Keith Lunt grew up in the shadow of Robert Maxwell. His father worked at Sun Printers in Watford and then Purnell & Sons in Paulton. Then, finally fed up with the Bouncing Czech’s management style, he left in 1987 to buy the village print business with a Rotaprint and platens from Heidelberg and Thomson.
Lunt has grown and moved on to an industrial estate near Bath. The outside is unremarkable. A door from the car park leads to a set of stairs with the instruction Reception Upstairs like many, many other printers.
The perception changes once on the office level as Lunt pulls out sample after sample of the types of work produced on a five-unit plus coater Speedmaster SM74, now 14 years old. There is work for London agencies ranging from stylish and deceptively simple cocktail bar menus printed on the Ricoh Pro C751, to limited edition photographic monographs, produced for those buying apartments in the South Bank Tower.
Steve McCurry, a photographer from the Magnum agency, was commissioned to interview and produce portraits of artisans from the Southwark and Lambeth neighbourhoods. The book is beautifully printed, bound and presented in a purpose made clam shell case, itself embossed with the title I Am The Place Where I Am. Every new owner received a copy. Whether this conferred any street cred on the wealthy occupants is a moot point. But there is no argument about the quality of the printed product.
Now Opal Print has topped even this, printing the three-volume autobiography and retrospective for Don McCullin, one of the world’s greatest living photographers. This job weighs in at 20kg, again presented in its handmade case. Lunt is delighted. This is exactly the sort of work that excites him, complex print where the plate curves are adjusted for the different paper types, where there is an opportunity to work closely with the clint to achieve precisely the desired result.
With this book, says Lunt “He was pushing for something a bit different. We started off with a tritone black, using an additional grey to boost the black. But the result was too cold. Then we tried process black with Black 4, which gives a more chocolatey feel, and McCullin was satisfied. He signed off every one of the sheets we printed.”
The printed sheets were transported to Diamond Finishing in Enfield for binding, needing to adjust the specification for the end boards to cope with the weight of the book and the cloth covering. The format was chosen because it is the largest that could be bound mechanically.”
The first copies were ready for Photo London exhibition and others for the summer photo fair at Arles in Provence. In both instances the book received universal acclaim.
Each sheet was personally signed off by the photographer who lives in the Bath area, just 20 minutes from the Opal factory. He has been as delighted with the production as the printer. “I did not know this quality of print was available in the UK,” he says.
It has put Opal firmly on the map, in a bracket that includes a dozen or so UK printers that are trusted with high value, high impact work of this nature. It began when printers in the Bath area would recommend the company as one that was willing to take on work that was out of the ordinary, on difficult materials or simply too different for them to handle. The company’s reputation has now extended to London agencies.
For Lunt this type of work is a showcase for what the company can produce and while not every job will be in this league, it is attracting the interest of agencies looking for a trusted pair of hands for top end work.
They may come and look at the company’s website where Lead Forensics identifies the visitor and the page being looked at. Lunt can then fire off an email as a follow up. There is a definite pick up of traffic and interest when the company posts new content, but as a business employing only ten people, the website is not refreshed as frequently as it should be he concedes.
That may change with the latest project. The printer is installing an AMS LED UV system to its Speedmaster, the first to be retrofitted to a Heidelberg press in this country. This was planned to take place before Drupa, but the pressure of the show delayed the fitting. A complete set of rollers stands ready.
“There is a double attraction for us: it will improve the vibrancy of images on uncoated papers, and it eliminates the time scale for these papers to dry,” he says. The advantages in terms of reducing energy use are nice to have benefits, but not the driving force.
Opal will be using Flint’s Acura ink as the ink supplier has partnered with AMS. It will also be using varnishes to deliver the range of creative finishes. “The availability of inks has improved in the last year and varnishes have really moved on in the last year,” he says. “We’ve spoken with a few designers about what will be possible. I’m just waiting to have a play with it to see what we can do.”
The company will be moving to IPA-free printing at the same time, with the expectation that the new rollers will provide the extra operating latitude that alcohol has perviously delivered. He says: “That is a big jump for us, adding to our green credentials. Adding a full set of rollers is like upgrading the whole machine.”
The press is kept in top condition. In 14 years, it has printed a miserly 80 million impressions. With the introduction of LED UV, spray powder will be eliminated, making it easier to keep the press clean.
Post print, the company can cut, fold and stitch for both styles of printing. It has a sewing machine and can produce hardcovers by hand, one being clothed to good effect in an expensive vinyl wallpaper for an interior designer’s brochure.
There are also two platens, one set up for foil blocking, a Cylinder and a book press adapted to act as a hand fed foiling unit. It enables Opal to produce multiple hit foils to give a high value impact for short runs. There is also an old Arab platen, without rollers but with the mechanism working smoothly. Opal Print now has his eyes on a local printer that continues to operate an Intertype caster.
Two years ago we rebranded as a business,” he says. “We had to decide whether to compete on price with the internet printers and sell cheaply or else go the other way and focus on image and quality where price is not the main issue.”
It does not need to run its press at 18,000sph, preferring to operate at the sorts of speeds where the press operator is in full control and can monitor quality in the delivery.
“We still need the bread and butter work and it benefits from the standards used on project work. We don’t want to take on the world. For us it’s not about chasing turnover (margin is important), but we want to be known as a good quality printer, and the company that people turn to when they want something out of the ordinary.
“Ideally we will be producing more nice quality books in future. I still believe that nothing has more impact than someone picking up a book or brochure and saying ‘that’s nice.”
The format for Irreconcilable Truths was chosen to match the largest format it is possible to bind mechanically. There are three volumes comprising 700 photographs divided into War & Reportage, Landscapes, Travel & Still Lives
It was printed by Opal Print on Cocoon Recycled and Mohawk Superfine papers. The selection of the photographs, design and printing has taken two years, including working out which combination of paper inks and process would achieve the closest match to the darkroom results.
“I was dedicated to ensuring that what was possible with litho printing could match as closely as possible what I was achieving in my own darkroom,” McCullin explains. ”One of the most satisfying parts of the whole project was the process of test printing a selection of my images using a mix of different litho and digital printing techniques and a carefully considered range of papers.”
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The work was produced on a 14-year-old, five-unit plus coater Speedmaster SM74.
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