Low-cost Screen Printed Colouring-in T-shirts




Introduction: Low-cost Screen Printed Colouring-in T-shirts

After our first adventures using the Silhouette to cut vinyl and stencil onto t-shirts, we decided to venture into trying screen printing proper. Our makerspace is young and doesn't have much spare cash, so we had to do things on the cheap! While we were deciding what we wanted to print and in which colours, one of our young makers suggested they would like to be able to print a colouring-in design in black and then colour it in with fabric pens. We decided that the idea was borderline genius, so here it is!

Our out-of-pocket expenditure for this project was very low, relying very much on tools and supplies that we already had around, and that we could repurpose for this project. So while we have included tools and materials, we really would recommend that, rather than using this as your starting point, that instead you take a look around and see what can be repurposed.

We used:

  • Scrap and offcuts of wood - ours was about 2 x 4 cm
  • Basic woodworking tools - saw, drill, screws
  • Pocket hole jointer
  • Screen mesh - while we have seen people repurpose curtain netting, this was one of the few items that we purchased specifically for this project, very inexpensively from this ebay seller
  • Squeegee material (or you can substitute a car squeegee)
  • Staples and staple gun
  • Silhouette or other vinyl cutter (we used a Silhouette Portrait)
  • Vinyl
  • Hook/probe tool or similar for weeding vinyl
  • Transfer tape or low-tack masking tape
  • Screen printing paint
  • Something to print on!We used T-shirts
  • Iron or hot air gun to fix paint with

Step 1: Cutting Wood for the Frames

If you are buying supplies for your frames, you will be able to choose what size of frame you wish to make and buy accordingly. In our case, we were using scavenged wood, so the size of the frames we made was partly governed by making the most efficient use of what we had to work with, as well as the size of frame we wanted to eventually end up with, and the size of the vinyl we were physically able to cut (there is no point having a huge screen if you only need a small one or can only create small images to use on it!)

Once you have decided what size frame you need, measure your wood and cut it to size. Because we used a pocket hole jointer, we did not have to mitre the edges, only straight cuts with the saw.

Step 2: Building the Frames

We used a pocket hole jointer to build our frames, which made it very easy. All we needed to do was set the jig, clamp the pieces, then drill the pocket holes. Once done, we could just screw the pieces of the frame together very simply to create a frame that is very sturdy and strong. Because we had a framing clamp we used it, but it is not essential - it just makes it even easier to make sure that everything is nice and straight and screw the parts together tightly.

Step 3: Adding Mesh

Once we had built the frames, sanded them down well to make sure they were completely smooth, then we stretched the mesh tightly over them and stapled it in place. The mesh needs to be as taut as possible, with no creases or loose areas, without being so tight that it rips. The easiest way to do this is to staple the middle of the screen first, then move outwards to the corner of the frame. Don't be too stingy with the staples - we used one every inch or so. A second pair of hands to hold everything taut for you also helps!

Step 4: Making a Squeegee

Tada! Your bargain frame is made. As long as it is looked after, and cleaned and dried promptly after each use, it can be reused over and over again.

The next thing to make is a squeegee. We have been informed that you can use car squeegees at a push, but since we had made a good, long-lasting frame, we felt that it was worth having a good, long lasting squeegee as well. We purchased a length of replacement squeegee from ebay quite cheap. To make a useable squeegee, all we did was clamp this between two offcuts of wood, screw it securely in place, and sand down the edges.

Step 5: Cut Your Screen in Vinyl

Now that we have our screens and squeegee, it's time to design something to print!

Because this is printing on a budget, we are using what we already have. And what we have is vast amounts of vinyl, sourced from our local scrapstore at rock-bottom prices. If you have a scrapstore nearby you, it really is worth a visit to see what they have around. They do good work rehoming materials that businesses consider waste, but makers can use in projects. You won't always find what you want or need, but every now and then you will find a complete bargain!

To cut the vinyl, you need to create your graphic in Silhouette Studio, or import your chosen graphic and create a cut file from it. To do this you need to paste your artwork into Studio, then click on trace, then select trace area. Making sure the whole of the image is selected, adjust the high and low pass filters so that the whole image is yellow but none of the background is, then select trace under the apply trace methods menu.

We are making colouring-in T-shirts, so we just want a plain black outline with areas that can be coloured in.

Once you are happy with your image, load the vinyl into the Silhouette, check that you have the correct blade settings. Remember that you want the vinyl to 'kiss cut', that is, cut the top layer of vinyl but not the backing layer, so you may want to reduce the thickness setting to lower than the usual preset for vinyl, particularly if you have a new-ish blade in your machine. Once you have done this, send the cut file to the silhouette and cut your vinyl!

Step 6: Weed the Vinyl and Transfer Image to the Screen

Once your vinyl has cut, carefully weed the vinyl out of the 'void' areas, that is, the areas that you wish the paint to penetrate through your screen. There are special tools you can use to do this, you can make your own using a needle and some cork, or you can use a hook/probe tool, which is what I used. You will need to be careful not to dislodge any other parts of the vinyl if possible. This would have been much easier to show you if we had not been using clear vinyl! I have shown a picture of our screen after ink was used, out of sequence, so that you can see the vinyl areas.

Once done, carefully attach transfer tape or low-tack masking tape to the top of the vinyl so that the different components can be kept in place when they are moved. We used low-tack masking tape as that is what we already had, but transfer tape would be much quicker and easier to use if you can!

You then need to transfer the vinyl to the bottom of the screen (ie the side that will be in contact with the print surface). It helps to have something underneath the screen so that is flat against the mesh. This allows you to use pressure to apply the vinyl without damaging any og the mesh. We just used a stack of magazines. Slowly and carefully peel one corner of the vinyl and lay it on the screen mesh. Then, again slowly and carefully, keep peeling off the backing, smoothing the vinyl as you go and making sure that none of the vinyl you want to transfer gets left behind on the tape.

Once you have done this, ensure that the vinyl extends right to the edge of your screen. If it doesn't, use masking tape to block off the exposed areas.

Step 7: Get Printing!

So now you have your completed screen! Whilst they are not as durable as screens made with photo emulsion, they are fairly robust and can be used over and over again as long as ink is not allowed to dry into the mesh (regardless of how you build a screen, ink should never be allowed to dry in the mesh!) The vinyl is reasonably durable, and will stay in place during washing as long as you are careful, although I am not sure how many times it would survive being washed.

So lets get printing!

You need to make sure that your surface is absolutely as flat as possible. If you are printing on a garment, any layers of that garment other than the one you are printing will need to be protected from ink bleeding through. Place your screen down flat in position, making sure there is no creasing underneath. Add some screen printing ink to the screen and use the squeegee to brush it evenly across, making sure that all of the design is printed and that all excess ink is squeegeed back out of the printed area.

One this is done, carefully lift the screen and set the ink according to the manufacturer's instructions. In our case, this meant ironing on the reverse side (protecting the rest of the fabric and the surface of the iron, of course) for several minutes.

Step 8: Colouring in Your Creation

Once you have finished printing, you can colour your design in! You will need to use proper fabric painting pens (we used Tulip brand) and you can let your imagination run wild! The result is beautiful, bright, rainbow coloured T-shirts that are totally unique and lots of fun to make!

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    3 Discussions


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, this is so much more than it seems at first. A LOT of good screen printing information for the beginner. You could probably do this with a ready-made stencil also, right? Definitely going to try this. Thanks!


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks! As a beginner myself I guess I know what a newbie needs to know LOL

    I'm sure you could use a readymade stencil, there are some really awesome designs out there. Thanks for your support!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Love the mixing of fabric paint and pens to create such a multi-coloured design