Left side advert image
Right side advert image
Super banner advert image
Subscribe to Print Monthly's RSS feed

Enter your email address here to sign up for our weekly newsletter

Ahead of the Curve

Surface Print

With over 100 years of family history, Surface Print has its roots firmly established in wallpaper printing. Carys Evans spoke to managing director James Watson about the company

Article picture

(L to R) Abigail and James Watson with Steven Collinson of Emerson and Renwick

A century of family history  

Founded in 1990 by John Watson, wallpaper printing company Surface Print is a family-run business now being headed by Watson’s son James and daughter Abigail. John is currently serving as the company’s chairman.

John Watson has been in the wallpaper industry his whole career and amassed 65 years in the industry. With James and Abigail running the business today, the family’s history with wallpaper printing goes back 134 years to their great grandfather Walter Watson who joined Crown Wallpaper in Darwen over a century ago in 1888 as a trainee and quickly became managing director.

Surface Print is now located just ten minutes away from Darwen, where the first ever wallpaper printing technique is said to have been pioneered in 1838.

Surface Print’s Clarice Jet wallpaper being produced at the company’s Accrington-based factory 

Today, Surface Print has 65 members of staff and operates out of a 55,000sq ft site with an annual turnover of £8m. According to James Watson, the company aims to be the highest quality, most innovative wallpaper manufacturer in the world. One key factor of the family business is that the staff are treated like part of the family with a number having been employed for over 20 years.

Survival of the fittest

Having been in operation for over three decades, Watson says the first ten years of business was difficult for the wallpaper industry. “It was literally survival of the fittest but since 2000 and the introduction of ‘paste the wall’ substrates the industry has gone from strength to strength,” Watson explains.

It was literally survival of the fittest but since 2000 and the introduction of ‘paste the wall’ substrates the industry has gone from strength to strength

In 2005 the company invested in a flock machine and whilst flock was popular in clothing, Watson says there were no flock printing machines in the world at the time. “We soon had a six-month order book for flock wallpaper, and we like to say we brought it back!” Watson adds.

Today, Surface Print uses a wide range of techniques such as Sur-flex, Flexo, Flock, Surface, Beads, and Emboss. It also offers the latest technologies in digital printing and innovative developments such as Cork, Holographic Foil, Textile bases, and specialist inks such as Grits.

Many of the company’s methods are also done in a way that poses minimal risk to the environment such as using non wovens that are FSC certified. Surface also uses acrylic inks which are water based, non-toxic, and low in VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds). In addition to this, the company sources all of its electricity from renewable resources which makes it exempt to The Climate Change Levy.

The company has continued to grow and recently invested over £2m in a bespoke six-colour press hybrid printing machine with both rotary screen and gravure capabilities. This investment comes after an increase in orders throughout 2021 due to the popularity of wallpaper and home decorating that rose during the pandemic.

Surface Print approached Emerson and Renwick to produce the machine due to its highly specialised and bespoke design. With a vast amount of knowledge in high-tech machinery of this type and located near to Surface Print, the company was an obvious choice.

On track to be installed in June this year, the machine will cost £2m to design, build, and commission with a six-month lead time due to the complex capabilities of the machine. In line with the investment, Surface Print plans to recruit an additional ten employees to help operate the machine.

Watson says: “We’ve had a good relationship with Emerson and Renwick for a while. We met through the Amazing Accrington business leaders group and we’ve also bought some smaller pieces from them before.

“We knew we wouldn’t need to go any further for such an important investment, they have been amazing on service and quality, and we’re all looking forward to getting the new machine installed and commissioned.”

In addition to the custom-built machine, Surface Print has also invested in a new roof over the print room and a new digital winder.

High level of craftmanship

In terms of the day-to-day running of the business, Watson describes the company as highly professional, organised, and exciting. Surface Print supplies to all high-end interior brands from the UK and around the world with 40% of the business being export. Prints go to China, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand and over 50 countries around the world. “Our wallpaper can be found in Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, and the White House amongst others!” Watson adds.

For Watson, being able to create beautiful designs every day that will eventually bring happiness to a consumer once it’s hung on their walls is his favourite thing about the company. The level of craftmanship and flexibility within Surface Print’s workforce is also something he is most proud of.

Over the last 30 years Surface has been in business, the industry has had to navigate a recession, Brexit, a global pandemic, and now supply shortages and logistics issues. For Watson, the last year has seen severe raw material price increases. During the pandemic, the business managed to stay open apart from a three-week period during the first lockdown, and kept all its staff.

With the government ordering us to stay at home, there was a spike in home decoration and investments into interiors as we strove to make our spaces as enjoyable as possible. With the elimination of commutes and other expenses such as eating out and going on holiday, many found themselves with more of a budget to make home improvements that they perhaps would have otherwise put off.

This was reflected in the running of Surface Print and Watson says: “Covid-19 was beneficial for the wallpaper industry as people were at home furloughed or working from home and not going on holiday, so they had money to spend on renovating their houses. I hear four in five households attempted a DIY project during Covid-19!”