How to Screen Print Shirts at Home?
Do the words screen printing invoke joy or fear within you? If it’s fear, is it because screen printing is something you’ve come to believe is reserved for those pro DIYers with the hippie vibe?
Fortunately, none of that is true, screen printing is easy to do and can be learned by anyone. It is also a gold standard for your DIY cred because it is the most important thing all DIYers should know. So you’ve come to the right place to advance your skills.
This tutorial is a how-to for screen printing t-shirts at home. You’ll learn the best steps taken for DIY t-shirt screen printing which is basically how to put a picture on a shirt.
You’ve probably seen them before, the t-shirts with custom messages on them. They are often sold at festivals or events where people came together for a common goal such as yoga retreats, activist protests, or peace rallys. They have custom messages printed that unite the people attending the event, which makes them extremely popular.
But DIY t-shirt screen printing goes beyond events, you can screen print your artwork on a collection of t-shirts you’ll sell in a merch store, which is currently the most popular application of screen printing t-shirts. YouTube Vloggers with high followings usually have a merch store selling their custom logos on printed apparel.
You’ll first need to assemble your materials and place them at the correct stations in your workspace. Remember to take good care of your materials and buy ones that are high quality if buying new. Having higher quality materials that you maintain in a clean environment allows you to print higher quality images.
You can DIY some of these materials such as the print screen. All you need to make a screen printing frame is to screw 2 x 2 wood frames tightly together, then very tightly staple your silk onto the frame, trim the excess silk off until you have neat edges without overflowing fabric, use painter’s tape to secure the stapled edges of the screen and prevent the paint from overflowing, you can tape the inside of your frame for caution.
If you are buying all your materials or have already done so, here is a list of materials you’ll need to successfully screen print your t-shirts at home.
- A black silkscreen with a pre-stretched 110 mesh frame
- Your Design to be printed
- Transparency paper for the laser printing
- Photo Emulsion
- A 150watt light bulb
- Blank canvas on which you will be printing, this can be any of the following bags, t-shirts, posters, mouse pads
- Clean cleaning rags
- Gloves and an Apron to protect your clothes
- A table covered with a newspaper or anything to protect the surface
- A sheet of black fabric or black paper
- 2 Lamps
- Optional : 1x red or yellow light bulb, table clamps or weights to keep everything in place
There are a few extra items that are optional but important. Having them improves your workflow and maintains the integrity and quality of your tools.
Below is a list of optional by valuable items.
A degreaser is a cleaning agent made specifically to clean your screen. If you don’t have one, then use warm water, but you should consider buying a degreaser for future clean-ups. Degreasers like Screen are water-based, eco-friendly cleaning agents that gently and effectively remove dust, oils, and dirt from your screen which can cause spots on your final product and distorting it.
A degreaser also removes ink from your screen to clean it once you are done with a project, ensuring you avoid unwanted color mixing. Always wash your screen after a project, this ensures that it is kept clean free of dirt, and ready for use at all times.
Your screen should always be placed off the ground and in a place where air flows unobstructed through the mesh. The screen rack allows air to easily flow through the mesh, protecting it from dirt and hastening drying time.
Screen racks are usually vertical hanging racks or horizontal built-in with support on the sides that hold the screen.
You will use this tool to coat the screen with the appropriate layer of emulsion. Your scoop coater should have plastic end caps that you’ll insert before you start coating which allow your emulsion to remain horizontally balanced in the scoop as you coat your screen. It should also be easy to take apart so that you can clean well for your next project. Select a scooper 4″ smaller than the width of your screen size, that fits within the width of your screen allowing you to easily and evenly apply the emulsion every time.
This is nice to have on hand because it helps you fix any unwanted spots on your screen that may appear after exposure. These spots referred to as pinholes allow light to pass through parts of the screen that should be covered by the emulsion. If they appear on the exposed screen, they can ruin your final image by adding specs to it. Always lift your screen up to the light after exposure to find pinholes, if you find some a Blockout pen allows you to easily and quickly fill these holes or smooth out any marks caused by the emulsion process. You simply press the tip of the block out applicator or pen to the pinhole or mark and it is gone. Make sure you buy an ultra-fast drying pen that is also water-soluble.
These ensure that your screen and scoop coater is well cleaned. You’ll use your scrub pad after spraying the degreaser on your screen and waiting a few minutes. The scrub pad will remove any excess ink, oil, dust, or dirt from your screen which not only prepares it for your next project but also increases its quality and longevity.
You’ll clean all your tools in a clean sink. Make sure it’s always clean.
Fan or Dehumidifier
Having a fan allows you to increase the source of airflow in the room allowing your screen to dry properly. A dehumidifier is a good option too because it sucks the humid air out of the room which increases the quality of your end product. Go with the one that works best for your environment. If you are in a dry hot place, a fan will be useful vs a moist environment where a dehumidifier works best.
Now that you have all your tools. Follow this how-to for screen printing t-shirts tutorial below to learn how to put a picture on a shirt. It is written in sequential order, so follow it from the first step to the last step.
Clean Up Your Studio
We’ll start by creating a good working environment. Clean up your environment and make sure it’s dustless. As stated above, dust particles can cause pinholes on your screen which will cause unwanted marks on your final result. It’s best to remove any possibility of this happening by maintaining a clean, dust-free studio.
