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Screen Printing Basics

screen printing demo SGIA show

Silk screening—also known as screen printing—is a technique that seems confusing and difficult, but don’t be scared by this traditional style of printing. People have been screen printing since the Song Dynasty in China nearly 1,000 years ago and the industry is still going strong today! Popular with modern-day artists due to its affordability and ease of use, even the most novice designer can make professional quality prints with just a few tools, some simple rules, and practice! This guide to screen printing basics will help you find what you need to start learning how to screen printing or silk screen.

Supplies

First, you must get the supplies and equipment for screen printing. Don’t let this intimidate you, as the supplies are readily available. If you would like all the supplies at once our experts at All American will put together a starter kit for you. Remember, screen printing is a messy hands-on process.  Protect any surfaces that you don’t want ink or emulsion on with heavy plastic prior to printing.

You will need:

  • A printing screen and frames.
  • A screen printing light source for exposing the screen (exposure unit) or, with some effort, a task light, and a 150 to 250-watt photoflood bulb. Depending on your location and the weather the sun may work for you.
  • A table to print on – the printing surface differs for different substrates.
  • 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.
  • Emulsion Scoop Coater (please call All American at (215)-634-2235).
  • Rubber gloves.
  • Dishwashing soap.
  • A water source, preferably a garden hose with a sprayer attachment and a sink or tub large enough to wash out your screen.
  • A rubber spatula.
  • Black Bristol board, black cloth, or black felt.
  • A timer.
  • Masking tape.
  • Heavy plastic for covering any surface you don’t want to get ink or emulsion on.

Optional

  • Fan (not heated).
  • Photo emulsion remover to clean screens.

There are many other accessories you can use for screen printing, above covers the basics. If you’re looking for more supplies or equipment for your silk screen projects, please visit our screen printing section.

Getting Started

  1. Get a printing screen

 You have a few options here: you can build your own screen from scratch, make one from an old picture frame, or you can buy one. All Americans frames with mesh screens start around $26.

If you decide to buy your screen, either online, or at a local art and craft store, or screen supply shop, there are a few things you need to be aware of while searching for the right screen for your project. 

  • The Screen Size: Generally, you’re likely to begin with a small screen that is ideal for T-shirt making and other small projects. Preferably, that would be 20” x 24” (outside dimensions). For information using larger screens, please check back for updates.
  • The Screen Mesh: Different mesh styles are used for different applications in the screen printing process. If you plan on printing on fabric, an 110 mesh count is recommended. 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 from curtain sheers, the thread count should not be too low. The weave of the sheer should be fairly tight, like a drum.
  • The Frame Type: You’ll want to purchase either a wood screen frame or an aluminum frame. Aluminum frames are more stable and won’t warp like wood frames, although the larger ones will not maintain their straight edges if they are stored upright instead of flat.

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

2. Setup Your Exposure Area

 A very effective and economical way to create a screen printing light using 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” x 24” OD. Whether you are using a desk mounted or ceiling lamp, the light source should be approximately 12” to 15” above your screen. The table should also have a piece of black cloth, smooth poster board, or felt on top of it slightly larger than the outside dimensions of the screen. All American sells exposure units for a more controlled and evenly distributed exposing method.

3. 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, and reclaim screens that you would like to reuse. Warning, this part can get pretty messy.

When you set up your work area, you’ll want to protect any surface that you don’t want ink or emulsion on with heavy plastic. If you are having trouble finding a sufficient amount of plastic, craft stores usually sell it by the bolt. Old shower curtain liners are an inexpensive alternative. For water, you’ll want to get a garden hose a spray attachment, one with multiple spray patterns works best. 

4. Create a Darkroom

 Since photo emulsion uses light to harden until you are ready to expose it with your artwork, you will need an environment absent of natural and artificial light. Windowless bathrooms and basement are prime places to use. You can install a yellow bug light in order to see—personally, we use a 25-watt bug light in our darkroom.

5. Get a Printing Table

If you want to print onto fabric, then you may need to find a specific table or build your own. For printing on paper, all you need is a smooth flat surface like a tabletop. It’s possible to use a fabric printing surface for paper printing as well. Also, if you want to print paper with multiple colors, or a large series of the same print, you will want to use hinge clamps for your screen.

Now you should have the basics to get started!