Printing Press Operators - What They Do

Printing press operators set up and operate sheet and web-fed presses to print text, illustrations and designs on a wide variety of materials such as paper, plastic, glass, leather and metal. They are employed by commercial printing companies; newspapers, magazines, and other publishing companies; and establishments in the public and private sectors that have in-house printing departments.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Review job orders to determine job specifications such as production time, colour sequence and quantities required, and advise press crew of these specifications
  • Mount plates or cylinders and make necessary adjustments
  • Fill ink fountains and take measurements, make adjustments and determine settings to control colour and viscosity
  • Set up press and check samples for ink coverage, alignment and registration
  • Monitor regular press runs for quality and consistency using computer control console and make adjustments as required
  • Remove and clean plates and cylinders at end of press run
  • Direct activities of press crew and ensure that safety procedures are adhered to.

Job titles

  • assistant pressman/woman
  • first pressman/woman
  • apprentice pressman/woman
  • flexographic press operator
  • offset press operator
  • printing press operator
  • rotogravure pressman/woman - printing
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Completion of secondary school is usually required.
  • Completion of a college program in printing technology or A combination of on-the-job training and specialized high school, college or industry courses is usually required.
  • Trade certification is available, but voluntary, in Qu├ębec.

Essential Skills


  • Review safety procedures on warning labels on presses. The text may consist of a few brief sentences. (1)
  • Read extensive notes left by previous shifts to learn about the status of various jobs and about any equipment problems and specification changes that require their attention. (2)
  • Consult suppliers' guides to find suitable products. For example, a press operator may consult a guide to locate an alternative stock when a substrate is not working well with a particular ink. (2)
  • Read technical bulletins to understand the characteristics of various products. For example, a press operator may read a bulletin to learn how various pigmentations and coatings interact with stock acidity. (3)
  • Read sections in printing press manuals to troubleshoot problems. For example, a press operator reads several sections in a manual to learn how to adapt a press to work with another piece of equipment or to learn different ways to stop smudging. (3)
  • May read reports explaining industry standards such as the Specifications for Web Offset Publications and the Specifications for Newspaper Advertising Printing. The reports are highly technical and require specialized knowledge of colour management technology. (4)
  • May study lengthy technical manuals to gather information about the capabilities of new presses. They must comprehend detailed explanations of press features and operating procedures so that all functions can be tested and evaluated before delivery signoff. The text may present the additional complexity of having been poorly translated from another language. (4)

Document use

  • Scan labels on stock packaging for information about the length, width, weight and type of paper or film rolls. (1)
  • May read duty assignment sheets that list maintenance tasks to be performed and special sequences or specifications to be followed. (1)
  • Consult colour proofing system tables and vendor input value tables to determine industry proofing standards. (2)
  • Use a collection of colour swatches called a Pantone Matching System to identify colours and their corresponding three digit codes. These codes are used to set colour levels on print jobs and to create custom colours. (2)
  • Integrate information on press run change forms with information on original dockets to ensure jobs are printed correctly. (2)
  • Maintain daily press reports or time sheets by gathering and recording production data such as start and finish times, operational levels, paper wastage and downtime. They may refer to activity codes, write short explanations for work stoppages and note any corrective actions taken. (2)
  • Synthesize information from several sections in work orders to determine job specifications, task sequencing and timelines. For example, a press operator skims bindery specifications to ensure the product prototype incorporates the specified folds and that the shipping deadline can be met. Some familiarity with printing terminology is required to understand the specialized codes and abbreviations used on the forms. (3)
  • Refer to and integrate information from several types of documents in technical manuals to troubleshoot press problems. For example, to troubleshoot malfunctioning inking units, they may consult troubleshooting lists that refer them to exploded diagrams and related parts tables. (3)
  • May view line graphs to see how far ink levels are deviating from pre-set values during runs as presses generate moisture and heat. The readings guide their adjustments of ink flow to prevent problems such as smudging, scumming and streaking. (3)
  • May refer to complex production plans for large print jobs. For example, newspaper printers consult daily rotation production plans to learn the inking specifications and plate positions for each page of that day's newspaper. The plan for a large daily newspaper may consist of 7-8 pages of tables, diagrams and codes that present overviews and detailed diagrams of the hundreds of plates required to produce a daily newspaper. Use of the plan involves cross-referencing different sections and applying specialized knowledge of the press equipment and processes. (3)
  • Examine test samples to evaluate the quality of printed products. They check the registration and quality of each colour and the alignment of images on products. They may view different detailed images of samples captured by strobe cameras and displayed on TV monitors as the printing is in progress. They may also fold pre-cut test sheets containing multiple book pages into dummies to ensure the pages will be in numerical sequence after being cut and bound. (3)
  • Integrate information from a variety of documents to set up and monitor print jobs. They read specifications on job dockets or production plans, then use computer control screens or console dial displays to enter the specifications as set-up levels for press components such as inking, water and pressures. This may involve consulting other documents such as roller train diagrams to look up appropriate contact points, roller size and stripe width. While jobs are running, they may look at schematics to monitor ink and dampness levels on each plate and roller. They also compare the data on screens and control displays with the effect on sample printed product to determine adjustments for maintaining job quality. (4)


