Introduction: Down and Dirty Screenprinting for Under 10$

Picture of Down and Dirty Screenprinting for Under 10$

As a seasoned printer, friends and acquaintances consistently ask me if i can print shirts, cards, etc. for them. Usually, however, they only need a few things printed at a time, and it doesn't really justify the time/cost of doing it the "right way."
I conceived this method of printing so it could be shared with anyone who wants to print short, inexpensive runs on any substrate, without having to deal with the space and economic constraints of setting up a whole studio.
Most of the supplies for this project would usually end up in a landfill, and can be found completely for free.
Usually one can get 20 or more successful prints with this method, which seems to be sufficient for most small projects.

Step 1: Supplies

Picture of Supplies

For this project, we will need some tools and supplies that are easily available, and a few that might require the tiniest bit of searching....

Recycling is key here. Most of the supplies required can be found as trash, including the ink. What isn't direct waste can be recycled from thrift stores or garage sales.

Staple Gun (almost any size will do)
X-acto Knife, or Utility knife (you could use a plain razor blade in a pinch)
Heat Gun or a Hair Dryer
Plastic Putty Knife
Small Container for mixing

'Spray Adhesive
Any old picture frame as long as it is bigger than your image. (ideally you can find this in the trash)
Water based paint or ink of any type (recycle! use old housepaint that would end up in the landfill/water table without you!
Some sort of ink retarder
-I used "Floetrol" which is sold in most hardware stores as a latex paint wetting agent. It is around 6$ for the bottle. You can also use straight glycerine, which is available at most drug stores for a dollar or two for a small bottle.
Adhesive Backed Sign Vinyl (any color)
-This is available from many arts and crafts stores, but sign shops generate so much scrap every day that if you ask them nicely, they will almost certainly just give you some. If you don't want to ask, check the dumpster, because thats where it will end up. This material is the garbage left behind by the modern printing industry. it is a shame that it doesn't get re-used more.
Screen Printing Fabric (a piece bigger than your old picture frame)
-This is available in various mesh counts from, again screenprinting shops can help you out if you ask nicely, and their dumpsters can be messy, but fruitful.
-If you are adventurous, you can experiment with different fabrics from the scrap bin at the fabric store and use that instead of genuine screen fabric.
Substrate (stuff to print on)
-Paper, Shirts, other textiles, bags, napkins, underpants, and just about anything else that is reasonably flat will work fine.

Step 2: Making the Screen

Picture of Making the Screen

Starting in the center of one of the long sides of our picture frame, use the staple-gun to attach the edge of the screen fabric. Then, stretch the fabric tight across the frame, and staple it directly opposite the first staple.

Move to the shorter side of the frame, and do the same thing on each side.

Once there is some tension in the screen, slowly work around the frame, stretching and stapling until the whole screen is evenly tensioned, with no weird ripples, bumps, or saggy spots.

Once there is a staple about once an inch all the way around the frame, and the screen is nice and tight, you have an almost completed screen frame!

Step 3: Taping the Screen.

Picture of Taping the Screen.

It is important to cover the edges of the screen to keep the ink from seeping in and making a huge mess all over the substrates.

Cut some of the scrap vinyl into strips, and stick it to the screen and the frame so there is no empty space for ink to get through. Cover the fabric all the way around about 1.5" from the edges of the frame.

Start with the top of the screen, then do the bottom.

The vinyl might not want to stick to the fabric very well, which is where the heat gun comes in.
Once the vinyl is all in place, quickly hit it with some heat and burnish it flat to the frame and the screen with your fingers. The heat will set the adhesive of the vinyl and make it stick firmly to the frame and the fabric.

Step 4: Preparing the Image.

Picture of Preparing the Image.

This is a one color process, so think stencil, think contrast, and think monochrome.

Some images work better than others, and some skill is required to cut out detailed or highly shaded images. Start simple. If you are a stencil master, then make it as detailed and complex as possible.

Measure the space on the screen still available for your image.

Choose an image, drawing, photograph or whatever, and use either a computer or copy machine to print it out at that size.

This will be going on the bottom of the screen, so remember to print out the image backwards, especially if you are using text.

Once the image is printed, trim it to rough size.

Now the fun begins!

Step 5: Cutting the Stencil.

