How to Become a Screen Printer

The Importance of Focus

Before exploring the idea of becoming a professional screen printer, it is important to first ask yourself a few important questions. Arguably, the most relevant question is whether starting a screen-printing profession is your primary intent, or are you planning on adding screen-printing to support an existing business in being more profitable, namely a clothing line or an apparel retail store. It would not be the first time that a clothing shop owner thought to him or herself how much money might be saved by doing all the screen-printing in-house. However, as the rest of this article will make clear, screen-printing is not a craft to be taken lightly, nor is it something one can master overnight. First off, if you are devoting your time, energy, and expenses to creating a screen-printing operation, you could very well lose focus on what is truly your primary goal and intention — your clothing line and/or your retail operation. If you are already profitable in your business, starting a screen printing arm could very well end in regret.

The bottom line is that you will divert attention and resources from the design, promotion, and sales strategies of an existing company if you are now instead focusing upon what is a completely different endeavor. The next question is this: Is all the time, money, and effort worth it to you in saving a few bucks, or are you genuinely inspired and creatively fulfilled in pursuing the art of screen-printing?

Should you feel called and drawn to this art, you will need to learn all the details of the screen-printing craft. Not only that, you will have to find the space to house a press, a flash, a dryer, an area for washouts, an exposure unit and, finally, another area to serve as a dark room. If you don’t have this kind of space available already, you will have to find a large enough space to rent or buy.

Screen-printing is an incredibly versatile tool, as the output from an operation can be utilized for such a huge variety of applications. Anything from posters and banners, to t-shirts and jackets to caps, and even coffee mugs are all perfectly good merchandise upon which one can showcase their handiwork.

Screen-printing is a sub-category of printing in general, of which book and magazine publishing, art and print lithography, computer-based printing, binding, and pre-press services are all a part. Screen-printing is generally related to the apparel industry and is comprised of the preparation and actual printing and finishing of screen-print items as described above.

What is the process?

Screen Printing PhotoOriginally, the screen-printing process was known as silkscreen printing. This was due to the fact that silk was utilized in the process before polyester was invented. For screen-printing today, the “mesh” (or the screen) is most commonly comprised of synthetic threading rather than silk, and the most popular material is made from polyester. There are also specialized mesh materials made of nylon and stainless steel that can be used by the screen printer for particular kinds of output. The mesh itself is also of different sizes, and this determines the final look and feel of the completed design.

The screen is constructed with a piece of the mesh material that is stretched over a frame. In order to create the images the artist has designed, a stencil (a thin sheet of material like paper, plastic, wood or metal) is used to create letters and/or design a motif on an underlying surface. This is done by the artist applying pigment through the cut-out spaces in the stencil material. Images are formed by blocking out parts of the screen in the negative images of the design that is being created. In other words, the spaces that are open are where the ink appears on the underlying surface. Previous to the actual printing onto the material being decorated, the frame and the mesh must be exposed to the pre-press process. In this step there is an emulsion that is spread or “scooped” across the screen. What is referred to as the “exposure unit” then removes the unneeded emulsion which leaves behind a clean area in the mesh with the exact shape of the design image.

The screen is placed on top of the “substrate” or underlying surface. Various colors of ink are used in steps on top of the screen for each part of the design creation. What is called a “floodbar” is utilized to force the ink through the mesh holes. The screen-print artist begins with the applicator situated at the rear of the screen next to the ink reservoir. He or she then lifts the screen so as to avoid contact with the substrate, and then, using just the right amount of downward force, he or she pulls the bar to the front of the screen. This is how the mesh openings are filled with ink –as he or she moves the bar so follows the ink reservoir to the front of the screen. Next a squeegee (a rubber blade like a windshield wiper) is used to force the mesh down to the underlying surface as it moves from one end of the screen to the other. During this action the ink that is in the holes or openings of the mesh is squeezed onto the substrate in a delicately controlled and exacting manner so that the ink deposited onto the surface directly matches the mesh and stencil design. Finally, as the squeegee blade is moved toward to the back of the screen, it pulls the mesh up and away from the underlying surface (substrate) leaving behind the ink that reveals that section of the design. This part of the process is known as the “snap-off”.

Being and Becoming a Pro

One who is a professional screen-printer performs some or, if particularly ambitious, all the aspects of the screen-printing process. Duties include the conceptualization and then design of the screen-print pattern, the preparation of the apparatus’ stencils, the mixing and loading of inks, the cleaning and maintenance of the machines, the drying and then folding and storage of the finished screen-printed products, and importantly, and often overlooked, the ability to troubleshoot any mechanical or technological problems that may arise over time. If you are an owner of a screen-printing business, then you will also need to master the skills of managing your workers and keeping up all the administrative tasks necessary in running any business. These tasks include record-keeping, the processing of orders and payments, and the management of the shipping of the purchased items to customers.

