Screen Printing 101- Part 1- Getting Started

January 13, 2009

Part 1/ Part 2/ Part 3

Screen Printing is Easy and Cheap. I’ll Show You How!

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©Michelle SaintOnge

Silkscreening is a printing technique that’s hundreds of years old yet still mystifies lots of people. The truth is, with just a few simple rules, tools and some practice even the most novice of designers can be printing professional quality prints in no time.

It’s arguably the most versatile of all printing processes. You can print onto almost any surface; fabric, paper, metal, ceramic, wood, leather, walls- you can let your imagination run wild. It’s really exciting to be a silkscreen printer and so I’m happy to share everything I know about it with you!

It’s easy to get started printing; all you need is some basic equipment, a design, a few supplies and a bit of instruction. My Screen Printing 101 blog series will give you EVERYTHING you need to know to do this work at home. If you ever have questions about a word or technique just look it up on my online directory of terms and definitions. If you have any questions or challenges that you can’t find an answer for in the tutorials then please email me and I’ll answer them for you as best I can in a Q&A post or I’ll find someone that can.

So let’s get started!

The first things you need to get are the supplies and equipment for printing. Don’t let this step intimidate you, the supplies are readily available and I’ll tell where and what to ask for when you have to source some of it outside your home.  For those of you who would like get all your supplies at once, Blick Art Materials makes a great screen printing kit that’s available here.

  • A printing screen
  • A light source for exposing the screen (task light and a 150-250 watt photo flood bulb or the sun!)
  • A table to print on- the printing surface differs if you print onto fabric or onto paper. You’ll need a flat smooth table for paper printing and here is a tutorial on how to make a print table for fabric.
  • A piece of glass to fit the inside dimension of your screen less 1/2” or photo spray adhesive

  • Photo Emulsion

  • A film positive (made from your artwork)
  • Silk screen inks
  • scoop coater
  • Rubber gloves
  • Dishwashing soap
  • A water source with a garden hose attachment or a sprayer attachment and a sink or tub large enough to wash out your screen
  • A rubber spatula
  • Black bristol board, or black cloth or black felt
  • A timer
  • Masking Tape
  • Optional

    • fan (not heated)
    • Photo emulsion remover (if you want to clean your screen of an old stencil and start over)

    What to Do First…

    Get a printing screen:

    You have a few options here. You can build your own screen from scratch or make it from an old picture frame or you can buy one. I personally would buy one, they aren’t expensive ($25- 45$)  and they’ll save you lots of time.

    No matter where you buy your screen, online or at your local screen printing supply store or even at your local arts and craft store, there are a few things you need to look for when you are searching out a screen that will be right for the project you wish to undertake.

    The screen size: Generally you’ll likely start out with a small screen that is ideal for t-shirt making and other small projects, ideally that would be 20”x24” (outside dimensions). We’ll talk about working with large screens in a future advanced tutorial.

    The screen mesh: Different mesh sizes are used for different applications in the screen printing process. If you plan on printing on fabric I would recommend a 110 mesh count and if you are working with paper you could start with 160 mesh count. Try to buy a screen with white monofilament polyester mesh (this is generally standard with most pre-made screens). If you are going to make you own screen with curtain sheers the thread count should not be too low. in other words the weave of the sheer should be fairly tight.

    The Frame Type: You’ll want to purchase either a wood screen frame or an aluminum frame. I use aluminum frames which are more stable and won’t warp like a wood frames- although the larger ones will not maintain their straight edges either if they are stored upright instead of flat.

    After you have gotten your screen the next step is to:

    Set- up your Exposure Area:

    Exposing a Silk Screen at HomeA very effective and economical way to expose a screen is to use a task lamp and a 150 or 250 watt bulb which will enable you to harden your photosensitive emulsion once you get it onto your screen. This method is ideal for screens that are less than 20”x24” OD.

    I found my lamps at my local office supply store for $16.95 each. I bought two since my screens are a bit larger than average.

    However you set up your light source, desk mounted or ceiling mounted the lamp should be approximately 12- 15” above your screen and the table should have a piece of black cloth, smooth poster board or felt on it slightly larger than your screens outside dimensions. You can find more information on exposing a screen in my Feeling Exposed? tutorial.

    Organize Your Wash Out Area:

    You will need a place that you can wash out your newly exposed stencils, clean your screens that have ink on them or reclaim your screens that you would like to reuse. This part can get pretty messy so when you set it up you’ll want to protect any surface that you don’t want ink or emulsion on with heavy plastic. You can go to your local craft and fabric store and buy the plastic they sell on bolts and tack that around the walls or find some old shower curtain liners and use those. You’ll either want to get a garden hose attachment, one with multiple spray patterns is best and attach it to your water source. Alternatively, you can use a detachable shower head sprayer with variable spray settings if you will be cleaning screens in your bathtub.

    Create a Darkroom: All you really need here is a place where you can block out natural light and install a photo-safe bulb for getting your screen ready with the wet emulsion. Since photo emulsion uses light to harden, until we get it to the point where we want to expose it with our artwork, you need to work with it in an environment where there is no natural or artificial light. You can install a yellow bug light to see what you are doing- I use a 25 watt bug light in my darkroom.

    Make Your Printing Table:

    Pinning your fabricIf you want to print onto fabric then click here for all the instructions on how to build a print table. If you will be printing paper then all you need is a smooth flat surface like a table top (you can use the fabric printing surface for paper printing as well if you’re going to build one anyhow).

    Also, if you want to print paper with multiple colours or a large series of the same print you will want to use hinge clamps for your screen. For the sake of this tutorial I will comment on fabric printing and include links when the instructions for paper printing will differ. Otherwise the same skills apply for printing in general. If you know one you can do the other with a minor adjustment or two.

    Now you are all set to get designing! And printing!

    Continue onto part 2 of Screen Print 101 to find out how to prepare your artwork for print.

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    Screen Printing 101- Part 2- Creating The Stencil at Print Cut Sew!
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