Introduction: $20 Portable Silkscreen Kit

No more excuses!  For $20 you can make a dozen screens, each with the ability to ink many times.

This instructable seeks to significantly reduce the cost of silkscreening small numbers of shirts.  For years I'd wanted to try it, but I couldn't justify the cost.  Even the $100 screenprint "systems" seemed too expensive;  what if I didn't like it? what if the quality was crap?

As far as DIY methods I found, nothing quite scratched my itch.  Because I didn't know if this is something I would even like, I didn't want to have big picture frames or emulsion chemicals lying around.  I wanted something I could neatly stow away and play with when I felt like it.

This is the instructable I wish I had found many years ago.  The goal here is that you can walk into a fabric/craft store, spend about $20, and walk out with everything you need to make some decent-quality prints.

This procedure is basically a mashup of two other Instructables.   The fabric-hoop idea I got from here, and the adhesive vinyl idea I got from here.  I added a few tweaks, and the rest is history.

Step 1: Required Materials

Here's what you will need:

Printout - An image of what you want to silkscreen, mirrored from how you want it on the shirt.
Adhesive Vinyl - You can probably get this cheaper online, but I wanted to use something that I could buy locally.  I used this stuff, designed for the Cricut vinyl cutter. (~$10)
X-Acto Knife - If you have a vinyl cutter, by all means use it.  I don't have one however, so I used an x-acto knife (~$2.50) to cut my pattern into the vinyl.
Sheer Fabric - I used an old window-curtain, but you can buy this stuff at any fabric store for $5 a yard.  You're looking for a mesh that's open enough to allow the ink to go through, but tight enough for the vinyl to adhere. (I think this would work)
8" Fabric Hoop - This will  hold the fabric taut.  I got mine for $1.29
Scissors - For cutting the fabric and vinyl roll.  you don't need anything fancy.  I'm not adding this to the cost because if you don't have scissors, you should probably buy a pair to have anyway.
Masking Tape - Used for transferring the vinyl to the fabric, and for masking-off unused areas of screen. (~$2)
Pencil & Pen - These are for transferring our image to the vinyl.
Silkscreen Ink -This is probably the biggest variable in the kit.  I was able to spend $4 on a 2oz bottle of ink.  Depending on the selection at your craft store, you may need to spend more on a larger amount. 
Scrap piece of cardboard - Used during the inking process as both a backing and a squeegee.

And that's it.  Cheap!  Some of this stuff you may already have.  The rest you should be able to source locally.  I'll be inking one item for this Instructable, but there is enough stuff here to make many more screens without needing to buy anything else.

Step 2: Transfer Pattern to the Vinyl

If you have a vinyl cutter, getting your image into the vinyl is a simple matter.  For the rest of us however, it's a bit of work.

The first thing to be done is to get your image transferred on to the vinyl.  For this I used a technique I learned in elementary school.  It's a carbon transfer of sorts:

1.  Use the pencil and draw fat lines behind your image.
2. Tape the paper to the vinyl, lead side down
3. With firm pressure, use the pen to trace your image.  The pressure will push through the paper and transfer pencil to the vinyl wherever you draw.

NOTE:  It's important to transfer the ENTIRE image.  Writing this Instructable I realized that I forgot to copy the elements from robot's chest!

Step 3: Remove Areas to Be Inked

With our design transferred to the vinyl, we can now remove the sections where we want ink to flow through.  Use your x-acto knife to cut along the lines.  You only need to cut through the vinyl, not all the way though the backing.

Depending on the complexity of your design, this can be a tricky process.  The wheels and hands of the robot gave me particular grief.  Little bits kept pulling off, but I was able to stick them back in place after I had removed the unwanted vinyl.

Step 4: Prepare Fabric Screen

With our vinyl stencil ready to go, now we need a place to put it.  

1. Put the fabric into the hoop and trim with scissors.  Leave an inch or two of excess sticking out of the ring.
2. Adjust the ring tension so that it is snug, but not totally locked down.
3. Tug on the excess fabric wherever necessary to smooth out the fabric in the ring.  Use your index fingers to stabilize the inner ring so it doesn't pull out.
4. Tighten down the hoop, and the fabric is ready.

Step 5: Transfer Vinyl to Fabric

We'll be doing stuff on both sides of the fabric during this step, so just so we're clear:
when I say "the squeegee side" of the fabric, I'm talking about the side inside the ring (the one pictured in the previous step.)  When I say "the shirt side" of the fabric, I'm talking about the other side.  This is the side of the fabric that can be pressed onto the shirt without the ring getting into the way.  
Got it?  good.  Let's get the vinyl onto the screen.

1. After cutting your vinyl pattern off of the roll, cover it in masking tape.  This will keep the floating sections of vinyl in place during transfer.
2.Peel the adhesive backing off of of the vinyl, and LIGHTLY apply it to the shirt side of the fabric. The goal of this step is just to evenly apply the stencil, not to get good adhesion.  That's what the next step is for.
3. Flip the ring so that the vinyl is on a hard surface.  From the squeegee side, force the fabric into the vinyl.  I used mainly the edge of my thumbnail with a lot of force.  Pay extra attention to the small pieces of vinyl.  We need them to want to stay on this fabric!
4. Back on the shirt side, slowly peel off the masking tape.  If the vinyl starts to pull up in spots, try pulling the tape at a different angle or from a different direction.  you can also get in there with the x-acto knife to keep the vinyl from sticking to the tape.
5. Just in case any vinyl was disturbed during tape removal, repeat #3 to get that vinyl nice and stuck to the fabric.
6. Lastly, use masking tape (on the shirt side) to cover up any remaining sections of fabric that you don't want ink going through.

Step 6: Ink

And now the moment we've been waiting for!

1. Put a piece of cardboard inside the shirt behind the area to be inked
2. Apply the screen, and put some ink in it.
3. Use a small piece of cardboard as a squeegee, getting ink through all the openings.  Use your other hand to keep the stencil from moving during this process.
4. Using a hand on either side, slowly lift the stencil off the shirt.

Step 7: Cleanup

If rinsed under running water, the stencil may be used again at a later date.  Apply the water mainly on the squeegee size, rubbing with your hand.  Rubbing on the shirt side might disturb the stencil, so use only water on that side.

Step 8: And That's It!

So there you go. This kit is compact, it's cheap, and it produces good prints!  It also includes enough raw material that you can make tons of mistakes without fear of running out.

Go for it! If you left for the store now, in a few hours you could be looking at a freshly-inked shirt.  That YOU made.