Those who desire to work in screen-printing need to have a myriad of skills to make them compatible with the demands of the job. One needs to have good eyes, an ability to see the subtlety of colors well, and an extraordinary dexterity of eye-hand coordination. One should be able and willing to handle and to mix the many chemicals utilized in the ink for screen-printing. If you not only enjoy the art but also have the patience to deal with repetitive and often manually laborious work, you are a good candidate for a career in screen-printing. Given the advancement in technology, it is also important to know your way around computers. Other necessary traits a solo screen-print artist must have include a great deal of self-motivation, the ability and temperament to solve problems as they arise, general creativity, and a knack for keeping things organized. Having a great familiarity with all the screen-printing equipment is also, of course, crucial.

Here is an infographic on some statistics in screen-printing that you may be interested in looking at.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Jacob Goodman

Co-Owner of Fresh Prints, LLC

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  • Jacob Goodman
  • New York, NY
  • 3
  • Fresh Prints, LLC
  • Custom Apparel
  • Facebook
Jacob and his business partner, Josh, have been running the company since they were both sophomores in college. Previously, they had no background in screen-printing and took it upon themselves to put in the hours and effort to teach themselves the art of screen-printing. As a result of their work ethic, Fresh Prints is a successful and thriving company.The Art Career Project asked Jacob to share some of his experience in becoming a successful screen-printer and entrepreneur:

Advice

Figure out what you’re best at

My advice to the aspiring screen-printer artist is to find something you can do better than other screen printers (and custom apparel providers) and leverage that strength. The screen-printing industry is insanely large and no company can be the best on every front. When we first started our business, a client used a stolen credit card to place a $10,000 order. We had no idea the card was stolen until the card user’s bank contacted us a month later and stated that they were going to remove the $10,000 from our bank account and that there was nothing we could do. I wish we would have known then to require a customer’s signature and billing address for payment because that would have protected us against the fraud. What I like most about my work is the problem-solving involved with the job. We have to work hard to quickly solve problems with orders and structural roadblocks in the scaling of our business.

Jim Stevens

Screen Printing Fine Artist

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  • Jim Stevens
  • Wheat Ridge, CO
  • 30+
  • The Scrimshaw Studio
  • Fine Art and Scrimshaw
  • Facebook

Jim Stevens has been a screen-print and fine artist for well over 30 years. His work can be viewed (and purchased) at his Scrimshaw Studio website. He also has a Facebook page as well. Read Jim’s expert interview with us.

The Art Career Project contacted Jim to share some of his sage advice for aspiring screen-print artists and entrepreneurs:

On beginning his career:

“I wish I had known more about effective business and promotional practices and financial management when I first started my art career. I learned the business aspects of being an artist on my own, and learning about business by losing money over taxes and other problems is not an experience I would recommend. I finally figured things out, but I should have learned proper financial and business management in a classroom rather than my studio.”

Advice

Learn hands-on

Learn hands-on from an experienced screen printer or two before attempting to branch out on your own. Only hands-on experience will make you a good screen printer and learning from someone who is already a professional is the fastest way to obtain the necessary skills you will need before offering your services to the public. I am self-taught, and it was a very long, very mistake-filled process. Today, I use screen printing with fine precision in my monofilament portraits where I actually screen print onto monofilament line that is then mounted in horizontal rows inside a clear acrylic case to create almost holographic portraits, but I would have learned faster and with fewer mistakes had I found a mentor instead of teaching myself.

Take photos

Other than that, keep an open mind to criticism of your work and take photos as much as you can! As a photographer, you have a blank canvas and your job is to fill it with something that at the very least inspires you. It may sound silly and easy, but once I started, I became obsessed with what was inspiring to me and how to fill the canvas. I started to dislike the photos I was taking because I knew they weren’t good enough. I still feel that way. I’ve realized that I’ll never be completely satisfied with my work, but it’s the pursuit of that feeling that keeps me going.

How to get started
Walk into as many screen printing shops as you can and see if they need help or if they will let you watch and learn. I was in a small shop one day picking up one of my art screens when a young man walked in and did just that. The owner wasn’t thinking about hiring anyone, but when the kid asked, the owner thought about everything he had going on at that time and decided to hire the young man right there on the spot. Of course, once hired, the training really begins. Learn everything you can. Don’t do it the way I did. I could have been so much better, so much sooner, if I had found someone to learn from. Self-taught is no badge of honor, it just means I wasn’t very smart in my early efforts.

