A Beginners Guide to Screen Printing

There are a limited number of artistic activities around today that are as fun, and at the same time as challenging, as screen printing / silk screening. Screen printing requires a screen secured in either an aluminum or wooden frame, a screen printing press, a stencil, and inks in order to print your image onto your desired medium. Most screen printing set ups cost thousands of dollars for multi-arm presses and all of the required chemicals and inks, but there are also several ways to screen print on the cheap from your home.

When it comes to screen printing, there are a few basic materials that are necessary to begin printing. First, there are the screens. A screen consists of a fabric mesh that is stretched out on a wooden or aluminum frame, and the tighter the mesh is stretched, the better details will show up on the print. To burn your image for printing onto the mesh, you will need a stencil made of film positive or a transparent material such as the transparencies used on school projectors, a container of emulsion fluid, and a container of sensitizer fluid. Next up you will need a piece of glass that will fit inside the frame to cover the mesh, a piece of dark cloth (preferably black as you need to block out all light), and a 250 watt photo bulb lamp. Gloves, a water supply such as a garden hose with spray nozzle or a sink, gloves, an art squeegee and the actual screen printing ink are all that is left to get you on your way to printing your own custom apparel.

Now, when it comes to the stencils, there is a huge difference between what could be a great design and what could be a terrible design when printed. Images with large areas of contrast, such as vector images, show up really well when printed, where as designs with a lot of detail that is all over the place make it harder to print. Also remember that the more complex the image and the more colorful it is makes it more expensive and harder to print said design.

So once you have your design planned out, now it comes down to actually making the screen to print. First thing you are going to want to do is make sure the screen is securely fashioned to the frame. If you purchased a pre-made screen and this is your first time using it, you shouldn’t have any problems with this. If you are more of a DIY person and made your own screen, make sure the screen is stretched tight and securely fastened to the frame. Print out your design to make your stencil. Now it’s time to burn the stencil to the screen. You are going to want to mix the emulsion and sensitizer together, and then applying the mixture to both sides of your screen in a dark room, as the emulsion is extremely sensitive to light. Take your art squeegee and even out the emulsion so that it is distributed evenly. Leave the emulsion covered screen in a dark room or box for about 2 hours and the emulsion should dry without hardening (making it much harder to clean the screen out). After the emulsion has dried on the screen, place the screen onto a dark / black cloth, and then place the stencil onto the frame and the glass on top of the stencil on the screen. What you are going to want to do now is expose only one side of the screen to your 250 watt photo bulb light source, which will allow the emulsion to dry in about fifteen to twenty minutes. Once the emulsion has successfully dried, remove the glass / stencil and rinse off the emulsion using your water source. After you have allowed the screen to dry, you are good to start using it to print. It is highly recommended to use a screen printing press, which you can build yourself if you are more DIY inclined, or you can buy a single press for cheap at a local arts store such as Michaels. Secure the screen to the press, or if you are not using a press then place the screen onto whatever medium you are wishing to print. Pour a good amount of ink onto the screen, and use your squeegee to evenly distribute the ink throughout the screen while applying a good amount of pressure. At first you will see spots that you missed and you will have to reapply more ink, but don’t worry – practice makes perfect in the screen printing game and you will eventually find a good way to apply the inks.

When you are done, lift the screen and you are all done. Your custom apparel is done. Depending on the types of ink you used, you may have to wait a bit of time before the ink dries. Put the freshly printed shirts on a flat counter top where no one or anything will hit them and allow them to dry. When you are done with all your printing, you can wash out the screen / frame and repeat the steps to reuse them as often as you would like!