Have you wanted to learn how to screen print t-shirts? Whether it may be to enable you to create your personally designed shirts or put up a small at-home business, you’ll find that screen printing won’t cost you that much. Of course, it’s a bit challenging, especially the first time, but it’s a fun and productive way to spend your time and/or make a living.
How to Screen Print T-shirts - Step-by-Step
Screen printing is one of the oldest, most affordable, and popular ways of designing shirts or any piece of garment for that matter. Skill-wise, it’s something you can improve on each time you practice it.
Another great thing is that it’s a form of art, so even if you don’t perfect it the first time you try, you’ll be fine. You’ll still have a shirt that you can wear at home or dress-as-you-are events. That said, we’ll walk you through the DIY process of screen printing shirts.
How to Screen Print T-Shirts - The Items You Need
Similar to any other project, you must have the right tools and materials at hand to succeed. Don’t worry since there is not a lot that you need to invest in. Plus, they won’t cost you that much. However, you need to make sure you have a dark work area.
Here are some of the items you need to prepare:
- Old or affordable white shirt or cotton fabric
- Canvas frame
- Craft knife
- Printer, transparency, or any thick paper
- Printer (optional)
- Pencil or pen
- Masking tape
- Fabric ink
- Fabric iron
- Cardstock or Bristol board
- Parchment paper
- Square-edged or D-Cut squeegee
- Photo Emulsion
- Lamp With a 150W Light Bulb
- Glass (from old picture frame)
You must also prepare the following for your safety and to keep your working area clean and tidy:
- Newspaper or plastic
How to Screen Print T-Shirts - The Steps
Now that you have all the materials and tools you need, below are the recommended steps for screen printing shirts.
Step #1 - Create Your Design
In terms of design, it’s best, to begin with, a very basic or simple one that has high contrast if it’s your first time or just practicing. That is especially since there are some limitations to screen printing, including using one color at a time and the inability to shade.
There are different ways of creating a design in the process of how to screen print Tshirts:
- Sketch: On thin cardboard, poster board, or sturdy paper, sketch your chosen design using a pencil. You may also use transparency paper, but use a back ink with a thick tip for better definition.
- Use Software: Draw an image using software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or Procreate. You may also upload and edit a photo on the software and then print it. Print multiple copies if you’ll use multiple colors, which we don’t advise if you’re a beginner.
Whichever method you choose, ensure your exact design is covered with ink or color to block light and let ink pass through once you start with the actual process of how to screen print T-shirts.
Step #2 - Cut Your Design
The next step you need to take is to cut out the design you made carefully and precisely using your utility knife. Ensure there are no pieces of paper left, and neatly remove the excess ones, as they will get printed on the shirt if you don't, which you won't like.
Step #3 - Coat Your Screen
Proceed to your dark working area with your screen and photo emulsion, and follow these steps:
- Prepare the emulsion by following the product’s instructions.
- Pour the emulsion on top of your screen and draw it down using a squeegee, ensuring you work quickly and coat the screen thinly and evenly. Turn the screen around and coat the other side.
- Cover the screen with a towel to prevent any possible light exposure.
- Leave the coated screen on a flat surface and dry in a dark area for one to three hours.
Step #4 - Set Up an Exposure Area
When the emulsion dries on the screen, you need to expose it to direct, strong light, so you need to set up an exposure area. It’s best to do it while waiting for the emulsion to dry to maximize your time.
The emulsion’s bottle will indicate the following, which you need to make a note of before setting up the area because it will affect how well the emulsion hardens and will most likely result in a failed how to screen print Tshirts process:
- Light watts
- Exposure time
- Distance between the “emulsified” screen and light (usually one to two feet)
Cover your flat surface with plastic or newspaper to protect it from any ink or emulsion. You also need to place a black cardstock or Bristol board on the surface and place a lamp near it.
Step #5 - Expose the Screen
One of the top secrets on how to screen print Tshirts is how well you transfer the design to the screen. Once the photo emulsion dries out, bring it to the exposure area with the towel still covering it, together with your cut-out design. Then, follow the steps below:
- Put the screen on top of the board with the back of the screen facing up.
- Switch on the lamp and remove the towel.
- Place your design backward, or it should be the mirror image of your actual design in the middle of your screen. Also, the design should be four or five inches away from the frame’s sides.
- We recommend placing a clean glass on top of the design, especially if it's lightweight or there’s a possibility of it being blown away from the screen.
- Leave the screen with the design on it, below the light.
- Set a timer for the required time.
Be vigilant with any burnt smell, as it’s a sign that you need to turn the light off.
Step #6 - Spray With Water
After the exposure time, remove the glass and your cut-out design. You should see a faint copy of your design on the screen and a hardened emulsion at this point.
Bring your screen to the bathroom or outdoors, where you have a source of high-pressure lukewarm water, such as your shower and garden hose. Spray the area, focusing on where the image is.
You should see the unhardened emulsion being washed off and the image’s outline appearing more clearly than usual. You can stop spraying once you can see the complete image clearly. Lastly, allow the screen to dry.
Step #7 - Transfer the Design to Your Shirt
Once the screen dries out, you can now start with the most interesting part of the process on how to screen print T-shirts. The steps you need to take are:
- Hold the screen up to the light to check the presence of any pinhole or an area without emulsion. If there is, cover it with tape to prevent any ink from seeping through, destroying your design.
- Lay your t-shirt on a flat surface and place flat cardboard in between the shirt to prevent any ink from bleeding through once you start the actual process. Then, smoothen the shirt out.
- Place the screen right above the shirt, ensuring the mesh touches the shirt and the top facing upward.
- Next, flood the design with ink. Place a good amount of ink over the design, and using your squeegee blade, drag the ink down without any pressure.
- Place the squeegee back on top of the design, and then drag it down, now with pressure. The amount of force you apply will depend on how dark the color you want to be. That is, the harder you press, the darker the color. Keep in mind that when the ink dries, the shade appears darker.
- Carefully lift the screen off the t-shirt. If they get stuck together, just slowly press on the unprinted area of the shirt to separate them.
- Hang the shirt to dry, and then wash your screen using cool water. Leaving dried ink on the screen will make it unusable. If you plan to use the design on other shirts or use another color, wipe off the ink on the screen’s backside and repeat the steps.
- Once the design dries out, press a dry iron to help the design set well. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t directly place the iron on the design. You can place parchment paper between the design and the iron.
How to Screen Print T-shirts - In Conclusion
Designing your own or other people’s shirts will give you a feeling of self-fulfillment. It can be frustrating the first time you try the “how to screen print T-shirts” process. That’s because you will most likely perfect it after a few tries.
If the image looks faded or lighter than how you want it to be during the first try, then add more pressure when dragging the ink down the next time you practice. Once you’re content with how your trial projects turn out, you can experiment. Start using colored shirts or fabric and consider more detailed and/or multi-colored designs. Definitely, you’ll spend money, time, and effort on consumable materials, such as ink and photo emulsion, as you practice, but it’s worth it. That is especially if you plan on doing it regularly or as a business.