screen printing

How Does Screen Printing Work?

Screen printing is everywhere. This relatively inexpensive technique makes bold, beautiful, permanent artwork adhere to many materials. It might be a simple, monochromatic shape or a brilliant mosaic of color. The options are endless. You might own something screen printed but still now know the craft behind it. And, you might be surprised at the skill it takes to make something as commonplace as your favorite T-shirt!


Screen Printing is Not Just for T-shirts


True, t-shirts and ball caps are some of the more popular kinds of apparel with screen printed images. Today, you can get almost anything with screen printed images on them. Sweatpants, yoga pants, backpacks, shorts, can all get a design, business branding or a fun message printed on them. The inks are usually color-fast, which means they resist fading. The print also is very flexible and stretches with the fabric, adding to the durability.

Swag or Trinkets

These are those inexpensive items that are often given out at trade shows, corporate events or anytime you meet with a sales department. Often ordered in high quantities, these little items are given with the goal of keeping a brand’s logo or message in front of a potential customer as much as possible. From pencils and keychains to battery chargers and golf balls, there is a wide range of ways to print logos on physical items.

High-End Art Prints

If you call it a serigraph, you can make screen printing sound a lot more valuable. Although the process may be far more complicated, with high-resolution images and far more passes of ink, the basic ideas are still the same even when a fine art print is being made. If you are familiar with the work of Andy Warhol you’ve seen screen printing that has impacted the culture and is often considered “artwork.”


The Process

The steps for making screen printing artwork are very basic and can even be done by small children for a fun craft activity. From the simple, you can build in more complexity.

Create the Artwork

The first step is to figure out what you want to print by making some artwork. If you begin with a one-color print, you’ll want to do a design that uses only one color. Thick, bold, black markers on paper might be a good idea. You can also design by going straight to the mask, designing with the masking materials that we’ll cover in the next steps.

Prepare Art for Printing

If you want more than one color, you will need a line art image that represents every color separately. These are called color separations. Line art means that the prepared image is all the way black or all the way white with no gray tones in between. To get values between full black or white, you create dots, or lines to provide shading. If you have seen an old newspaper or comic book image, you may have seen the characteristic regular dot pattern used for this purpose called a half-tone.

The idea is that you will then print the different colors onto your substrate, (the material where you want the final image,) one color at a time. The colors go in order and when done, they mix visually creating the fully designed multi-color image.


Make Screen(s)

Hand Cut Mask

As mentioned earlier, if you want a design that is bold and don’t mind it looking funky or crude, you can design using masking material, right on the screen. This method ensures that the art has a bold, unique look, arts and craft look.

Photo-sensitive Emulsion

If your design is from a photo, digital design program or physical artwork, you can prepare your art to be more faithfully reproduced using a photographic process. We’ll describe one color, but remember this step can be repeated for other colors. If the original is thick or not smooth, the image may need to be photographed or copied to make it consistently flat. The image will also need to be prepared into the screen reversed.

Then you prepare the screen, which is usually a metal or wood frame covered by a porous fabric material like silk or nylon. The screen material is painted with a special paint in a darkened room. There may be a special kind of light that won’t affect it so you don’t have to work in darkness. Each kind may have different instructions or light sensitivity.

The art is then placed, over the prepared screen and then exposed to ultraviolet light. The black and white of the artwork lets some light through and blocks the other areas. The light changes the emulsion. When the exposure is done, the art is removed and the screen is rinsed which dissolves the areas defined by the image. Some areas are masked off and now other areas will allow the ink to pass through.


At this point, you place the screen over the substrate, then use a squeegee to pull the ink over the screen. You carefully lift the screen up and you can see the artwork is now on the material! You can then dry the layer and print more colors if you want.


Quality Matters

Printing Material

If cared for, a good screen will last a long time. You can keep the prepared artwork on a screen if you want for later prints of the same design. You can also wash off the design and reuse the screen for other designs. Taking care of your screens will allow them to make many many prints in the future.

Colorfast inks resist fading. Quality inks will make your art last longer and be easier to work with.

Substrate (What You Print On)
A quality T-Shirt or printed material will really help the final quality of the product. Even a good design on a cheap, poor-quality t-shirt will leave the wearer disappointed. The same holds true for printing on other materials.

Partner with Logos@Work
We hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration into the question “How Does Screen Printing Work?” We encourage you to try it out with a basic project. If instead, you want professionals to handle creating your products, check out Our Work to see some of our best work. Then contact us to get started!


PHOTO: Pixabay/ CC0 Public Domain

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