Screen printing is the pinnacle of DIY culture. If you have a band, you can screen print your own shirts. If you have an art collective, you can screen print some tote bags. If you’re promoting an indie show, you can screen print your own posters. Most artistic pieces look way cooler when they have that handmade vibe.
We’re going to show you how to make your own design and screen it onto whatever you’d like. You’ll need to block out a few hours, and you’ll need to have a design or logo in mind to print.
This how-to is for a single-color process. We’ll be using one color of ink, so think of a one-color design. When picking your first design, try for something simple without a lot of thin lines. Thicker lines show up better—too thin, and they’ll be messy. Your design should be printed in solid black lines on white, and there shouldn’t be any gray areas or errant markings. This will probably require bringing the design into some digital imaging software to darken your lines, remove any gray areas, and turn it into a one-color piece.
For our test, we used our own logo—the big G from the Gear section of the website and the Gadget Lab section of WIRED magazine. This will give you a good idea of line thickness and overall cleanliness of the design.
Once you have a logo, you’re ready to begin. And you’ll definitely want to wear gloves and an apron while you work.
Gather the Gear
- Blank silkscreen pre-stretched 110 mesh frame
- Transparency paper for laser jet printing
- Photo emulsion
- 150 watt light bulb
- Blank canvas bags/t-shirts/posters/mousepads
- Gloves and apron
- A table covered in newspaper
- Sheet of black fabric or black paper
- 2 lamps
- Optional: red or yellow light bulb
- Optional: table clamps or weights
Burn the Screen
- Coat the silkscreen with photo emulsion using your squeegee. The emulsion will come with a small container of sensitizer; follow the directions on the bottle to combine the ingredients. Then pour a little of the mixture on the screen. Spread it evenly with the squeegee to coat the whole screen in a thin, even layer of photo emulsion. Do this for both sides.
- Put the screen in a pitch black room for a couple of hours, letting the emulsion dry completely (check the instructions on your emulsion too). Do not rest the silkscreen flat side on the ground.
- Print your black ink image on a transparency with a laser jet printer and set it aside.
- Set up your light rig. Lay the black sheet over the table and position your lamp with a 150-watt bulb to shine down directly on the table, about twelve inches from the table (double-check the directions on the emulsion). Turn all the lights off in the room except for a lamp with a red or yellow bulb.
- Position the transparency on the screen to burn it. Take out the framed screen coated in dried emulsion and place it screen side up, wood down on the black fabric. Using clear tape, position and secure your image to the surface of the silk screen.
- Turn on the 150-watt bulb and burn the screen. Again, check the directions on your emulsion, but a good general guideline is to leave the 150-watt bulb on for between 30 and 45 minutes. Then you can return to normal lighting.
- Clean the screen. Using a sink with cool water, spray down the screen until all the emulsion flakes off where your transparency blocked light. It may take a while to wash it all off, so be sure to be patient and thorough. Try not to rub the screen with your fingers. You should be able to completely see through the areas where you want ink to appear. Dry it off.
Print the Swag
- Lay your fabric or paper on a flat surface. If it’s a two sided piece of fabric like a T-shirt, put a piece of cardboard inside so the ink you place on the front doesn’t bleed through to the back. Place the silkscreen frame over the shirt, flat side down, on the part that you want printed. You may wish to clamp or weigh down the frame.
- Apply a line of ink to one side of the screen, and using the squeegee in a forty-five degree angle, pull the ink down the image to cover it evenly. Exert pressure while you drag the squeegee with a smooth movement. Do this again left to right and up and down over the image.
- Carefully lift the screen and set your newly printed item off to the side to dry. Give it 10 minutes. Once dry, you may wish to iron the image briefly to help ensure the ink sets before washing it; be sure to put a piece of fabric between the new ink and iron.
- Repeat. You’ll want to rinse the screen occasionally, especially before changing ink colors (so you don’t mix colors unintentionally) and after you’ve been printing for a while (since ink buildup can clog the screen).