What type of printer are you? Marshall Atkinson breaks down the different characters found in print shops and what they bring to a business

T-shirts. There they are. Stacked up on that cart. Or maybe you prefer a table. Dozens of them. Hundreds. Thousands, maybe. And there are even more still in the boxes. What’s that beeping sound? It’s the sound of the UPS truck backing up, delivering more boxes of T-shirts. It’s a tidal wave of cotton. Okay, there’s some polyester in there too. But what all of these blank T-shirts have in common is that they need decorating. And what every blank T-shirt also has in common is that it doesn’t care who does the printing.


Will it be Fred, the veteran manual printer? He worked for 16 years in this industry before even printing any T-shirts for your company. Your sales team calls him the maestro, and for good reason. He’s been printing for so long he can do it in his sleep.

One of the great things about watching Fred work is that his moves are similar to a dancer. Every action is choreographed and measured. There isn’t any wasted motion. Every tool Fred uses is within an arm’s reach. His feet rarely shift, but when they do it is only a sidestep or two.

He can churn through an amazing number of small orders and constantly has to be refreshed with new screens, inks and T-shirts. On most days, he will produce between 25 to 40 orders. He’s a machine. Which is why Fred is the highest paid production worker on the floor.

Fred sets up and registers screens with blistering speed, usually about two minutes per screen on average. He has almost zero downtime. Fred has such skill that he rarely makes a mistake.

To speed up the process, he can self-approve jobs. Getting the production manager over to review his work before the job is printed just slows him down. He’s earned that with his talent and attention to detail.

Rush orders are staged the night before for Fred so in the morning he can slam through them like a heated knife slicing through butter.

All the difficult jobs go to Fred. Two-ply nylon jackets that need the jacket clamp? Printing that yoga studio logo on the waistband of some stretchy pants? Your entry into the next Fespa T-shirt print contest? He does them all with a smile on his face.

So what makes Fred so much better?

Like a golf swing, it’s all technique. Fred has printed an untold number of T-shirts over the years. During that time, he’s mastered the art of the quick screen ink flood, coupled with the perfectly angled print stroke to match. He knows the secret is in controlling the squeegee angle and the pressure, and using his body in perfect balance like an athlete. He makes it look effortless. Sure, he’s got a grip that could crush walnuts, but the way he prints puts the perfect amount of leverage with his body so his arms aren’t the main force behind the stroke.

Each blank T-shirt starts off on the cart at exactly the right angle for him. He doesn’t even have to look when he’s loading a T-shirt, it’s all muscle memory. He loads each T-shirt on the platen with even hands and pulls back the T-shirt so the collar drapes off the front edge just so. The screen drops down. He prints an exact duplicate of the print stroke he has been using for decades. It ends with the perfect flood stroke on the screen as it lifts up in one motion.


Part of the secret to his output speed is having a good support team. The shop crew feeds him the next pile of orders, T-shirts, screens and ink. All he has to do is set up the job and print. Take down the job and start over with the next order. Set up. Print. Take down.

Rinse and repeat.


Billy, on the other hand, has been printing T-shirts for five years now. He isn’t quite as long in the tooth as Fred, but he thinks he does okay.

Billy runs an automatic press crew for the shop. He learned to print at another company in town and came on board for more money about six months ago. For him, that extra £0.25 an hour made enough of a difference to leave the company that trained him.

What he also brought was the bad habits from that other shop. This is just a career he backed into, and if someone offered him more money he would jump ship again. Or maybe go back into construction. “A job is a job, you know.”

His idea of success is all about speed. How fast can he possibly run the press? He tries to beat his output from the day before. The other shop he worked for was all about numbers. His ‘craft’ was drilled into him by a management team that barked orders all day like a dog. Okay quality was good enough.

Billy runs his press so fast that he misses boards. He also is constantly going through press puller assistants as they can’t keep up. After six months, he’s on number four. He doesn’t understand why the shop keeps hiring these ‘lazy’ people.

One big problem that the management team is constantly harping on with Billy is his overuse of spray tack. He doesn’t like to use a water-based adhesive that you card on or apply with a roller. “It slows me down.”

