A simple guide to screen printing your own shirts

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Screen printing is a bit daunting at first, but it’s easier than it looks and it’s possible to set up a printing area at home on the cheap. We’ll show you how you can do it with minimal materials.

The basic idea behind screen printing is quite simple and works like a stencil. Instead of cutting out shapes individually, you coat a screen with photo emulsion, then cut out an image using bright light. The video above walks you through the process, but let’s go into more detail, starting with the supplies you need.

Set up a screen printing shop at your place

Step 0: Get your supplies

First, you need to get your supplies in order. Here is what you need:

Step 1: Create your image

For your first attempt, start with something simple without a lot of fine lines. A reference silhouette with photoshop is an easy way to go. You need a solid black image because its only real purpose is to block light. The image you choose will be etched into the emulsion in step four. Once you’ve chosen an image, print it on a laser printer on transparency paper (if you don’t want to buy a box of transparencies, most copy shops will copy onto a transparency for about a dollar).

Step 2: Coat the screen with emulsion

The emulsion comes in two parts: the sensitizer and the emulsion. Mix them according to the instructions on the bottle. Place your screen on a trash bag. Pour some of the emulsion mixture onto the screen and spread it over the screen with the squeegee. The emulsion should cover an area slightly larger than the image you want to print. If necessary, repeat the process until the screen is covered and you can’t see through it. You want a thin, even layer all over the screen.

Leave the screen in a dark room for two hours until it is completely dry.

Step 3: Expose the image to the screen

It’s time to expose the screen to light. In this same dark room (don’t turn on the light yet), lay out a black cloth or board. Lay the screen and frame with the screen side down on the black surface. Then lay the transparency with your image on it on the screen where the photo emulsion is. Stick the transparency with tape or put a piece of glass on it.

Move your lamp so that it is about one to two feet above the screen. Tilt a lamp with the 250 watt bulb toward transparency with your picture on it and leave the room. A desk lamp works best for this, but if you don’t have one, create a foil reflector and place it above the lamp to reflect the light downward. Do not turn on any other lights. Wait about 10-15 minutes. Return to the room and gently raise the transparency. You should see faint blue lines where the image burns onto the screen. If it looks good, it’s time to clean it up. If not, leave it for a few more minutes and come back. Overexposure will cause the image to bleed, so be careful.

Step 4: Clean the screen

Spray your screen with cold water from a hose, sink, or shower head. Notice how the section where your image is is starting to flake off? Keep spraying it until you can see through your image clearly. Hold the screen up to the light to make sure it looks exactly like your transparency. Let the screen dry. Once dry, cover all exposed parts of the screen (where there is no photo emulsion or your image) with masking tape.

Step 5: Print!

Lay out your shirt on a flat surface. Insert a square piece of cardboard inside the shirt under the area you want to print on. Lay the screen on the shirt with the design where you want to print it.

Pour a small amount of ink horizontally across the top of the screen. Take your squeegee and make a smooth motion down the screen, pressing hard (if it’s your first time, it’s a good idea to try this on some scrap paper before printing on your shirt). Run the squeegee up, down, left, and right several times to push all the ink onto the shirt.

Lift the screen, remove the cardboard (carefully) and you’re done. If you want to make sure the image sticks to the shirt for a long time, put the shirt in the oven at 400 degrees for about 30 seconds.

Step 6: Cleaning

Screen printing ink dries very quickly, so as soon as you are done printing shirts, wash the ink off the screen so you can reuse it in the future. If you want to print a completely different image, you can use an emulsion remover like that to wipe the screen so you can reuse the fabric and frame.

Screen printing can take a little getting used to. As you practice, you learn the exact timing of the exposure, the amount of pressure needed to get the ink through, and other little quirks. Once you get used to how it works, it’s not hard to scale your designs down to two or three colors. While most stores have large machines that handle screen printing, it’s just as easy to do at home as long as you’re willing to be patient. Do you have any personal tips you would like to share? Sound off in the comments.

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