Introduction: Easier Screen Printing

About: Film maker, musician, tinkerer. Living in Philly.

A year or so ago, I wanted to get into screen printing, so I bought (aka my mom gave me) a Speedball starter set. It came with a screen, ink, and even everything photo emulsion. I thought I had it made.

I didn't. I couldn't get anything to look good, no matter how hard I tried. The ink either bled like crazy or didn't go through the screen. And forget photo emulsion, that was way too hard.

The next summer, someone taught me a really easy way to silkscreen on to paper. Since then, I have developed that technique and I'm going to show share with you what I know. Because let's be honest, you can never have too many silkscreening tutorials.

First off, what is silkscreening?

Basically, the action is like spreading butter on toast, but you're spreading ink across a screen, and with a "squeegee" instead of a butter knife. Along the way across the screen, the ink goes through little tiny holes and sticks to what you're printing on.

That's really the easiest way to put it.

You control what the image looks like by putting a stencil between the screen and the material you're printing on. In this case, we're printing on a T-shirt. The ink only affects the section of the shirt that isn't covered by the stencil. To make a complicated image, people usually put photo emulsion on the screen that makes a stencil using light. We're not doing that. That's way too hard for a beginner like you and I don't even know how to do it right. We're going a little more hands on.

Step 1: Designing a Good Stencil

The first step to making a stencil is choosing a design. We're going to be making the stencil by hand. You want a design that won't be impossible to make into a stencil. Basically, if it's too much work to trace it with a pencil, it's way too much work to print using this method.

Also, think about islands. (Not tropical islands, but islands in your design.) For example, the letter "A" has one island: the white triangle on top. The letter "B" has two. C has none. It's much easier to print a V than an A, but don't be too discouraged. Islands aren't impossible as long as you keep the number of them down and the size of them up. A couple A's the size of CD's isn't bad at all. "AAAAA" the size you're seeing them on your screen isn’t going to happen. If you have the need for very small islands, the advantages this method has over photo emulsion start to disappear. As you get better at this method, you can make islands smaller and use more of them, but if you want to make small text, or detailed lines, learn to use photo emulsion eventually.

You can only print one solid color at a time. In this case, I'm printing the Instructables robot on to a grey shirt. I'm using gray as the background to save me a step, since gray is a color in the design. You don't have to do this, but it saves ink and time. Why not?

For this design, I'm using black as the base coat. This means that every other color will be printed on top of the black ink, not the shirt itself. (Except the gray, since the shirt is gray, but that doesn’t count since it’s not ink.) I will demonstrate how to make the first stencil, but every other stencil is made the same way.

NOTE: Don't use black as the base coat. Use colors, and then put black on top. It looks much better.

Step 2: Printing It Out

First, you have to get it ready for printing. You could print out your actual design, but I used Adobe Flash to trace it and get each color on it's own layer. When you print it, I recommend using thicker than usual paper. Don't use copy paper. The ink will saturate it and bleed through. You could you plastic transparency paper, or laminate copy paper. It's all good.

Step 3: Cutting Everything Out

Now, using a hobby knife (or a laser cutter if you're so lucky), cut out the islands first and put them aside. Then, cut out the main image. Don't throw anything out yet.

Step 4: Dealing With Islands

After you cut everything out, flip the inverted stencil upside down and put the islands and the cutout back in place.

Then, take a strip of scotch tape and put it across the islands like so. Make sure the tape touches every island and extends to both sides of the design. Fold the end of the piece over to make taking the tape off easy. Do this to any islands in your design.

This part is tricky. Take the part of the image that isn’t the island out the stencil without taking the islands with it. The islands will stay on the scotch tape.

This part is also tricky. You need to put a double sided adhesive on each islands. I use blue painter's tape rolled over onto itself. I assume double stick tape will work too. Be careful to make sure that the tape doesn't extend past the paper. Also, if you use single sided tape rolled over, don’t use so much tape that makes the paper stick off the mesh a significant amount.

Step 5: Putting the Stencil on the Screen

I don't have a picture of this, but using a piece of paper and a Sharpie, I drew in corners on the mesh so every time I put an 8 1/2 x 11 inch piece of paper on the screen, I do so in the same place. This helps when you're doing multiple colors, which I'll end up doing in the Instructable.

