Professional vacuum exposure units for screen printing can run thousands of dollars and don’t make a whole lot of sense for a small shop. Luckily there are now a ton of cheaper options available on Amazon. So what should you look for when trying to find the best screen printing exposure unit for your small business?
A simple DIY exposure unit made with a halogen bulb is what almost everyone starts out with. But once you get a little volume or you’re burning more that a couple screens a week it makes sense to upgrade and save a ton of time waiting around for screens to burn.
What types of Screen Printing Exposure Units are available?
Exposure units fall into a couple of categories.
- UV Exposure Units
- Halogen Exposure Units
- LED Exposure Units
- Vacuum Exposure Units
Ane one of these can get the job done but before you pick one let’s go over the major differences.
UV Exposure Units for Screen Printing
Technically, all exposure units use UV light to cure or harden (develop) photo emulsion on a screen. That’s what gives us the ability to press our ink through the screen in a specific pattern. “UV” exposure units use special bulbs that deliver direct UV light.
Generally fluorescent UV bulbs are used which are energy efficient and don’t get hot during use. It’s important to make sure you can get replacement bulbs but most units are built to take standard fluorescent tubes.
Halogen Exposure Units For Screen Printing
Halogen exposure units are less efficient, take more time to properly expose a screen and tend to get hot with extended use. That being said, they’re also the cheapest and can do a good job once you get used to your setup. This is the type of DIY setup that most of us started with.
There are some commercial versions which refine the design and give you some additional perks like a dedicated timer and ability to re-position the lights. I wanted to include this type of light for completeness but this is the type of light we’re generally trying to get away from.
LED Exposure Units For Screen Printing
LED exposure units are the newest type of exposure unit available. The benefits are that you don’t ever have to worry about replacing bulbs. LED’s are very energy efficient but they can get hot when used for extended periods of time.
LED exposure units can often generate the same amount of light as a traditional fluorescent tube system but in a much more compact size.
Vacuum Exposure Units For Screen Printing
Vacuum Exposure units for screen printing are combination units that incorporate a cabinet housing the lights with a flexible cover. Activating the vacuum sucks the cover down onto your screen so there is no space behind the screen. It ensures that your transparency will remain securely in place while the screen is burning.
Because the cover is non-reflective a vacuum exposure unit eliminates any light bleed around your transparency. This results is a really crisp image with a very well defined edge.
A vacuum exposure unit adds complexity and a lot of mechanical parts with the potential to break down so if you’re not printing really intricate designs or you only burn a few screens a week it might be overkill.
Why would anyone spend the money?
It will ensure that you get the very best burn possible and light bleed around your transparency will never be an issue again. Another thing to consider is the noise, a vacuum unit is going to be much louder than a simple light setup.
Cheaper alternative to Vacuum Exposure Units
If you’re not ready to commit to a vacuum unit or you just don’t want to spend the extra money, you can get an enclosed exposure unit without a vacuum. The cabinet still has a door that opens and closes, but rather than adhering to your screen to prevent light bleed you can cut a piece of black foam to fit inside your screens.
Before closing the door just stick the foam on the inside of the screen. This will prevent light bleeding around to the back side of the screen and also keep your screen surface pressed directly against your transparency. It’s a good way to get very similar results for a lot less money.
Buying Considerations for a Screen Printing Exposure Unit
- How Many Screens you burn
- How intricate you designs are
- What your budget is for an exposure unit
- How much space you have
- Is noise a consideration
- What size screens do you use
[amazon box=”B0086P5KDI” template=”horizontal”]
Specifically designed for a 20×24 inch screen with an image not more than 16×20. This machine is made to be operated as a desktop exposure unit. It’s built of steel and the cabinet itself is sturdy. This exposure unit doesn’t have a door and it’s not a vacuum unit. The appeal of this design is it’s simplicity.
It does come with a foam insert for the back side of the screen that will block light from reaching the back side of the screen during burning and also keep the negative pressed tightly against the glass.
Runs on 6, 15 Watt fluorescent black light bulbs.
- Simple to Use
- Easy to find replacement bulbs
- Compact desktop size
- Sturdy Steel Construction
- Relatively Inexpensive
- No integrated timer
- No door on the cabinet
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It wasn’t long ago that if you wanted an LED exposure unit you’d have to drop thousands of dollars. One of the benefits of using high intensity LED lights is that the exposure time is incredibly short, like under a minute short. Powered by 8 UV light strips and only 80 Watts this machine is both efficient and fast.
It comes with a built in timer that turns the unit off with precision and remembers the last time you used so you don’t even have to program it after the first use.
This construction very sturdy is built of steel and glass and weighs over 60 pounds (be sure to look at the cost to ship the unit before you make a decision). That being said, it’s still a compact unit that will fit in a small shop or home printing setup and would fit on a desktop.
The cabinet door is supported by two hydraulic arms and the door also securely locks so that no UV light bleeds out during screen burning.
- Fast, often under 1 minute to expose a screen
- Energy Efficient
- Closes securely
- Shipping is not included in the price (at time of review 3/3/19)
- Can’t replace individual LED lights if one fails
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The tried and true 500 W Halogen work light. If you’re going through this list and rethinking the amount you want to spend then this is the cheap option. Replacement bulbs are easy to come by, there are no mechanical parts to break other than a single on/off switch.
These lights run hot and use a ton of electricity but unless you’re burning non-stop it’s only going to be on for 10 minutes at a time. As bright as these lights are they still require somewhere around 10 minutes to burn a screen. You’ll have to manually time the exposure and if left too long or not long enough you may find yourself having to re-burn screens. That being said, these exact lights have been used for burning screens for years.
Simply remove the included S-Stand and secure 10-12 inches above your screen pointing straight down. Flip the light on and use your cell phone to time the burn. Thousands of tee shirts have been made using this exact process.
- Simple Setup
- Easy to find replacement parts
- Total weight including the stand under 4 pounds
- Energy Hog
- Long burn time
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This 20×24 inch unit is the only vacuum exposure unit on our list. Definitely consider the shipping cost as well as it’s not included at this time (3/3/19). It’s 20×24” which I consider the minimum for a serious screen printer. If you’re a hobbyist or you just do a low volume you could consider a smaller machine if you never user screens this large. The vacuum means you won’t need to worry about backing foam and your transparencies will always adhere directly to the screen.
This exposure unit features 12 fluorescent bulbs and you should be able to find replacements easily online or at your local home improvement store. The vacuum itself is not inside the cabinet so you will have to plan for this machine to take up a larger footprint in your shop or home screen printing studio.
- Great first Vacuum exposure unit
- Excellent steel/glass construction
- Easy to get replacement bulbs
- Energy Efficient
- Integrated Timer
- External vacuum pump
- Weighs almost 100 pounds
Selecting the Best Option for You
For my money the best screen printing exposure unit for my small business is the 20×24 LED exposure unit we reviewed above. It has the fastest exposure time, it’s quiet and energy efficient.
You definitely need to consider that space involved, it doesn’t come with a built in stand and it’s going to take up a lot of desk space. Shipping was also not included when we reviewed this machine. Weighing in at just over 60 pounds shipping is not cheap but even with the cost of shipping you’ll be spending less than for a comparable exposure unit from the higher end commercial options available.
Ready to try out one of the premium options?
If you have not already checked out the premium level competition you should check out the X-Factor unit from Screenprinting.com or the LUMITRON LED EXPOSURE UNITS from Workhorse Products.
I’m working on my own DIY LED exposure unit and if it works out I’ll make the plans available here on the site. Make sure to sign up for the mailing list if you want updates on the project.
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