Wayyyy back around Christmas I took some time off to partake in my latest adventure.
As many of you may remember, relaxing consisted of knitting a sweater, perfecting homemade pizzas, reading and … teaching myself to screen print these tea towels. I also spent a little time looking up the *exact* definition of relaxing. I’ve always been a bit iffy on it.
At the time, I promised I would, when the time was right, teach you how to screen print at home.
That time is now.
If you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you thought screen printing (otherwise known as silkscreening even though they’re kindda different) was really hard. Something only magical hippies could do with the help of marijuana and an unemployment cheque. Not true! Turns out it’s actually pretty easy.
When I first started this little nod to the 60′s adventure, I was going to get all set up professional style. Build a light box, use all professional materials, maybe even get stoned and sell my wares out of the back of a Volkswagon camper van.
Then I didn’t. I figure I tend to go a bit extreme at times, and chances are .. you might not be willing to go to the edge with me. To your credit.
So I figured out a way to screen print (silkscreen) that pretty much anyone can do with mostly stuff from around your house. Providing you have a 250v generator and 17 taxidermied squirrels in your house.
So let me explain the type of screen printing I’ll be showing you. It is screen printing with a photo emulsion. In general terms, you paint a screen with light sensitive paint, let it cure, put your image on top of the paint when it’s dried and cure it under lights. The area of the screen that is covered up by your image will not get cured because it won’t be exposed to light. Therefore after your screen is “exposed”, all the area under your image will just wash away under water. This clean area in the shape of your image or text … is your screen printing pattern, where you will drag ink across to create your screen printed tee shirt, bag, or tea towel.
Understand? No? Kay. Let’s try again with pictures …
The first thing you need to do is decide on an image you want to print. I drew up this tree as an example for you. For your first screen printing subject don’t do anything with very fine lines. Something like this tree or lettering is perfect.
You can either print your picture out on regular paper and cut it out, or print it onto transparency paper. Staples carries transparency paper for inkjet printers but it’s expensive. Around $50 for 50 sheets. If you’re doing just a basic image like the tree below, you can get away with just printing it onto regular paper and cutting it out. When you get into more detailed images you’ll want to invest in the transparency paper. Whatever you do the image has to be OPAQUE. If you’re unsure as to whether it’s dark enough, hold your image up to the light. If light comes through it isn’t dark enough. Either print another copy and double them up on top of each other, or colour in your paper with a black marker.
You’ll also need a frame with “silk” on it. The silk is actually polyester. You can buy it in craft or art supply stores. Make sure you’re buying “110″ mesh.
You have a couple of options here. You can either buy a frame that already has the silk on it for around $20 or you can buy the frame and a few yards of the silk and staple it on yourself. If you’re really crafty you can build the frame out of 2×2′s. I did all of the above.
To apply your own silk just use a regular staple gun. Pull it tight, but not so tight the silk rips through the staples. You can also fold the silk under so it isn’t as likely to rip. Make sure your staples are pressed right in because your screen needs to lay flat when you flip it over. Staples that aren’t pushed right in will make the screen wobble.
Once your screen is stapled, cut the edges off.
Tape the outside and inside of the silk so paint can’t drip through. I’m using duct tape because that’s what I had in my workshop. There’s special papery tape you are supposed to use. Next time I go to the art store I’ll buy it, but the duct tape works fine for now. After more than a few washings of the screen it’ll unstick though.
(update: since taking an advanced screen printing course I’ve learned that painters tape works great for this)
Even though I did, you shouldn’t need to tape the inside of your frame. Because I made the frame on my own and the silk wasn’t as tight as it could have been, I taped the inside to prevent ink from leaking. Again, if you buy your frame or just do a better job than I did making mine, you won’t need to do this.
Now that your screen is ready, it’s time to coat it with Photo Emulsion. This is the stuff that reacts to light, so you have to do this part in a dark room, close to where you’ll be storing it to dry. It must be stored until dry in a COMPLETELY dark room. Black. If you put it in a closet to dry, make sure light isn’t getting through the cracks of the door. Hang a towel, or housecoat or flat monster on the door to block the cracks if you have to.
Your photo emulsion comes in 2 parts. The container you see here, plus a little bottle of stuff you have to add to it to activate it. No big deal. Instructions are on the bottle. You just shake it up.
The photo emulsion is applied with a squeegee. You can either use a squeegee you own, or buy one at the craft store. They’re cheap. Coincidentally, so am I.
In your dark room, run a bead of emulsion across the top of your screen. Apply the emulsion to the “bottom” of the screen. The part of the screen that isn’t recessed in the frame.
