What is Screen Printing?
The screen printing process is a versatile printmaking technique that allows you to quickly stencil the same design on multiple items such as clothing e.g. DIY T-shirt printing at home or screen printing a poster.
Ink is transferred using a synthetic mesh stretched across a frame and a stencil is created by blocking off a negative image of the desired design (ink goes where the open spaces are). This screen printing process guide will walk you through how to screen print at home, even if you are a complete beginner!
Read the list below to see the basics of the screen printing process and what is contained in this guide.
|1.||Decide whether you are printing on paper or textiles|
|2.||Prepare you screen for printing|
|3.||Create and plan out your chosen design|
|4.||Exposing your screen|
|5.||Printing your design|
|6.||Clean up equipment|
Help Improve This Screen Printing Guide!
You can checkout the Reddit Printmaking Forum for more ideas and information. Feel free to message me on Reddit or through the contact form to contribute & improve this guide. You can also check the comments at the bottom of the guide.
Paper VS Textile Screen Printing
There are pros and cons for printing on paper and textiles, each of them have their own uses which are case dependent on what you want to create/produce. For the purpose of this guide we will be covering textile printing on t-shirts, however, this process can also easily be used for paper printing. Throughout the screen printing guide I’ll recommend alternative materials where there are any changes in the technique for paper/textiles.
Screen Printing Paper
Paper screen printing can be used to create posters and large format artworks. It enables you to produce multiple copies of the same artwork, with the potential to make each with their own character so no print is the same! This can be achieved by trying different coloured inks or papers.
Screen printing on paper is often used to create: fine artworks, business stationery, packaging and a variety of marketing materials. You’ll be surprised to know that a lot of products and things around you are in fact screenprinted!
Screen Printing Textiles
Textile screenprint is great for creating t-shirts which this guide covers, but you can also screenprint other materials and garments such as bed sheets, tea towels, tote bags, and socks to give your least favorite family member at Christmas.
Dependent on what you want your finish to be you can use a variety of inks and methods to create your final garment which will be worn by millions of people around the world MIC DROP.
Types Of Mesh For Screen Printing
When you screen print on paper/textiles you have to use a different mesh to restrict the amount of ink that is pushed through the mesh/screen onto the substrate. With textiles printing you need to allow more ink to come through the mesh, as the garment has to absorb the ink.
Whereas on paper you don’t need as much ink to absorb into the substrate, so you use a tighter mesh. Mesh counts can be found on the table below and go up in units of “T” which stands for “threads per inch”.
Textile Screen Printing Mesh
If you’re screen printing on textiles you will probably be printing t-shirts. So ask yourself, will you wear this t-shirt? Or is it just for fun? Because if it’s just for fun, leave, leave now … this isn’t for you.
When screen printing on textiles you need to use a lower mesh count, as this is to allow more ink to print onto the garment. I would advise using a 43T mesh if you are screen printing on T-shirts, this mesh count is a standard with most T-shirt screen printers.
You may also find that you need a higher or lower mesh count dependent on the material that your printing onto or the inks you print with. For this guide, we don’t have to worry, be happy, we’re a little bit more chilled-out around here and WE will be using 43T mesh.
Paper Screen Printing Mesh
On the other hand, when screen printing on paper you’ll have to use a higher mesh count. A safe bet is to use a minimum of 90T screen but I would advise a 120T mesh from personal experience, as it allows you to get higher detailed artwork or image.
Please refer to the table below for an idea of what materials are best suited for the screens, paper and card.
Table Of Mesh Counts & Uses
The information in the table below was taken from Wicked Printing Stuff Mesh Guides, this has been a great guide for me over the years.
|Beach Towels, Pennant Inks, Glitter Inks, Thicker Inks|
|Textile Inks, Opaque Inks Textile, T-shirts|
|Textile Inks, Finer Textile Design, Water Based Inks|
|Enamel Inks, Very Fine Textile In Or Coarse Plastisol Ink Printing|
|77T||Paper & Board Inks, & Textile|
|Vinyl Inks, Plastic Inks, Plastisol Inks, Solvent Based, Paper & Board|
|Halftone Printing, Paper & Board Vinyl Plastic, Plastisol Etc|
|U.V Printing, Or Very Fine Halftone Work, Solvent Inks|
Types Of Inks For Screen Printing
You can use a variety of inks when screen printing. The main two you’ll come across are water-based and plastisol inks. This guide will cover the use of water-based inks. However, with some more research, you can use this guide with plastisol inks as the process is the same.
