinders. When the cylinders (or some of them) were ready, the second-hand accompanied the assistants when they went to collect them, to mark the cylinders for colour and gear side – a significant time-saver. Using a guide that indicated the gear or drive side (the other side was called the ‘away’ side) of the press for each cylinder, he chalked a ‘G’ or an ‘X’ on each cylinder’s spindle to ensure that it got mounted the right way round.

It was the chargehand’s responsibility to reset the folder to the next job’s requirements. Even though a press might be dedicated to a particular magazine (often called a ‘book’ by pressmen), specifications usually changed from issue to issue. For each new job, the chargehand obtained a mock-up or imposition sheet from the office so as to work out how he should reset the folder. Each web went over a metal roller with attachments that could be pulled apart, allowing knives (called slitters) to be inserted. These were circular blades that the chargehand set at the page depth, to cut the web into several strips as it ran into the folder. The strips then passed over turner bars, which were rounded on the side over which the paper ran. Air was blown through holes along their length, creating a cushion of air to keep the strips off the bars, thus preventing the still-tacky ink from adhering to them or smudging and also preventing ink build-up. If part of an illustration was adjacent to the spine of the magazine and the other part was on the next strip, the chargehand had to reverse the bar to bring the two halves together and ensuring that both halves joined up when the pages were collated. The strips then passed over rollers that could be adjusted up or down to align the centre of the page with the centre of the magazine. Crosses at the top of each page enabled the page to be correctly positioned. Circular bosses held the strips together as they travelled down to another cylinder, the grippers of which took the leading edge of the magazine. This operation was timed to occur opposite a cylinder with a saw-toothed strip of metal called a perforator. The perforator chopped the strips as they went into the folder, thus creating the actual magazine. (If you open a magazine out at the centre spread, the left and right edges of the magazine are where the perforator has cut the paper.) The magazine then went into the folder and was collected in the middle (where the stitching goes) and met by a jaw that folded it into its book form. After the folding, the magazine was stitched and then dropped onto the delivery tapes. The chargehand was responsible for the precise set-up of all these elements. Only perfect coordination between the press and all functions of the folder could produce an acceptable finished magazine, and the timing of the folder had to be spot on for all these operations not only to occur but to occur at very high speeds. [For more on this topic, see Brian Reynolds’s Facts and Opinions article on the installation of the Albert TR5.]

Once every cylinder was in place the chargehand did a final survey of the press and put the machine on to crawl. He and the crew checked that everything was working the way it should be, then took the press up to speed.

There had to be a very good reason to stop the press during a run. Any number of problems could crop up during a shift: something might go through the press that shouldn’t have, or there might have been a fire on the press (presses were never stopped if static electricity caused the web to catch fire at one or more units, but they were stopped once the fire had been extinguished). The press had to be stopped to change a blunt perforator blade, which was done within minutes, as a new one was always set up by the chargehand and ready to be used. During a reel change the web could start to rip, forcing the chargehand to stop the press and restart it at a crawl to try to get past the problem. In other situations, rather than stopping the press he might decide to simply slow it down in order to study the problem. A bearing that was starting to go would be brought to the chargehand’s attention, and if, after listening to it, he felt that the press should be stopped, he stopped it. Of course, any of the crew could hit the Stop button in an emergency; there was a button at each unit.

When the problem required the attention of engineers, electricians, or plumbers, it was up to the chargehand to phone the appropriate department. Help usually arrived within 5 to 10 minutes, but in cases of significant delay, the chargehand advised the machine room manager, and management decided whether the crew should wait for repairs or keep the press running regardless.

If a chargehand was hurt or fell ill during a shift, the second-hand took over until another chargehand was moved in. The press would be stopped only if absolutely necessary. (Or, depending on the relative importance of jobs, a press might be stopped and its chargehand moved over to fill the gap on a press with a more urgent run.)

The chargehand kept a log of the number of copies produced on his shift, and the log was continued by the chargehand of the next shift until the run was completed. He also logged the amount of down-time for repairs (or other reasons), the parts that needed adjustment or replacement during his shift, the supplies that were used, any fires that occurred, the fire extinguishers that were used, and so on. This information was handed in to the office at the end of the shift. He briefed the next shift’s chargehand regarding events on the shift just completed. The next crew took over, and the press run carried seamlessly on.