Screen Printing: The Supplies

By Nicole Tinkham

Screen printingHave a brilliant idea for a t-shirt/hat/tote bag design? Of course you do, you are a creative artist after all! It’s time to take that idea and turn it into a reality. While the process may seem daunting, it’s not as complicated as you think. Plus we’re here to help (take deep breath and exhale).  Let’s start with the basics: the materials needed.

The number one thing you need to get started is your image. You may already have this in your head as an idea. In that case, you’re off to a great start. Whether you come up with an image idea yourself or a client comes to you with one, remember that a great print starts with a great image. Keep in mind that when printing, you do one color at a time. So basically, if you have multiple colors you need to separate them so you can create different screens for your design. Once your image is ready, you will need to print it out onto transparency paper using a laser printer. You can do this from home or visit your local print shop. The original image should be entirely black and white (no gray) and you want your lines to be bold and pronounced (think clip art style).

To expose your image onto the screen, you will need photo emulsion and sensitizer. These come in two parts but you will be mixing them according to the directions on the bottle. You will also need a lamp with 250 watt bulb and a dark room for this process.

*An emulsion remover can be helpful when you are finished with a design and want to use your screen for another one.

Next, you will need a screen. The screen is a mesh stretched over a wood or metal frame. Beware! Not all screens are the same. You need to choose the appropriate mesh count (threads per inch) for the work you are doing. The larger the mesh count, the smaller the holes are in the screen. This would create a finer print than a smaller mesh count. In most cases you want a high enough mesh count for a detailed image but low enough for your bold clip art like lines. Hint: A mesh count of 110 to 160 is typical for fabric printing.

Ink: Another important item to have when screen printing.  For fabric printing, textile and water-based inks are commonly used. Permanent acrylics are often used when printing on paper. When choosing an ink, consider its thickness in relation to your mesh count. You don’t want too much or too little ink passing through. You can thin the ink and make it more workable with a curable reducer.

How much ink to use?
Screen printing can be messy no matter how much ink you put on the screen. Just like anything else, there are artists that are good at getting down right messy and others who won’t get a drop on them. Anyway, you need enough ink on the screen to make several good prints without running dry but you don’t want too much ink that it rides up the squeegee handle.

The squeegee is what you will use to push the ink through the screen onto the material in which you are printing on. Your squeegee should be a nice fit for your screen. Obviously, you want it small enough to fit inside the screen but it should also be large enough to spread the ink across the screen with one pass. When choosing a squeegee, you want one with a medium hardness (harder center and softer outer edge) and a sharp edge which will give you a sharper print. If you’re one of those messy printers mentioned earlier, you may want to get one with a wider 5” handle.

How to hold the squeegee
Most hold the squeegee with both hands at the top pulling down towards them. This method is fine unless you are printing all day long in which case this may become uncomfortable. Ergonomic squeegees are available for this reason but you can also rig your own by padding the handle with foam or tape. This will relieve strain in your wrists and make it much more comfortable.

To push or to pull?
The standard method is to pull the squeegee towards you, but as you might guess, pushing it is a whole lot easier. If you find the pushing method is more comfortable, you’ll also discover that production rates increase.

*You only need to do one (possibly 2) strokes. If you find yourself doing three or more, your ink is probably too thick.

Your screen WILL get messy- this much we guarantee. Depending on your approach, you might get messy too. If this is the case, prep yourself with a good washing area (a large sink or tub with hose to clean off your screen will suffice). Are you a master of messy projects? Tweet us a picture of your mess in action (@Keetons) and use this hashtag: #mymessyproject.

Speaking of messes, latex gloves and a black cloth, board, or garbage bag are good things to have as well.

Oh and did we mention the material? We’re guessing you plan on printing on something. That could be fabric (hats, t-shirts, bags, or whatever your heart desires), wood, or paper. When printing on t-shirts, you will need a piece of cardboard to put inside the t-shirt to separate the front and back.

Gather your materials and get ready because we will be diving into the screen printing process in our next art blog! If you are looking for these supplies, Keeton’s carries the following:

  • 9” squeegee
  • Photo emulsion
  • Sensitizer
  • 8” x 10” screens
  • A toolkit which includes everything you need to get started
  • A book with screen printing tips and techniques

In the mean time, follow us on Twitter to stay informed on our upcoming events, workshops, and blogs.  You can follow us here:

Image used under Creative Commons from RichardGreaves.

For more information about our art supplies stop in, give us a call (941-747-2995) or visit! For a list of our upcoming workshops, check out The Artist’s Corner.

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