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Lithographic and Photoengraving Workers

Lithography, also called-offset printing, is the dominant method of printing. In this process, lithographers photograph or scan the material to be printed and make a printing plate from the film which, when inked, is pressed against a rubber blanket. The rubber blanket in turn transfers the ink onto paper. In photoengraving, a similar process, photoengravers produce metal plates or gravure cylinders for reproduction of copy. The plates are carefully engraved with the image to be printed. Once the placers are installed in the press, ink collects in the engraved recesses and is held there until transferred onto paper. Lithography has replaced photoengravers for most purposes, although the latter is still used for high-quality magazines and other specialty printing jobs.

Lithographic and photoengraving workers are responsible for a variety of tasks, from photoengraving text and pictures to making the final printing plates. In small shops, a single worker may handle every step in the printing process. Otherwise, lithographic workers tend to specialize, and have job titles such as camera operator, stripper, etcher, scanner operator, or platemaker.

Camera operators start the process of making a lithographic plate by photographing and developing negatives of the material to be printed. Much of the camera work can be done electronically. These workers generally are classified as line camera operators, halftone operators, or color separating photographers.

Scanner operators use computerized equipment to create film negatives of photographs or art. The operator reviews all work to determine if corrections to the original are necessary and adjusts the equipment accordingly. The operator then uses a densitometer to measure the density of the colored areas, and the scanner is adjusted to obtain the best results. Once the settings are entered, the scanner is started. When reproducing color, the photograph is scanned four times. Each scan produces a dotted image of the original in one of four basic colors: Yellow, red, blue, and black. The images are used to produce printing plates that will print each of these colors, one at a time. The printing is done with primary colors because, when combined in the proper order, they will produce all the colors and hues of the original photograph. The computer controls the scanning process, correcting for mistakes or compensating for deficiencies in the original.

Negatives may need retouching. Lithographic etchers take care of this by sharpening or reshaping images on the negatives. They do the work by hand, using chemicals, dies, and special tools. Lithographic etchers must know the characteristics of all types of paper and must produce fine shades of color. Like camera operators, they are usually assigned to only one phase of the work, any may have job titles such as dot etchers, retouchers, or letterers.

Strippers cut the film to required size and arrange and tape the negatives onto "mechanicals," or layout sheets, used by platemakers to make press plates. When completed, mechanicals resemble large film negatives of the text in its final form. In large printing establishments like newspapers, arrangement is done automatically.

Platemakers use a photographic process to make printing plates. The mechanical, which closely resembles a photographic negative of the text, is placed on top of a thin metal plate treated with a light-sensitive chemical. Exposure to a special light activates the chemical in those regions not protected by the film's dark areas. The plate is then washed in a special solution that eats away the light-activated coating, exposing bare metal. The chemical on areas of the plate protected from the light hardens and becomes water repellent. The hardening parts of the plate form the text.

In a growing number of printing plants, platemakers use machines that process the plates automatically. Entering, storing, and retrieving information from computer-aided equipment require technical skills. In addition to operating and maintaining the equipment, lithographic platemakers must make sure that plates meet quality standards.

During the printing process, the plate is first covered with a thin coat of water. The water adheres only to the bare metal areas that were attacked by the light-activated chemical, and is repelled by the hardened areas that were not affected by the chemical. Next, the plate comes in contact with a rubber roller covered with an oil-based ink. Because oil and water do not mix, the ink is repelled by the water-coated area and sticks to the hardened areas. The ink covering the hardened text can now be transferred to paper.

Working Conditions

Although lithographic and photoengraving workers stand most of the time, the work is not physically demanding. Some light lifting may be required. Lithographic artists and strippers may find working with fine detail tiring and fatiguing to the eyes. Platemakers, who work with toxic chemicals in both processes, face the hazard of skin irritations. Work areas usually are well lighted and air-conditioned.

Lithographic and photoengraving workers generally work an 8-hour day but sometimes have to work overtime to meet publication deadlines. Some workers -- particularly those employed by newspapers -- work night shifts, weekends, and holidays.


Lithographic and photoengraving workers held 84,000 jobs in 1990. Employment was distributed as follows:

Lithographic and photoengraving workers, precision ................................... 54,080

Photoengraving and lithographic machine operators and photographers ................. 31,200

Most jobs are in small commercial printing plants, newspapers, printing trade service firms, and "in-plant" operations.

