There’s no doubt that when it comes to getting the best print results for your garments, screen printing is king. After you’ve got your designs print ready, it’s usual to send them off to a printer and then wait patiently for them to be returned to you printed onto t-shirts. I thought I would write an article for any of you who might be curious as to what actually happens once your designs get to the printers – so here you have it, the screen printing process explained. This is only a very brief run-down of the process. I’ve attached a few links at the bottom of this article for videos that show the process in greater detail.
Screen printing for garments is done by using a flat, stretched, woven mesh which is attached onto a frame. The printing areas remain “open” on the mesh to allow ink to penetrate through. But the process isn’t actually as simple as it sounds – it’s an incredibly arduous and detailed process.
Step 1. Preparing the artwork
This is actually the single most important part of the screen printing process, because no matter how talented your screen printer is because the printing is only ever going to be as good as your artwork.
The first stage of this process is to either take a perfect ‘print ready’ file, or to make a design print ready. This basically can entail a lot of tweaking in photoshop or illustrator, converting all fonts to outlines and colour separating the design.
Step 2. Producing the film positives
To get the actual design onto the garment, a stencil has to be made that can be burnt onto the screen. These stencils are made using special film positives and thick, all black ink. Each colour of the design is printed out onto a separate film using a specially made printer. Each of these films will then be burnt onto separate screens to make the design.
Step 3. Making the Screen
There are a lot of different things that come into play when choosing the correct mesh for your screens including the detail of the design, the ink you are using and the type of garment you are printing onto. Once the mesh has been selected, a photosensitive emulsion is then spread onto the surfaces of the mesh (similar to mesh’s, the type of emulsion you use is dependent on the kinds of inks you are using). After the emulsion is dried off completely (this can take an over-night sitting to dry completely) you’re ready for the next step – and that’s burring the screen.
Step 4. Burning the films onto the screens
As each colour of your design has to be laid down in a layered manner, you need a separate film and screen for each colour you have in your design (for example, if you’re design has 6 colours, you’ll be using 6 different screens).
To do this, you need to carefully place the stencil onto the screen that’s now covered in photosensitive emulsion. Then using intense light, the design is actually burnt through the emulsion on the screen. You then rinse the screen out with water and you’re left with open mesh where the colour will be laid down onto your shirt.
Step 5. Laying the ink onto the garment
Only now does the actual printing begin. Now that we have the open mesh to absorb the ink, it’s time to lay it down onto our garment. This is done by taking specially formulated inks that are pushed through the mesh openings with a squeegee.
Ink is then pushed through the mesh openings with a squeegee onto the garment. The ink is then dried, and then the next colour laid down. This is repeated until all the colours of the design have been printed.
Step 6. Curing the ink
Before your t-shirts are ready to be sold and worn, the ink has to be cured. This is the process of drying and setting the ink so it’s washable and can withstand tumble drying and basic wear and tear. Professional shops use tunnel dryers that can apply the intense heat for the required amount of time to ensure the ink is cured perfectly before the t-shirts get packaged and shipped out to you.
There you have it guys – a very brief outline of the screen printing process. There are incredibly variables and various other steps along the way, but unless you’re planning on taking up screen printing yourself it’s not really necessary to get into all the finer details. I hope this has given you a good overall understanding of what happens at your print shop.
Check out these videos for more information: