A DIY Guide to Screen Printing T-shirts for Cheap

Ever wonder where bands get their T-shirts made? Some of them probably go to the local screen printers and pay a bunch of money to have their shirts made up, then they have to turn around and sell them to you for a high price. Others go the smart route, and do it themselves. Here's a quick how-to on the cheap way to going about making T-shirts.

The first thing you need to do is to come up with a design. You will want to use something that doesn't have a lot of intricacies, especially since this is your first screen. Thick, broad lines are better, because they are easier to clear out of the screen after you have transferred your design to it. Also, you probably won't want to make your design any wider than 10.5 inches, or any longer than 16 or so inches, because that is a size that looks good on a T-shirt and will also fit on two 8.5x11 inch transparency sheets. Once you have your design made up, take it to your local photocopy store (Kinko's or wherever) and have them copy it onto a piece of transparency. Some printers have 11x17" transparency paper, and this is preferable, but if you have to, you can have it put onto two 8.5x11" sheets and use them together on the screen. Make sure that you get the darkest copy you can on the screen, because you don't want excess light getting through the screen during the burn-in process. The image on the transparency should look exactly like you want the final drawing to look on a T-shirt or whatever. The dark parts on the transparency will be the parts that get ink on the T-shirt.

Next, you need to put together your screen. You can go to your local art supply store and buy a pre-made screen for 20 to 30 bucks, or you can do what I do, and put a screen together for around 5 bucks total. The screen basically consists of a frame and a piece of silk screen stretched across it as tightly as possible. All you need to do is go to your local craft or hobby store and pick up a frame like you use for doing needlepoint (I think that is what it is called). These are square slats of wood that come two to a package, and interlock to form a rectangle when you use two packages of them. They come in different lengths, so buy whatever size you need to have room for your design and extra room of a couple of inches on each side. The next thing you'll want to do is go to the art supply store and buy some screen. You'll need enough to fit across the frame that you bought, with at least two inches of overhang on each side. The other items you'll need for stretching the screen are duct tape, a small staple gun (not electric), and an extra pair of hands.

To stretch the screen, take you're piece of screen and lay it across the assembled frame. Use a strip of duct tape across the top edge of the screen. This will not tape the screen down, it is for re-enforcement. Starting with one staple in the middle, staple through the duct tape and the screen into the frame. Then, pulling the screen as tightly across the top edge as possible (don't worry, you won't rip it!), staple out from the middle until you reach the edge on each side. Now, take more duct tape and run it down the sides of the screen. Pull down on both sides as tightly as possible, trying to make sure that the screen is still centered on the frame. Then starting at the top, staple all the way down one side of the screen. Now do the other side. Finally, run a strip of tape along the bottom, pull it as tight as possible in any direction it needs to be pulled and staple it down as well. You can check for tightness by looking across the surface of the screen and seeing if there are any ripples. If there are, then remove a couple of staples in the area of the ripple and try to pull the screen tighter in that area, then re-staple. Do this until there are no more ripples. It becomes easier to do correctly after you've put together a few of these, so don't be discouraged if your first one doesn't come out so great. You can always unstaple the screen and start from the beginning. The screen should be nearly drum tight when finished. The tighter the better. As long as it doesn't sag, and doesn't have any major ripples, it should work fine.

The next step in the process is using a chemical called photo-emulsion to transfer the image onto the screen. It is not a complicated process, and the instructions for doing it are contained in the directions of the photo-emulsion kit. Just go to your screen printing supply store and ask for a screen printing photo-emulsion kit. This will probably set you back 20 bucks, and is the most expensive part of the whole deal. To "burn" the image onto the screen, you'll need a 150 watt light bulb and some sort of hanging light socket. I use a spotlight socket tied to a broomstick and suspended between two chairs. Whatever you use, be careful to follow the instructions on the distance you should suspend the light above the screen, and how long you should leave it on to burn the image in. This is the point where it is easiest to screw the screen up. If you leave the light on too long, you won't be able to clear the emulsion out of the image. If you leave it on for too short of time, the image will wash away.

To clear the image out of the screen, I use the handheld shower head in my bathtub (I bought it for my tub specifically for the purpose of washing screens, but it also has a massage setting, so it's nice at all times anyway. A good excuse for a life of luxury!) Make sure the water is not too hot, or it will wash away all the emulsion from your screen. What you are trying to do is to wash the photo-emulsion out of the areas that were covered with the black on your transparency. The rest of the chemicals that were under the clear part of the transparency should be baked into the screen.

The next thing to do is to buy T-shirts and ink. I get my T-shirts from either the local Costco, or from a department store when they go on sale. I usually manage to get white, 100% cotton tees at about 3 for 5 bucks. The ink you buy from the art supply store. I recommend buying the larger size containers, because it saves you money in the long run. Also, black ink is usually the cheapest, so check that out before you buy some exquisite color like forest green or burgundy.

You'll also need some sort of wiper to spread the ink across the screen. What you want to do is force the ink through the parts of the screen you cleared out to transfer the image to the T-shirt. There are three different ways to get a wiper. One is to go and spend 25 bucks for one at the art store (not recommended), another is to take a piece of cardboard, fold it in half and cut it to the correct size, and wrap it with duct tape until you have a stiff, usable wiper. When you are done using it, you can throw it away. If you try to clean it up it just gets soggy. My preferred method is to go to the building material store and buy a piece of 1/4" x 6" pine board and a piece of rubber corner molding. I cut the board and the molding to the size I need, and then staple the molding along the long edge of the board. It makes a sturdier wiper, and it's re-usable.

Finally, you'll need a board that fits inside of the T-shirts you are screening. You'll want one big enough that the T-shirt fits snugly over, so that you can get it straight on the board and not worry about slipping. Put the T-shirt over the board, set it on a table (I recommend this over doing screening on the floor. It's a real pain that way), and position your screen on the shirt. Put ink in the screen and pull the ink across the design to the bottom of the screen, then turn around and pull it back towards the top. Lift the screen off and the image should have transferred. I suggest doing a few practice runs on old clothing or construction paper before you use your new T-shirts. Put the shirts on a hanger and let them dry. Once they are dry, take a clean piece of paper, put it over the design, and iron for 5 minutes per shirt to set the ink. Another technique for setting the ink that seems to work for me is to put the shirts in a clothes dryer on high setting, for about 5 cycles. You want them to get very hot.

That's all there is to it. It's easy, it can be fun, and you can save a lot of money, so that you can lower the price of your shirts and still make a little bit of money to keep your band on the road, keep your zine going, or buy yourself that 40. That way, everybody stays happy.

-Mark Hanford (6/29/95)

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