How to Screen Print at Home

If you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you thought screen printing was really hard.  Something only magical hippies with a whack of cannabis could do.  Not true!  DIY screen printing is actually pretty easy and absolutely CRUCIAL for your DIY cred. It’s like the gold standard or DIYers.

Karen Bertelsen opens pantry door wearing jeans and a grey t shirt holding a tea towel screen printed with a black cleaver.

 

When I first started this little nod to the 60’s adventure in 2012 I was ready to get all set up professional style.  Build a light box, use all high end materials, maybe even get stoned and sell my wares out of the back of a Volkswagon camper van.

Then I didn’t.  I rationalized that I tend to go a bit extreme at times, and chances are ..  you might not be willing to go to the edge with me.  So I simplified everything about screen printing at home so that virtually anyone could do it no matter how much space or money you have. 

As long as you have a 250v generator and a common counterfeiting machine in your house you’ll be good to go.

Just kidding.  You’re just going to need a strong lightbulb, a couple of pieces of glass and some screen printing ink for you to try out this t shirt printing technique yourself at home.

How to Screen Print

Tattooed man wearing a white tee shirt with the silhouette of a pine tree on it.

In this tutorial I’m going to show you how to make your own screen printing frame, how to burn it and how to use your frames to screen print on any fabric.

So let me explain the type of screen printing I’ll be showing you.  It is screen printing with a light sensitive 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.

Yeah, see it was that kind of explanation that scared me away from trying screen printing  in the first place.

Let’s try again …


Materials

  • a screen
  • photo emulsion
  • 150 watt lightbulb
  • screen printing squeegee
  • printer
  • fabric paint (for screen printing)
  • 2 pieces of glass (like those from a cheap picture frame)

 

How to screen print at home written on the inside of a printing frame.

 

These are your basic steps on how to screen print. I’ll have a full step by step tutorial at the bottom of the post.


Pick & Print an Image


1. Decide on an image you want to print. For this tutorial I’m using a basic tree.  For your first screen printing subject try something that’s just a silhouette and one colour.  Something like my tree or simple lettering is perfect.

White paper printed with a solid silhouette of a pine tree on it.

2. Print your shape or letters onto a regular piece of paper. You can also print it on transparency paper but that’s not necessary until you get to more detailed images.  Carefully cut out the image with an Exacto knife.

Print of a black pine tree cut away from white printer paper.


TIP

When you get into more detailed images you’ll want to invest in the transparency paper which you can buy on Amazon or at Staples.  The image you print has to be OPAQUE because it needs to block all light from going through it. I

f 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.


3. Now you need to grab your frame.  A screen printing frame is a wood or metal frame with “silk” on it.  The silk is actually polyester.  I recommend you buy your screen, but you CAN make your own by stapling “110”  polyester mesh to a square wood frame.

You can buy 110 polyester mesh on Amazon or at a craft or art supply store store. 

And for those of you that are confused I think at one point there was a slight difference between silk screening and screen printing, but now the two terms are used interchangeably. They’re both pushing paint through a screen onto fabric.


How to Make a Frame.


  1. To make your own screen printing frame screw 2×2’s together like I’ve done below. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just solid and flat. This isn’t the time to use up your warped wood.
  2. Then you staple your “silk” onto it so it’s very tight.

Square wood frame on a white tile counter with sheer white fabric clumped to the side.

 

3. To apply the silk just use a regular staple gun. Pull it tight, but not so tight that 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.

 

Stapling white sheer fabric onto back of wood frame.

4. Once your screen is stapled, trim the edges.

Back of a homemade screen printing frame newly covered with silk.

5. 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. I don’t recommend it, it’s just what I had.  I’d recommend you use painter’s tape. 

(update: since taking an advanced screen printing course I’ve learned that painters tape works great for this) and is indeed your best choice)

 

Taping the edges of the silk on the back of a silk screening frame.

 

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.

 

Interior of wood frame, taped with duct tape.

 

Which screen printing frame to buy?

You’ll have two choices when buying a screen printing frame. Wood, or aluminum.  Buy an aluminum frame. They’re only a few more dollars and infinitely better. 

This is a good, inexpensive starter frame.

Using Photo Emulsion

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.

 

Hand holding up a red and green jar of Speedball screen printing photo emulsion and a squeegee.

 

1.  In your dark room, run a bead of emulsion across the top of your screen.  

 

A line of green photo emulsion being run across the top of a new frame.

 

2. With your squeegee, draw the emulsion down over the entire screen on both sides.  You want the thinnest coat possible.   Make sure you have a nice even coat, but work quickly.  Do one side, then the other and then immediately put the screen in a dark area to dry.  

3. Set it down horizontally, not vertically.  Depending on how thin you put your emulsion 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)

Spreading a thin coat of photo emulsion across silk with a squeegee.


Exposing Your Screen


Once the screen has dried you can now transfer the image you want to screen print onto it. THIS is where people usually get stuck because most tutorials recommend you use a lightbox. You DON’T NEED A LIGHTBOX. 

The best way for you to expose the screen is with a 150 watt lightbulb.  

Your photo emulsion jar 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.

 

Photography light pointing down onto a blackboard.

1. Place a light with a 150 watt lightbulb shining down onto a black matte surface. Bristol board would work well. 

2. Carry your dried screen with the emulsion on it over to your light area. Keep the screen covered with a towel to prevent light from hitting it until the second you’re ready to expose it.

3. Place the prepared screen on your black matte background.  The “back” of the screen (the non recessed part) will be facing up.

4.  Place your cut out (or transfer paper printed) image onto the screen IN REVERSE.  

TIP

Hold the image 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.

5.  Place a clean piece of glass over the image to hold it tight against the screen.

6.  Turn your light on. Expose for the required time.

 

 

Descriptive diagram of a 150 watt bulb, 18" away from a screen printing frame as it's being burned.

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, so you should be able to knock it  out of the park on your first try too.

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.

All of the emulsion surrounding your image is now cured hard.  The spot where your image is, has not been cured and therefore will wash away.

Newly burned screen printing frame with a faint pine tree silhouette.

 

7. Wash your screen with any high pressure tap.  Your shower head or outdoor garden hose work well.  Spray the screen with luke warm water focusing on the image area.  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.

 

Washing emulsion off of screen after burning it at kitchen tap.

 


How to Print (the fun part)


NOW IT’S THE FUN PART!  You’re going to lay your tee shirt (or whatever) out, place your newly burned screen onto it, run a line of paint and squeegee your first item. It’s all very exciting.

Since this is your first time and maybe you don’t have your technique down perfectly yet, plan to do a few test runs before. Practice over and over on an old tee shirt until you feel like you’ve got it under control.  THEN move onto your real tee shirt. 

1. Lay your tee shirt out and smooth it.

White t shirt laid out on workbench ready to screen print.

 

2. Put your newly created silk screen over your tee shirt so the recessed side of the screen is facing upwards.


IMPORTANT TIP – Taping your screen

Before printing, hold your screen up to a light source. If you see any pinholes where emulsion is missing from parts of the screen cover that area with a small piece of tape. This will stop ink from seeping through a place you don’t want it to seep through.


Screen printing frame with tree image laid on top of t shirt ready for paint..

3. 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.  

4.  Drag the paint over your image with your squeegee without applying pressure . This is called flooding the image.

 

Dripping blob of paint onto screen and dragging squeegee over it to flood the image.

 

5. Then, going in the same direction, run over the image with the squeegee again with some pressure to push the ink through the screen on to the fabric.

 

Dragging paint over an image in printing.

6. You’re done! CAREFULLY remove the screen from the tee shirt (it’ll stick a little bit) by lifting it up.

7. Hang your piece to dry.

8. When you’re done printing all your items, wash your screen right away by running cool water over it. 

9. When the ink is very dry, heat set the image by pressing it with a dry iron.


TIP

If your print looks faded like this,  just add more pressure to your squeegee the next time you print.

Newly home screen printed t shirt with tree.

 

More pressure will get you a more solid image.

 

Solid black tree on white t shirt.

 

Hang your item to dry.

 

Newly screen printed t shirt hanging to dry.

