Behind the Scenes at The Queen’s Printers of Choice, Barnard & Westwood

Hugh Thomas
metal stamp

Tucked away in the most nondescript of side streets in Bloomsbury is a relatively small warehouse that one would struggle to recognise as an establishment with high esteem. For something with such an everyday, run-of-the-mill appearance, the fact it is home to two Royal Warrants is surprising.

As I was about to find out, that’s exactly what sets Barnard & Westwood apart, as it’s the tactile nature of their stationery that’s valued above all else. Shop aesthetics and location are needless when the luxury is in the detail. The company exists in an industry that puts the product first and foremost, which might be why the name is often be printed next to the coats of arms of both Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. Incidentally, with the confidentiality agreements with the Royal Family and other high-profile projects, it’s probably a good idea to have Barnard & Westwood’s operations kept as surreptitious as possible anyway.

In some ways, this modesty is what has got Barnard & Westwood to the place where it is now. Upon my visit, the company had started looking into creating more of a high street presence with their stationery, but throughout their 90-year history, Barnard & Westwood have been more accustomed to carrying everything out in-house, from the customer’s first consultation to the printing of the final article.

It becomes apparent that this process is a sensory one. While there’s the option to create, for example, event invitations with an online design tool on the website, this can hardly be described as an ‘experience’. Visiting the workshop, you are able to feel the textures of various papers, see the true clarity and depth of colour in die-stamp printing, smell the freshly-laid ink, and hear the click-clack of the 80-year old printing presses.

In doing so, one also gets an idea of the sheer perfectionism instilled in the manufacture of Barnard & Westwood’s products. The men and women working here are all experts in their respective fields – those manning the presses especially.

die stamping machine

Despite many modern advances in the field of digital printing there appears to be something of a revival in more traditional craft-based printing and bookbinding. One of the techniques that Barnard & Westwood is renowned for is die-stamping. A very traditional technique whereby text or patterns are etched into a metal block, which is then attached to the moving arm of a die stamping press and through a combination of pressure and ink transfers the raised image onto the desired paper.

Apparently, there are only a handful of people in the UK who still have the skills required to service die-stamping presses, as the pool of companies able to provide this highly skilled printing service becomes narrower and narrower. Though there are some impressive developments in areas such as 3D printing, contemporary methods will, for the foreseeable, never come close to the detail that can be produced with a 1930s die-stamping press.

Barnard & Westwood

Having said that, Barnard & Westwood have recently entered into the world of ultra-high quality photographic printing through collaboration with another British company, LumeJet. At the very cutting edge of its field, the new LumeJet S200 is capable of producing impressive photographic prints and lay-flat books by exposing images onto specially treated silver-halide photographic paper using LED light. This revolutionary technology allows Barnard & Westwood to combine both traditional and modern printing to create a truly memorable print.

The fact that Barnard & Westwood continues to earn recognition from companies and institutions including the Royal Family, Möet Hennessy, Design Musuem, Vivienne Westwood, Linley, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey to name but a few is living proof that traditional methods of printing are here to stay.

However, one of the major challenges facing the industry today is finding the next generation keen to learn the skills required and absorb the abundance of knowledge from the existing printers’ experience. As a result, the company places a lot of emphasis on their apprenticeships and training schemes. Barnard & Westwood know that the machinery will always be there, it’s just whether the skills to work with them are.

 
 

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