Water-based Screen Printing Inks
Water based screen printing ink is more environmentally friendly and is advised for beginners and home use. It is available to purchase from your local Hobby Craft. I’d advise using system 3 screen printing inks to start with. You’ll find that with most water-based screen printing inks you’ll have to mix them with printing medium and some water. This is to stop the inks drying in the screen mesh and also control how dense the ink is.
With some water-based inks you will find they are pre-mixed, this is case dependent on who you purchase from. With water-based inks, they can be air-dried on the garment and on paper. You may need to heat the ink on the textile/garment with an iron or heat gun to help cure the ink and seal it into the garment, making it machine-washable.
This is a very important step or you’ll have a lot of angry customers with a one-coloured wardrobe. Water-based inks can be washed away with water and a cloth, with no chemicals needed.
Water-based inks are also thinner than plastisol inks, it may be required to print an underbase of white on dark garments. On light garments printing should be fine.
Plastisol inks on the other hand require a lot more work because they have to be cured under a heat lamp/flash dryer to cure the inks otherwise the ink does not dry. They also require solvents to clean up the inks after printing, which are not environmentally friendly. The inks contain plastic particles which is the reason they have to be heated up and melted with a flash dryer to cure them.
However, some key benefits are having longer-lasting inks and inks that are a lot more vibrant and colourful on all garments, regardless of the colour. It is advised to only use plastisol on textiles and garments.
|Pros of Plastisol Based Inks||Cons of Plastisol Based Inks|
|Designed for textile printing||Cant be cured on paper|
|Colour consistency||Have to be cured using flash dryer|
|Colour density||Not Eco friendly (Contain plastic)|
|Can easily be matched to Pantone Colour||Concern for health after long time using plastisol|
|Inks do not dry on screen||Chemicals have to be used for cleaning|
|Pros of Water Based Inks||Cons of Water Based Inks|
|Cleaned easily with water||Dry in screen quickly unless using retarder|
|Can use hairdryer to seal inks||Hard to match pantone colour after ink has dried|
|Can be used on paper||Ink can look washed out on darker textile/material|
|Eco friendly to some extent|
|Easy to use for beginners|
For the purpose of this tutorial we shall be working with water based screen printing inks as they are more accessible for beginners to use.
Squeegees For Screen Printing
There are a variety of squeegee blades that you can use for screen printing, some are demonstrated in the image above or below (I haven’t decided yet). This guide covers 90 degree squared blade, which is best for both textile and paper printing. You can check out this squeegee blade guide from Anatol for further information.
Lights For Screen Printing Exposure
Exposure lights are one of the key tools for screen printing, without them you cannot expose your screens and all your efforts would be in vein. However, with the right lights, you can expose your screens, as an alternative you can expose your screens under natural sunlight.
You can either purchase a UV exposure kit/unit which can be quite expensive or you can buy a cheap 1000wat halogen light on eBay and build your own which I have pictures of below. You must be very careful with self-built exposure lights as there is always a fire risk when using these, please don’t leave them unattended.
The units I have built with 1000wat halogen flood lights have been made with the light at about 15 inches away from the screen. A safe bet for exposure time of your screens is around about 4 minutes, this can vary dependent on your setup so you will need to experiment. Please refer to the table below which has a rough idea of different heights and lights.
Two other key points when exposing your screens before printing:
- Place a blacked-out material that sits under the screen and fits the inner edges of the screen frame and pushed very tightly on the underside of the screen mesh.
- Place a sheet of glass on top of the screen roughly the same size as the outer edge of the screen frame where you put your film positive to create a seal.
An example of this is a sheet of wood with black foam stuck to it, bare in mind the heat produced from the light may warp the foam. This is to make sure the artwork does not move when you expose your screen, otherwise, this may cause ghosting. This will be covered in more detail in the steps below.