Here it is in video.

 

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.

How to Screen Print at Home

How to Screen Print at Home

Prep Time: 4 hours
Active Time: 30 minutes
Additional Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 5 hours
Difficulty: Intermediate
Estimated Cost: $55

Screen Printing tutorial for the beginner.

Materials

  • Squeegee – $9
  • Photo Emulsion – $10 (good for many, MANY screens)
  • Ink – $8.00 (good for many, MANY tee shirts)
  • Frame with screen – $20
  • 150 watt lightbulb – $3
  • Tee shirt - $5

Instructions

PICK AN IMAGE

    1. Decide on an image you want to print. For this tutorial I’m using a basic tree.  For your first screen printing subject try something that’s just a silhouette and one colour.  Something like my tree or simple lettering is perfect.
    2. Print your shape or letters onto a regular piece of paper. You can also print it on transparency paper but that’s not necessary until you get to more detailed images.  Carefully cut out the image with an Exacto knife.
    3. Now you need to grab your frame.  A screen printing frame is a wood or metal frame with “silk” on it.  The silk is actually polyester.  I recommend you buy your screen, but you CAN make your own by stapling “110”  polyester mesh to a square wood frame. You can buy 110 polyester mesh on Amazon or at a craft or art supply store store. 

    MAKING A FRAME

    1. To make your own screen printing frame screw 2×2’s together like I’ve done below. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just solid and flat. This isn’t the time to use up your warped wood.
    2. Staple your silk onto the frame with a regular staple gun, so it’s very tight.
    3. Trim the edges the silk.
    4. Tape the outside of the silk onto the frame with painter's tape.

COATING WITH PHOTO EMULSION


    1. Mix the 2 parts of the photo emulsion together.

    2. In your dark room, run a bead of emulsion across the top of your screen.  
    3.  With your squeegee, draw the emulsion down over the entire screen on both sides.  You want the thinnest coat possible.   Make sure you have a nice even coat, but work quickly.  Do one side, then the other and then immediately put the screen in a dark area to dry. 
    4. Set it down horizontally, not vertically.  Depending on how thin you put your emulsion on, drying will take 1-3 hours.

EXPOSING YOUR SCREEN

    1. Place a light with a 150 watt lightbulb shining down onto a black matte surface. Bristol board would work well. 
    2. Carry your dried screen with the emulsion on it over to your light area. Keep the screen covered with a towel to prevent light from hitting it until the second you’re ready to expose it.
    3. Place the prepared screen on your black matte background.  The “back” of the screen (the non recessed part) will be facing up.
    4. Place your cut out (or transfer paper printed) image onto the screen IN REVERSE.
    5. Place a clean piece of glass over the image to hold it tight against the screen.
    6. Turn your light on. Expose for the required time. (instructions for required time will be on your box or bottle of photo emulsion)
    7. Wash your screen with any high pressure tap.  Your shower head or outdoor garden hose work well.  You're washing away the emulsion over your image. Use lukewarm water.

PRINTING!

    1. Lay your tee shirt out and smooth it.
    2. Put your newly created silk screen over your tee shirt so the recessed side of the screen is facing upwards.
    3. 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.  
    4. Drag the paint over your image with your squeegee without applying pressure . This is called flooding the image.
    5. Then, going in the same direction, run over the image with the squeegee again with some pressure.
    6. You’re done! CAREFULLY remove the screen from the tee shirt (it’ll stick a little bit) by lifting it up.
    7. Hang your piece to dry.
    8. When you’re done printing all your items, wash your screen right away by running cool water over it. 
    9. When the ink is very dry, heat set the image by pressing it with a dry iron.

Notes

  • When you get into more detailed images you’ll want to invest in the transparency paper which you can buy on Amazon or at Staples.  The image you print has to be OPAQUE because it needs to block all light from going through it. 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 have two choices when buying a screen printing frame. Wood, or aluminum.  Buy an aluminum frame. They’re only a few more dollars and infinitely better.  This is a good, inexpensive starter frame.
  • If your print looks faded  just add more pressure to your squeegee the next time you print.