Consequently, he does what he wants. The management team usually looks the other way as they have orders to ship. Or maybe they are just too busy with other priorities.

That is until his new puller, in a desperate attempt to keep up, starts distorting the print on the T-shirt when he yanks it off the board. That circle print now looks like an egg.

Twelve or fifteen T-shirts go down the dryer belt before the catcher says anything. “Billy!” she yells. He can’t hear her. The earphones are in, volume cranked up to the max.

Eventually, the new puller grabs Billy by the shoulder and thumbs his attention to the catcher. Billy looks up with a scowl because the move breaks his rhythm. “What?” he growls.

By now, more T-shirts have been distorted and there are three foldovers on the belt. The puller just can’t keep up. Billy barely cares. It’s not like this is his money going down the dryer belt. He makes a mental note to talk to the production manager, Steve, after lunch about getting a new puller. “This new guy sucks,” he thinks to himself.


Rosie was one of the best catchers the shop had until last year. During that busy season, the shop’s second automatic printer broke his arm and couldn’t run the press while he was healing. Seeing an opening to make more money, she stepped up and volunteered to give it a try. Nobody else wanted to do it. The shop posted an ad online, which is how they eventually found Billy.

Steve spent some time with her on the basics of running the equipment and scheduled easier jobs for her for a while. In a few weeks time, she was already nearly matching the output of the other automatic press crew. Now a year later, she has proven herself. When Steve fi red Joe for constantly coming in late, Rosie became a solid choice.

What is interesting to Steve is that she works a lot like Fred. Calm and collected, with a steady rhythm. Billy seems to work in hyper-drive all day, and Rosie might appear to be moving in slow motion compared to his frantic rate. But that calmness harnesses focused determination.

Steve has noticed that Rosie’s daily output consistently delivers more than what is expected of her. Not to mention she has fantastic quality. Reviewing the production log data, her set-up times are about six minutes a screen now, and her downtime is usually low. She outperforms Billy three out of the five days of the week.

Rosie’s review is coming up soon, and Steve has been keeping a close eye on her work. She’s a rockstar. In fact, last week she was showing her catcher, Maria, how to load T-shirts on the press. She just took the initiative.

One problem that seems to be surfacing is the tension between Rosie and the new printer Billy. Evidently, Billy has been making comments about her in the break room. It is disguised as good-natured fun, but Steve can tell there is an undercurrent of jealousy or something. Maybe Billy feels threatened by Rosie’s success?

In the meantime, Steve makes it a point to work with Rosie more and give her more support.


Then there is Tom, the owner. Despite having a full plate running the company, Tom likes to come out on the production floor and print. He knows he should be working on sales or marketing, but ‘slinging ink’ keeps him grounded to the business.

He shows up early in the morning or stays late after the crew goes home. What makes him feel good is that he clears three to six orders a week off the schedule personally. Sixty or seventy hour weeks make him feel like he’s intensely working ‘in’ his business. Nobody has ever questioned if he should be working ‘on’ his business instead. Tom makes it known that ‘he’s the boss’. Nobody would dare question him. Tom cherry-picks the orders that he wants to work on. For the most part, they are either easier jobs or ones that he has sold.

He likes the way that Steve has organised the production floor, with jobs staged today that have to print tomorrow. But Tom sneaks in and grabs an order or two and gets to work. On several occasions, Tom has forgotten to mark the jobs produced in the system.

Once he misprinted a few Bella tri-blend T-shirts and grabbed three dozen from another order that wasn’t due to ship until next week. He finished the job he was printing but failed to purchase the replacement T-shirts.

The day simply got away from him.

Steve and the shipping/receiving manager Laurie spent hours trying to find the 36 T-shirts as they were checked in properly. They decided that someone on their team had stolen them. It wasn’t until Tom noticed them reviewing the security camera footage that he linked what he did with the problem. With a shrug of his shoulders, Tom dismissed their effort. “Sorry…”

He still feels that the few jobs he prints a week makes a difference. Just don’t ask Steve his opinion.

Your shop

In your shop, what stories could be told about who is printing the T-shirts? The ‘who’ in that equation can have an impact that may or may not be visible. Are you asking the right questions? The T-shirts don’t care who prints them, but your customer might.


Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.