Although these workers are located in all parts of the country, most are employed in large printing centers such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Dallas.

Training, and Other Qualifications

Most lithographic and photoengraving workers begin as helpers or "gophers." They may be hired to work on the loading dock, for example, or help clean up. when the need arises, helpers who have proven their reliability and interest may be selected for on-the-job training in lithography or photoengraving and begin their instruction with experienced craft workers. Advancement is based on an individual's demonstrated mastery of skills at each level of instruction. Years of on-the-job training are required to become a skilled worker, and frequent retraining will be needed to keep abreast of the latest technological advancements.

Apprenticeship provides another way of becoming a skilled worker, although few apprenticeships have been offered in recent years. Apprenticeship programs may emphasize a specific craft such as platemaker, but apprentices are introduced to all phases of the operation. Usually, applicants for training must be high school graduates, at least 18 years of age, and in good physical condition. Good oral and writing skills also are required. Applicants should be able to compute percentages and be familiar with weights and measures. Those employed in small shops may need mathematics skills to factor in such items as the costs of labor, paper, ink, and the time needed to do a job. A knowledge of color composition is an asset, as is an aptitude for mastering the computer-assisted equipment used in graphic preparatory work. Prospective camera operators should have good eyesight and color vision and an understanding of chemistry and optics.

Vocational-technical institutes, community and junior colleges, and 4-year colleges offer 2-year programs in printing technology which provide a valuable background for persons interested in learning lithographic crafts. High school and vocational school training in printing, photography, mathematics, chemistry, physics, mechanical drawing, and art also is helpful.

Unions, industry groups, and equipment manufacturers also provide training in new techniques and equipment for individuals with some experience.

As workers acquire experience and training, they may advance to positions of greater responsibility. Some become supervisors.

Job Outlook

Employment of lithographic workers is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000, but employment of photoengraving workers is expected to decline. These divergent trends reflect the fact that offset printing methods -- which involve lithography -- are replacing letterpress printing, which requires photoengraving skills.

Rapidly rising demand for printed material is the principal factor underlying projected growth in employment of lithographic workers. Output of printed materials is expected to grow substantially by the year 2000 in response to demand generated by an expanding economy, increased school enrollments, and more middle-aged and older readers. In addition, new printing technologies are expected to spur demand by creating new markets for printed matter, effectively capturing some of the advertising dollars currently allotted to nonprint media. Work previously requiring a week or more can now be completed in several days. Much faster turnaround time will permit offset printers to compete with nonprint media for time-sensitive career, providing advertisers with specialty advertisements used to target specific market segments, for example.

Although expansion of the printing industry is expected to create more jobs for lithographic workers, employment growth between now and the year 2000 is not likely to keep pace with future increases in the output of printed materials, given the laborsaving nature of new printing technologies. In addition to job created by industry growth, many openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation.

Most new jobs will be in commercial printing establishments. These firms produce a wide variety of printed materials, including pamphlets, brochures, newspaper inserts, and direct mail advertisements. Because small establishments predominate, commercial printing should provide the best opportunities for inexperienced workers looking to gain a good background in all facets of lithography.

Employment opportunities for inexperienced individuals should be best for those who have completed postsecondary programs in printing technology. Many employers prefer to hire applicants who have completed these programs because the comprehensive training they receive helps them learn lithography and adapt more rapidly to new processes and techniques.


The basic wage rate for a lithographic or photoengraving worker depends on the job and location. The average hourly wage rate for photoengravers was $16.75 in 1990, according to the Graphic Communication International Union. Lithographers operating a scanner earned $15.65 an hour in 1990.

Related Occupations

Lithographic and photoengraving workers use artistic skills in their work. Artistic skills are also essential for sign painters, jewelers, decorators, and engravers.

Source of Additional Information

Details on apprenticeship and other training opportunities in lithography and photoengraving are available from local employers such as newspapers and printing shops, local offices of the Graphic Communications International Union, or the local office of the State employment service. For information on schools that offer courses in printing technology, write to:

Education council of the Graphic Arts Industry, 4615 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

For general information on lithographic occupations, write to:

Graphic Communications International Union, 1900 L. St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20036.


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