  • Enter codes, numerical data and phrases on report forms such as web break detail, water purification and ink consumption forms. (1)
  • Write notes to remind themselves of concerns or questions that need to be addressed, or to record how they did particular jobs for future reference. For example, a printing press operator may keep notes which specify the inking amounts and sequences used on each job. (1)
  • Write comments on finished job dockets to note any unusual occurrences during the run. For example, a press operator may report that a run is short a certain amount of finished product or explain why there is an idiosyncrasy with the finished ink colour. In addition to serving as a production record, the information also helps to alert sales staff to anomalies before orders are delivered to clients. (1)
  • May write short e-mails or letters to suppliers requesting further information about products. (2)
  • Write log book entries describing complex tasks or problems. For example, in an entry requesting that a service representative be called in, a press operator explains the problem and the troubleshooting steps that have been taken. The entry is in sufficient detail that the service representative can proceed without the press operator being present. (2)
  • May write several paragraphs of text in hazard identification forms to describe the dangers posed, to outline any immediate corrective actions taken, and to make recommendations for further action. (3)


Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Fit in preparation tasks while jobs are running based on how long each stage of printing takes and how long they can safely leave running presses unattended. (1)
  • Calculate the quantity of stock required for jobs as the first step in preparing a price estimate. For example, a press operator calculates the number of boxes of paper required to complete a job based on the number of items required, the dimensions of printed items, the size of raw stock plus a percentage for waste. (2)
  • Calculate the number of hours or shifts jobs will take based on the number of copies required and the average speed of the press. They also factor in time for preparation and stoppages. (2)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Set levels on press equipment such as the oven temperature for baking and drying inks on printing stock. (1)
  • Calculate the area of images to determine the best layout and total amounts of stock required. (2)
  • Prepare ink colours by calculating and measuring quantities of each primary colour ink according to the percentages specified in pantone colour formulae and the total quantity of ink desired. They may also calculate the amount of pigment to add to a quantity of ink to adjust its colour by a desired percentage. (2)
  • Use specialized instruments to take precise measurements. For example, a printing press operator uses a micrometer to measure the thickness of paper stock in order to adjust press rollers accordingly, or uses a zahn cup and stop watch to measure the viscosity of ink in seconds. (3)

