There was a point in time that I though “I want to run a screen printing business” because I had taught myself how to print rock posters and figured t-shirts couldn’t be that much of a leap. Wrong. Paper is cheaper than blank t-shirts so if you screw up a piece of paper it’s not a big deal. Ruining a blank t-shirt is a slightly harder kick in the nuts. I also learned that I really take no pleasure from printing other people’s artwork. The pressure for perfection is something I don’t care to deal with as I’ve always designed for an acceptable level of sloppiness in my own designs intended for screen-printing.
Them: “It looks kinda messy and off register…”
Me: “I meant to do that.”
That said, I do love printing t-shirts for myself and I will on occasion print small runs of t-shirts for friends if they aren’t too complicated.
The process isn’t really all that difficult but there is definitely a learning curve associated with getting the stencil on the screen that you pull the ink through. There are scads of YouTube videos that walk you through it so I’m not going to bother with explaining that part of it. Beyond that there really isn’t much more that you need to print your own t-shirts.
Let’s talk about blank shirts. Target and Wal-Mart have them all the time and sometimes they’re on sale. At first I was using them as a source. Then I discovered that if you subscribe to the Hanes email newsletter, they have sales all the time and you can get really good quality shirts for hella-cheap. I’ve also recently discovered good quality blank shirts at JoAnn Fabrics for super cheap and they have coupons all the time as well. So, depending on how anal you are about the brand of shirt, you can do a large batch fairly inexpensively.
Of course you need a squeegee. People will talk about the stiffness of the squeegee blade as being a critical factor but to be honest, I use the same squeegees I print paper with to print t-shirts and have never had a problem. The tape, stir sticks and plastic cards aid in cleaning up excess ink off the screen when you’re done and then you need a board to put inside the shirt so you’re printing on a nice flat surface and the ink doesn’t soak through the front to the back of the shirt. The hair dryer is to quickly dry the ink. I use water based ink for fabrics so ultimately I throw the shirts in the dryer for a while to heat set the ink but if you have a small space, using the hair dryer lets you stack the shirts while you print. You don’t have to use a Hello Kitty hair dryer but I’ve found it makes the process far more delightful.
Ink is an important thing to consider. I’ve only ever printed with water based ink simply because it cleans up easier and I don’t need a flash dryer to cure the ink. It also feels softer after you wash the shirts. You do want to make sure you’re using ink for dark fabric if you’re printing on dark fabric though. I learned that the hard way although it never dawned on me that there would be two different kinds of ink until I just happened to notice the two different labels in the store one day.
You need screens to get the image on the shirt, hence the name screen-printing. The screens in the image have been taped off. The tape around the edges helps prevent ink from getting between the frame and the screen which can cause problems long term and it also acts as a nice little ramp for scooping ink during cleanup. The screen on the left has two stencils on it and I’ve taped off the second stencil which will be used for the back of both shirt designs. After I print the front design, I clean the screen, take the tape off the other stencil and then tape off the front design after it’s dry from being scrubbed and sprayed with water. Screen economy.
Getting the image placed consistently through a batch of shirts can be a pain in the ass if you don’t have an actual press with a platen and micro-registration so what I do is use a piece of tape or in this case
I trimmed one of the size stickers from one of the shirts to the desired length and after I put the board in the shirt, I stick the sticker to the front, centered on the collar. Then as you can see to the right, I can see the sticker through the stencil which helps me line the graphic up both centered on the shirt and a consistent distance from the collar each time. Super high-tech. Then you just pull the ink through the screen onto the shirt and BAM! You have printed a shirt. I make a few passes with the squeegee to make sure I’m getting the ink nice and deep into the fabric. Also, the thicker you make your stencil (more coats of emulsion) the more ink will be left on the garment which makes for a nice dark print. After you pull the ink, hit that with the heat from the hair dryer and repeat. I’ve done this alone but it helps to have a second person to run the hair dryer. You can move faster and it’s less likely that the ink will dry in the screen which kinda sucks. Not a deal breaker but it definitely slows you down if you have to keep cleaning dry ink out the stencil.
This batch of shirts is for the Squad19 skate park swag bag. Some for our skaters and it’s nice to have stuff on hand to give kids that hang out with us at the park and whatnot. People like free stuff and these were pretty inexpensive to produce. The stuff I sell I’m a little more particular about shirt quality/brand. Being able to do this on the fly though, it’s liberating. I can make a shirt, give some to the skate crew, wear them myself, see how well received they are and if they get a good response I can put them into the eCommerce cycle which is a print-on-demand process. I’ve been working that out for about a year now and will do a post about my learnings in that realm in the near future.