Ten years back, I was your garden-variety weekend DIY person. My YouTube home tab was chockfull of tutorials – Good old YouTube University! I was soaking everything up, having fun, and making some cool stuff for my friends.
But, all this changed when I learned how to screen print t-shirts at home. People are surprised to learn that all you need is a mesh, a strong lightbulb, photo emulsion paper, some pieces of glass, and screen printing ink. But, the secret sauce is the curiosity to experiment and the sheer determination you need to see every project through.
Well, it wasn’t that straightforward. I had too many frustrating experiences where loads of materials went to waste. I was ready to dismantle my home screen printing press at some point. But that changed when a local band said they liked the “grungy vibe” of my t-shirts and I should do their merchandise. Screen printing t-shirts helped me work the kinks out of my process at such a scale. The rest, as they say, is history!
It still wasted loads of resources trying to learn screen printing in hindsight. That’s why today, I’d like to demystify and simplify the process so that anybody can know how to do screen printing at home.
So, sit back, grab a pen, and tab because class is in session!
How Does Screen Printing T Shirts Work?
Screen Printing In A Nutshell
The first thing you need to make a screen print is a fine mesh (a piece of fabric) stretched over on a screen printing frame. Most people prefer using silk or nylon. From there, you can apply a design on the mesh with a stencil if you have the time. Alternatively, you can use a specialized paint referred to as Screen Block.
This blocks out certain areas so that all you’re left with is the design on your t-shirt when you press the ink through the mesh. That’s why screen printing is referred to as a block or stencil printing technique. You can also use photo stenciling techniques to eliminate some cumbersome parts of this process as you advance.
Where Should I Start?
The first steps are usually the most challenging part of any journey. So it may be advisable to start small when learning how to do screen printing at home. I started playing with a simple shape until I learned how to weave it into complex design motifs. Look out for a simple yet eye-catching design.
Lest I forget, practice and experiment, especially working with fabrics. I made the mistake of working with pure cotton garments. So, it took me a while to get the hang of working rayon and other fabrics.
Don’t be like me! Practice and experiment with all kinds of fabrics, screen printing meshes, and ink consistencies. It may seem counterproductive, but that’s the type of experience you can’t buy (or even pay someone to teach you!)
Everything You Need to Screen Print Shirts at Home
Printing your first t-shirt at home sounds like a daunting task. But, all you need to learn is how to prepare your own screen printing frame, then transfer your design on it, and finally how to apply a screen print to a fabric of choice.
You’ll need the following items to make this a successful DIY project:
- A screen printing frame
- Acrylic screen printing ink
- Printing medium
- A powerful lightbulb (150 to 250 watts)
- A stencil
- A t-shirt, some paper, or fabric
- A squeegee
- Bristol board or cardstock
Now, let’s look at how you can use all these things to make a t-shirt print at home.
How to Screen Print T Shirts at Home: Step by Step
Step 1: Prepare Your Own Screen Printing Frame
You’ll need the following screen printing equipment:
- A pencil or a black marker
- A strong and thick paper
- Light Cardboard
- A craft knife
- A mesh
- A wooden frame
- Masking tape
You can start with a canvas stretching wood frame. These are available in any convenience store. You can move on to an aluminum or metal frame once you gain some confidence.
However, it’s better to start with these cheap alternatives.
Also, insist on getting a high-quality mesh with more threads per square inch. You can go for a cheaper one, but you’ll experience challenges when trying to transfer ink in your DIY screen printing press.
Next, attach the mesh to the frame. Use framing nails or an electric stapler to make the screen as tight as possible. Finally, apply some masking tape to the edges to seal them and make them smoother to the touch.
Step 2: Apply Photo Emulsion to Your Frame
I nearly gave up working a screen printing press the first time I got to this part. My first mistake was forgetting that photo emulsion reacts to light. Since you can’t work in the dark, you can use a very dim red bulb or black (UV) lights so you don’t have to feel your way around. So, don’t be like me; find a dark room to prep your screen.
Ready? Follow the following steps to coat your screen with photo emulsion:
- Spread a consistent like of Photo Emulsion across the top of your screen
- Use a squeegee to spread it carefully down both sides of the screen
- Move quickly and work with thin and even coats
- Place the screen in a totally dark room so it can dry
NB: Heat and light will work against your desire to create an exposure screen. That’s why I advise your screen at least 3 hours to seep in the photo emulsion solution. If I’m in a pinch and time is not on my side, I use a fan to speed up the drying process.
It’s also wise to lay the screen as flat or horizontally as possible. This ensures a consistent photo emulsion coating with zero black spots or messy runs!
You could move on to the next step as you wait for your exposure screen to dry.
Step 3: Prepare Your Artwork
Now it’s time to create a custom-made design that you can screen print on a t-shirt, tote bag, or other swag gear. However, making a design that you will transfer through the ink differs from using an inkjet printer.
Keep the following tips in mind to get the best results:
- Create a design motif that will work when you print it in only one color
- Use contrasting colors, e.g., a white image on a black or dark t-shirt or garment
- Create a different image layer for each color if your design motif is complicated. Any raster and vector image design software offers such a utility.
Creating a Stencil
Once you’re satisfied with your design, you can transfer it to a poster board. This helps ensure no creases in your artwork as you use the best craft knife you can find to carve out a clean stencil.
While cutting, please remember to weed out the areas that will remain blank. That way, they won’t be colored when you drag the ink across the stencil, as you’ll see in later steps.
Working with Transfer Paper
Alternatively, you can work with transfer paper if you’re not working with complex designs or you don’t like working with razors or craft knives. It’s tempting to use white ink, especially on blank areas of your design; Resits this temptation and use only black ink for the transfer paper to avoid disappointment. In this process, black acts as a light blocker. It facilitates the transfer of the design as ink on the t-shirt.
Step 4: Expose Your Screen
If you’re still with me, then it means you’ve prepared your artwork, and your exposure screen is nice and dry. Using a lightbox for screen exposure is highly recommended. But you can skip it since you’re learning how to do screen printing at home. Let’s go over how you can transfer your design to your exposure screen.
A bulb between 150 and 250 watts will do the trick.
“Before proceeding, please read the instructions on the brand of photo emulsion you bought to find out how long to expose your image and how far away you should place your light source. “
- Find a flat black surface where you’ll be exposing your screen. I prefer placing my screen on a study sheet of cardstock or Bristol board. And since you can’t hold your bulb up till the exposer process terminates, you’ll need to place it on a lighting fixture. –A desk lamp will do!
- Cover your entire screen with a thick and dark sheet or garment like a towel as you move it to your work area. Such a move ensures it remains protected until we’re ready for exposure.
- Ensure the back of the screen (the non-recessed part) faces up when placing it on the flat background.
- Uncover your exposure screen and place the printed side facing down your design. Hold down the design using a piece of glass.
- Turn on the light to expose the screen for the recommended time. I usually set up a timer. This allows me to focus on other tasks or watch TV while the magic happens.
- Once the time elapses, removing the design and glass pane is safe.
If you did everything right then, you’d have a faint impression of your design on your screen with emulsion blocking out the black areas. Now, give your screen a thorough rinsing with lukewarm water. A once-over with a high-pressure steam washer helps me get to this more effectively. Focus on the region that holds your image until you weed out all the emulsion.
Now, I’d like to congratulate you for making it through the toughest part of building your first home screen printing press. From here on, it’s smooth sailing!
Step 4: Print on Your T-Shirt
Now it’s time to create something spectacular! But, as they say, practice makes perfect. So, shelve the notion of screen printing a design on a premium stock tee. Instead, get an old tee, tote bag, hoodie, or any other old clothes. These items will ensure you understand all the nuances of applying acrylic-based ink on garments.
Use the following procedure:
- Spread your t-shirt on a piece of Bristol board or cardstock. You can iron it to flatten out any present wrinkles or creases.
- Place your screen on top of the t-shirt and cover it with ink.
- Use a squeegee to spread the ink lightly and evenly over the entire surface of the screen. This is called flooding the screen.
