How to Become a Screen Printer
Getting Started as 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?
Originally, 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.