Best printer in Chicago: a tour

Since I was little, I’ve loved visiting my dad’s print shop. The smell of ink, the shiny wooden floors of the plant, the friendly receptionists in front, the phone lines and job boards and copy machines. Neat stack after neat stack of projects in various stages. I was fascinated learning how the projects moved from illustration boards (back then) to film to metal plate to huge printing presses, through the proofing, drying, folding, and stitching and back to the?salesperson and client for hand inspection.

Located just outside Chicago, the company was known as Unique Printers & Lithographers for all my childhood and is now called Active. They are a sheet-fed offset printer doing top-notch work for designers and companies across the U.S. They also have a digital print division for smaller jobs. My dad, John O’Halloran, has worked there for 41 years as a salesman. As he explains, “I work for the family business—it’s just not my family.”

In December, Dad gave my husband and me a tour of the shop on a slow post-holiday Friday. Come along, and we’ll show you a few things. First stop, and simultaneously the most mesmerizing and most terrifying (to the untrained eye) job: the guillotine operator. This machine precisely cuts many inches’ worth of paper and is operated by foot pedal and digital controls.


Dad looks at a plate after it comes off the plateburner. A plate is made for each color (CMYK and whatever spot colors or varnishes are specified) and then fitted onto a roller on the press.



Prepping a job for folding



Spools of wire for the saddle stitcher. You know those little “staples” you find in the center of catalogs? This is the machine that sets them there.




Special inks for special clients.



Apparently, Dad and I got animated while trying to explain the operations of an 8-color press. It’s exciting!


Admiring finished jobs in the client approval room. This is a small lounge where clients approve proofs and wait for adjustments to be made.


Another reason to love Dad’s workplace is its proximity to Freddy’s, where we retired for a delicious Italian lunch. Thanks to Dad for the tour and to Dave for the photos. You can learn more about Active here: Tell them I sent you!