Introduction: DIY T-shirt Screen Printing

This project came about because I wanted to create some t-shirts to be able to wear and represent my makerspace at Maker Faire Atlanta. I didn't want to pay the inflated prices online for just a few shirts, so I decided I could try to make my own screen prints. The process was relatively easy and turned out better than I expected.

In order to get started, I needed an image for the shirts. I took our makerspace logo and added a nifty maker-themed phrase, "What will you make today?", and our location and web site address. This yielded a nice yet simple shirt design. In order to print adult and youth sizes I decided to create two screens of different sizes. Trying to use one size for both just didn't look right in my samples. The main image is about 12 inches across for the adult sized shirts and about 9 inches across for the youth sized shirts. The design will be printed on the back of the shirts and I will also print a smaller image of the logo only, on the front breast pocket area of the shirt. The small logo is about 2.5 inches across.

Step 1: Creating the Frames

In order to create the screens for printing, I needed frames. I took the sizes for the images and then added a few inches of buffer space around them to come up with the frame sizes. The adult size frame is 16"x16", the youth frame is 12"x12" and the small frame is 7"x7". This should give me enough room to work with the images on the frames later and still have room to tape off the sides to prevent bleed through.

The frames were constructed with some scrap wood from my shop. The wood for the larger frames was from 2x2 stock (1.5"x1.5" nominal). This yields a heavy, sturdy frame with plenty of lip to contain the ink when printing. After measuring and cutting the pieces, I glued and screwed them together. Now they are ready to have the screen applied.

Step 2: Attaching the Screens

The screen material I'm using is 110 mesh fabric. I found about a yard of this fabric on eBay for less than $10. Cut a piece of fabric for each screen leaving enough overhang to wrap around the frames. I attached the screen fabric to the frames using a staple gun. This part is easier if you have another pair of hands helping, because you need to make sure the screen is applied under tension.

The easiest way I found to tension the screen is to pull it taut at the center of opposite sides of the frame and put one staple in the center of each side. Then rotate the frame 90 degrees and repeat. Now repeat that process expanding out from the center of each side and slowly work your way to the corners. By alternating sides and moving from the center out, you minimize the possibility of inconsistent tension in the screen. At the corners, just fold the screen as neatly as possible and staple down in place. Trim off any excess to the edge of the frame being careful to not cut or damage the screen surface.

Step 3: Preparing the Photo Emulsion

I used Speedball photo emulsion to create my screens. Follow the directions on the bottle for mixing the two bottles together to activate the photosensitive chemicals. These chemicals can be harmful to your skin so wear gloves. Once the photo emulsion is thoroughly mixed, use a squeegee to apply a smooth coat to your frames. You will need to alternate inside and outside of the frame to ensure an even, smooth coating. This was a very messy step. I was either applying too much emulsion, or pressing too much through the screen, or both. By the time I coated the third frame I was starting to get a better feel for how to apply it. Make sure you have papers or drop cloths down to protect against any spills.

After coating the screens, you need to place these in a dark place to dry. I placed mine on risers inside cardboard boxes that I could tape closed to keep light out. These need to stay in a dark place to prevent curing the photo emulsion.

Step 4: Setup Exposure Lighting

Since I had two large frames that would take a while to cure, I wanted to expose them simultaneously. To do this, I built a dual exposure rig using some scrap wood, a couple of short extension cords, light bulb adapters and foil casserole pans. I first screwed each foil pan, which will be my reflectors, to opposite ends of some scrap wood about three feet long. Then I hot glued the extension cords in the center of the pans and ran the cord to the center of the wood. I connected these to a powered extension cord using an adapter. The light bulb adapters were plugged into the extension cords in the center of each reflector pan. I used 150 watt bulbs to cure the photo emulsion. This entire rig was suspended above my work table using some sturdy twine. I tied off one side as well to anchor the rig and prevent it from drifting or spinning.

Step 5: Creating Transparency Masks

To transfer my image to the screens, I printed the designs on transparencies. My designs were larger than standard 8 1/2x11 paper so I had to split the images across several pages. I assembled the pages by aligning the overlapping images and held them in place with clear packing tape. On inspection of my transparencies, I was not confident that the light from my exposure rig would be blocked appropriately. I'm not sure if this is due to the quality of my laser printer, the transparency prints, or both. To solve this problem, I simply printed two sets of the transparencies and assembled them with two layers. I also touched up a couple of bare spots with a black permanent marker. This gave me a very opaque mask for the design.