Johnnie Williams III

Founder of SteezyWorkz

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  • Johnnie Williams III
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Johnnie Williams III is the founder and owner of SteezyWorkz, an alternative fashion, art and longboarding brand company in New Jersey. He also has a presence on Facebook.

The Art Career Project got in touch with Johnnie so that he could kindly share what he has learned on his professional journey as a screen-print artist and business operator:

“Since I run the startup completely on my own with the help of a few good friends, artists, and intellectuals, I am usually absorbed with my work from the moment I wake up until my eyes shut. Some days are more hectic than others depending on what type of work needs to be done. On average days I start out responding to emails and electronic queues I may have missed overnight. If there are fulfillments, I visit the post office. My cell phone is a great tool because no matter what I am doing I can maintain social networks, crunch numbers, or jot down notes for later. No matter what is going on, I always reserve time each day to create. After all, creativity is a huge part of our message, so I have to make sure I’m walking the walk. Normally, it takes longer to design an actual print for clothing than it does to produce it. So an average day includes some sketching and digital graphic design. On the days that we print, we do it during high noon as to take advantage of the sustainability of solar power. Not many people are aware of the technique we are using to create beautiful, detailed prints on fabric. I’m proud to be able to put this method to use!”

“I love the freedom I have to think and create. I love applying my scientific educational background to solve art problems. I feel like I have a special edge in that regard, and it’s gratifying. I get to use game-changing products and science to create eco-friendly art and clothing. Those are the best things about my job. If I had to choose something I did not like about being my own boss, it would definitely be the amount of people who aren’t willing to learn what your message and goals are before they tell you what to do or give you advice…”

Advice

What he wishes he knew when starting out

I think most people don’t actually know what they’ll enjoy most out of life. We all know we want to be successful, but often we lack direction and passion toward the one path that lights our hearts. I believe a lot of us are lost and seeking satisfaction from money and status in industries we don’t even love. If I had a more clear understanding of my own passions and knew what I wanted to achieve in my life and career earlier, I imagine I would be much further ahead with what I’m doing today.

For the budding screen-printing artist

The best advice I could give to anyone starting a career in screen printing is to never give up and to stay motivated toward your goals. There will always be naysayers and people who don’t believe in you. Believe in yourself, and give yourself a head start by educating yourself early. Find out what’s going on in the industry and figure out how you can connect. Get involved. My advice to anyone looking to get their foot in the door is to go out and find someone local who is currently screen-printing. Before you invest in expensive equipment and classes, have someone in the industry take you under their wing for a day or a week. Work alongside them to discover your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes. In doing so one can start to develop a network and maybe find some lifelong partners!

About education

It really bugs me sometimes how far away removed we are from the world we live in. Educational programs are often too systematic, leaving little room for students to really spread their wings. Nothing is organic about learning. There should be more room in today’s classrooms for ideas to sprout. Instead of teaching simply how things are done, students should be armed with the knowledge and confidence to challenge the norms. They should understand why and how things work but go a step further in trying to make it better or safer. Students should be not only allowed but encouraged to think outside of the box.

 

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Screen Printer?

WHAT ARE MY STUDY OPTIONS?

This is not a career that absolutely requires a formal education as most screen-printers are trained by those already familiar with the process while on the job. Finding local screen-print shops and applying as an apprentice is one route. It is important to keep in mind that an innate creativity and a high level of artistic skill make success all the more probable. Since there is a great degree of design involved with the creative process, a B.A. in graphic design or fine art would be greatly complementary. The American Screen Printing Association also offers programs for the training and certification for screen-printers.

WHAT ARE SOME SCREEN PRINTING RESOURCES?

The following links are quite helpful for both the aspiring and the working screen-printer:

Our experts make it abundantly clear that in order to be a successful screen-printer artist and business person you must first of all be a self-starter and have an affinity for problem-solving. For those who are reluctant to put in the long hours and extraordinary effort in achieving this goal, perhaps another career path would better serve them. It is paramount that you have a love of the art of screen-printing, for it would be foolish to think that a great deal of money is to be made in this vocation –unless you also have an aptitude and ability to run your own business and to provide that which is unique or different so as to differentiate yourself from the hordes of screen-printers already fighting to be self-sufficient in their art. It has been often stated by many of our experts that you, the budding screen-printer, would be best helped by first finding employment or obtaining an internship in a screen-printing shop to learn the proverbial ropes and to discover if screen-printing is right for you.