Data Analysis Math

  • Monitor various production levels to assess press performance, detect possible problems and make needed adjustments. For example they monitor press speed in feet per minute to assess equipment performance, and compare densitometer readings on different segments of printed products to assess evenness of inking. (1)
  • Calculate spoilage rates using counter readings for the total number of copies and the number of good copies printed. (2)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate numerous operational adjustments required to produce optimum results. For example, a press operator may estimate the fraction of a millimetre to move a cylinder to correct a registration problem, estimate the number of weights to add to a press dancer to adjust web tension and estimate the quantity of alcohol to add to adjust ink viscosity. These estimates require an understanding of, and experience with, the interplay of various press functions. Poor estimation can compromise image quality and increase spoilage. (2)
  • Estimate the amount of ink required for runs by considering many factors such as the quantity and type of stock to be used and room humidity. The press operators' estimates may be used to price jobs. (2)
  • Estimate how long their assigned runs will take to determine whether they can accommodate additional runs from other presses without disrupting their production schedule. Although the factors are routine, the uncertainties of mechanical performance can significantly affect their estimates. Estimation errors can result in missed deadlines. (2)

Oral communication

  • Exchange information with co-workers when coordinating adjustments to equipment. For example, a newspaper printer may inform other ink setters in the crew that he or she has been bringing up the water to fight scum on a particular colour so that they can make their water and ink adjustments accordingly. (1)
  • Seek clarification of docket information with supervisors or job planners before proceeding with large orders. For example, an operator will confirm job docket instructions that omit or appear to contradict what the operator has done for a client in the past. (1)
  • Communicate with feeder assistants during the set up, running and take down of jobs to coordinate tasks, streamline equipment operations and ensure safety. (2)
  • May discuss job orders with sales staff. For example, an operator explains to sales staff that a client has chosen paper stock that does not work well with the type of perforation requested. The printing press operator explains the problem and recommends alternatives. (2)
  • Seek advice about the quality of equipment or products. For example, an operator asks a supervisor for a second opinion about whether printing plates are correct. This can be a sensitive topic if the supervisor proofed the plates. (2)
  • Instruct trainees how to operate and maintain press equipment. Miscommunication can result in costly errors or injuries. (3)
  • May participate in meetings with clients and designers to analyse design requirements, express opinions about press limitations and reassure clients that the job can be accomplished as they wish. If they fail to clearly address layout and press limitations, clients will be dissatisfied. (3)


Problem Solving

  • Run out of stock in the middle of press runs. For example, a press operator may run out of a specialty paper during a rush job. The operator checks all in-plant sources for the stock before arranging with the front desk to send someone to the paper supplier for more. (1)
  • May experience web breaks during production. They check press settings and examine the paper or film web to identify the causes of the break. This fault finding is complicated by time pressures and the number of potential locations and reasons for breaks. They document the symptoms and causes in web break reports, noting breaks that are due to stock defects for which credit can be claimed from manufacturers. (2)
  • Find that completing jobs in the order assigned will not allow them to meet delivery deadlines. They develop alternate work plans and persuade their supervisors that the new sequencing will be more efficient. (2)
  • Receive the wrong ink colours from suppliers. For example, an operator receives a specialty colour that is not according to job specifications. The operator must match the incorrect colour to colour strips to locate the formula for that colour, determine the percentage of colour that it lacks, locate the formula for the colour the ink should be and calculate the difference in the formulas to produce the correct colour. (2)
  • Experience unexpected or unusual press stoppages. If possible, they check press control systems for automated diagnostic information. Otherwise, they use a decision tree approach to identify the most likely causes from among hundreds of possibilities. They review their procedures and consult technical manuals to determine if the problems are due to operator errors or mechanical failures. (3)
  • Deal with a variety of defects in printed images such as poor registration and alignment, poor colour density, hair and hickey impressions, dot gain and ink smudging. They examine their stock, ink and equipment to determine if plate imperfections, poor cylinder adjustments, incorrect ink settings or sequencing, inaccurate roller pressures, poor water-to-ink balances or incorrect ink drying temperatures are responsible. Operators try likely solutions and run tests until the faults have been corrected. (3)

