At the end of May, I attended a printing seminar at Friesens, a printing company in Altona, Manitoba. It was a three-day course packed with learning.

They covered every aspect of the book printing process, from the moment a publisher sends digital files to the final stages of binding. And they shared details about the company values and business model.

A book is a hugely collaborative project. A publisher’s job is to coordinate editors, designers, authors and illustrators to ensure the book is the best it can be. Marketing and sales people get the book onto the shelves in stores and libraries. This all takes months.

Printers handle the production of the physical book. I had always thought this was a simple part of the process. I was so wrong. Many highly skilled people coordinate their talents and operate amazing machines to deliver that finished product.


Before a print job is finalized, many decisions need to be made. What kind of paper will the book be printed on? What kind of binding will be used? When does the publisher need the book? Friesens works with publishers to choose the best material to suit their needs. Then they schedule the job.

The publisher sends a PDF file to Friesens. The file is scanned to identify potential problems, and Friesens sends a report to the publisher. The publisher can make changes to the file to address the issues. Once everyone is satisfied that the file is going to work, Friesens sends the publisher proofs. Proofs are a mock-up of pages that show the publisher how the final book will look.

This sculpture, sponsored by Friesens, is in the Gallery in the Park in Altona.

This is a plate. Four of these are used to create a single colour image.

After the publisher approves the proofs, the file goes to a prepress operator who maps out the book. The pages need to be organized so that a plate can be prepared for a single large sheet called a signature that will have anywhere from 8 to 128 pages printed on it. The book is mapped based on how that sheet will be folded and then cut into a book. When you look at the map, you might see page 2 beside page 15, and many of the pages will be upside down.

Another operator reviews the map and then sends it to yet another operator who oversees the plate creation. For a full-colour book, four plates are created for each signature. Each plate lays a colour onto the page. The four colours used in offset printing are cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Press Time

The plates are loaded onto rollers in giant printing presses. Paper is fed into one end and passes through four separate rollers.

After the pages have run through the press, the pressman needs to adjust the rollers to ensure they’re lined up correctly, and he has to adjust the ink levels to match the colour that the press is creating to the colour on the proofs.

The pressmen have little robot cameras (that is the technical term) that help with colour matching, but they also have to have a keen eye.

After the ink on the signatures has dried, they go into a folding machine. An operator programs the machine to make folds according to the signature map. Once the signatures (those giant pieces of paper) are all folded, they need to be collated into the correct order. Books are generally made up of multiple signatures. Marks along the edge of the the folded signature indicate the correct order.

Then the book gets bound. It goes through another set of machines that either sew or glue the pages together.

Meanwhile, other operators run machines that make the book cover. Then another machine is used to put the cover on the book, and yet another machine cuts those folded pages. There are different machines for these jobs based on whether the book is paperback or hardcover.

If the book is a hardcover with a dust jacket, another machine wraps the dust jacket around the book. This machine was my favourite.

This robot stacks boxes. 

This is the book we printed as part of our course. It will not be making any bestseller lists. 

The Company

The machines are super cool. My inner twelve year old was thrilled to watch them go. But the people at Friesens impressed me most.

We were in the plant and offices for three days, getting in everyone’s way and interrupting their workday. We caused alarms to go off by standing where we shouldn’t, jammed a plate in a press, had to be led around like lost sheep, and pretty much made a nuisance of ourselves. And not one person made us feel like we were getting in the way. Every person we encountered shared information freely and seemed genuinely happy to be talking to us.

The folks that work at Friesens are happy to help because they are more invested in their work than most employees. Every one of those friendly, generous people has a stake in the company’s success because the company is 100% owned by an employee trust.

The employee ownership model has meant that as the printing business has changed, and machines have become available to do more of the work, Friesens has kept on their staff. They bring the machines in so that they can do work more efficiently, but instead of letting staff go, they put them to work in another part of the business.

Employee ownership also means that instead of constantly striving for the most profitable way to do business, Friesens strives to keep their workers employed. If a process or press is less profitable than others, but keeps 25 people working all year, they will keep it running.

Friesens made this great little video about employee ownership. The video has shots of different parts of the plant as well.

I initially wanted to work with Friesens because they were the first printers in Canada to start using Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified and 100% post-consumer waste paper (PCW) and because their customer service is excellent. The employee ownership model is another reason I’m happy to have them print Crwth’s books.