Monday, 27 August 2007
Prestige Booklet Panes To Go All Litho
Royal Mail has announced that, effective at the beginning of next year, all panes in prestige booklets will be printed by lithography. For the past several years, panes containing Machins were printed by gravure, so this will create new Machin varieties for specialist collectors.
Of course, the Machins in prestige booklets often differ in some way from those produced in other formats, but the change from gravure to lithography is more significant. I think more collectors will be interested in variations of printing method than in other, less significant, differences.
However, although Royal Mail is making every effort to sell as many stamps to collectors as possible, as I noted recently, that's not the case this time. Rather, it's the other side of the coin - the change is a step to reduce production costs.
A lithographic printing plate is less costly to make than a gravure cylinder, so Royal Mail will have to pay less to the printer for these lithographed panes, thereby resulting in more profit. And, if some additional copies of these booklets are sold to specialist collectors, all the better for Royal Mail.
So if lithography plates are less expensive than gravure cylinders, why haven't prestige booklet panes been printed by lithography all along? In fact, why aren't all Machins printed by lithography?
I'll answer these questions by reviewing a little Machin history, and even a tiny bit of pre-Machin history.
Gravure printing was first introduced for British stamps in 1934 by Harrison and Sons. Starting that year, the low values of the King George V stamps were changed from the older printing method, called typography, to photogravure.
Photogravure remained the method used for low value definitives, including the first Machins in 1967 and the first decimal Machins in 1971.
In the late 1970s, the British Post Office decided that it should not depend on a single printer for all its low value Machins. In addition to long-time printer Harrison and Sons, two new firms started producing Machins. They were John Waddington, PLC and The House of Questa. Both of those companies printed Machins using lithography. A few years later, Walsall Security Print also started printing Machins by lithography.
The first lithographed Machins were pretty horrible. They were flat and lifeless compared to their photogravure siblings. Shown here are a lithographed 2p Machin printed by Questa in 1980 and a photogravure 2p Machin printed by Harrisons in 1971. I think you can easily tell that the lithographed Machin is on the left.
The technology improved, however. By 1988, the year in which the pane shown above was issued, the quality of the lithographed stamps was much better. However, it was still easy to distinguish a lithographed stamp from a photogravure one. (The pane is from the prestige booklet titled "The Story of the Financial Times." It was printed by Questa and issued on February 9, 1988. Another prestige booklet printed by lithography is shown by Roy here.)
After another five years, the difference in appearance between lithography and gravure stamps was minimal. (Around this time, the new enhanced gravure process, known as Electro-Mechanical Engraving, or EME, was introduced. This process is properly called 'gravure' rather than 'photogravure', since the photography step has been replaced by, what else?, a computer.)
In 1997, Royal Mail asked its printers to standardize on gravure and eliminate lithography, except for short print runs. The reason was the post office's old nemesis: counterfeiting. There are lots of lithographic presses in the U.K. and elsewhere, and it's easy to print phony stamps by that method. Gravure printing is much harder to do because there are only a few gravure presses.
The exception for short print runs is an acknowledgement that lithographic plates are less expensive to make. Gravure cylinders, however, last considerably longer than litho plates, so they are cost effective for stamps and panes that have large print runs.
I don't know if prestige booklet printing quantities have been shrinking, though I guess they have as the number of such booklets issued each year continues to increase.
In recent booklets, and the British Army Uniforms booklet to be issued on September 20, all the panes are printed by lithography except the pane containing Machins. So that Machin pane will be, for at least the foreseeable future, the last prestige booklet pane printed by gravure.
By the way, for some help in distinguishing stamps printed by lithography from those printed by gravure, visit Robin Harris' Machin site here and here.
UPDATE: There's more on printing methods here.