printer: machine

The work

Machine printers, often known as print minders, set up, operate and maintain printing presses. Their work involves taking job specifications from the print originator and setting up the press with the correct amount of materials for the production run.

Typical tasks include:

  • matching colours to the originator’s proofs
  • restocking ink levels
  • loading the print material
  • inputting job data into computerised machine control units
  • carrying out quality checks throughout the print run
  • identifying problems and fixing faults
  • cleaning presses on completion of the job (either manually or using automatic cleaning systems)
  • basic machine maintenance.

Machine printers usually work on a particular type of press but they often train in a variety of printing techniques, including:

Letter press (relief process) - prints on material from a raised design or typeface. It is used mainly for customised products, for example personal business cards, stationery and wedding invitations.

Flexigraphic (relief process) - uses flexible rubber or photopolymer plates. Commonly used to print onto items like shopping bags and food packaging.

Screen printing (stencil process) - for printing onto fabric (T-shirts), paper (posters) or display signs by forcing ink through a fine mesh overlaid with the stencil design. The mesh was originally silk but is now often synthetic.

Lithographic (planographic process) - the most widely used method, printing from a flat plate. The plate design is covered in special oil or grease; water is applied but repelled by the greased area leaving the non-greased part damp. Ink only attaches itself to the greased design area. The plate is fixed to a cylinder and the design transferred to paper.

Some litho methods use an intermediary roller (offset) before transfer to paper. A reel of paper (web) is often used for large print runs and together this method is known as web offset printing. It is used for bulk jobs such as catalogues, newspapers and magazines.

Gravure (intaglio process) - the design is made up from a series of small holes etched or engraved on to a plate, usually copper. Ink is applied and when the excess is scraped away, paper is pressed against the plate to transfer the design. This is used for high quality work on catalogues, fabrics and wallpapers.

Digital printing - is becoming much more common, combining inkjet and laser printing with electrostatic methods – charging the rollers or paper to attract oppositely charged toner.

Machine printers work in a variety of settings from small workshops to large printing warehouses. On large presses printers work in teams, but on smaller ones a single printer may be responsible for the whole print run.

Hours and Environment

Machine printers usually work 37 to 40 hours a week, sometimes operating on a shift system, including nights. Overtime is often available.

The workplace can be noisy, depending on the type and age of the machinery, and there may be some fumes from the chemicals and solvents used in the process. Protective clothing and equipment may be required.

Skills and Interests

To be a machine printer you should:

  • have good hand-to-eye coordination
  • have an excellent appreciation for detail, design and colour matching
  • be good at solving practical problems
  • be able to concentrate for long periods
  • be self motivated and responsible
  • have good practical skills
  • be able to work to deadlines
  • keep up to date with developments in printing technology
  • be able to work as part of a team or alone.


There are no set entry requirements, with qualifications depending on the employer and the amount of responsibility involved. Most organisations ask for a good standard of general education, usually with GCSE/S grades in English and maths, science subjects and IT. Good colour vision is essential.

If you are under 24, you may be able to gain an apprentice position with a printing company (see the Training section for contacts). You will need four or five GCSEs (A-C)/S grades (1-3) including maths and English, or equivalent.

Some colleges offer printing courses for any age group. These may be a useful starting point for those wishing to enter this career. Courses include:

  • ABC Award/Certificate/Diploma in Print Production – covers lithographic, screen printing and finishing
  • City & Guilds Certificate in Printing and Graphic Communications (5261) – covers all main print processes mentioned in the Work section.

Broader art and design courses may offer options in some printing methods, such as screen printing. Check with local colleges for details.

The British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) and Get Into Print websites have details about careers in printing together with information on training providers. See their contact details in Further Information.


You continue your training on the job once employed. You receive technical training on the specific printing machinery used by your company.

There are NVQ/SVQ qualifications available for those working in the industry. These include:

  • Machine Printing levels 2 and 3 - contains several pathways, such as lithography, web offset and screen printing
  • Digital Print Production levels 2 and 3 - has options covering machine operation, creating digital artwork and pre-press work.

For more details about work-based training awards, see the websites for the BPIF, Scottish Print Employers Federation and Proskills UK below.

Printers always need to update their skills. Employers usually offer in-house training or send their employees on courses run by equipment manufacturers. The British Printing Industry Federation also runs a range of short courses and in-company training. See the BPIF website below.

Apprenticeships may be available for those under the age of 24. In England these are currently Apprenticeships (level 2) and Advanced Apprenticeships (level 3). To find out more about these, visit

Apprenticeships may be different in other areas. For further information see Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland


Printing is one of the UK’s biggest industries employing over 170,000 people. Printing companies exist throughout the UK but the main concentration of printing work is in London and the south east, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol.

Once trained and experienced on different types of printing presses, printers may move into supervisory or production control positions. Related areas such as finishing, account sales, estimating, buying or maintenance offer career progression options.

Annual Income

Figures are intended as a guideline only.

Starting salaries for qualified operatives are between £14,000 and £19,000 a year.
Experienced machine printers can earn between £20,000 and £25,000 a year.

Additional payments are made for shift allowances, specific responsibilities and overtime.

Further information

Farringdon Point
29/35 Farringdon Road
Tel: 0870 240 4085

48 Palmerston Place
EH12 5DE

If you would like to discuss your career options with a learning advisor at the learndirect advice line, call 0800 100 900 or email: