Inside the Sun

by Graham Leech

From the early days, in the 1920s and 1930s, the largest division of the Sun Engraving Company was best known for its development and expansion of rotogravure (rotary ‘gravure’) printing. Its letterpress department was also well known for high-quality sheet-fed letterpress printing, and its Rembrandt associate nearby specialised in sheet-fed gravure printing that produced the highest possible quality for short-run fine-art reproductions.

In the latter part of its history, Sun also embraced web-offset litho, so that by then it had used all three of the major print processes, at one time or another [Letterpress, Lithography, and Gravure – see Glossary. Ed.]

Apart from using all three print processes, Sun had the full range of print operations, from typesetting through colour page process, cylinder and plate preparation and manufacturing, plus magazine binding. Furthermore, it had crews of engineers and electricians, plus its own gravure ink factory. In its heyday, Sun had 3,650 employees, most of them working a two- or three-shift-a-day system, plus weekend overtime during peak production periods.

Of all the gravure machines used by Sun, Goss is of particular interest, because Odhams equipped their new plant in the mid-1930s entirely with Goss presses, and negotiated the sole UK rights to Goss gravure presses for twenty years, thus preventing other British print firms from using Goss. This meant that Sun had to wait those twenty years before ordering presses from Goss. During that period, and earlier, Sun’s smaller presses were made by John Woods and Baker Perkins, and the larger ones by Vomag in Germany in the 1930s. The Vomag presses were re-engineered in the 1950s by Sun’s own engineers with new doctor-blade assemblies, and fitted with new Koenig & Bauer folders. One such press was used for the Sunday Times Colour Magazine before a Goss was installed for the purpose in 1966. The Sunday Times was the first British national newspaper to include a regular colour supplement.

Before Odhams (originally a publishing house) went into competition with Sun, it had been a big customer of Sun, although by no means the only significant one. For instance, George Newnes & Co. published Womans Own (to compete against Odhams’ Woman) and many other magazines. Odhams and Newnes, and many other publishers, ultimately became parts of the Daily Mirror group (International Publishing Corporation or IPC) in the late 1950s.

A difference between Odhams and Sun from the mid-1930s was that Odhams used the Dultgen screen process in cylinder etching, whereas Sun used ‘conventional’ gravure. With conventional gravure, all the cells are the same size in area but differ in depth: the lightest tones have the shallowest cells, and the darker tones have the deeper cells. The disadvantage of this is that any wear on the shoulders between the cells (caused, for instance, by the doctor blade or by impression pressure) has the practical effect of reducing the cell depth and thus lightening the tone. Chrome-plating of the copper cylinders helped to reduce this problem.

In the late 1950s Sun adopted another screen process, but used conventional gravure for monotone printing. I believe Odhams had negotiated the sole British rights for the Dultgen process (as they had for the Goss presses mentioned earlier) in their battle against Sun Engraving in the late 1930s. Odhams came to Watford specifically to compete with Sun for staff and drive Sun out of business because Sun’s owners had refused to sell to Odhams. Odhams was doing this very successfully until World War II came along. Everyone was then so strapped for staff that common sense prevailed and a truce was called.

Two Koenig & Bauer (K&B) presses were installed in the 1950s. These were very versatile presses in terms of colour fall and product size. Each press comprised two parallel lines of eight units plus a folder on each. One line could print 50" webs, the other line 35" webs. The two lines could each run independently through their own folder, or they could be coupled to run all the webs through one folder. Moreover, the printing units and folder were variable in size in order to produce different widths of product, and the height of the product was varied by using different paper reel widths. The printing units were also reversible (unlike the Goss presses) so that they could print one web all in four-colour, or two webs (e.g., one 4x1, plus another 2x1).

K&B and Albert were German press manufacturers for all print processes (Letterpress, Llitho, and Gravure). Their gravure presses were generally variable size cut-off [i.e., cylinder circumference] with ribbon folders, which enabled flexibility for different customer requirements. Cerutti [Italy] made similar presses. Such flexible presses were more expensive and more difficult to run and maintain, and required longer make-readies between jobs.

The gravure printing action (unlike both letterpress and web-offset) allows variable-size presses (used mainly in Europe): the width of the printed product is determined by the printing cylinder circumference, and the height is governed by the paper-reel width and the number of ribbons into which it can be slit. Only gravure can handle different cylinder circumferences (within a specific range).

Manufacturers such as Goss, Hoe, and Motter (all American), with newspaper backgrounds, also made very solid and reliable fixed-size presses for gravure. Purchasing these made a lot of sense if you had either a long-term contract for a magazine, or several publications of the same size that could fill a press for full three-shift production for five- or seven-day operation.

It might be worth noting that gravure had the advantage over other print processes, in that it could provide much better quality on cheaper paper. Working against this was the problem of a very high start-up cost, due to a complex cylinder-making process that demanded considerable skill. So gravure was particularly suited to long-run magazines, newspaper supplements, and mail-order catalogues. However, it lost much of this advantage when parallel developments in web-offset and in paper manufacture (i.e., ‘web-sized-offset paper’) resulted in web-offset streaking ahead, assisted by a much less expensive plate-making process.

In the 1950s and 1960s gravure was also used at Sun to add colour to newspapers. Reels of paper were printed in colour by gravure on one side only and, instead of proceeding into the folders, were rewound as reels. These reels were shipped to the newspaper, loaded onto the newspaper’s reel-stands and printed on the other side of the paper in the press. This was a lengthy and expensive operation, so it was used mainly for advertising, or for the occasional non-topical editorial promotion. The method continued in use until the web-offset colour newspaper presses became available.

In the 1950s, Sun also printed wrappers for some packaged or frozen foods in re-reeled form for use on their packaging lines, but on narrower reels than for newspaper re-reeling.

Where the requirement was for super-high quality, then sheetfed gravure, running up to seven or eight colours, was probably the ultimate (e.g., at Rembrandt).

Sun designed a ‘bacon-slicer’ device with rotating blades to trim the edges of the books [the industry’s term for magazines – Ed.], to avoid the very clumsy stacking and trimming operations. Strachan and Henshawe (printers’ engineers) took over its development, which was then passed to Axel Springer in Germany. I don’t know whether it ever came to fruition as a commercial product, but I’ve seen similar devices used, albeit for much thinner products.