Decision Making

  • Make ink selections when job dockets lack or do not specify ink types. For example, a press operator in a plastic bag manufacturing company chooses the type of ink to use based on the type of polyfilm images being printed and past job runs for the same client. (1)
  • Decide at what speeds to maintain presses during job runs in order to meet production timelines and minimize waste. For example, on a smaller job an operator may keep the press speed down because the percentage of waste could get high quickly before defects are detected. On longer runs, however, the operator can afford to increase press speed for faster production knowing that even if some wastage accumulates it will not constitute a large percentage of the whole job. (2)
  • Decide which are the likely causes of printing problems from among numerous possibilities. For example, if an image is bridging, that is the screened dots are filling in, an operator decides to check if there is too much ink on the plate and to add alcohol to thin the ink. Quick and accurate decisions based on thorough understanding of printing processes are critical for product quality and production efficiency. (2)
  • May make scheduling and task assignment decisions. For example, press operators may decide what tasks to assign helpers depending on the helpers' experience and how accustomed they are to working together. They may, as union representatives, collaborate with management to schedule workers for shifts based on union regulations such as seniority and vacation time. (2)
  • Decide whether to attempt difficult equipment adjustments during a run or to wait until regular maintenance staff is available. For example, an operator decides whether to adjust roller settings according to how poor the product quality is and to what extent the adjustment would slow production. The operator can consult a supervisor for advice. (2)
  • Decide how to adjust ink colours for a job. For example, an operator decides to manually add a particular colouring to ink that was poorly mixed for a specialty order. If the operator chooses the wrong colouring to add, it may make the colour worse. (2)
  • May decide to improve paper feed by adjusting air flow levels on presses. They consider factors such as the paper's weight, moisture content and possible static build-up. (2)
  • May decide whether to proceed with job runs when proofs, signed off by clients, contain errors, such as typographical errors. They must quickly decide whether to stop the presses or carry on to meet delivery deadlines. It may not always be possible, for instance in night shifts, to have the designer and client validate the spelling. (3)

Critical Thinking

  • Assess the tensions on the web or stock going through presses. For example, a plastic bag press operator judges web tension by patting the web like a drum. Optimal tension varies depending on the thickness of the film. Too much tension on thin film causes stretching, making the web guides less effective. This affects the quality and alignment of printed images. (1)
  • Judge the safety of working conditions by considering safety policies and operating procedures. For example, they judge if ink dripping on a press room floor or employees wearing jewellery pose serious enough safety violations to warrant asking for immediate corrective actions. (1)
  • May assess the quality of printing plates and plate designs. They evaluate plate flaws such as scratches to determine if they will affect the final products. They may also assess plate designs; for example, on some designs they may suggest using two plates instead of one to reduce the potential for colour gaps. (2)
  • Evaluate the clarity, completeness and reasonableness of job docket instructions. These evaluations involve understanding industry terminology, recognizing when others may be using terminology incorrectly and envisioning the products that would result by following job instructions. They also consider whether problematic requests are intentional or the result of error. (2)
  • Assess the complexity of print jobs in order to schedule print runs efficiently. For each job, they consider the delivery deadline, type of equipment needed, stock and colours required and the degree of similarity between jobs. (2)
  • Assess the condition of equipment based on how the machines handle, sound and perform in terms of outputs. For example, rattling bearings may indicate an oil leak and potential damage to equipment. (2)
  • Evaluate the quality of test copies to determine if press adjustments are needed. They use measurements to check things such as image alignment, colour densities, and cut-offs. They also make subjective judgments of colour quality. Some job dockets specify quality levels using terms such as 'information' or 'prestige' quality, but these terms are also subject to interpretation and global judgments. Operators must balance the need for quality with the costs involved in making improvements. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Printing press operators plan and organize their own tasks to complete jobs assigned by their supervisors. They may run a number of different jobs in one shift, run a large job that takes several shifts to complete, or, as in daily newspaper plants, run one type of job day after day. They generally have discretion to sequence tasks for maximum efficiency; for example, they may group jobs that use the same colours, rollers and cylinders to minimize the time needed for cleaning and set-up between jobs. Problems such as web breaks, equipment breakdowns and the discovery of plate errors sometimes interrupt their schedules. Press operators usually coordinate their tasks with a feeder helper or trainee, and in some plants coordinate their tasks with larger crews of ten or more operators. (2)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Senior operators may have the responsibility of organizing the work of their press team and ensuring that their teams' tasks are coordinated with the schedules of other departments such as sales, pre-press, bindery and shipping. (2)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember characteristics associated with repeat customers, such as the specifications for their orders and whether they have relaxed or exacting standards.
  • Remember the effects of various adjustments such as the effects different colour strengths have on papers and the effects different ink viscosities have on polyethylene films.
  • Recall job details and shift events in order to complete timesheets at the end of the day and brief the oncoming shift.
  • Remember solutions for various press faults without having to refer to technical manuals.

