Our customers often ask us, “how does the screen printing process work?” So, after countless conversations on the topic over the years, we figured it was time to reveal our secrets step-by-step. Let’s take a deeper look at how silk screen printing works and why we chose this process.
What is Handmade Silk Screen Printing?
Silk screen printing is the process of transferring viscous ink onto a surface (often fabric or paper) through a stenciled, mesh screen to create a printed design. The process is also often referred to as serigraphy, serigraph printing, or most commonly, screen printing.
Handmade silk screen printing has been practiced for centuries, but it has changed significantly over time. Before we get into the details of how the process works, let’s take a quick look at the history of silk screen printing.
The History of Silk Screen Printing
Screen printing originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) as a means to transfer designs onto fabric. Inspired, the Japanese adjusted the Chinese technique and developed it further. They cut stencils out of paper, wove human hair together to create mesh screens, and used brushes to force ink through the screen.
By the 1700s, screen printing had moved to Europe, and printers began to make screens with silk fibers while continuing to use brushes for pushing ink. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the squeegee was invented, making the process much easier and more precise.
Then, in 1960, American inventor Michael Vasilantone created a garment screen printing machine, further revolutionizing the silk screen printing process. Since then, Vasilantone’s original machine has evolved into the modern press that we use today.
What Equipment Is Used for Small Batch Screen Printing?
We try to honor the long history of handmade silk screen printing by sticking to the basics when it comes to equipment. Here are the main tools that we use to create our hand-printed products.
Screen Printing Press:
While it’s certainly possible to print with just a screen, ink, and squeegee, a press helps simplify and speed up the process by holding the screen in place between prints.
In our Print Shop, we use a manual, six-color press. The machine can hold up to six screens at a time, making it much easier to apply designs that require multiple colors. The press located within our retail store is the original one we used for mobile, print-your-own (PYO) events when we first started our business. It’s now only used for in-store PYO events.
The silk screen is the most important tool for our printing process. It serves as a matrix through which ink is transferred to create a printed design on a shirt or paper. Typical screens have a wooden or metal frame with a mesh fabric stretched across it. Silk fibers are traditionally used to create the mesh, but synthetic materials such as nylon are often used as cheaper alternatives.
A squeegee is a wooden block with a rubber edge that’s used to push ink through the silk screen, distributing it evenly onto the surface below.
Ink is the liquid pigment that’s forced through the mesh onto the item being printed. Our team carefully evaluates ink color and consistency before we print a new design, and we consider many factors, such as current trends, during the process.
When creating colors, we weigh the ink and keep a recipe card in case the need for ink matching arises in the future.
Emulsion is a light-sensitive, liquid substance that’s painted on a silk screen to make a stencil. The emulsion hardens when set for a specific amount of time, creating an ink-resistant coating in the negative space around the design.
How Does the Screen Printing Process Work?
Once our graphic designer, Ryan, creates a new design and digital rendering, it’s time to get printing! Here are the six steps to our small batch silk screen printing process.
Step 1: Print Design on Transparency Paper
First, we print the digital design onto transparency paper. The film is used to create a stencil on the silk screen.
Step 2: Prep the Silk Screen
To produce the highest quality prints, we prepare our silk screens in house. There are five steps to prep a screen before it can be emulsified.
- Cut the mesh.
- Clean the frame.
- Stretch the mesh to the screen.
- Degrease the mesh to remove any oils.
- Dry the screen.
We repurpose our screens and replace the mesh when necessary. The tightness of the mesh is critical to having a clear print, so when the mesh deteriorates or loosens, it must be changed.
We use a manual hand stretcher to stretch our silk screens. The machine grabs the mesh on four sides, and we wind each side by hand. If the stretch is not tight and even, the screen can tear as we apply pressure when printing.
When properly stretched and maintained, one screen can last over 1,000 prints.
Step 3: Create the Stencil
Next, we create a stencil by applying emulsion to our screen. Because the emulsion is light-sensitive, we store the emulsified screen in a dark room and leave it to set for a few hours. Once the emulsion has hardened, we place our film onto the screen and use a light to expose the design on the emulsified mesh (similar to film photography).
From there, we wash the screen again to ensure that the image is clear and oil-free. Next, we place the screen in a high-temperature dryer. And finally, we tape around the edges of the stencil to prevent any excess ink from accidentally passing through. Now, our screen is ready for printing!
Step Four: Prepare to Print
Once we have our materials together, we prep the press machine. We measure and align the image according to the pallet on the press. Then, we secure the screen into the press. Next, we load some ink onto the screen and do a few practice prints on recycled fabric to ensure consistency.
Occasionally, a color combination that we love ends up not contrasting well on the shirt. This can happen due to the reflection of the ink and the undertones of a shirt. If we get to the point of printing and determine that something is off, then we go back and troubleshoot to create better contrast.
Step 5: Print
Here comes the fun part—printing! (Well, we think it’s all fun.)
- Line up the first shirt in the run.
- Put ink on top of the silk screen.
- Use a squeegee to pull the ink along the length of the stencil.
- Remove the printed shirt.
- Line up a new shirt and repeat.
In the case of multicolored designs, the inks must be applied in individual layers using separate stencils for each. Fortunately, that’s where our six-color press comes in handy.
Step Six: Cure the Ink
After printing, we heat treat all of our apparel in a special dryer. The plastisol ink that we use must be heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for proper adhesion. After a few seconds at 300+ degrees, the ink softens and settles into the fibers of the fabric. Then, after a few additional seconds in the same heat, the ink clings to the fibers and bonds to the fabric permanently.
Once the ink is fully set, we check the product thoroughly to ensure that it meets our quality standards. If so, we get it ready to sell.
Why Screen Printing?
Now that we’ve explained how the screen printing process works, we’d be remiss if we didn’t explain why we chose it for our business.
Before Foxduck was born, we simply wanted to find a meaningful way to get Ryan’s designs out into the world. After some brainstorming, we decided that creating custom T-shirts could be the best method.
Our intention wasn't to sell T-shirts solely for the sake of turning a profit, though. Rather, we wanted to produce with honor and authenticity by giving community members products that were made with heart by human hands.
Our team was inspired by the meticulous process of handmade silk screen printing, and upon learning it together, we fell in love with the craft. Sure, there are more simple, efficient, and cost-effective printing options out there, but taking the easy way out and cutting corners has never appealed to us.
Small batch screen printing offers a higher quality print with longer-lasting clarity, less cracking, and less fading risk. But more than that, the silk screen printing process allows us to have a greater role in the production of each piece. We’re proud to say that we lovingly press every single one of our prints by hand.
We built our business on the art of small batch screen printing, and we’ll never look back.