Step 6: Curing the Emulsion

After the photo emulsion has dried on the screens in a dark place, you can go ahead an expose them to set the image on your screen. I placed the screens under my exposure rig and carefully centered and aligned the transparencies on the frames. Remember to place them backwards as this side of the frame will be next to the fabric when printing. I used pieces of glass from photo frames to hold the transparencies tightly on the frame while they were being exposed. For the frame sizes, light bulbs and distances I used, I had to cure these for about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Step 7: Washing Out the Frames

After the curing time has passed, you should see a color variation on the screen. The lighter shade is where the emulsion was blocked by the transparency print and did not sure. You can wash out these lighter areas with cool water. It will take a few minutes to the areas clear. It is best to use the spray nozzle from your sink to force out the uncured emulsion. Smaller detail areas may require a fine bristled brush or an old toothbrush to clear it away. Be careful on the small areas to make sure you don't scrub away cured material. Check your screen by looking through it towards a light source to make sure the image areas are clear and your edges are clean and clear.

Step 8: Taping the Frame

Now that your screen is prepared, you need to do one more step before printing. Wrap the entire frame in duct tape to prevent any of the printing ink to seep through gaps onto your material. Leave a little room around your image, but make sure all corners and crevices are covered. Overlap the tape onto the screen edges on both the front and back of the screen.

Step 9: Print Your Shirts!

Now your screen is ready to be used in printing shirts. Make sure you place a board or insert inside the shirt to avoid bleed through. Simply align the screen on the shirt and place some ink across the screen above your image. Using your squeegee, gently "butter" the ink across the image area the screen but do not press down on it yet. Once the image is covered, use your squeegee to scrape down the ink across the image as your "print" stroke. Re-position and repeat if your image is larger than your squeegee, as it was in my case. You can make additional strokes if you want to apply the ink thicker. But keep in mind that if you have small details, and you "print" stroke too many times, then you might have some bleed through in your print.

You can see from the images that these turned out great! I definitely learned a few things from the first couple of shirts. Alignment is very important, take your time. Don't over print because the bleed through can wash out detail from your image. Also, in general, even though great details are possible, a more simple design makes the process easier. My youth size screen has a few letters where the tiny bits of cured emulsion came off during cleaning, so they lose some detail on prints now.

Overall this was a very rewarding project. It cost somewhere around $50 in materials (not counting the t-shirts) to set these up. The bulk of that cost was due to the photo emulsion kit itself which was around $30. But the screen is reusable, just wash it clean with cool water when you finish printing. Blank shirts only cost a few dollars so this is a low cost, DIY way to make a really cool product.

Comments

author
bryanshore312 (author)2017-03-17

Very nice guide! I just started learning how to design t shirts, and all the necessary steps I learned from this guide:
http://www.coreldraw.com/en/pages/sell-t-shirts/

but I couldn't figure out the printing, so thanks a lot for the help! :)

author
lvitto (author)2017-01-14

We also did screen printing before but stopped it because we lack space for drying. Today we have our small t-shirt printing business using transfer paper and heat press. Sample of our product can be seen in my blog http://www.mamamelyn.com/2017/01/teen-titans-go-themed-cake-and-shirt.html

author
RaagS (author)2016-12-22

You said you lost some detail in some letters after washing it. How do I avoid that so the design stays the same after every wash??

author
dellinger (author)RaagS2016-12-22

The only suggestion I have would be to try to avoid excessively detailed elements in your design. The details I lost were because I had used a very intricate font with very tiny trace lines. That left very small areas of ink that will be more likely to wear or wash away. Other than that, make sure you get decent ink coverage and sufficiently heat set the ink to avoid degradation. This has been a while now and the designs printed in this instructable have held up just as well as any commercially printed shirts that I own.

author
MRX2099 (author)2016-12-12

Hi great instructable, is there any mesh fabric at say Wal-mart that one could use, or at a fabric store, as long as it is a mesh with real fine holes? without having to order offline? Jeff

author
dellinger (author)MRX20992016-12-13

I haven't checked for it at stores like that, but it's possible. You might have better luck at a local fabric or craft store, but I'm not positive. I've only purchased from online sellers. If you find a good alternative local source, please share what you find here, so it might help others as well!

author
EmmanuelS40 (author)2016-07-08

Wo thats insane. Really awesome stuff. Is that light bulb wattage the reccomended wattage for curing?