Picture of Cutting the Stencil.

So, we went to the sign shop to get scrap vinyl right?

They use a lovely machine called a plotter to cut their vinyl.
Making friends with them, or at least dropping them a few dollars, or a six pack of beer, or something, can allow you to skip this step. Take them your prepped image, have them cut it out, and skip ahead...

It is time to cut the stencil.

Cut out another piece of vinyl a little bit larger than the printed and trimmed image.
Use the spray adhesive (not too much) to stick the image onto the vinyl.

Start cutting. But not too deep!!!!!!
Cut out the parts to be printed. Leave the parts that remain the substrate color.
Be sure only to cut through the paper and the vinyl, do not cut through the paper backing, or everything will fall apart!

If a photograph is being used, as in the example, it can be confusing. If the stencil is held up against a light, or viewed on a light table, you can get a better idea of how things are going.

Once the stencil seems satisfactory, it is time to adhere it to the screen.

Step 6: Adhering the Stencil to the Screen.

Picture of Adhering the Stencil to the Screen.

Peel the vinyl stencil and stick it directly to the bottom of the screen in the space you have provided.

Remember how that pesky vinyl didn't want to stick to the screen? Time to get out the heat gun again.
Lightly hit the stencil with heat and carefully burnish it. It will stick.

Once the stencil is nice and stuck to the bottom of the screen, begin filling in the empty space with more vinyl. Cover everything that won't be printed, using the vinyl to cover the edges of the stencil.
Once the top is done, flip the frame over, and do the same thing on the bottom.

Again, use the heat gun to help the vinyl set up nicely and stick to the screen and itself.

You now have a completed screen, almost ready to print.

Step 7: Mixing Ink.

Picture of Mixing Ink.

Depending on humidity, temperature, paint quality, age, etc., ink will have to be mixed differently.
Too dry, and the ink will dry up in the screen in between passes.
Too wet, and the ink will run through the screen and ruin our substrates.

It will probably take some time to get the perfect consistency, be patient.

Here in the very dry desert, I mix about 1 part retarder for 10 parts paint.

Dark colors printed on light colors work best for this method because there is only one opportunity to pull the prints before moving the screen, and no way to layer lighter colored inks.

Everything is ready.....

Step 8: Print!

Picture of Print!

Lay out all of the items to be printed upon so they are easily positionable and moveable.

Start with a clean, clear work area, and be ready to move quick.
There is no need to rush, but no lolly gagging either.

Set the screen in place on top of whatever is to be printed and hold it down firmly. A friend can help immensely here.

Pour a thin line of ink directly above the stencil on the screen.
Using the plastic putty knife at a 45 degree angle t the screen, firmly pull the ink across the image.
This forces the ink through the stencil and onto the substrate.

It may be necessary to pull the ink through multiple times, but be sure the frame does not move on the substrate, otherwise the image will get blurred and smeared.

Carefully lift the screen off of the substrate and move it to the next item to be printed.
Continue until you are finished, or until the screen blows out.

Step 9: Clean Up.

Picture of Clean Up.

Clean the screen and putty knife with dish soap and water.
Peel off all the vinyl if you want to use the screen again.
Be sure the ink is out of the mesh, because once it dries hard there, it will never come out.

Let the finished prints dry overnight.

Make more.
Feel satisfied that you are creating something beautiful out of what was already considered refuse.


EmarieR (author)2017-09-18

thanks sooooo much for this! this would help greatly :D thank you thank you ^^

PVCpotato made it! (author)2016-03-06

Great Instuctable thanks! I used the vinyl technique on a store bought screen and it held up for at least 36 prints! (I stopped there but i'm sure it could have handled many more!)

dianadfonseca (author)2015-11-08

Really like how you created the stencil out of the photo ;) thanks for sharing!