Finding Information

  • Ask sales staff or job planners to clarify incomplete or ambiguous information in job dockets. (1)
  • Look at production schedule overviews for information about the status of orders. For example, a printing press operator in a manufacturing plant checks a central production board displaying all the stages of every order from sales through shipping to determine if certain orders are ahead or behind schedule in order to make decisions about printing procedures. (1)
  • Find information about the use of products such as specialized inks by consulting product brochures, trade magazines or manufacturers' websites. (2)
  • Find information about upcoming press runs from production schedules, press databases and press supervisors. They analyze information from various sources to prioritize tasks and ensure appropriate materials and equipment are available. (2)
  • May gather information by attending manufacturers' seminars and reading industry publications to locate suitable products and reputable suppliers. (3)

Digital technology

  • Use word processing software. For example, they write short letters to suppliers to request information about products. (2)
  • Use databases. For example, they may access press control system databases to read, enter and adjust job specifications. (2)
  • Use spreadsheets. For example, they may enter production data into timesheets in which formulae and fields have been programmed. (2)
  • Use computer-assisted design, manufacturing and machining. For example, they may use press process control systems to monitor and adjust a variety of functions such as the inking on rollers, water-to-ink balances and positioning of cylinders. (2)
  • Use communications software. For example, they exchange e-mail messages and attachments with graphic designers to discuss graphics proposed for a job. (2)
  • Use the Internet. For example, they may search suppliers' websites to locate product information. (2)
  • Use other computer and software applications. For example, they may use printing press maintenance management systems to consult preventive maintenance schedules, verify equipment repairs and create work orders. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

The degree to which printing press operators work with others varies according to the size of the press facility. In smaller shops, they may work alone, especially during night shifts. In larger facilities such as those for printing daily newspapers, they may work in press crews of ten to twenty operators. In most settings, however, operators spend much of the time working independently or with one partner or helper to carry out set-up, print run, and maintenance tasks. Pairing up on jobs helps to ensure safety and allows effective monitoring and operation of different parts of a press during runs. Operators direct assistants in performing stock loading and clean up tasks. They occasionally work with other press operators to coordinate sequential tasks for the same project. For example, two operators may use two presses to produce a two-colour product to avoid having to make ink colour changes on either press. Press operators also work as a team with other crew members and departments to ensure high quality results. This is accomplished through occasional direct contact, such as to clarify job specifications with job planners or to discuss equipment and inking adjustments with co-workers. Teamwork, however, is mostly accomplished indirectly through everyone reading the same job dockets. Senior operators may lead and coordinate the work of press crews. (2)

Continuous Learning

The continuous learning goals and processes of printing press operators are largely determined by their job demands and employers. They learn continuously through performing a variety of jobs and through talking with more experienced co-workers. To varying degrees, printing press operators need to update their skills to keep abreast of new printing techniques, new materials such as ink types and print stocks, and more highly computerized presses. Their formal learning is usually provided on-site by employers and manufacturers. During major plant modernization, operators may take extensive classroom and hands-on training for the operation and maintenance of new digital press equipment. They are also required to renew safety training for handling hazardous materials and operating forklifts at regular intervals. Some operators choose to read industry publications, attend seminars and take workshops to learn more about their own work and the work of related departments. For example, they may attend workshops for graphics software such as PhotoShop so that they can better understand the work in the pre-press department. Head press operators and team leads may take courses in supervision and continuous quality improvement. (2)