With your squeegee, draw the emulsion down over the entire screen. You want the thinnest coat possible. I only did one side of the screen, but technically you should do both sides. Make sure you have a nice even coat, but work quickly. Immediately put the screen in a dark area to dry. Set it down horizontally, not vertically. Depending on how thick you put your emulsion is on, drying will take 1-3 hours.
(update: Since taking an advanced screen printing course I’ve learned you can also turn a fan on low pointed at the screen to speed the drying time. With a fan it will take around half an hour to dry)
While your screen is drying, you can set up your exposure area. Technically you can expose your screen outside in the sun, but it’s risky. You see, the screen has to be exposed for the exact right amount of minutes. If you overexpose it, you won’t be able to wash away your photo emulsion. If you underexpose it your image won’t show up and all of the photo emulsion will wash away.
The best way for you to expose the screen is with a 150 watt lightbulb. Your photo emulsion kit will tell you how long you should expose your image depending on the size of your screen. It will also give you the distance your light source should be from your screen. I’ve rigged up one of my photography lights to use as my light source. It has a dome thingamabob on it, so this helps focus the light where I want it. If you do not have a dome thingamabob you can either McGyver one out of a tin pie plate, or expose your image for slightly longer.
You also need something that’s matte black to put your screen on for the exposure. I’ve used an old chalkboard. A black piece of cardboard or bristol board would work well too.
Once your exposure area is set up you can cut out your image, if you chose to go with that technique as opposed to printing onto transparency. I cut this image out with a swivel head X-acto knife, but if your design is very simple you could use scissors.
When your screen is dry, cover it with a towel to prevent light from hitting it and carry it to your exposure area.
1. Place the screen on your black matte background. The “back” of the screen where you applied the emulsion will be facing up.
2. Place your image onto the screen IN REVERSE. Hold it in your hand so you’re looking at the image how you want to see it on your tee shirt, then flip it over and place it on the screen. You’ll notice my image appears white now, because I’ve flipped it over and the dark portion of it is now touching the screen.
3. Place a clean piece of glass over the image to hold it tight against the screen.
4. Turn your light on.
Because of the screen size my image required 35 minutes of exposure with a 150 watt lightbulb set to 18″ away from the image. Yours may be different, but if your screen and image are around the same size as mine this exposure time and distance should work for you too. From everything I read I figured this would be a disaster the first time. Most instructions say you’ll fail the first time and not to be discouraged. It takes a while to figure out the right exposure time for your images.
However, this worked on the first try for me. Everything did actually.
Set your timer and leave your image alone. Don’t push, prod or bother it. Just go away and leave it alone. Once the time is up, remove your glass and transparency or paper cutout. You’ll see a faint image right away.
Take your screen to any tap with high pressure. Your shower head or outdoor garden hose work well. Spray the image with luke warm water. Not hot, not cold. Just keep spraying and eventually you’ll see the image start to appear more and more as the emulsion washes away. You’ve just made your first silkscreen. You’re very impressive. Eat a cookie.
In your work area (which is my workshop) lay your tee shirt (pre washed) or whatever you’re printing over something you don’t mind wrecking. I used a piece of masonite. ‘Cause I wouldn’t want to mar my beautiful workbench that I’m obviously very particular about.
Lay your newly created silk screen over your tee shirt. You’re now laying your frame the opposite of how you’ve laid it before. The back of the screen will be touching the tee shirt and the recess will be facing up.
Run a glug of paint across the top of your screen. My paint/ink is a mix of black and white to make a very, very dark grey. Your paint will dry MUCH darker than it appears when wet. Drag the paint over your image with your squeegee without applying pressure to “flood” the image.
Then, going in the same direction, run over the image with the squeegee again with some pressure.
Light pressure will get you a faded looking screen print.
More pressure will get you a more solid image.
Hang your item to dry.
Once it’s dry, you need to set the image by ironing it with a hot iron. Your bottle of screen printing paint will have instructions on this.
And that’s it. How to screen print. In 742 steps or less. It really isn’t all that difficult and for what it takes in energy it more than gives back in fun. Much like Dodgeball. Or shoving a lima bean up your friend’s nose.
The total investment is as follows:
Squeegee – $9.39
Photo Emulsion - $10 (good for many, MANY screens)
Ink – $8.00 (good for many, MANY tee shirts)
Frame with screen – $20 – $40 depending on size. (or make your own screen and buy the polyester)
150 watt lightbulb – $3
Total Initial Investment for start up supplies: Approximately $50.
If you have any questions feel free to ask me. I probably won’t answer them but I might chase you down and shove a lima bean up your nose.