Films & Positives For Screen Printing Exposure
There are multiple ways you can create your positive for you screen printing which basically allows the design to be exposed on the screen. When setting up your artwork any lines of blocks of colour will make up the film positives.
You can print these onto transparency paper, however, when printing onto transparencies you need to make sure the ink/toner of the positive is very dense so no light can get through. It’s advisable to use a toner printer to achieve this or seek out a printing firm who may be able to advise you on this.
Remember to align your film positives before printing if using multiple colours and ensure that the black/key layer overlaps all other colour layers with a slight bleed. Also, remember to mirror or reverse the film positive when laying it onto the screen. Use registration marks in the corners as well to align when printing. The following article on Preparing Artwork for Screen Printing in Adobe Illustrator by Smashing Magazine.
Area/Setup For Screen Printing
There are a number of options depending on your budget and requirements. You can either buy your own screen printing carousel for t-shirt printing or buy a vacuum bed for paper printing, however, these can cost a lot of money unless you find a good deal online.
Alternatively, you could build your own screen printing bench or carousel or buy speedball screen printing clamps. Check out the plans on building a 4 colour screen printing press.
Personally I have tried both, building my own setup from self-sourced materials and later purchasing equipment. When starting out I would advise building a simple setup to see if you enjoy it as much as I do! Then later down the line, if you decide you do want to explore screen printing and want to commit to preparing a more permanent advanced setup on a regular-use basis you can purchase a setup online, or potentially find a good deal on eBay, as I did.
As an example, I spent £500 on a second-hand Wicked Printing Stuff 8-colour screen printing carousel. Then I spent £100 on the therapy for spending that much. Then another £100 on a 10 foot by 8-foot screen printing vacuum bed.
Tools & Materials For Screen Printing
You will need the following items before you start screen printing at home – check out Cat Spit Productions for an idea of different setups.
|Screens (43T for Textiles/90T+ for Paper)||Hunt The Moon | Ebay|
|Scoop/Trough (for coating screen with emulsion)||Wicked Printing Stuff|
|Screen Print Desk Clamps||Art 2 Silkscreen | Hunt The Moon|
|Sheet of Glass (same size as screen frame size)||Find Local Glass Manufacturer|
|Exposure Unit/1000w Light Rig (I made one at home to start with)||Ebay ||
|Pressure Washer/High Powered Hose|
|Washout Booth/Area (for cleaning up)|
|Hair Dryer (for textile printing)|
|Azocol Z1 (Emulsion)|
|Paper Towel/Brillo Pads/Blue Roll|
The Screen Printing Process Step by Step
Step 1 - Decide What to Print On
Firstly, you will need to decide whether you want to print on paper or textiles, as this will determine the type of screen you use (more details below):
Tips for deciding:
- For printing on textiles (why not try DIY T-Shirt printing at home) you’ll need to use a screen with a low mesh count of around 43T to allow more ink to pass through to the material you are printing onto
- For printing on paper you’ll need to use a screen with a mesh count of at least 90t − I use 120t for my own projects
- Mesh size indicates how many threads of mesh cross each square inch; higher mesh count = finer mesh and lower mesh count = coarser mesh
Step 2 – Preparing Your Screen
De-grease your screen to make sure the emulsion stays on the mesh, using pregan NT9 degreasing agent.
Tips for de-greasing your screen:
- Clean thoroughly using a sponge, wear some gloves
- Wear goggles to make sure no chemicals get in your eyes
- Rinse the screen to make sure there is no residue of the de-greaser left over
- Dry with towel/rags and leave in dust free area
The next part of the screen print at home process needs to happen in a dark/dim lit room (during the evening is safest!) because emulsion is sensitive to UV light.
Tips for coating your screen:
- Pour the emulsion into a trough/scoop and apply to the screen at a 45 degree angle, starting at the bottom and working upwards making sure there is an even coating
- Then move your screen into an upright position and capture any excess emulsion with your scoop
- Leave the screen to dry horizontally on a level surface in the darkened room
- Make sure the area is as dust-free as possible, as dust can contaminate the drying emulsion, potentially ruining later exposure of design
Step 3 – Design and Planning For Screen Printing
Now for the creative part of the screen printing process. You can create your screen print design by hand, but it’s much easier to use your PC (e.g. Photoshop). Check out this preparing artwork for screen printing in Adobe Illustrator guide.