Texas_Rider (author)2015-08-29

chuckstake (author)2014-12-27


starphire (author)2013-10-09

Here's the part I don't understand: how do you simply "Peel the vinyl stencil and stick it directly to the bottom of the screen" without the small cut-out bits of the stencil falling off or going askew, or narrow cut-out lines no longer lining up neatly as the backing is peeled away?
As you noted previously, the paper backing is the only thing holding the vinyl pieces together and in the correct locations. Is there a trick to removing it without disturbing the position of the vinyl parts?
It seems as though you'd have to be VERY careful to design it as a one-piece stencil, and even then you'd end up having to fiddle with the smaller cut-out bits to re-align them on the screen before burnishing. Or am I missing something obvious here?

razorwinged (author)2012-12-26

hi! i just wanted to let you know that because i like this instructable so much, i have added it to my silkscreen guide...

thanks for sharing your ideas!

mmmhobnobs (author)2009-03-12

um, would water based paint mean it isn't permanent or?

phase90 (author)mmmhobnobs2009-03-12

About as permanent as the paint on your house. :-) Water based for easy cleanup, but once it dries it is permanent.

mmmhobnobs (author)phase902009-03-12

ah thanks for clearing that up:)

JoelDude (author)mmmhobnobs2010-03-07

the difference is that water based paint dissolves into other things, breaks down with time and is not as strong. This is why its used for indoors, it also has no volatile compounds or cancer giving fumes. Oil and petroleum- synthetic paints are used outside the house or in other applications.

Because the clothes will wear with time, so will the paint so its no prob. and whatever breaks down will dissolve in the detergent as you wash them.

Dranwolf (author)JoelDude2010-07-26

so you cant wash the shirt or printed clothing or the thing will deteriorate? or does it last a few washes?

mangomerle (author)Dranwolf2010-08-19

No more so than any of your other clothes. All clothing deteriorates some when it is washed; especially if you machine dry instead of line dry.

What about tie-dye dye?

JoelDude (author)Dranwolf2010-08-21

yes you can wash water based paints once they dry, they just kinda wear out a bit quicker than oil paint.

Lark Writeress (author)2012-02-22

Wow-- really? Vinyl? That's all? No need for that expensive screen filler or whatever?! SO COOL, THANKS!!

LeechTaMere (author)2011-06-30

interesting method you developed her, yet I feel like it defies the very idea of screen-printing, where the screen allows you to have a stencil with shapes not attached to anything around. Like with a hole cut-out all around. See what I mean? The problem would be the way you transfer the vinyl to the screen. I can't seem to see anyway to get it transfered with shapes completely cut around, without the good ol' "right way".

Arano (author)LeechTaMere2012-01-06

after cutting, put masking tape on the vinyl before you transfer it...

LeechTaMere (author)Arano2012-01-08

Yeah, I should have thought of this. I made a vinyl stencil with text for my bike frame once. What was I thinking ?

XP1 (author)2012-01-07

This is a fantatsic Instructable. Out of curiosity, would housepaint crack, or how long would the life of a shirt be if I used a water based house paint?

GASSYPOOTS (author)2012-01-06

lol he be eetinz dat chickn
and i lold at teh site LOL

nutsandbolts_64 (author)2012-01-06

A good way to not get you all confused with the image takes but a few image editing steps. Basically, you set the contrast to 100% in a grayscale image. You might as well print it out in 'Draft' or whatever in order to save ink, though.

Dimitrios (author)2010-03-09

Great instructable, luckily I have access to a vinyl cutter. But, not to the ink, I can only get paint from hardware store. What paint could work for printing t shirts? I need to print white on black tshirts. Any suggestions?

sebgonz (author)Dimitrios2011-10-16

I sometimes use speedball fabric paint to print white on black. I made some Harry Potter shirts for the 7th movie and they turned out great. I DID make two passes on the shirts though, to make sure the color was bright enough.

Gods_Texan (author)2011-10-13

Would it work to use an Embroidery Frame for this, especially if you are only going to do a few?

Jakeinator777 (author)2011-08-26

could contact paper work instead of vinyl? good tutorial though

jpolicky (author)2011-05-06

Very excellent, I have long wondered about the mysteries of screen printing, and you may have just saved me an entire semester learning it. I in no way want to be a professional screen printer, but i've often wanted to make my own t-shirts and junk, and with this i now can...thanks!

buckten (author)2011-01-19

i know these materials and process is mainly for clothing. but would drawing paper or even canvas work for designs using these materials? please respond thanks :)

CrystalDyes (author)2010-12-26

One of the best fabrics to use for screen printing is sheer drapery panels that are 100% polyester. I took a class with Kerr Grabowski who has several DVDs out on screenprinting for art quilts. She makes all her own screens with either 2x2 lumber or old canvas stretcher bars glued together, that is polyurethaned first and then she uses the drapery fabric over it. Very cheap since you can find lots of them at thrift stores. Color of fabric doesn't matter. If it tears or is otherwise destroyed, it can be quickly replaced at no more expense. Some of her screens are the size of a real screen door! Some have a total screen size of 6 square inches. Her work is wonderful. See also screen ides by Jane Dunnewold, Claire Benn and Leslie Morgan.

acksheep13 (author)2009-05-25

If put on napkins would it be dangerous?