This is the most basic of screen printings. If you get more into it you’re going to want to buy or make a screen printing press and learn a lot more about grey scale printing of images. 

IF all this DIY seems like a lot of work you can buy an entire starter screen printing starter kit that includes THE SCREEN, PHOTO EMULSION, FABRIC PAINTS, A SQUEEGEE and more.


Get the  starter screen printing kit for $38 on Amazon US.

Get the starter screen printing kit for $67 on Amazon in Canada. 


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.

 

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←

 

How to Screen Print at Home

311 Comments

  1. Brenda says:

    Whoa Karen..thanks for this..have to try it!! oh and I think the fella deserves the purple cross for allowing you to exploit him…..

  2. Melissa says:

    This is so cool! I kinda sorta think I could actually pull this off, based on your directions.

    I love the fella being your model for this too.

  3. Rose says:

    The fella is sporting the universal expression for hurry-up-and-take-the-picture-so-I-can-get-on-with-whatever-I-was-doing-when-you-stopped-me-and-asked/made-me-take-a-picture. My husband always looks like that in ALL of our impromptu photos. It goes well with the other set of photos with the fake smile he does when I ask/tell him to NOT be like that.

  4. Langela says:

    I love the faded look. I may have to try this someday. Maybe next winter when all the outdoor work is done on the farm. Thanks for the inspiration, Karen!

  5. Mary Kay says:

    Hi Karen,

    Did this in art class in high school – but we used a different product and had to cut the image out of this green stuff. But that was MANY moons ago – I saw on the internet where someone had used an embrodiery hoop, pantyhose and modge podge to create a silk screen. I think I pinned it on Pinterest. If I do this right here is the link to check it out.

    http://mycalicoskies.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/52-week-challenge-10-diy-screenprint.html

    BTW – love ur blog ur my new hero!

  6. steph says:

    My favorite posts typically feature the fella looking like you dragged him outside with begging and promises of whatever he gets excited about. That face says, this is the 20th time you’ve taken this picture, and you promised a quick shot. Are we done yet?

    • Karen says:

      Steph – That’s funny. That’s *exactly* what that face is. If I remember correctly we were just about to eat dinner, but I was losing light outside so we needed to do it right there and then. :) ~ karen

  7. Mary Werner says:

    I don’t understand how you work in the dark – then leave it to dry for hours. How did you get out of the closet without light getting in? Or did you stay in the closet and have a little nap? Or did you do all this at night – so confused.

  8. Deborah says:

    Impressive to say the least! but as another worshiper said, if I try to add any more craft things on my To Do list, hubs will have my a$$ in a sling :D THANKS for taking the time to show us how it’s done. I will bookmark this for later though, perhaps when hubs goes golfing I can set up a silkscreen sweatshop… (evil grin) :P Oh, and the Dude most definitely looks fetching :D

  9. Leslie Zuroski says:

    He looks quite fine and so does the shirt. Thanks so much for this Karen! I’ve been wanting to make some stuff.

  10. sarah says:

    is your fella henry rollins baby brother?

  11. Amy Schmucker says:

    love it. I took printing class in high school. That was enough for me.

  12. Jen says:

    Wow…this makes me appreciate those tea towels…in a whole new light! Great tutorial….great shirt for the Fella.

  13. jenny says:

    Could you tell us what you for a darkroom, and how you make it “light tight”?

    • Karen says:

      Jenny – I use my closet or my laundry room. Neither one has windows. Any room w/out windows will be fine. I closed myself into each room and took a look at the door to see where any light was coming through. Then I just taped up some tea towels on the outside of the door to make sure no light got through. ~ karen!

  14. Tara says:

    Sorry if you covered this already, just wondering how often you can reuse the screen. Can you wash the paint off and use it again, with different colours etc?

    We did silk screening in high school just with a paper stencil sealed with shellac. This probably has a totally different name and is nothing like actual screen printing!

    • Karen says:

      Tara – You can wash the screens with Photo Emulsion Remover as long as the screens aren’t years old. Then it’s harder to remove. ~ karen

  15. I’ve been reading this blog for what feels like forever, and I think that’s the first picture I’ve ever seen of the fella! Now I know how hot he is I’ll definitely keep reading.

