Combining new and traditional techniques

Hannah Jordan
Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Surface Print lies in the small industrial village of Clayton-le-Moors just outside Accrington, Lancashire. Founded 30 years ago by John Watson, whose father and grandfather had both etched their careers in the wallpaper printing industry, the business now boasts a 70-strong workforce led by Watson’s children James and Abigail.

The company prides itself with “bringing wallpaper back into fashion” and is synonymous with high-end, luxury wallcoverings printed using traditional roller surface printing, a technique invented nearby in Lancashire in 1838, as a mechanised replacement for hand block printing.

The challenge

Seven years ago, as digital technology was ramping up its disruption of the print industry, Surface Print realised that times were changing in wall coverings, too. As a company that had grown over three decades to satisfy a market that wanted volume, it was now having to adapt to provide quality products for a market that no longer wanted to carry stock.

And so, in October 2013, the company invested in two HP wide -format digital devices: a 3.2m-wide HP Latex 3000 printer to enable it to make one-off and bespoke short-run digitally-printed wallpapers, and a 1.5m-wide Latex 260 printer for producing samples.

Since then, its digital division has grown to include three HP Latex 3000 models, the latest having been installed just before Christmas, and three HP LX570s. Its digital output has gone from strength to strength too, now accounting for around 20% of the company’s 1838 collection, a brand launched three years ago to add to its trade production workflow book and to further showcase its capabilities.

“Times were changing, volumes had been hugely reduced, predominantly because of cash flow,” says business development manager Jason Gilliat.

“Short-run used to be 250 rolls; now it’s 100 rolls for surface and flexo,” he continues. “The investment in printing a traditional collection is substantial. You have a roller per colour, which costs around £600 or £700. So on a 12-colour surface you have a huge investment before you even print a roll of paper.

“For the big players it’s not a problem, they’ve always worked that way. They’ve always printed thousands of rolls and carried them in stock but then digital came along and brought a whole load of new options and creative opportunities.”

Gilliat adds: “It can’t deliver that lovely textured, surface print mark but it can reduce the volumes. So even the big guys print in hundreds rather than thousands now, and it’s allowed little guys into the industry that could never have done it before.”

With a background in graphic design and digital printing, Gilliat joined Surface Print nine months ago from digital printing wallpaper specialist John Mark. The attraction, he says, was the firm’s reputation for its print mark using traditional processes and the opportunity to blur the boundaries of these processes with digital printing.

And it’s exactly this combining of new and old technologies that the company began pioneering around 18 months ago. “There are a few other players now that are producing digital commercially, such as Anstey, John Mark and Ivo, so we needed to do something that they don’t do or can’t do and that’s where the initial concept came from. You have to keep on top of the market and constantly come up with new ideas.”

The method

Gilliat says the potential to mix an old process with new was a very exciting brief for its designers.

“We can create full-colour digital backgrounds and then flock on top of it or we can make our own base product and then digitally print on top, for example. There are so many possibilities. Designers are always looking for what’s new and we’re telling them what we can do. And they’re saying: ‘Wow, we’ve not seen this before’.”

Gilliat says the fact that Surface Print works with some of the most desirable brands in the world is a fortunate position to be in when it comes to developing its new mixed- process portfolio.

“It’s a partnership. You put an idea in front of them and they will help us develop it based on what they want and what we can do. It’s a collaboration rather than us developing these things alone and perhaps getting them wrong. To communicate with designers and involve them in the selection process really helps develop creative products,” he says.

Building the mixed-process brief has also been a project of partnership and collaboration within the business, explains Gilliat, between creatives and technical specialists from both the traditional and digital disciplines, who are constantly experimenting with new ideas.

“Surface Print has a fabulous creative team and incredible traditional printing skill set, but digital is a very different animal.

“When I joined, I brought with me someone who had a very high technical skill set in the digital process. You need technicians from the signage industry that understand how the machines work rather than trying to adapt somebody that’s been used to working on the traditional machines,” he explains.

Gilliat says the success of the project has been down to how open-minded the staff have been and their ability to work together as a team. Its evolution, he explains, is an ongoing investment for the business that will continue to involve regular team meetings as well as close customer communication.

“Obviously it has its challenges but everyone wants it to succeed and creative people tend to embrace new ideas and processes,” he adds.

The result

He says developing the mixed-process designs has been a true team effort, combining skills across the workforce, and being passionately driven by the Watson siblings.

“We are so lucky to have a huge skill set that enables us do something that no one else can do.”

While its digitally printed wallpapers now make up around 20% of the 1838 collection, the mixed-process coverings are still in an embryonic stage, Gilliat says. Reception from the market has been extremely positive though, he adds, with a lot of curiosity thrown in.

“When we launched the new 1838 collection at Heimtextil in Germany this year, even though the show itself was pretty quiet, we had a stand full of people literally stroking our mixed-process samples. It was a funny one,” Gilliat chuckles. “They were really well received by the global distributors,” he adds.

“As a revenue stream, I think this is always going to be a niche product and it’s always going to be expensive, but it sets us apart. Wallpaper comes in and out of fashion but we aren’t affected by what happens on the mass market – the more disposable income that is around, the more demand for this type of product will grow.”

Looking ahead Gilliat says the business will unveil a new collection book this year showcasing more mixed process samples. He hints, too, that if growth in the digital arena continues apace, the business will likely add to its growing HP firepower this year, while it continues to work with the manufacturer, under NDA, on a new development. He remains tight-lipped on what may be, so watch this space.

“We work very closely with them to make sure their equipment can do what we need it to do and it is down to them and their development team to come up with new capabilities,” he explains.

“The ability to mix these processes has taken what we can do to the next level and so we need to keep pushing that,” Gilliat adds. “I think it’s essential to show our clients that when it comes to product innovation and development, we are at the forefront of it.”

Surface Print

Location Clayton-le-Moors, Lancashire

Inspection host Jason Gilliat, business development manager

Established 1990

Staff 70

Product list Wall coverings: surface, surflex, flexo, digital, flock, bead

Kit Traditional print: a wide range of devices for surface, surflex, flexo, flock, floxo and emboss processes that can print anything from one, four, six, nine and 12 colours as well as three, one-colour air knife grounder/coaters that provide an all-over base to the substrate before printing. Digital print: one HP LX3600, two HP LX3500s and two HP LX570 devices

Inspection focus Making the most of established and new tech to open a new revenue stream


“Don’t throw too much money at it,” advises Gilliat. “Dip your toe in the market first – that’s what we’ve done.” This is especially pertinent for smaller companies, he explains, but still applies to larger firms such as Surface Print, which has financial procedures in place that protect it from “anyone getting over excited and going to crazy on new experiments”. Assigning a product development budget that can help show off new capabilities to clients is a sensible part of those procedures, he adds

Talk to your customers and find out what they want, get their feedback on what you and others are doing and work with them to develop new ideas. There needs to be mutual respect and, of course, trust, says Gilliat

Making sure you employ truly creative staff is essential, according to Gilliat and that you have the right mix of skills across the business to create the magic. “We have some people who have been in the industry for a very long time, which has great benefits in that you can’t replace that kind of experience. But you also need new blood, new ideas and new creativity to push the boundaries.”


© MA Business Limited 2020. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .