Have you always wanted to learn how to screen print but didn’t know where to get started? In this simple guide I’ll show you all the steps in t shirt printing from home.
The process is mostly simple, but there are a couple of tricky points and I’ll walk you through the process of how to screen print step by step.
Screen printing dates back to the Song Dynasty in China where it was used at a fairly small scale. It didn’t become popular in western cultures until much later when silk screen mesh became widely available. The process became more popular in the US around the turn of the 20th Century when light sensitive emulsions made the process of creating screens much quicker and easier. Learn more of the history of screen printing here.
Step By Step Screen Printing Process
Screen printing basically works by creating a stencil and then pressing ink through that stencil onto fabric. A specialized machine called a screen printing press can be used to speed up the process. A screen printing press will also allow you to align different colors to produce a consistent and repeatable print very easily.
Step 1: Make an Image
These days most screen printing images are created with a software tool like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Almost any image can be screen printed but keep in mind that later in the process you’ll have to create a stencil for every color in your design.
When you’re starting out it’s usually best to keep things simple and design in just a couple colors. Also be sure your image is at least 300 DPI, that’s the best image resolution for tshirt printing.
You can get really good results without a screen printing press but only if you stick to one color designs. As soon as you add a second color you need to be able to align your screens perfectly to get a good print. This is REALLY difficult without a press.
Step 2: Color Separations
Like I mentioned before, for each color in your image you’ll need to create a screen. This process is called color separation. You can buy special RIP software that automatically creates separations for you or you can do them manually in Photoshop or Illustrator.
Here’s a video that illustrates the process of doing a basic color separation in Photoshop:
Once you have your colors separated you need to print each one out on a separate piece of transparency paper. These will be used in the screen burning process to create your stencils. I use a wide format printer because my images are usually larger than 8.5 x 11. Check our our reviews here for some great entry level options.
Step 3: How to Make a Screen Print Stencil
If you’re struggling to find screen printing screens or don’t want to spend $20 to get a professional aluminum frame screen, we wrote an article on making your own for about $3.
Prep Your Screens
Before you get started you need to wash your screens. You can use a professional degreaser but I’ve found that dish soap works well. If you can, get one without dyes or fragrance. Let the screen dry completely before moving on.
Coating your Screens with Emulsion
It’s time to expose the screens and turn them into stencils. But first we need to coat our screens with Photo Emulsion. There are a few varieties but honestly, they all work pretty much the same.
You put a thin layer of emulsion on both sides of your screen and let it dry in a dark place. Once it’s dry you place your transparency onto the surface of the screen and us a light (or the sun) to expose the screen. Any place that light touches will become hardened into the screen mesh.
The tricky part about burning screens is that nobody can tell you exactly how long you need to expose your screens. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to make some test screens.
If the emulsion washes off the screen and you don’t get a good stencil you need to expose the screen longer.
If you can’t wash the image off the screen then it’s over exposed and you need to use less time.
General Exposure Times
We reviewed some exposure units available on Amazon and found that in general if you’re using direct sunlight to expose your screens you need to give it about 6 minutes.
If you’re using a 500 Watt Halogen work light you can expect about 10 minutes.
And if you’re using an LED black light you can expose a screen in about 10 seconds.
This should just give you a good place to start, these times will be slightly different for every light source.
Wash your Screens
Using a soft bristle brush and water rinse the uncured emulsion out of the screen. You shouldn’t need to scrub hard. Just be gentle and give it some time to wash out.
After you’ve removed all the un-exposed emulsion you should be able to see a stencil of your image. Let the screen dry completely before using. Some printers also re-expose their screens after washing to make sure the remaining emulsion is as hard as possible.
Step 4: Screen Print A Shirt
For this process you just need 6 things:
- A Shirt
- An Exposed Screen
Place the shirt on a flat surface. Place the screen over the shirt and clamp down so the shirt and screen are secure and can’t move while you’re printing.
Apply ink to the top of the screen and gently spread the ink with a squeegee over the image. We’re just flooding the design, not trying to press the shirt yet.
Now with firm and even pressure, press the squeegee back over the image. Press too hard and the ink can pass right through the shirt to the back. Don’t press hard enough and you’ll get an uneven print. It takes a bit of practice but you can definitely get it in just a few tries.
Most screen printing inks need to cure under heat. You can use a heat gun and gently pass it over the ink to dry and cure it. You can also wait until the ink is dry and place a piece of parchment over the design and then heat it with a traditional clothes iron. As a last option you can heat press the shirt to cure the ink.
That’s basically how to print tee shirts at home. If you’re still interested in screen printing and want to take it to the next level. We recently reviewed 5 tabletop screen printing presses that are available on Amazon. Professional screen printing presses are incredibly expensive. There are now some great options for an at home screen printing machine for under 200 bucks. Check out our review here.
Doug has been an entrepreneur for years, starting several businesses. Doug is a web developer, father of 2 great kids and husband to the best wife ever. I’ve been working on building my custom tee shirt business for 3 years.