Improve Your Air Flow
Now would be a good time to turn on the fan or dehumidifier and improve the airflow in your studio. You want to create an environment that allows the ink to quickly dry once applied to the canvas, otherwise, it could start dripping and ruin your work.
Assemble Your Tools
Once everything is clean and orderly, assemble your tools. Keep them within easy reach and make sure they have their own station in your workspace. This will keep you organized.
Degrease Your Screen
Whether your screen is straight out of the box or gently used, degreasing it is an important step in ensuring you avoid pinholes after your exposure. Use a spray bottle to distribute the degreaser solution evenly across both sides of your screen.
Allow it to sit for a few minutes before you use the scrubber to gently scrub your screen. Once done, use a hose to run cool water down your screen.
Dry Your Cleaned Screen
Place your screen on your screen rack if you have one. If place it horizontally like you would a stack of cleanup cards. Make sure your screen has enough airflow on both sides of your mesh. Wait until your screen is completely dry before starting the next step. Make sure your room is well aired.
Coat Your Screen
In this step, you’ll apply the emulsion to your screen. You can place the screen at a 30-45 degree angle against the wall. Make sure your screen has adequate support and is standing unaided. Or you can hold the top of your screen with a firm grip and slant it until it is at a 30-45 degree angle where you can comfortably apply pressure and move the scooper towards the top evenly applying the emulsion solution.
If you are using a scoop coater you’ll fill the tub with emulsion solution and allow it to settle. Place your scooper coater at the base of your screen, make sure it is sturdy and not moving when you press down on it. If it is adjust it until it is safely standing.
Place your scoop coater at the bottom, tip it slightly allowing the emulsion solution to transfer to the mesh, and then move it in a gentle continuous steady motion until you get to the top.
If using a squeegee, pour your emulsion solution in a line across one vertical end of your screen then take your squeegee and press it against the solution dragging it across the screen to the opposite end. Make sure the solution is enough for your project. Take the squeegee from left to right and then top to bottom until your screen is evenly coated.
Dry Your Screen
Place your screen horizontally to prevent the emulsion from dripping and creating marks. Do not place it vertically. Drying time will depend on the thickness of your application or the recommended time written on the bottle. Check the brand for more information.
It usually takes one to three hours. Using a fan or dehumidifier will hasten the time. If you do not have a dark room, cover your screen with a towel immediately after exposure, do not remove the towel until you are ready to expose it.
Expose Your Screen
Once your screen is completely dry, you can use the transparency paper to transfer the image you would like printed onto the screen. The best way to do this is to use a 150-watt lightbulb, you don’t need a lightbox. Read the instructions on your emulsion solution for a time estimate on how long you should expose your screen and how far the light should be placed relative to your screen. The lightbulb should directly face your screen.
If you don’t have a darkroom you can use a black matte surface or bristol board.
Horizontally place the black matte surface or a bristol board with the 150-watt lightbulb shining directly on it. Place the back of your screen on the matte surface. Place your transparency paper onto the screen in the opposite direction.
Before you place the image on the screen hold it in hand and view it as you would on your t-shirt. Once satisfied, flip the image over and place it on the screen.
If you are not using transparency paper, place a clean piece of glass on the image and press it tight against the screen.
Turn your light and leave it on for the recommended time for exposure.
Reveal Your Artwork
Once your screen exposure time is complete, move your screen to your sink wash it with warm water under a high-pressure tap, you can use a hose if one is available. Focus your water on the image and you’ll notice it showing up clearer. This happens because the emulsion solution is washing off. Patiently continue until there are no more bubbles from the emulsion solution. You’ve now had a silkscreen.
Lay Out Your T Shirt
Take your t-shirt and lay it flat on your table. Make sure it is smoothly and evenly laid out without wrinkles. Iron your shirt if you need to remove creases because these could create marks on your final result.
Place A Separator
Ink bleeds through the fabric, so it would be helpful to place a separator like an old cardboard box inside your t-shirt to catch any extra ink, preventing transfer.
Silk Screen On Printing Side of T Shirt
Place your silkscreen on over the side of your t-shirt you want the image to appear with the mesh directly on the t-shirt.
Drag Paint Along Your Mesh
Pour some paint at the top of your screen, then take your squeegee and drag the paint to cover your image. Pressure changes will affect the clarity of your final image, add pressure if you want an intense image and less pressure for a less intense image. You are flooding the image, meaning filling it up until it is covered with your paint.
Repeat the step above without adding paint if you have enough of it. Drag the squeegee down the entire image going in the same direction you did before.
Dry Your T Shirt
Carefully remove the screen from your t-shirt, it may stick in some places but you can gently lift it off and set it aside, if you have more t-shirts to print, otherwise place it in the sink and run cool water to start cleaning it, spray the degreaser and allow it to sit before you scrub it. In the meantime, come back to your t-shirt and gently lift it off the surface, the cardboard should fall out, if not wiggle it a little until it does, then hang your t-shirt to dry.
Wait until the ink does not transfer which means it is completely dry to bring your t-shirt to the ironing board.
Use a dry iron to set your image. Lay your t-shirt image face up on your ironing board. It is important to iron on aboard. If you do not have an ironing board you can use a horizontal surface and place a towel to cover it and form a buffer between the t-shirt and the surface.
Use a cotton fabric to protect the image by covering the image with it and then ironing it over the fabric. Do not directly iron the image.
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