DIY Screen Printing: Simple, Easy, and Inexpensive

Screen printing relies on stencils — one of the earliest forms of graphic art duplication after woodcuts — etching, and engraving. The screen printing process was developed at the turn of the 20th century and used extensively in advertising. However, when you think of screen printing, it’s the DIY screen printing of Pop artists from the 60s like Andy Warhol that probably come to mind. Warhol blurred the lines between fine art and commercial design, producing repetitive screen prints of Campbell’s Soup cans or Marilyn Monroe. Warhol proved that high art could be mass produced using the screening process. Today, you can do the same inexpensively at home.

Although the process can reproduce clean, sharp lines, it’s the imperfections, the texture, and the handmade quality of screen printing that have the most appeal. Replicate a design quickly, but each will still have that touch of handmade quality that elevates the print to a form of artwork. No wonder screen prints are still as popular as ever today in a world dominated by everything that is mass produced by computers. Using DIY screen printing techniques, you can make and sell your T-shirts and crafts that have that professional yet handmade look that will never go out of style. You could even aspire to create beautiful art like Andy Warhol.

Screen printing has been around since well before 960 AD when the Song dynasty created images of Buddha using forced ink techniques. Even before that, the ancient Polynesians used the method to make prints, forcing dyes through holes cut in banana leaves. The idea may have come from watching insects chew holes in leaves and then observing rain or moisture as it passed through the holes.

The screening process was developed in Japan with the katagami art form. Artisans carefully cut paper stencils held together using human hair. The hair was strong enough to hold stencils together but still allowed ink to pass through to a surface like rice paper. Eventually, strong silk material took the place of hair, which is why the process is often referred to as silkscreening. When alternatives to expensive silk were discovered using synthetic fibers, the screen printing process caught on in America. Commercial artists started making wallpaper designs, advertisements, T-shirts, and even fine art. Although DIY screen printing has been around a long time, it’s still one of the newest types of art in the West.

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DIY Screen Printing Basics

screen printing

Image by Viola Renate from Flickr

You may hear DIY screen printing referred to by many names: silk screening, screen printing, or serigraphy, the word some use to designate fine art instead of commercial printing. The basic process is always forcing a dye, paint, or other colored substance through a prepared stencil to create a print on a surface. The printer produces a stencil on a fine mesh of fabric stretched over a frame. A squeegee presses the dye through the stencil in a controlled way. A thick layer of ink is the result. Thus, the print quality tends to be long-lasting and durable.

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Embrace the mess

The first hurdle to get over when contemplating DIY screen printing is the inevitable mess. Oh yes, working with ink is almost always messy. If you’re an artist, this won’t bother you, but it doesn’t hurt to be ready. Wear gloves, an apron, and have some baby wipes to clean exposed hands. Since not everyone has a studio, you may need to lay down drop cloths, use fans and open windows for ventilation. Some techniques we’ll look at require a dark room. In that case, you may need to work on designating a closet or basement area to serve as a makeshift darkroom. Don’t worry, a darkroom isn’t mandatory. Once you prepare the work area, you are free to create without worries, and that makes it more fun. For most people, anyway.

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Choosing Your First Design

When starting with DIY screen printing, it’s best to K.I.S.S. That is, keep it simple stupid. That’s a design principle found useful in many fields, but it especially true for your first screen print. No, it’s not because you’re stupid, but because of the nature of the process. If your stencil has tiny lines, those lines may not appear as you expect. Unless you are an expert, one expects imperfections and some texture with the process. Small areas will tend to look uneven. For best results, try to pick a design with bold solid lines and shapes. That way, imperfections will not impact the overall design. Imperfections can complement rather than detract from the artwork.

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Ways to Make a Stencil

Before you start printing, you’ll need a finished stencil on fabric. There are many ways to mask out the areas of the material to create a stencil. Let’s take a look at several techniques that all produce a stencil which can be reused many times if you clean the ink off after use.

Keep in mind with any stencil: If you apply the stencil to the outside of your stretched-fabric frame, it will create a mirror image of the design. If you are using words, you may have to start with a mirror image of the design so that it reads correctly when printed left to right from the other side onto the substrate. To avoid the problem, flip the design horizontally using image-editing software before printing.

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Modern shortcuts

Thanks to modern digital printing, software, and the internet, you don’t have to cut out a stencil by hand. You can copy an image you like online, then take that image into an image-editing program like Photoshop. The idea is to have a silhouette all in black because you build a screen print with just one color at a time. Use software to get rid of grey areas and darken lines, so you end up with an all-black design. Then print it out, and your stencil is halfway there.

Note: If you use the photo emulsion technique below, you will need to print the design on transparency material using a laser jet printer. You can also have it printed for you at your local copy shop.

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Photo emulsion stencil

One method to make your stencil is using a purchased photo emulsion solution. The solution comes with a sensitizer to combine with the emulsion right before you begin. The emulsion will also have important directions to follow. Later, you’ll need to have a dark room set up, as well as a lamp with a darkroom bulb (usually red) so you can see what’s going on. The photo emulsion is squeegeed onto the entire screen in a thin layer on both sides. See instructions for how long it should take to dry.