Now, tape the whole thing to the back of your screen. The paper stencil will be flipped HORIZONTALLY. You should be looking at the back of the paper. Text will appear backwards, etc.

Flip the screen over and rub the double stick tape on the islands onto the screen. I use a Sharpie or the handle of a pair of scissors. Whatever you have around will work, what you use isn't too important. Doing this will help the islands stay stuck to the mesh.

Flip the screen back over and very carefully, peel the scotch tape off so the islands stay stuck on the mesh. This method insures that the islands in your design are properly aligned on your stencil.

Tape your design to the screen like shown. Also, tape the front of the screen as shown. Taping the screen not only makes sure your design stays in place, but it also insures that no ink gets stuck between the wooden frame and the mesh, so it's pretty important. Don't skimp on tape, but don't be too excessive.

Step 6: Register the Screen

The first step to printing on shirts is to register your screen. Registering your screen makes it much easier to line up the frame for doing multiple colors. This step isn’t needed if you’re only doing one color.(

Shirts are a lot different than paper because shirts are made of fabric and fabric stretches. If the shirt stretches, it will be hard to line up the screen for multiple colors. I take a piece of foam core and stick it in the shirt. Then I take pins and pin the shirt to the board.

(Then, figure out where you want your print to be. I like my prints about 4 or 5 inches from the collar, but that’s just me. After you put your screen down on the shirt, make an outline of the screen with tape. Do a good job of this because if you mess it up, you’ll have a hard time lining up your screen every time.

Step 7: Pulling a Print

Now there are a lot of websites that will tell you how to properly pull a print, and encourage you to do as much research as you can and remember: practice makes perfect. You probably won’t get a good print your first time. That’s okay, just keep at it and eventually you’ll be pulling prints like a pro.

Time to get out the ink.

In this example, I’m starting with black. (I had a big brain fart. Don’t start with black! More on that at the end.) To pull a print, you take a spoonful of ink and put it in the “well” of the screen. The well is just an area off to the side where there aren’t any holes. Look at the picture. Then, take your squeegee, and put it in the line of ink, or the “bead.” Now, with the squeegee at a 45 degree angle, pull the ink across the screen. I do back and forth about 3 or 4 times. In this case, more is not merrier. If your stencil is paper, too many passes with the ink will saturate the paper and make the ink bleed outside the lines. No good.

When you’re done pulling the ink, lift the screen off the shirt, one side at a time, like you’re lifting up the hood of a car.

Your beautiful print should be looking right at you!

Step 8: Cleaning Up

Now it’s time for clean up... I just run the screen under the sink until the ink is gone. You really don’t need soap. You could save some of the tape too if it’s not too messy after you get it wet.

As for drying, just take a piece of paper towel and put it on a table under the screen, with the screen face up. Then take another piece of paper towel, crumple it up, and make little circles on the mesh. This should get the ink out well.

You’ll notice that your design is probably still on your screen. Don’t worry. This doesn’t affect the mesh because the color you’re seeing is on the threads, not in the holes.

If you’re doing multiple colors, make a new stencil, wait for the ink of the last color to dry completely and do it again!

Step 9: Epilogue

The design you see me making in this Instructable is not what I ended up with. I made a whole different print than the one I was making in the pictures. It's the picture in the intro. The technique however, is still what I used.

In the making of this 'ible, I learned a few things about screen printing.

1. Don’t use black as your base coat. Black should be on top, not on bottom.

This seems like it should be common sense for me but it wasn’t. The thing is, if you're making a line drawing, like the robot in this example, putting the black on bottom will make the stencil much easier to cut out. The problem is that printing colors like yellow on top of black ink looks pretty bad. Well, not BAD, but the black shows through. If you want to make the shirt look worn, this is a good technique, but mine just came out bad, so I don't recommend using black as the base coat.

That said:

2. There is a limit to how detailed you can get with this method.

The Instructables robot is pretty much that limit. It had 48 islands. 48. That is WAY TOO MANY. And they were SMALL. If you want this method to make sense, stick to something simpler. Line drawings = NO.

2. Mixing colors is hard.

And I can’t really help you do it. My robot came out more orange than I wanted. I wish I had my middle school art teacher here to help me mix colors, but I don’t.

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