I recently embarked on a mini-adventure I hadn't been on since the 7th grade. The adventure: screen printing t-shirts. Required: some time, some patience, and a trusty instructor to take me through it step-by-step (thanks, Clayton!).
The background: My siblings and their kids join my family in Maine to soak up the last weekend of summer. It's essentially end-of-summer cousin camp for the kids. This year, I decided to commemorate the gathering with screen printed t-shirts for all. Like usual, the project took place extremely last minute but luckily, Clayton was game to stay after work to help me out.
The end result: Success! The screen printing was fun (with additional help from my husband and my girls), and the process took about 3 hours for 25 t-shirts (not counting the time Clayton put in ahead to prepare the screen). But the true test? The kids loved them! Even all the adults wore their shirts at some point.
Here are the things you will need:
Photo emulsion solution
Photo emulsion activator
250 watt light bulb
Screen printing screen
Screen printing ink
A container that the screen can fit inside of
Board that can be slid inside of t-shirt
PHASE 1: PREPARING THE SCREEN (by Clayton)
Mix the photo emulsion according to its instructions. It usually consists of mixing a tiny 2 fluid ounce activation bottle with 3/4 water. Shake well. Add this tiny bottle to the 24 fluid ounce photo emulsion container to activate the components. Stir well with a disposable stick until the mixture turns green. Let sit until bubbles disperse.
Meanwhile, prepare the screen for photo emulsion application. Make sure the screen is free of dust. Mask off the sides of the screen to fit the dimensions of your transparency sheet on the concave part of the screen. Place a push pin on each corner of the flat side of the screen to keep it elevated off the table during photo emulsion application process.
Place a linear dollop of photo emulsion on one side of the screen. Squeegee from one end to the other to coat the screen. Make multiple passes if necessary to cover the screen. Flip screen over and squeegee the other side. Basically, try and achieve a smooth layer of emulsion on either side of the screen.
Place horizontal with push pin side down in a dark box or location that will not be exposed to light. We found a UPS box was the perfect size. Let dry. Try overnight or 24 hours for best results.
Your screen is now ready to be burned.
PHASE 2: BURNING THE SCREEN
Rig a 250 watt bulb so that it is level and 15 inches from the surface where you will place the screen. I used a portable work light (found at Home Depot for $10), a chair set on its side, a couple of pieces of wood and some string to tie the wood to the chair and the light to the wood. These were all materials I found around our studio. Be creative, you can set up your light using any materials you can find that will work. As you can see from the photo, it doesn’t need to look pretty! The important thing is to keep the light level and 15 inches from the table.
Print your design in black on a transparency. Remember whatever is printed in black should be the image you want to print.
Create a dark room. If your room has a window, block out any light with dark paper or cardboard and tape. Before turning out the lights, you might want to orient yourself. For instance, I had to figure out where the screen needed to sit underneath the bulb and where the transparency needed to sit on the screen. It's helpful if you can match the corner of your image with the corner of the screen, that way your image will be square on the screen. If you happen to have a darkroom safe light or want to purchase one, you'll have a much easier time finding your way around!
Once you're fully oriented, now you are ready to expose your image.
- Turn off the lights.
- Pull the screen out of the dark box, place on the table under the 250 watt bulb (which is NOT yet on), and place your transparency on the screen. Cover the transparency with a piece of glass.
- Turn on the bulb and set your timer for 15 minutes. Note: if you have a bulb with more or less wattage, look online for how long to expose the image.
- When the timer dings, turn off the bulb, wrap your screen in paper and head to the sink.
PHASE 3: CLEANING THE SCREEN
The emulsion will wash away where your screen was masked by your image. Run water over the screen until the image is exposed. You might need to use a toothbrush to help this process along. Let the screen dry completely.
PHASE 4: PRINTING
Slide the board inside your t-shirt. I found a piece of veneered plywood laying around.
Place your screen on top of the shirt. Then add a linear dollop of screen printing ink at the top of the screen and squeegee from one end to the other. Redo a couple of times until you achieve a desired ink saturation. This took a little practice, and the t-shirts I printed towards the end looked much better than the first ones. I would recommend printing on a few old t-shirts to start (which I didn't do).
Let t-shirts dry for a while (about an hour or so), and then set the ink by ironing the image with a warm iron.
Disclaimer: The point of this blog post was to demonstrate that you shouldn't be scared to take on a screen printing project of your own! On the other hand, I hope I did not offend any true screen printing expert who will likely catch any novice mistakes I made.