Once your screen dries completely, you’ll need your stencil printed onto a transparency. You will then tape the stencil onto your screen with clear tape and turn on a powerful lamp above it. Again, the directions on the emulsion solution will tell you what kind of light to use, but generally, the bulb will need to be from 150 to 250 watt. The lamp must be positioned right above the stencil, usually about a foot away. When ready, turn on the lamp and leave it on, generally for 30 to 45 minutes. Now you’re ready to rinse off the screen in the sink. The cold water will wash off the areas where your black design covered the emulsion.

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Glue sealer stencil

If this whole photo emulsion technique has you scratching your head, then never fear. You can also use a simple process with glue sealer like Mod Podge water-resistant glue. No darkroom needed. You will still need a design printed out on paper, but then instead of using photo emulsion to mask the design, you’ll use the water-based glue. Lay your print on a stretched fabric frame and trace it with a pencil. Then turn it over and pain all the areas that you don’t want to get inked, the negative spaces, with the Mod Podge. Let it dry thoroughly, and you’ll be ready to start printing.

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Vinyl-cut stencils

Vinyl-cut stencils are another way to create a stencil that can save time. Instead of printing a design on paper or a transparency, you will cut out a stencil using a vinyl cutter. You can have a design cut in this manner from any sign shop if you don’t own a vinyl cutter. Generally, the sign shop expects to sell the design itself, not the vinyl they usually remove around the design, called the negative spaces. However, they’ll get the idea once you tell them you want to use the vinyl background as a stencil. Have it cut in reverse so it reads correctly after it’s applied to the outside of the stretched fabric.

Apply the vinyl stencil to the outside of the fabric. The sign shop will provide transfer paper or tape around the vinyl to peel away. Once you carefully peel this sticky paper away, you can save it to mask out any unprotected areas around the vinyl. Any remaining areas can be protected using low-tac masking tape or painters tape. This way, the ink won’t get through to the substrate except where you want it. You can also save extra ink that doesn’t get pushed through the stencil.

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Silkscreens on the Cheap

Although it might seem complicated at first, DIY screen printing can be simple, easy, and inexpensive. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes straightforward and repetitive. You can crank out as many prints as you like or just one at a time. You control the means of production.

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At-home printing

You can buy pre-stretched screen printing frames along with everything else you need, from squeegees to screen printing ink for fabrics. However, you may also make your own using canvas bars or an embroidery hoop. The fabric can be as simple as pantyhose material or sheer curtain fabric. It doesn’t have to be expensive.

On the other hand, if you don’t mind spending a little more, many of the pre-stretched frames come with monofilament polyester fabric. The screens have a micron rating that tells you the diameter of the thread. The smaller the thread, the easier the ink passes through the screen, resulting in a higher opacity print.

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The right squeegee

Again, you can make this very simple, using an expired credit card or a rectangular piece of heavy cardstock for a temporary squeegee. Of course, a few more dollars will buy a quality squeegee made of synthetic rubber or polyurethane. It will ideally be firm yet flexible to allow you to distribute the ink across the screen evenly. You don’t have to use much force and will develop your preferred way to move the globs of ink uniformly across the stencil, pushing and pulling with a slow and steady force.

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The right tape

Low-tac masking tape is inexpensive and won’t pull the threads of your fabric screen. That way your screen will hold up for repeated uses. Blue painters tape is ideal since it’s made to seal out creeping paint but also pulls off easily. Another alternative is using the transfer tape or paper used by sign shops who cut vinyl signs.

Of course, if you want to use the Mod Podge method, you won’t need much tape. Just paint the screen wherever you want to block out the ink. There is also a more expensive but effective liquid tape sold for screen printing.

One more tip on tape: If you use the photo emulsion technique, remember to use clear tape to hold your stencil on a screen. You don’t want to make the tape part of your design inadvertently.

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The right ink or paint

Your choice of ink or pain will depend on your substrate. If you use a fabric T-shirt, you’ll need fabric paint for screen printing. If you are doing a craft project, you can probably get away with cheaper acrylic water-based paint. On the other hand, if you want vibrant and flexible colors that pop, even on dark backgrounds, then Plastisol inks for screen printing might be the right choice.

Keep in mind: Plastisol inks are more complicated when it comes to clean up since they require solvents to remove. They also need heating to a temperature of 320 to 340 degrees Fahrenheit using a heat gun.

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Final Touches

Once you get the hang of printing using one color, you’ll surely want to try adding more colors. Using registration marks, you can line up your stencils so that you can screen print multiple colors on the same design. Finally, to make sure the ink sets up, you can iron the design after it has dried, using a scrap of fabric between the iron and the design to protect it. If you’ve used fabric paint, your screen print will be ready to wash. You’ll also want to wash your screen between uses to prevent ink buildup on the stencil. Use the screen again multiple times whenever you like. The means of production are in your hands, so what will you create next?

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