author
rainingfiction (author)2016-07-01

Awesome. I totally want to try this :)

author
JessicaM36 (author)2015-08-19

I just got some's shirts screenprinted at a festival but I was told iron set them what does that mean I have my iron do I need to put something over them before I iron steam no steam what heat ect

image.jpg
author
paupi (author)JessicaM362016-01-27

Maybe a bit late answering, but, I use cooking paper. The oven proof one.

author
dellinger (author)JessicaM362015-08-19

I did place a thin hand towel over mine to heat set them just to help protect from scorching. No steam, just heat. Set to the highest temp for the material. You'll want to move back and forth over the design for several minutes to make sure they are heat set. If you don't heat set the ink, then it can fade or wash out when you wash it. After heat setting, it should be fine to wash and should last quite a while!

author
featherlark (author)2015-09-03

What kind/brand of ink did you use? I've heard Speedball can be kind of iffy...

author
dellinger (author)featherlark2015-09-03

I used Speedball ink. I didn't really have any issues with the ink. It was a bit messy due to my own inexperience, but it screened fine and heat set well. I wear these shirts all the time and after many washes, they still look great.

author
DaaxR (author)2015-07-22

About how many uses can you get out of each screen? What's your experience with the reuse?

author
dellinger (author)DaaxR2015-08-11

I've only printed a handful of shirts with it, but it has held up well. Some of the very tiny details in the font I used have started to separate but that appears to be due to their size. I would guess that the more fine details you have in your design, the quicker it would deteriorate from wear.

author
schambers6 (author)2015-08-10

Really looking forward to using the technique in the next week or so! Thanks!

author
NarlyJr (author)2015-05-02

Sorry, re-read the instructable... I see they are reusable :-)

author
NarlyJr (author)2015-05-02

This was a great tutorial! Thank you very much. Are these reusable??

author
AvaL2 (author)2015-03-30

I have been trying to figure this out for so long! I have my son's soccer team that has jerseys, but they don't have the funding to get their names on them. I decided that I was going to do it myself. Now with this article, I can make that a possibility. http://www.affordable-printing.com/services/

author
PhillipJexton (author)2015-03-25

For some reason(s) I just couldn't get this to work for me. I am just not cut out to make my own screen printed shirts. I ended up using http://www.superiorinkprinting.com/ for all my shirts that I needed. Thanks for the DIY article though. I bet a lot more people were able to do it right.

author
Qtpie1978 (author)2015-01-23

Couple of questions: What did you use to apply the photo emulsion to the screens?

Also, no dark room needed? When you are burning the image into the screen, is it a dark room, or no yellow bulb required?

author
dellinger (author)Qtpie19782015-01-23

I used the rubber squeegee to spread the photo emulsion over the screens. I basically poured on a small amount, then spread it across. I held the screens up at angle and worked back and forth on both sides of the screen. Although the emulsion is thick, it still presses through the screen and can turn into a runny, drippy mess if you aren't diligent about alternating to both sides of the screen while spreading.

No dark room required for the emulsion when applying it to the screens. But I did then place them in closeable boxes so they could dry in the dark. You need a higher wattage lightbulb to cure the emulsion quickly, but if you leave out in lit room overnight, I'm sure it would cause problems. Normal room lighting won't cure it very quickly, so you don't have to worry about it for the few minutes of spreading the emulsion or positioning your template image prior to curing.

author
boot-cheese-3000 (author)2014-10-14

This is one of the better DIY Screenprinting tuts that I've seen--hell one of the BEST! I have a A-I-O (All-In-One) unit but before purchasing that I was planning on doing something similar to this.

I do have a few questions though: first question would be the burning technique. You never specified your wattage of the bulbs or the distance from the screens. I have heard of photoflood lightbulbs that are hot enough for this process, they would take a fraction of the time you spent burning this image (around 15-20 mins and within 1 1/2-2 in away). The trick with those is making sure you don't use plastic or wood as a lampstand, make sure it's metal like aluminum. They've been known to be hot enough to melt plastic and you don't want a fire breaking out in your home or flat. Photoflood light bulbs can be found in photography stores such as Wolf or Ritz or wherever camera equipment is sold. How did you do the math for this process as far as the wattage and distance?

Another thing I was wondering was what kind of apparatus did you use to keep the screen str8 and in place. One person informed me that using an L-clamp would be perfect for placing the screen onto a T-shirt for printing. Also did you use anything to spray that would allow the T-shirt to not stick to the image?

