How to Screen Print a T-Shirt

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A unique design or saying on a t-shirt can really catch somebody's eye. You've probably seen someone wearing a unique shirt that you've never seen in any store. Chances are, they made it themselves. Screen printing is actually relatively easy and fun to do. Plus, you get to write or print on it whatever you want, not what the retailers want you to have.

Things You'll Need

  • Design
  • 11” x 17” Transparency
  • Frame
  • Silk Screen Material
  • Duct Tape
  • Staple Gun
  • Screen Printing Photo Emulsion Kit
  • 150 Watt Light Bulb
  • Hanging Light Socket
  • 100% Cotton T-Shirts
  • Screen Printing Ink
  • Wiper
  • Board for T-Shirt
  • Figure out what design you want to print. Make it a simple one if this is your first screen print. Use thick lines on your design because they are easy to clear out of your screen. Once you have decided on a design, take it to a copy store and ask them to copy it onto a 11” x 17” transparency for you. Ask them to make it as dark as they can get it so that extra light cannot get through the screen when you burn it in. The transparency should look exactly like what you want on your t-shirt. The dark parts of the transparency will be the parts that get inked.

  • Build a screen. If you can afford to purchase one, art supply stores sell them for around $30, or you can build one for about $5. If you are going to build one, you should build it approximately 14” x 18”. This will accommodate just about any t-shirt design you could think of. The art supply store also sells silk screen material. You should buy enough to fit tightly across your frame and leave about 2” hanging over on each side.

  • You will need some assistance to stretch the screen. Lay it across your frame and use a strip of duct tape to secure the top edge of the screen to the frame. This is only for reinforcement. Start in the middle and staple the top edge of the screen to the frame, pulling it as tight as you can get it as you go. Repeat this process down each side of the frame. Finish with the bottom edge, pulling it in whatever direction you need to take any play out of the screen. Be careful not to leave ripples in the screen. If you find any ripples, remove the staples in the vicinity of the ripples and stretch it again. You need the screen as tight as you can get it. A saggy screen will make a sloppy print.

  • Use your photo-emulsion kit to transfer your image onto your screen. This is called burning. Spread the chemicals from the photo emulsion kit onto your screen and lay your transparency on top of it. Suspend your bulb and allow it to burn the image into the screen.

  • Wash the chemicals off of the screen. Make sure that your water is not too hot; it should be lukewarm. If your water is too hot, it will wash away the photo emulsion from the wrong areas. The only place you want to wash the photo emulsion out of is the areas that were black on your transparency. The rest of the chemicals should have baked into the screen.

  • Put your t-shirt over your board and set it on the floor or a table. Set your screen on your shirt and make sure it is positioned exactly where you want it. Spoon ink onto your screen and, using your wiper, pull it down the screen first and then back up. Then lift the screen. Your image should have transferred.

  • Put your shirts on a hanger and let them dry. After they dry, place a clean piece of paper over your design and iron it for 5 minutes to set the ink into the fabric.

Tips & Warnings

  • Your design should be of a size appropriate to the size of the t-shirt. 9” wide and 14” long is usually the maximum.
  • If this is your first screen-printing experience, practice on some old t-shirts before you move on to your new ones.
  • The burning process is the easiest one to mess up. Be sure to follow the instructions on the photo emulsion package. Leaving the light on for too long, or not long enough, your image will wash away when you rinse the screen.

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