- Move the squeegee across the screen once more in the same direction.
- Then move the squeegee in the opposite direction to drag ink evenly
- Dry your t-shirt in a shaded area
- Apply more colors and design details using another exposed screen
NB: Angle the squeegee to ensure that only the blade is in contact with your screen. This ensures you get a clear print and economize your acrylic screen printing ink.
Step 5: Unveil Your Freshly Minted T-Shirt Design
Once your t-shirt dries, you can iron it to improve its presentability. You can place a piece of parchment paper or cloth to ensure your freshly minted design doesn’t wash or melt away. Also, remember to wash off all the acrylic ink from the screen with cold water to ensure it’s ready and clean for the next project.
This might take longer if you used dark inks, which can be frustrating. The first time few times, I scrubbed my screen with a brush to clean it. But, this is a huge no-no as I discovered that I ruined my first silkscreen mesh and washed off all the photo emulsion.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Screen Printing Shirts Vs Other Printing Methods?
Owning a screen printing press has saved me loads of labor costs on bulk projects. However, it’s not suitable for on-off projects. This is because a stencil guarantees consistent results when I mass-produce t-shirts and other pieces of merch.
Here’s how it stacks against other garment printing processes:
Screen Printing Pros
- Ideal for bulk single or 2-color design motifs.
- Excellent results with cotton and poly/cotton garments.
- The heat dry nature of acrylic paints makes screen-printed garment machine wash friendly.
- Acrylic inks are prominent regardless of the color fabric
- You can iron over screen printed garments
- Economical for bulk projects.
- No image size limits like you have with DTG printing
- You can layer different graphics and colors
Screen Printing Cons
- Costly for non-bulk print jobs.
- Different colors need separate screens, so it costs more for complex print designs.
- Unsuitable for garments with waterproof coating
- It requires more space and can be messy.
1. How much does it cost to screen print shirts at home?
2. Is t shirt printing business profitable?
3. Can screen prints go on any shirt?
4. Do you need a heat press machine for screen printing?
5. Does screen printing wash off?
More Screen Printing Tips And Guides
How to Apply Screen Printing Ink
I usually apply the ink to the screen with my trusty squeegee. But, a blade can also do the trick. Here the idea is to make two sweeps. The first sweep will drag ink across the mesh, and the final one forces the screen printing ink into the t-shirt.
The Importance of Ink Consistency
One of the mistakes I made as a rookie was going too thick or light with the ink. I got the best tub of acrylic paint-based ink and acrylic printing medium. But, I got the mixing ratios wrong, and that’s why my work looked grungy.
You may need to experiment a little to achieve the results you desire. The ink-to-printing medium ratio should be 50:50 to print an opaque area of color. If you want a more translucent effect, change the ratio and use more printing medium than ink.
You can play with the ratio if you’re looking for a more transparent effect. Maybe use more medium than screen printing ink. The mistake I made was not being willing to experiment with these ratios. So, feel free to go with your gut instincts! You may discover a new way to color or texture your graphics.
At first, you’ll want to start with a single color on simple graphics. With time you can be bolder and even use multiple colors with reckless abandon. However, to get there first, you’ll need to learn to play with screen printing ink consistencies until you’re comfortable producing opaque, transparent, and translucent inks.
Please note: You can only print a single layer of color at a time. You’ll need to learn how to wait until the t-shirt is dry before applying a new layer of screen printing ink.
Can I own too many screen printing frames? No, you can’t! I feel like I’ve never had enough frames. I started out building my own screen printing frame from wood. But, you’ll notice a random metal frame or aluminum frame in my workshop.
Most screen printing frames came at a size of A3 or A4. But, I’ve also made my own screen printing frames at a smaller size for screen printing logos and other small design details.
That said, I think you’re ready to dip your toes into the exciting world of screen printing. We haven’t exhausted this topic, so I trust that any seasoned pros may have something to add. I welcome that! And, I’d love to see what my readers at home create, so feel free to share your freshly screen-printed tee on social media.
See you next time as we take things up a notch. Maybe I’ll show you how to screen print complex designs with many colors. Bookmark us to find out!