1nce again awesome tutorial! Definitely will come in handy since I don't have my A-I-O unit with me at the moment, it's in storage in another State.

author

Thanks for the comments! I used clear 150 watt incandescent bulbs when curing the emulsion. They were about 15 inches away from the surface of the screen. I did both of the larger screens at the same time (with the two bulb rig I made). I left them under the bulbs with the mask in place for about 1 hour and 15 minutes or so. When I did the smaller 7-inch screen, I elevated the screen so that it was about 12 inches from the bulb and left it there for about 45 minutes. I considered the photoflood bulbs, but since the regular bulbs were acceptable and I could pick them up easily in any store, that's what I went with. They would have saved time during the exposure process.

I didn't calculate the wattage and distance...I used the directions included with the Speedball photo emulsion kit. The directions included a table that prescribed different distances and wattages depending on the type of bulb, the type of reflector used, and the area of the screen being exposed. Since I did not have experience with photo emulsion prior to this project, I did not vary from the manufacturer directions. I know you can experience problems with the screen if you underexpose OR overexpose, so I played it safe.

When I printed the shirts, I placed the frame on the shirt and had someone else just press down on the frame as I was using the squeegee just to make sure nothing shifted. I'm pretty sure I could have done it without that, but having a helper makes it much easier. I did not use any type of spray on the shirt or screen. After printing, I just briskly lifted the screen straight up as my helper held down the shirt fabric. It will tend to want to stick to the screen where the ink comes through. I didn't have any issues with that technique.

author

Ok I should correct myself first off when I mentioned the distance of the photoflood light bulb, it should be 1 1/2-2 FT, not IN. All apologies for that mistake, should've proofread that better.

Well I'd probably go with the photofloods but I almost forgot about the Speedball Photo Emulsion kit. They DO have those directions in them! Ok that's even better! Thanks for the reminder ol' chap. *tips hat*

As far as holding them down I'm gonna try the advice I was given until further notice. Thanks for responding sir, it is most appreciated. :)

author
zeppomarks (author)2014-10-19

Hello! this was an awesome instructable and it was so nice meeting you - I was your liaison for the faire. :)

author
dellinger (author)zeppomarks2014-10-22

Thanks! Nice meeting you too.

author
fmanning (author)2014-10-20

Great Tutorial I will have to try this one day

author
lynnl2 (author)2014-10-14

I do this with my students, the emulsion spreading in the darkroom IS messy and a bit tricky but one definitely improves with practice. What distance were your bulbs away from the screens? I know this is important. With a stronger bulb (250 watt) it goes more quickly but I had a few problems with over exposure -essentially baking the emulsion--- that made the washout difficult. Another question I have is did you squeegee emulsion on BOTH sides of the screen or just in the well (or on the back)?

After printing, once the speedball ink dried, we placed a piece of old sheet over the image and ironed the design for something like 2 minutes of constant movement across the design- the sheet was just to protect the iron and to make ironing easier for the students. great fun!

author
hasenbaby (author)lynnl22014-10-15

Standard Diazo photopolymer will not need a darkroom, actually: it only reacts to UV light.

Nowadays, I would probably use a lamp made from red+green+orange LEDs; standard practice is yellow filter over standard fluorescent lamps, I still use my old darkroom lights left over from analogue film days :-) I use the red (used for processing b/w paper) and green (used for processing non-sensitized film and paper) together.

For exposure of UV sensitive materials, I prefer a real UV source. Your run-of-the-mill home-tanning device will usually do quite well.

But I have come to prefer this type

http://t0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTaxWBIWsp...

over the type with multiple flouroescent tubes (like

http://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSKe6qBUPn...

If you are looking for tips about UV sources, search for PCB-Making: the standard method is photo-resist and the methods for exposure are very similar as with these photopolymers.

author
dellinger (author)lynnl22014-10-14

My bulbs were about 15 inches away from the screen. I did squeegee emulsion on both sides of the screen. On the first one I did, I spent too much time on one side before I realized I was so much emulsion through that is was dripping everywhere underneath. For the other screens I was alternating the squeegee in the inside and outside to minimize drippage. That worked much better for me.

I did heat set the ink afterward with an iron and protective cloth. This was a fun project. And rewarding too!

author
Swabbie Robbie (author)2014-10-15

Nicely done instructions!

author
scot2go2 (author)2014-10-15

All your information was well thought out & very clear... it was a pleasure to follow it & the comments after were more than helpful ...thank you

author
melissa_b04 (author)2014-10-14

Ah!!! I met you guys at the faire! Awesome instructable.

author
dellinger (author)melissa_b042014-10-14

Cool! Thanks for stopping by! If you are ever near Marietta, swing by for one of our open house or workshop events!

author
hasenbaby (author)2014-10-14

Nice instructions.