Barrettkg (author)acksheep132010-05-02

Assuming you mean cloth napkins,
There should be no problem since as previously stated, water based paints are not harmful and will break up even if injested. However, just to make sure, after you finish your prints and dry them, give the napkins a quick wash.
Smart way to look at this great instructable by the way

Galonii (author)Barrettkg2010-11-11

why not use some fabric paint. you can buy it in tubs of about 1oz for around $1 at walmart or craft stores like joanns

sneakyparasol (author)acksheep132010-10-23

probably less dangerous than some lipsticks etc.

maybe...i would be hesitant to use house paint on napkins for my mouth or hands or whatever, but it probably isn't tooooo bad?

I think most house paints are water-based acrylic and that's pretty much exactly what textile inks and a lot of screen printing inks are.

Jyssa (author)acksheep132010-03-07

for Napkins, I'd suggest experimenting with vegetable inks/dyes - or maybe even food colouring, though I don't vouch for it's colourfastness...

sneakyparasol (author)2010-10-23

really good clear instructable with lots of helpful photos. nice job! thanks heaps.

sneakyparasol (author)2010-10-23

what sort of fabric is screen printing fabric?

snowboardchamp (author)2010-03-07

 Hmmm... I wonder if this would work on a skateboard... Anybody tried that or have have an opinion on it?

It will work... it is a flat surface.  Silkscreen is usually how they put images on a brand new board.

 are you sure because the edges of the board curve up a bit (to form the "concave" of the board that gives you that locked in feeling

Yeah, I am real sure... Have you ever seen the Powell & Peralta move called, Bones Brigade-Future Primitive? It shows skateboards being designed by pro boarders (Caballero) with the silk screening process.

If you are not sure about your design or if it will work on your deck, you might consider using scrap wood to test it first.

 yeah i'll try that, it sounds good, i am intrigued by the process and if i can figure out how to do it easily, i'll post my results.

you can actually make a convex frame but its a pain. the other way is to roll the surface as you print it (also a pain). that is how they print oil drums (with machines). the screen will probably have enough give to it that it will get decent coverage, just squeege from side to side instead of top to bottom.

just making a stencil out of paper/acetate etc and using spray adhesive would probably be easiest.

d.n.milne (author)snowboardchamp2010-03-07

If it is just the one board, then you could attach the vinyl directly to the deck...

snowboardchamp (author)d.n.milne2010-03-07

That sounds like a good idea, i've been experimenting with painters tape made stuck together to make a sheet, but the vinyl one-piece sheet idea sounds good. Will it stick to the wood though?

sk8er6 (author)inlikeflint2010-03-08

a skateboard is not a flat surface. the concave/convex makes it difficult to screen with this method.
unless you just want to do the nose or tail. and i dont get why you had to make the screen, when you ended up cutting the stencil anyways. I mean, you could have cut this out of a cereal box and dabbed the paint on with a rag or sponge and saved time and money. i get the vibe that your instructable is about a quick process, but i guess stencilling isn't screenprinting... also, im glad you atleast made your stencil by hand instead of photoshopping it, even though im not really diggin it.

SNiPERSeyes (author)inlikeflint2010-03-07

good name... inlikeflint....

inlikeflint (author)SNiPERSeyes2010-03-07


beanco (author)2010-08-12

nice one there! I will see if I can find any vinyl here in Hungary. I have been teaching silk screen printing to Jr High kids for a couple of years. Get free screen fabric from a local print shop, they give me their left overs... had to buy pain, but I now have a bucket of house paint left over from repainting the house, think I will bring it to the school. We used glue, plain old wood glue for the maskign out part. The kids have a hard time doing anything with detail using the glue... so this vinyl could be the solution... thanks rob

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