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Blog / Beginner's handbook / What is Screen Printing: Your All-in-One Roadmap

Beginner's handbook

What is Screen Printing: Your All-in-One Roadmap

What is Screen Printing: Your All-in-One Roadmap
Pauls Smiltiņš

By Pauls Smiltiņš

9 min read

Still looking for a printing method that’ll produce vibrant and durable results while maintaining versatility and cost-efficiency?

Screen printing might just be it.

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the basics of screen printing. By the end, you’ll fully understand what screen printing is all about. You’ll also have A to Z knowledge to help you decide whether it fits your print-on-demand needs.

What is screen printing?

Screen printing, also known as silk screen printing, is a printing technique that’s made its mark as one of the industry’s staples. During the printing process, the ink is pushed through a mesh stencil using a squeegee. Although commonly applied to paper and fabric, it can extend to materials like metal, plastic, wood, and glass when using specific inks. Screen printing offers a wide range of colors. However, the ink isn’t soaked up by the fabric; it stays on top of it, creating a particular feel and texture.

Screen printing process

Screen printing is a meticulous procedure that transforms designs into vivid products. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Design creation

  • It begins with designing your artwork, which is then printed onto a transparent acetate film

  • The film serves as the blueprint for your stencil

Step 2: Screen preparation

  • A mesh screen is picked based on the design’s complexity and the chosen material

Step 3: Emulsion exposure

  • The mesh screen is coated with a light-reactive emulsion, which hardens when exposed to bright light

  • For multi-colored designs, a separate screen is used for each color

Step 4: Stencil creation

  • The screen is rinsed to remove any unhardened emulsion, leaving a clear imprint of the design

  • After, the screen is dried while making any necessary touch-ups to match the original design

And voilà! The stencil is ready.

Step 5: Print preparation

  • The material is placed flat on a printing board, positioning the screen where the design will appear

Step 6: Applying the design

  • The screen gets lowered onto the material, and the desired ink is added to the top of the screen

  • Using a squeegee, ink is evenly spread across the screen, pushing it through the stencil’s open areas onto the material

  • Afterward, a special washing fluid is used to remove the emulsion, allowing the mesh to be reused for new stencils

Step 7: Final touches

  • The printed products are passed through a dryer for heat curing, ensuring that the design remains long-lasting and vibrant

  • The finished products are washed to remove any residue, resulting in a high-quality, ready-to-use item

Screen printing’s blend of artistry and precision makes it versatile for creating vibrant designs on various materials, from custom t-shirts and posters to glass and ceramics.

Screen printing pros

In today’s high-demand custom print world, the question “Is this the best method for printing t-shirts?” gets asked a lot. The answer will often depend on multiple factors. Screen printing boasts numerous advantages, making it a preferred choice for many applications.

What are the pros of silkscreen printing, you ask?

  1. Versatility
    Screen printing shines in its adaptability. It can decorate fabrics, plastics, wood, glass, and even metals. It also welcomes a large spectrum of colors, granting you almost boundless creative freedom.

  2. Durability
    When it comes to durability, silk screen printing truly excels. It can apply substantial ink coverage, resulting in long-lasting designs. Additives and coatings can render the ink resistant to UV rays, moisture, chemicals, and scratches. This means screen-printed products can endure the rigors of outdoor and harsh environments without fading or cracking.

  3. Vibrant ink colors
    Screen printing yields vivid and striking colors that can be challenging to replicate using other methods. Bear in mind that for multi-color designs, you’ll have to use separate layers.

  4. Cost-effective
    Screen printing is a cost-effective method over the long term. Once the initial setup is complete, printing items in high volumes becomes quick and straightforward. Essentially, the more you print, the lower the unit cost.

  5. Exceptional speed and efficiency
    Once the screen is prepared, screen printing stands out as one of the most efficient and rapid printing techniques. It’s an ideal choice for consistent printing of the same design.

  6. Straightforward process
    Whether performed manually or automated, the screen printing process remains straightforward. The necessary tools are neither complex nor expensive to replace.

Screen printing limitations

While screen printing offers numerous advantages, it’s important to consider the drawbacks. It’s especially crucial if your printing needs involve small quantities, intricate designs, or quick turnarounds.

  1. Minimum order requirements
    Screen printing typically involves setup costs, making it less suitable for small quantities. Most screen printers have minimum order requirements, meaning you can’t order just one item. This can be a drawback if you only need a handful of custom items, particularly for intricate designs. Other printing methods, such as DTG printing, are often better suited for creating one-offs.

  2. Setup costs and complex multi-color designs
    While screen printing excels with simple designs and large quantities, it becomes less efficient when dealing with complex, multi-color artwork. Each color requires a separate screen, which is expensive and time-consuming.

  3. Color blends and detailed artwork
    Achieving subtle color gradients and blending can be challenging with screen printing. The process is better suited for solid colors and bold designs. Fine details and small text may reproduce less clearly in screen printing compared to digital printing methods.

  4. Limited print area
    Screen printing has constraints regarding the print area, which isn’t suitable for large and all-over designs.

  5. Environment
    The screen printing process often involves harsh chemicals and solvents, which can have negative environmental impacts if not managed properly.

What equipment will you need?