    • Shauna says:

      my honest answer – if that is the first picture you’ve seen of the Fella, then you’ve missed some really great posts! I know there’s at least one with his shirt off – it’s not to be missed;)

  16. Sevi says:

    Wow, this sounds like rocket science to me now. I think I need to drink a few more cups of coffee and wait for the afternoon to read it again. Thinking again… No, no clue…

  17. Leena says:

    Ok, question, even at risk of getting a lima bean up my nose. If you want to make many different images, do you have to have many frames too or can you change the “silk”? Can it be stapled again on the frame?

    • Karen says:

      Leena – It depends. The silks can be washed with a special solution if you know you’re never going to use that pattern again. That way you can just clean the screen as opposed to changing it out. You *can* remove the stapled screen for use later on, but I wouldn’t say it’s recommended. You can reuse frames. ~ karen

  18. Michelle says:

    You are one of those annoying people that can’t sit still on their relaxing holidays while I’ll happily sit on the couch at home watching everyone else on the home shows doing the clever things!
    He looks well impressed by his early xmas pressie :)

  19. ladymonana says:

    You know me so well! Detailed description AND pictures to follow! Also, thank you for the great suggestion on what to do with that flat monster I have lying around. I can’t wait to try this.

  20. Sandy C says:

    Looks like a fun project! Who pee’d in the fella’s Wheaties before the photo shoot?

  21. Angela says:

    Thank you for including a picture of the fella, that was a nice reward at the end of the post.

    The tutorial was very helpful, I’ve always wondered how to silkscreen! Sadly, I won’t be adding this to my list of projects, the list is already about 3 miles long and my husband is threatening to have my craft supplies end up ‘misplaced’ during our upcoming move.

  22. Pati N says:

    Thank you Karen! I have so wanted to do this.I was just scared thinking I had to invest a lot of money… I have been using freezer paper to stencil designs onto the bags I make.It works fine but I cannot reuse my stencils as much as I could with a screen print.
    Also just wanted to say that I just feel we are always on the same wave length…you and I. So many of your posts directly relate to my life. Seems uncanny sometimes:)

  23. Amanda says:

    I used to do screenprinting. Little tip – if your dark room has a RED light you can take your time spreading the emulsion and make sure it is nicely covered without the panic that you are already exposing your activated emulsion. You can also place your design in the red light so when you take your towel or sheet off of the screen it can immediately start to process. Like Photo paper Red Light does not activate the photo processing chemicals in emulsion. also you can “bake” your t-shirts in the oven at 250 for 5 minutes or so. This was useful for me as I burn everything with an iron… all my ironing is done in the dryer with a wet cloth LOL

  24. Shannon V. says:

    Great tute. Very easy to follow. Will have to try this this summer….going to pin it now!

  25. cheri says:

    Yahoo! I’ve been waiting (and waiting) for these instructions. And now that I am pretty much completely confused, yet in awe that this works….I’m trying it. I plan to make this my new career actually.

    Thanks, Karen!
    Cheri

    • Luis says:

      I also have a screen printing company. I made my own 4 color 1 station press and with it made enough to buy a 6 color 4 station press. i no longer use it. if interested contact me. If you need any tip i can also help.

      • michael says:

        please contact me for your asking price 808 968-0949 or e-mail me

      • KJ says:

        How much are you charging for the machine that is for sale?

        thanks,

        KJ

      • Tere says:

        @ Luis…Where are you and how much? I’m new at this…is your method the same as the one on this tutorial?

      • Andrew Schultz says:

        Hey I was wondering if you still had the 6 color four station press.

        I know your post was long ago, but I figured I would try my luck.

        I am interested in growing my screen printing skills and wanted to see what you would charge, or what you think it would take for me to get my own rig set up.

        Any help is greatly appreciated!

        Andrew

      • Hilmi says:

        hi, can u please help me? i need to learn how to print screen , please email me hilmi_jamaludin96@yahoo.com thanks

    • Laurie Bee says:

      whose the hottie in the pic?! lol! i like your instructions, thanks!

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