All designs should be printed onto transparency paper and be opaque, use a toner printer for this or contact a professional printer.
Tips for planning your design
- Your design should be slightly smaller than your pre-prepared screen and only use a maximum of 3 colours as it will need separating into individual layers per colour
- Lighter colours should be overlapped by darker layers
- You will need to include registration marks on your design to help to align the layers during printing, refer to this Youtube video on registering your screens
- Once you are happy with your design, print it out (using the highest quality print settings) on the rough side of transparent film (I find low weight/gram tracing paper also works well)
- The design on the film needs to be opaque so no light reaches the emulsion. Make sure you let it dry properly!
Step 4 - Exposing Your Screens
Now your design is ready for exposure onto the emulsion so it’s back to your dimly-lit room and your screen coated with now-dried emulsion. You need to lay your design which is printed on film/transparency paper on top of the screen & then expose to light. My setup with a 1000w light takes about 4 minutes of exposure. Once exposed you have to use a jet wash and clean out the emulsion that has not been exposed.
Tips for exposing screens
- Place a block of blacked-out material underneath the mesh area of your screen, snugly place your design on top of the mesh side, then position a sheet of glass on top to create a flat surface with no gaps
- The exposure time needed will vary depending on how far your screen is from the light and how powerful the light is (wattage) Use the charts provided or follow the next tip
- Using a 1000w light that is about 15 inches away from the screen, expose for about a minute, then turn the light off
Information for the 2 charts taken from:Wikibooks Screen Printing
With a 150W Bulb, Clear Incandescent
|Screen Size||Bulb Height||Exposure Time|
|8"x10"||12 Inches||45 Minutes|
|10"x14"||12 Inches||45 Minutes|
|12"x18"||15 Inches||1 hr. 14 Minutes|
|16"x20"||17 Inches||1 hr. 32 Minutes|
|18"x20"||17 Inches||1 hr. 32 Minutes|
With a BBA No. 1 Photoflood (250 watts)
|Screen Size||Bulb Height||Exposure Time|
|8"x10"||12 Inches||10 Minutes|
|10"x14"||12 Inches||10 Minutes|
|12"x18"||15 Inches||16 Minutes|
|16"x20"||17 Inches||20 Minutes|
|18"x20"||17 Inches||20 Minutes|
Tips for exposing screens
- The light makes the emulsion harden and bind to the fabric so where your black image is placed, the light is blocked, and the emulsion remains water-soluble
- You can fine-tune the timing with practice; see here for guidance: Hunt The Moon Exposure Times
- Avoid direct sunlight during this part of the screen printing process as it will expose the design you just burnt onto the screen
- Next, spray down the screen with water (the pressure washer comes in handy here), washing off the non-bound emulsion where your image was positioned; this clear area is where ink will be pressed through the screen when you print
Step 5 - Screen Printing Your Design
Now you are ready to print! Lay the screen on your t shirt/other fabric/paper/screen print poster, spread ink on the inside of the screen, and press the ink through the screen. You can use a spray bottle filled with water to help prevent your ink from drying up. Now let your design dry - you can speed up the process with a hairdryer on textiles.
Tips for screen printing
- Try to avoid any movement that could result in smudging
- Remove the paper from your lino cut slowly and carefully to reveal your design
- Make sure you let your print dry thoroughly
- Leave some excess space to tape the edge of the paper to reduce movement
- If you have white showing through the ink, apply more ink to the plate and some more pressure!
- You can re-use your linocut by applying more ink
Step 6 - Clean Up
If you want to re-use your design, you can clean your screen by washing away the ink with water and a scrubby pad. If you want to remove your design completely you can soak your screen for a couple of minutes in emulsion remover Pregasol F, then use a scrubby pad to remove the design. I hope you enjoyed screen printing at home; the screen printing process is now complete!
Screen Printing is such a wonderful thing. Now you know the basics for screen printing make sure you use your skills wisely, as with great skills, comes great responsibility.