Some tips for reader that would like to explore screen printing themselves

Photo masks are great, but not the only option. If your design is not overly complex, simply cut it out of paper (slightly larger than your frame), "print" on this paper and then remove the parts that should actually print: the color paste will make the paper stick to the screen and when you pick off the areas that should print, you'll have a proper mask. A thin, waterproof paper like drawing paper is perfect for this masking technique.

The high-tech-variant of the paper mask is using a laser cutter ot cutting plotter instead of your trusty XActo...

The photo-polymer ("emulsion") once mixed lasts only for a short while and the typical package sizes are not very hobbyist-friendly. That is why I always recommend starting with paper masks to get hooked on screen-printing :-)

hase

author
dellinger (author)hasenbaby2014-10-14

Excellent tips! Thanks! The photo emulsion is also fairly expensive relative to the other materials I needed so these alternatives are great suggestions.

author
fixfireleo (author)2014-10-14

very cool but looks like a LOT of work and probably not cost effective if you only want ONE shirt??

author
dellinger (author)fixfireleo2014-10-14

True. For one shirt, this is definitely not cost effective. I made about 5 shirts in this first batch. If you factor in setup costs, shipping, etc. from online vendors, I believe mine were probably cheaper than I could have purchased them. For larger batches, this way is probably still cheaper, but you have a lot of time invested to do it too, so it would be a tradeoff.

You'd have to weigh individually which way, DIY or purchase, would work best. For me, this provided me with the small quantity of shirts I needed, and gave me an excuse to work on a pretty fun project! :-)

author
jfrey1 (author)2014-10-14

Can you tell us about the ink. Did it need to be cured to become washable?

author
dellinger (author)jfrey12014-10-14

I used Speedball fabric screen printing ink in black. It will wash out unless you heat set it. I did heat set these designs by ironing them for a few minutes on each side. I had the iron set to the highest heat setting, no steam...dry only. And I used a cloth between the iron and the design to protect against inadvertent burns or scratching.

author
tturner14 (author)2014-10-11

Or one minute+ in the direct sunlight! Wash the screen and re-expose to light to cure print base. If you spread the emus into the corners you usually won't find and leaks (so you can skip the tape step)

author
dellinger (author)tturner142014-10-12

I read about the direct sunlight method. Have you tried it before? With it going that fast, any concerns of over exposure through the printed parts of the transparency? It would certainly save some time during the exposure step.

And I considered whether or not I would have any leaks without the tape, but I decided to be on the safe side just in case. If I were going to make a lot of frames for different designs I think it would be worth it to just make the emulsion covers any leaks because adding the tape obviously takes more time.

author
green_screen (author)dellinger2014-10-14

Awesome instructable! I used to use the sun exposure method and it works but it's inconsistent. If a cloud happens to pass over or there is haze in the air the exposure time varies. IMO it's better to have consistent exposure conditions for a longer period of time, I think it makes for better prints. Thanks again for this!

author
humberto ribas (author)dellinger2014-10-14

Direct sunlight takes just about 10 to 15 seconds. At least in Brasil, where I live, and the average temperature in "winter" is 30 celsius at noon.

author
humberto ribas (author)dellinger2014-10-14

Direct sunlight takes just about 10 to 15 seconds. At least in Brasil, where I live, and the average temperature in "winter" is 30 celsius at noon.

author
rbran (author)dellinger2014-10-14

There are certain emulsions that work better with sunlight exposure. Times vary by as much as a few minutes, but it works fairly well for short run prints.

author
peterman921 (author)dellinger2014-10-14

I've used the sunlight method with professional emulsions and its about 45 seconds. but I use rubylith for my negatives or have transparencies made at a print shop for opaqueness

this is a very good DIY solution, I usually purchase frame but at times have made some just as you have shown here.

author
Tanzer26 (author)2014-10-14

I've been considering trying my hand at screen printing. I've seen professionals in action and it didn't look too difficult. Thought I would start with a Speedball kit and work from there.
One technique I've seem used professionally, is printing your 'original' on thin vellum rather than transparencies. The shop claimed vellum was better. If using a laser printer or copier, I suspect toner transfer might be better to vellum, giving more solid blacks.
I have access to solid ink printers and I think they would be better, due to the thickness and opaqueness of their ink.
Thanks for sharing your project.

author
snoopindaweb (author)2014-10-14

Hay strechin da scream be lak hanin bevre plu.?