Screen Printing 101: The Ultimate Beginners Guide to the Basics

Screen printing has been around for quite some time – and by quite some time, we mean around a century ago! In the early 1900s, a young sign painter thought to use a wooden frame with silk stretched over it and block some parts on it to create a stencil. This gave birth to the silk screen printing process.

This century-old method is still in use today, which might be surprising to you but not so much for us. After all, it’s still unmatched in quality, cost, and color intensity.

If you want to know more about it, read our screen printing 101 guide below. We’ll teach you everything there is to know about this process.

What Is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is pretty self-explanatory. It prints onto a surface by forcing ink through a screen. The mesh contains the stencil, so when the ink goes through it, it leaves an imprint of the design on the surface.

It’s a common method for printing designs on fabric and paper, but it has other applications, too. You can use this method to print on glass, wood, ceramic, and so on.

How Does It Work?

It starts with the choice of a substrate; it can be a T-shirt, paper, bottle, mug, or anything you fancy. The real process, though, starts with the creation of a stencil. We’ll discuss everything in this screen printing 101 guide.

1. Getting the Screen Ready

The creation of the stencil involves printing film positives, choosing an emulsion, and “burning” the graphic onto the screen.

The emulsion coats the screen, and then the film positive goes on top of it. When exposed to bright light, the emulsion that’s not covered by the design hardens. The screen then goes through a process to wash off the emulsion that stays liquid, creating the outline on the screen.

Screen printing can’t print all colors onto a surface at once. You need to create one stencil per color. This is why businesses will often ask you how many colors does your design have as it will affect the price.

Cost-effective designs only have about four colors or fewer. You can use more colors, but that’s going to be a lot more expensive.

In case you were wondering, screen printing businesses have a machine that separates the colors in digital design. This makes it easier to create stencils.

2. Selecting the Ink

In an actual process, selecting the ink comes before choosing a mesh and an emulsion. This will depend on which ink the design needs. If it needs dense ink, like glittery ink, it needs a mesh with a low count so the big particles can pass through with ease.

Yes, people need to choose the inks needed manually. 

The ink must be in the right consistency – too thick and you might have to use more pressure, creating shadows and uneven prints; too thin and the ink might flow to the outer parts of the design.

It must be in the right amount, as well. You must have enough ink to cover the whole design with some leftovers. In an ideal setting, the ink floods the screen.

However, you don’t want too much leftover ink. You can’t put it back to a container and store them for later use, anyway.

3. Printing the Design

Next is the actual printing process. The set-up will vary, but at its core, the steps are about the same. Before that, though, you need to choose the right squeegee.

The right squeegee for the project is a couple of inches smaller than your screen. The rubber part must also have the right hardness, which we measure by “durometers.”

Softer, rounder squeegees lay down more ink. They’re more recommended for prints without many details.

Harder, sharper squeegees lay down less ink. As such, they’re more recommended for designs with intricate details.

Now comes the printing part. You put the substrate below the mesh with design, ensuring it has a stable position on the print bed.

Next, you pour the ink on top or the bottom of the design. This depends on whether you want to push the squeegee away from you or pull it toward you.

Hold your squeegee firmly, place it behind the pool of ink, and then push (or pull). Use adequate pressure. This will distribute the ink on the surface in even strokes.

For multi-color designs, you put the substrate below another stencil. Do the same process until the design is complete.

Afterward, you need to cure the ink. Water-base, plastisol, and discharge inks need to go through a dryer to cure at a specific temperature. Inks like enamel and vinyl, on the other hand, you can air-cure.

Curing provides a smooth and colorfast finish. The substrate with the design will be ready for use by then. But, businesses might wash it first to remove any dirt or residue.

Benefits of Screen Printing

The best benefit of this method is the quality. The prints last for a longer time and the colors pop on the surface better.

It’s a great choice for bulk orders, too. A business can save more on huge orders because you can reuse the screen multiple times. You don’t need to create a stencil each time you print on one surface.

In other cases, like in digital printing, there are few savings on bulk orders. That’s because the materials used in each step is about the same. It’s a much faster process than some types of printing, too

Screen printing is among the few printing methods to be fitting for unusual objects. Like pad printing, it can print designs on 3D objects and irregular surfaces with accuracy.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll find this a better option, as well. It’s easy to get the basic materials needed to start a screen-printing business.

Screen Printing 101 Guide: Try It Now

Although the process looks quite complicated, it’s easy to start since you don’t need special materials. You can use a plain white T-shirt to get started using our screen printing 101 guide.

If you’re curious about more informative lists like this, read more on our blog posts here. Get all the tips and tricks you need today!

RJ Frometa
Author: RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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