Making Merch - Screen Printing for Under $100
When I first started screen printing shirts for my band to sell at shows, the amount of information I found online was daunting and sometimes confusing. The following article is a simple tutorial and supply list to get you started on your first screen printing job for under $100. Here are two examples of shirts made with these same supplies...
The supplies chosen are what I used for my first successful job. These aren’t the only options out there, but I find they are the best for beginners. (By using the links below to purchase these items, you'll be directly supporting this blog)
Step 1 - Design and Transparency
The first thing you need is a design. If you already have a logo, make sure it’s a simple, one-color logo with not too much fine detail. Your design needs to look good printed on a normal piece of paper in black ink. If you just want the shirt to have a saying, that kind of graphic can easily be created in word processing software such as Microsoft Word. You need two 8.5 by 11 inch transparencies to print on, but I recommend buying more just in case you make a mistake. Print your design onto your transparency in black, and make two copies.
- If you have an inkjet printer like I do, make sure you use inkjet transparencies.
- If not, you’ll need to buy special transparencies for your laser printer.
- If you don’t have a printer at all, you can get your transparencies printed at a local FedEx or UPS store.
Once you have your two copies, line them up on a flat surface and tape the edges together with clear tape. If the images aren’t perfectly lined up, the edges will end up blurry on your shirt, so be extra careful with this step. To check the alignment, lay a flat sheet of glass on top of the transparencies.
Note: If you’d rather hand-draw or trace your design, you can buy write-on transparencies. You don’t need two copies for this method. Just make sure that your design is drawn on dark using a black sharpie.
Step 2 - Emulsification
Mix your emulsion according to the instructions on the bottle. You have to let it sit for at least an hour before you can use it. Once it’s ready, lay out your silk screen frame on a flat surface with the mesh side facing up. I like to put down a sheet of newspaper or cardboard so I don’t get the table messy. Use a spoon to put a little bit of emulsion onto the screen, and use your squeegee to begin covering the entire surface with emulsion. You can flip the screen back and forth and continue using the squeegee on both sides until it’s spread out evenly, but don’t let the actual screen touch anything but the squeegee. Once you have a thin layer of emulsion that covers the screen, put it in a drawer (mesh up) or another dark place for 24 hours. It needs to be completely dark wherever you put it because the emulsion will harden when exposed to light.
Step 3 - Burning the Screen
In a room that’s capable of being dark, screw your photo bulb into the clamp light and clamp it about two feet above a flat surface. I clamp mine onto a dresser drawer a couple of feet above the floor. Aim the light at the floor, and lay a dark piece of cloth or paper directly below the light (I use a black towel usually). Make sure you have your printed transparency and sheet of glass ready.
Once all of that is prepared, make sure the room is mostly dark. It’s okay to let just enough light leak into the room so you can see, but don’t let any light directly hit your work area. Grab your emulsified screen, and lay it mesh side up on the dark cloth. If you’re carrying it from a different room, I recommend covering it with a towel to minimize its contact with light. After your screen is centered underneath the clamp light, lay down your transparency so that the design sits in the middle of the screen. Make sure that the design is reversed! Otherwise, it will be backward once you flip the screen back over. When you’re satisfied with the alignment, lay a piece of glass over the transparency or use clear tape to make sure the transparency is pressed flat against the screen. Flip on the photo light and set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t turn on any other lights in the room just yet.
Note: Exposure times vary depending on what brand of emulsion you use, the wattage of your light bulb, and the distance the light is from the screen. Consult the instructions on the emulsion packaging for more details.
Step 4 - Rinsing the Screen
When your timer is done, turn off the light, remove the piece of glass and transparency, and quickly bring the screen somewhere with running water (I use the bathtub). It’s important to keep light from directly hitting the screen until you get it wet. While rinsing the screen under running water, you can gently rub your fingers on it to help the loose emulsion come out. Rinse until your entire stencil is visible. You should only see mesh inside your design, so hold it up to a light to make sure everything has washed out.
Step 5 - Taping the Screen
Let the screen air dry (or blow dry it if you’re in a hurry), then use masking tape to cover any empty spaces. I generally tape around the entire edge of the frame and then hold the screen up to a light source to look for “pin holes,” taping over those as well.
Step 6 - Printing
Lay a shirt out on a table, and flatten it out with your hands. Place your screen on the shirt so that the design is where you want it, then have a friend hold the screen down tightly against the shirt. Use a spoon to spread some ink along one end of the screen next to your design.
With your squeegee, use gentle pressure to spread the ink across your whole design. This is called flooding. Once the design is flooded, go over it again with the squeegee, this time applying more pressure. It may take two or three passes to find the right amount of pressure. Essentially you're trying to push the ink through the mesh and into your shirt. Make sure there are no blobs of ink sitting on your design before you pull the screen off. Extra ink can fall through and compromise your finished product.
Hold the shirt down and remove the screen to reveal your printed design. Repeat this step for each additional shirt. When you’re done printing, rinse the screen thoroughly until all the ink is out of it, so you can re-use it at a later time. Let the shirts dry for about an hour before you touch them.
Step 7 - Clean Up
When you're done printing, remove the tape from the screen. Rinse the screen and the squeegee under warm water until all the ink is removed. Let the screen air dry. You can tape it use it again for hundreds of prints in the future.
Not Confident In Your Abilities?
Doing it yourself isn't for everyone. Luckily, I offer screen printing services.