Tuesday 8 November 2011


A few people have recently asked me for advice on printing at home. This is for you! And also for all the process lovers in the house. Full disclosure: I am a fairly impatient person, and I tend to learn how to do things hastily. I taught myself how to screen print using various online tutorials, so I'm sure I prepare and print in ways that could be considered less than perfect by someone more skilled and seasoned. But I do screen print at home regardless, with favourable results(!), and so can you.

Dear Shannon: did you know that YOU actually taught me how to screen print? And that this is largely a re-telling of your tutorial because that's the process I learned from? Thanks for putting together such a bang up explanation! You should check it out. My version here is like a cover song.

I live in a one bedroom apartment. My ability to stay neat and orderly is pretty atrocious these days. If you live with someone, you'll be lucky if they are as understanding as my boyfriend Dennis is about big messes and piles of paper. I definitely don't have a studio worthy of showcasing on any pretty this-is-where-I-work websites. You won't find any bright windows or perfectly painted white floors here! Frankly, I don't have the money to make a private space look impressive (I'd rather spend my cash on food and drinks and pants instead of saving it like a responsible person). I do though, have a serviceable laundry room with very low ceilings. As you can surely tell from these photos, lighting is a real problem down there, but it works. To highlight the dungeon-ness of this printing lair, I took photos in fuzzy black and white. Don't be afraid.

Invest in what you'll definitely need: a screen, a squeegee, a table, some hinge clamps, a light bulb, some cleaning supplies, an apron (or paint friendly clothes), paper, paint, and some magic erasers. We'll come back to this, but magic erasers are my cheapo solution to power washers. No slave to any bald men in particular, the generic brand from any drugstore works just fine.

I just invested in a new third screen, but I've had my first two screens for years. If you wash them well, you can reuse them a lot. I buy aluminum framed screens, because the one time I tried to make my own was a complete disaster. I mean, for $45 bucks you've got a well made screen you can use for a really long time and won't warp. My hands just do not have the power (or patience) to pull mesh that tightly.

It's helpful to have a table that you can drill the hinge clamps right into, but in a pinch you could drill them into a plank of wood that you'd put on top of a table. If you want to be able to put it out of the way between uses, and you're not looking to print anything too big, this is an alternative option.

I use the photo emulsion method. There are a couple other ways you can do this, with drawing fluid or stencils, but I prefer the reliable clarity of photo emulsion. Coat your screen. You do not need a scoop coater. I'm sure they're very nice to use, but I just use my squeegee to coat my screens. A few swipes on each side and it's good to go. Then I pop my screen in a dark closet to dry. Don't worry about coating your screen in the pitch dark. While the emulsion is still wet it can handle a bit of light, but then its safe place to rest is in the dark. I've always found that letting my screens dry overnight produces the best results when burning later. Screen printing is all about trial and error when you start out, and this is something I've stuck to based on previous failures. You'll develop your own little rules and rituals. And you'll make mistakes and have epiphanies too!

Design something you want to print. I draw, then scan, then manipulate my images in Photoshop. Then I print out my negatives onto white sheets of regular printer paper. Much cheaper than transparencies! I use vegetable oil to make the white parts "transparent." It's cheap and dirty and it works. The light source will harden the emulsion in the white/clear areas and the black areas will get washed out later.

When your image and screen are ready to go it's time to burn. I put my screen on top of a table that has a desk style lamp attached to it on top of a black garbage bag. I think I do this backwards (burning on the back side instead of the print side) but as a creature of routine, I've just kept doing it that way. Put a piece of glass over top of your images to keep them pressed flat onto the screen (I use a cheap pane of glass from one of those big clip frames). Place your bulb above. I use a criminally low wattage light bulb at the moment that takes forever to burn. General laziness has prevented me from buying a new one (also? cheapness). The wattage of your light bulb will determine the length of time you need to have your screen under the light source. And the size of your screen will determine how far away your light sources needs to be (mine's about 18 inches). Now, turn on the light and burn your screen! You might want to write down when you need to wash it or use a timer - because being fairly precise about your time here is important. If you over or under expose, you will have to start over. And that's not fun at all.

When your screen is done burning it's time to wash it out.

How I Wash Out Without A Power Washer: Take your screen to the shower or a laundry room wash basin. I pour water over both sides of the screen and allow it to sit for a minute, to soften the areas I want to wash out. Then I wet a magic eraser and scrub the back of my screen. Then I flip my screen over and do the same on the front. I've found that the magic eraser is the only thing that really gets all the emulsion out (magical fibers maybe?). Don't over scrub, but don't be too precious about it either - if you're screen is properly exposed then you're not going to scrub out anything you don't want to. As I mentioned above, I've used the same screens over and over for years and this eraser hasn't degraded them. When I've finished washing and wiping I hold it up to some light and see if I've missed any little spots of emulsion and make sure to take care of them. Now, set it aside to dry.

