Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the custom apparel world, brand new to it, or somewhere in between, there are always opportunities to learn more about this ever-expanding industry. While new technologies are being developed and techniques refined every day, the basics largely remain the same, and here we are going to cover the screen printing process as well as the benefits and drawbacks of this unique and exciting medium.
Oxford dictionary defines screen printing as “the technique of creating a picture or pattern by forcing ink or metal onto a surface through a screen of fine material.” In reference to decorated apparel, this process (sometimes referred to interchangeably as silk screening) is adapted and specialized for printing onto wearables such as (most commonly) tee shirts, towels, crewnecks, pants, and many other items. Varying numbers of ink colors can be used on a single design to achieve a wide range of different layouts and looks. After the shirts are printed, they run through an industrial dryer on a belt, so that the ink cures and becomes inseparable from the garment. Once the ink is cured properly, the now-customized item is ready to wear!
Benefits of Screen Printing
Screen printing lends itself incredibly well to a large number of situations, here we’ll list a few reasons and scenarios in which it will be an excellent choice for your custom or promotional apparel needs.
Screen printing can be done as a machine-assisted partially automated process. This makes it an incredible tool for powering through thousands upon thousands of prints in a relatively short amount of time. Large orders are no match for top of the line automated presses with experienced operators.
As mentioned previously, screen printing is great for more than just a few situations.
Whether you have a super simple single color design, or need to replicate a portrait with a photo-realistic print, silk screening has it covered.
When done correctly by an experienced decorator, a good screen print will last through the years even with many washings. In fact, there are plenty of vintage silk screened items like band tees from decades ago constantly on the resale market! If you’re going to pay for a product, you want to get some good uses out of it, right?
Attention grabbing or tonal and subtle, a screen print can be very pleasing to the eye. If you’re going for something that pops, silk screening is the way to go. The incredible vibrancy and sleek finish that can be achieved with this method are exceptional and can turn a blank item into a work of art or a fantastic marketing tool.
This can be considered part of the “Appearance” benefit of screen printing, but goes much deeper. While many prints are done using standard “plastisol” ink, there are a HUGE number of other types available for nearly endless possibilities. Some examples might include glow in the dark inks, or UV reactive inks that suddenly come to life with color when exposed to the sun. Other options like reflective ink can even add a “safety” aspect to an item. Puff, sponge, or gel prints can provide additional texture and 3D appearance. There are great decorators out there constantly pushing the limits of what can be achieved with silk screening to new heights of innovation!
Drawbacks of Screen Printing
We’ve covered some of the many beautiful and practical applications silk screening custom garments can offer. However, as with anything, there are also some potential drawbacks or situations in which screen printing might not be the best fit. Time to cover some of these considerations.
While there are plenty of items that work great with the silk screening medium, there are some wearables that are either flat-out unable to be printed on, or may come with added cost due to extra measures required to ensure a good print. For example, there are plenty of jackets and windbreakers made of materials that can melt or burn at the temperatures required for curing. Other items may be made of materials that require special, more expensive inks, and that cost is passed on to you.
A fundamental part of the process is, well, the screens! On more simple designs, the setting up of a screen or two is not a big deal at all. However, since a different screen is required for each color in a design, the time and labor required to set up a many-colored job can increase substantially.
Most decorators base their screen printing costs on the number of colors in a design versus the number of items being imprinted. While this makes pricing on large orders incredibly competitive, this is something of a double-edged sword - if you have only a small number of items on a given job, the cost per imprint can be substantially higher. Additionally, you may find yourself needing to pay extra costs for setup charges that are often waived on larger volumes.
Digital Printing: Alternatives
There are other mediums that have emerged in recent years that give results comparable to screen print, but achieved with a different approach.
Direct to garment (DTG) printing is one such method - rather than lay down an image color by color, these machines are closer in action to an inkjet printer you might find in your home or office. This method allows for the same range of imprint complexity as screen printing, but without all of the labor put into setups. Recommended for smaller runs, you can print even photorealistic images at a much lower cost than trying to do so on a low volume silk screening order. There are some downsides however - since the ink is partially absorbed by the shirt, it is slightly more difficult to get as crisp and vibrant as a silk screened imprint. Because absorption is the method of capturing the image on the item, this also means that synthetic materials like polyester are not recommended for this print method.
Direct to film (DTF) is another branch on the digital printing tree. Like DTG, this method involves a process similar to inkjet printing, but instead of directly onto a shirt or other wearable, the image is imprinted onto a special backing. Once the desired number of images has been printed onto the backing sheet, they are cut out and separated. To apply them to the garment, the impressions are then pressed on in a heat press machine. The result is an imprint very similar in feel and appearance to a standard screen print. Since it is high temperature and pressure that bonds image to the garment, rather than absorption, this imprint method is usable with a great many more material options than DTG printing, and in some cases, screen printing as well! The downside to this method is that it takes a little bit more time, since the image is first printed onto the film, and then later heat pressed onto the item.
All Things Considered
As you can see, while everything has SOME drawbacks, between the different methods we’ve covered above, there are a TON of great ways to achieve your vision for your next custom decorated apparel. Although each medium might not work in every situation for every project, the spread here guarantees you’ll be able to find what you need to make you and / or your client happy and impressed. Some great decorators may offer all of these options under one roof, and if you can find your “one-stop shop,” you’re already way ahead of much of the game!
What is screen printing?
Screen printing, also known as silk screening, is a printing technique that involves transferring ink onto a substrate through a mesh screen. The screen is prepared with a stencil, and ink is pressed through the open areas of the screen using a squeegee, creating a printed image or design.
What are the advantages of screen printing?
Screen printing offers several advantages, including:
- Versatility: It can be used on a wide range of materials such as fabric, paper, metal, glass, and plastic.
- Durability: The ink used in screen printing is highly durable and can withstand repeated washing or exposure to elements.
- Vibrant colors: Screen printing allows for the use of vibrant and opaque inks, resulting in rich and vivid colors.
- Cost-effective: It is a cost-effective method for large volume production runs, as the setup costs are relatively low compared to other printing techniques.
- Suitable for various surfaces: Screen printing can be applied to flat or curved surfaces, making it adaptable for various products and promotional items.
What types of products can be created using screen printing?
Screen printing can be used to create a wide range of products, including:
- T-shirts and apparel: Screen printing is commonly used to print designs and logos on clothing items.
- Posters and signage: It is an effective method for producing posters, signs, and banners with bold graphics and vibrant colors.
- Promotional items: Screen printing can be applied to items like mugs, pens, keychains, and tote bags, making them ideal for branding and giveaways.
- Labels and decals: It is used for printing labels, stickers, and decals for product identification and branding purposes.
- Industrial applications: Screen printing finds applications in the electronics industry, automotive sector, and other industries for printing on components, panels, and various surfaces.
Can screen printing be used for detailed designs or photographs?
While screen printing is best suited for bold, solid designs, it is possible to achieve detailed designs with the right technique. The level of detail that can be achieved depends on factors like screen mesh count, ink type, and the skill of the printer. For highly intricate designs or photographic prints, other printing methods such as digital printing or sublimation printing may be more suitable.
Is screen printing environmentally friendly?
Screen printing can be environmentally friendly when proper measures are taken. Water-based inks, which are free from harmful chemicals, can be used instead of solvent-based inks to reduce environmental impact. Additionally, recycling and responsible disposal of screens, emulsions, and chemicals used in the process can minimize the environmental footprint. Many screen printers strive to implement sustainable practices by using eco-friendly materials and adopting greener production methods.