Screen printing is a great way to make your own unique t-shirts. With just a few items from your local craft store and a little bit of time and patience, you’ll have a wardrobe full of one-of-a-kind t-shirts, and any other items of clothing you wish to print such as jackets, tank-tops and skirts.

You’re going to make a mistake or two on your first few attempts, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be creating your own line of fashion items that will be exclusively for you, or perhaps turn into a global empire!

Here you’ll learn two different, but similar ways to screen print your own t-shirts. For both techniques you’ll need:

  • A screen and frame – you can either purchase these separately and make your own, or buy a ready made printing screen.
  • A t-shirt
  • Squeegee
  • Silk screen fabric ink
  • Stiff piece of cardboard, able to fit inside your t-shirt
  • Tape – any type is fine, as long as it sticks to the screen (masking tape is you’re best choice)
  • Latex gloves
  • A cover for your work surface (an old sheet or taped down garbage bag works fine)

The first technique we’ll demonstrate is using a stencil where you’ve cut out the design, the second using a transparency sheet with your design printed on it. As such, in addition to the supplies above, you’ll also need:

  • Stencil technique
    • plain paper
    • craft knife
  • Transparency sheet technique
    • transparency paper
    • photo emulsion
    • emulsion remover
    • desk lamp with 250 watt light bulb
    • Scoop cutter to apply photo emulsion if you prefer this tool to a squeegee

The stencil technique is a little easier to master, particularly for those new to screen printing. However the detail in your print will be limited by your ability to cut your design from the paper to create the stencil. The transparency sheet technique is a little more complex, but the designs you can use on your t-shirts are limited only by your imagination.

STENCIL SCREEN PRINTING TECHNIQUE

  1. Draw your design on the paper and cut it out with the craft knife. Basic drawings, or patterns using geometric shapes work really well.
  1. Lay your paper on the screen to get an idea of how much space will be covered. Apply tape on the underside of the screen that will be in contact with your t-shirt to any area not covered by the stencil. This will ensure no paint comes into contact with your t-shirt, apart from the design cut out from your stencil. Word of warning, don’t tape your stencil to the mesh during this step!
  1. Insert the stiff piece of cardboard into your t-shirt to where you intend to print to create an even, flat surface. Lay the stencil on the t-shirt where you want the design to appear. Lay the screen on top carefully so you don’t move the stencil.
  1. Apply a line of ink across the screen above your stencil, then holding the screen down with one hand, pull the ink down the screen and across your stencil with the squeegee in your other hand. Do this a couple of times to get a nice, even coverage.
  1. Put the squeegee to one side, being careful not to drip excess paint on the t-shirt (or anywhere else for that matter), then carefully lift the screen away with one hand while holding your t-shirt down with the other.

And there you have it, your first custom-made screen printed t-shirt! At this point the stencil will stick to the screen, so if you have more than one t-shirt to do, it’s important you get them done quickly. If you notice the ink starting to dry on the screen, wash it immediately as water based ink that has dried on a screen is virtually impossible to get out.

You’ll have to discard the stencil at this stage too, so if you want to make more copies on other t-shirts, make sure you make several identical stencils during step one.

Finally, once you’re done remove the ink from your screen with cold water. A sponge and a nylon washing up brush are perfect for cleaning the screen.

TRANSPARENCY SHEET SCREEN PRINTING TECHNIQUE

  1. Find a great design and print it out onto your transparency paper (black and white is all you need). You can either find a design online, or create your own using programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop if you have those particular skills.
  1. Apply a line of photo emulsion across the top of the screen, and spread it down evenly using your squeegee or scoop cutter. Use enough to cover an area big enough for the size of your design, and apply more photo emulsion if needed. It’s up to you if you wish to repeat the process on the other side of the screen so both sides are covered. Experiment to see if you prefer the end result with just one or both sides covered.
  1. Store the screen in a pitch black room to dry for 1-2 hours (make sure you store it horizontally during this time so the emulsion doesn’t run). When the time is up, and with the room still dark (it doesn’t matter if light gets in when you open and close the door to get in), tape the edges of your transparency sheet onto the underside of the screen (the part that will be placed down on your shirt) so the design is facing the wrong way. This will ensure the print is the right way on your t-shirt when it comes time to apply the ink. Turn your desk lamp on so that the light is pointing down at your screen for about 15 minutes.

*You can experiment with the timing at this stage for best results. Start with 15 minutes then add or subtract time for future screen printing based on these results.

  1. Remove the transparency sheet and wash the screen in the shower or with a garden hose. Keep spraying until your design is clearly visible on the screen and the emulsion has washed away from your design. Let the screen dry then use your tape to cover any area of the screen that isn’t covered with photo emulsion (apart from your design) to ensure no stray ink gets onto your t-shirt.
  1. Insert the stiff piece of cardboard into your t-shirt to create an even, flat surface. Place your screen on top of your t-shirt, carefully placing the design where you want it. Apply a line of ink across the top of the screen above your design, then with one hand holding the screen firmly, use the squeegee to drag the ink down across the design with the other hand. Drag the squeegee up and down over the design at roughly a 60 degree angle to ensure an even spread of ink is applied to the t-shirt.
  1. Holding the t-shirt down with one hand, carefully lift the screen up with the other hand. You should have a perfect copy of your design on your t-shirt!

screen

Just like in the stencil screen printing technique, you need to clean the printing ink out of your screen as soon as you’re finished, or when you see it begin to dry.

Once you’re done screen printing using this design, clean the photo emulsion away with the emulsion remover.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Chances of you being a screen printing expert right from the start are remote, so it’s going to take a little time and practice to get it right. After a while you’ll know the exact timing for exposure in the dark room, how much pressure to apply to get an even coating of ink, and other screen printing steps in order to speed up the process and create top quality prints.

Once you master the art with one colour, you’ll be able to move onto creating t-shirt designs using multiple colours to add even more detail and quality to your designs.

HOT TIP: For both techniques, always do a test print before applying ink to your t-shirt. You’re better of making a mistake on a scrap piece of paper than a brand new t-shirt! Also, lay down an old sheet or tape down a garbage back under where you screen print to keep any surfaces clean.

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