After your screen is dry you are ready to print. Finally, right?! This point is the last time your table might be clean and orderly. Accept it. Move forward. As you can see from this photo, if space permits, I burn multiple images onto the screens surface and tape off the areas I don't want to be printing with packing tape. Note: If you do not want to expose your own screens, you can look into getting them exposed for you at your local screen printing shop.

Get your paint ready. Above I am mixing the perfect moon-y grey. With a butter knife. I use Speedball inks and various other generic acrylics. There are different brands out there, and all serious printers could surely talk your ear off about why one is better than the other. I'm cool with the range and availability of Speedball inks.

Flood your screen with paint and start printing! Rinse and repeat. Getting steady, consistent prints (the right pressure and a good angle) takes a bit of practice. You've got black paint under your fingernails. Maybe you're enjoying a cold beverage? If you're wondering why you just didn't invest in a fancy digital printer, this is surely not the hobby for you. Always flood the screen with paint between pulls - letting paint dry in your screen is not going to make you a happy printer because your print will degrade as time passes and it will be hard to clean later on.

To line up my print layers I use another low tech method - transparencies! I also wash these and reuse again and again. Tape one side of the transparency to the table to keep it firmly in place. Then flip it out of the way for each print. If I'm printing the first layer, I will sometimes place it with the transparency and then use coloured tape to tape around it, thus eliminating the need to flip the transparency for every layer. But I always use the transparency for lining up every layer after the first one - because attempting to be precise is cool. Though small imperfections can turn into cool looking accidents too.

No drying rack? No problem! I use a table. This can prove interesting when you're printing a run of 500 CD cases, and in that case I enlist the floor. And my bed. And every other available surface. But paint dries fairly quickly, and by the time I've covered my table, I'm generally able to double stack.

You've finished printing. Congratulations! Doesn't it look amazing? Like nothing an inkjet printer could ever spit out, right? Unfortunately, it's time to clean up. I put the extra paint back into the container and use a trusty moist j-cloth to wipe down the screen. In fact, I always keep a small bowl of water and a j-cloth at the ready when I'm printing for clean ups. Then I take the screen to my washing area, spray on some emulsion remover, let it sit for a minute, and then scrub it down with my trusty magic eraser. Rinse, let dry, and you're ready to do it all over again.

There's a bit of romance in a lengthy process like printing. There are so many little steps. It's frustrating. It takes time. It's dirty. But I think that's why I enjoy it. You see something you're making come together one step at a time. You can feel it in your back and arms. I like the smell of photo emulsion. I have to tame my careless side and focus. Sometimes you leave the house and don't realize you still have paint on your arms and hands. Or maybe you start wearing an ugly magnetic bracelet your co-worker gave you because between all the hours spent on the computer and screen printing, your arms are furious with you. And you think it kind of works, which is weird. And most importantly, you keep doing it.

Should you want a more detailed, professional look into the world of screen printing, I highly recommend Print Liberation's book The Screen Printing Primer. It's a really helpful read with lots of good looking photos. My run through here is more of a general overview - there are still things you'll need to figure out if you want to start printing yourself, and this book (or the link to Shannon's tutorial at the top) would both be helpful tools! You might also be able to take a course or workshop in your area.

And lastly, hang in there! Because it might take you a few tries before you get the hang of things. Everything worth doing takes work, right?



Danielle said...

I LOVE this peek into your process- such a good tutorial! Definitely confirms for me that screen printing isn't for the faint of heart. And that I probably won't try it myself any time soon :)

t a n y a said...

Sandi. Is. Awesome. This is the best tutorial I've seen on silk-screening and a how-to on a home-based set-up.

shayna said...

so good! this inside scoop has had the opposite effect on me that it had on danielle. i want to tryyy.


Danielle: You can already do all kinds of other cool things - you don't need to learn how to screen print, ha!

Tanya: Oh wow, thank you!

Shayna: I do owe you a more hands on tutorial. We'll have to schedule that into our Google calendar for learning everything.

mounsey said...

great write up! this is a good reminder of all those questions i have bugged you about over the years! Im trying to get motivated to set up a studio in my new basement so maybe this is the kick in the ass i need? maybe?


Mounsey: Yes, join the secret society of basement screen printers! You've got a kid - think about all that free future labour, ha.

Kitiya Palaskas said...

THANK YOU!!!! You are so helpful (and amazing). :)


Kitiya: Thank you for inspiring the post (even though it took me forever to get around to, ha!).