Introduction: 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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

Epilog Challenge

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Epilog Challenge