To achieve precise and vibrant screen prints, a set of essential equipment is required. Let’s take a look at the necessary screen printing tools:

Source: Unsplash

Screen frames

Screen frames serve as the structural foundation for the screen printing process. Typically made of metal or wood, these frames are meticulously stretched with fine mesh fabric, in most cases polyester, which acts as the stencil carrier. The mesh thickness and thread count can be adjusted to suit the texture of the surface or fabric.

Source: Unsplash

Mesh screens

The heart of screen printing lies in the mesh screens. Traditionally crafted from silk thread (hence the name “silk screen printing”), modern screens now predominantly use polyester fabrics, offering similar performance at a more affordable price.

After being coated in emulsion and exposed to light, the mesh screen serves as the stencil for the printing process and can be reused after cleaning.

Source: Unsplash

Squeegee

The squeegee, equipped with a rubber blade and a handle, plays a pivotal role in the screen printing process. Its function is to evenly push the ink through the mesh screen onto the material being printed.

The squeegee firmness depends on the design’s complexity. For example, firmer rubber blades excel at intricate designs with fine details, while softer, more yielding rubber squeegees are used for less detailed prints or fabric applications.

Source: Unsplash

Inks

Inks are the creative soul of screen printing. These specialized inks come in various forms, each designed to achieve distinct effects on the final product. You can choose from a range of inks, including glittery, texturized, or even puff inks, which expand to create raised surfaces, allowing for unique visual and tactile elements.

Selecting the right ink type is also influenced by the material being printed on, with specific inks designed for machine washability, ensuring the longevity of printed apparel.

Source: Unsplash

Screen printing press

While screen printing can be done manually with a mesh screen and a squeegee, many will opt for a screen printing press to make the process efficient. Screen printing presses help make the process efficient by securing the screen and allowing for swift material changes.

In general, there are three main types of presses: manual, semi-automatic, and automatic. The choice of press often depends on the volume of printing required, with larger-scale operations favoring semi-automatic or automatic options.

Source: Unsplash

Washing station

After the screen printing process is complete, the screens must be thoroughly cleaned to remove all emulsion traces. Proper cleaning ensures that screens remain in excellent condition for future print runs.

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Comparing screen printing with alternatives

Now that you have all the information about the necessary equipment and the pros and cons, where does screen printing rank compared to other popular printing methods?

DTG vs. screen printing

DTG printing, also known as direct-to-garment printing, is a method that excels in reproducing intricate designs with remarkable precision while creating a tactile experience with its soft touch.

When comparing the two, there are notable distinctions in how the final design comes together. Screen printing yields vibrant and long-lasting designs with highly saturated colors, surpassing the DTG in color intensity.

However, the advantage of DTG printing is that it allows for unlimited colors to be used in a design, which also can lead to more intricate details. In contrast, screen printing is more suitable for bold and solid designs. Also, it’s important to mention that DTG printing boasts a faster setup time and eliminates the need for separate screens, making it more cost-effective for small orders.

You can find out more about DTG printing in our complete guide: DTG vs. screen printing.

DTF vs. screen printing

DTF printing, or digital thermal transfer printing, is a technique that is particularly suitable for smaller orders, emphasizing exceptional print quality and durability.

DTF printing offers vibrant and detailed prints similar to DTG, while screen printing provides a more traditional and textured finish.

DTF printing also has faster production times than screen printing, as it requires less setup time and allows for faster color changes. It’s a printing style that requires less equipment in general, making it a more affordable option, especially for smaller print needs.

However, durability is where screen printing takes over, as DTF prints may lose out, especially when subjected to frequent washing and regular use.

Sublimation vs. screen printing

Sublimation is a printing technique that allows the freedom to print intricate and colorful designs while the ink becomes embedded within the fabric fibers. Sublimation and screen printing have several key differences.

Compared to screen printing, sublimation allows printing designs with unlimited colors in a single pass, while screen printing’s limited to one or only a few colors. Sublimation works best with synthetic fabrics like polyester, whereas screen printing’s better suited for natural materials like cotton.

Screen printing has limitations as it’s constrained to a smaller printing area, compared to sublimation, which is ideal for creating seam-to-seam prints, while requiring less setup time. Sublimation printing is also a better option if you’re looking to print custom one-offs.

You can find out more about sublimation printing in our complete guide: sublimation vs. screen printing.

To wrap it all up

Now that we’ve explored the ins and outs of screen printing, it’s time to unleash your inner creativity and start crafting your own custom designs.

Whether you’re running a business or just looking to add a personalized touch to your daily style, screen printing offers endless possibilities on various materials. In the modern age, where a handful of alternatives have emerged, silkscreen printing still stands as one of the industry staples you can rely on day and night.

That being said, new technology such as DTG and sublimation will often take the upper hand in several aspects when compared to the trusty old screens.

It’s go-time. Let your imagination run on the wild side, and happy printing!

Read next: Embroidery vs Screen Printing: Which Should You Go With?

author

By Pauls Smiltiņš on Nov 21, 2023

Pauls Smiltiņš

Guest author

Pauls is a content writer with a background in the radio. He has a degree in communication sciences, and in his free time, Pauls loves to entertain crowds by playing live music on stage.

Pauls is a content writer with a background in the radio. He has a degree in communication sciences, and in his free time, Pauls loves to entertain crowds by playing live music on stage.