Knowing how to put ink onto a shirt is not the same as producing a successful screen print that balances brilliant color, opacity and a softhand. With the prominence of YouTube, screen printing “influencers” and the low cost of entry into our industry, there are many screen printers who apply ink to t-shirts. Producing a successful screen print - a shirt that someone loves to wear, that they keep around even after they’ve outgrown it or its gotten frayed - takes skill and understanding the process of printing. While numerous different factors contribute to success, here are three essential tips to make a great looking shirt.
#1: Matching Artwork with Proper Screens and Mesh
Everything starts with understanding your artwork and analyzing what you are about to print. Are you printing spot colors or halftones? Does your image have dark, bold lines or are there fine lines and small font? Knowing these answers helps to set a foundation for screen exposure with high quality film positives with the right lines per inch (lpi), often referred to as dots-per-inch (dpi). Often used interchangeably, these measurements refer to the number of dots within an inch of a halftone.
The lpi/dpi greatly affects your mesh choice and screen printers often fail because they select the wrong mesh count for their design. As lpi/dpi increases, you need a higher mesh count. For instance, a detailed image with half tones prints at 55 lpi with a 10% dot (a very small dot). An inexperienced printer might try and print it on a 110 mesh screen and fail because the weave of the mesh is too open to hold the halftones (dots). The result would be an image that is not crisp or colors that do not look good. By correctly using a higher mesh count, the printer would print the finer details on their shirt.
#2: Screen Set Up
Another key factor for a successful print is printing your colors in the right order. Color order is obviously easy with one or two color jobs, but harder for a 5 color job. Do you print lightest to darkest or darkest to lightest? Different production managers have told me either way is best, and they are both right because the answer depends on the final look you want for the design.
Let’s say you are printing yellow and red wet-on-wet (no flashing) to make orange, are you going to print the yellow or red first? The best answer is to test which result you (and your customer) like the best. Are you using a higher mesh count to print the yellow and plan on double stroking the color? If so, you might be better off printing yellow on top of orange as the second yellow stroke will help blend the colors. For a more reddish orange, try yellow first. Since testing is vitally important, products like test tubes (t-shirt material that can be printed, cured and saved for later reference) or pellons are beneficial. The knowledge of testing and documenting pays dividends later.
#3: Understanding Ink Manipulation and Flash Drying
While using a premium ink has lots of benefits, the best screen printers can make any ink work because they know the art of manipulating it with reducers, thinners and other ink additives. Ensuring a 6 color print with a white underbase on a black tshirt feels as soft as possible is challenging and requires thinning down your color inks.
Ink manipulation is another area where trial and error and testing prior to production are key. While every ink brand has its own properties, they all behave in the same overall fashion. As you thin down ink it loses opacity but it gains a softer feel when it's printed on the shirt. How much of one you give up for the other comes down to style and understanding the priorities of your customer. Do they want a faded, worn-in look, or want something brighter? Communicating this effectively comes from testing and trial and error. Having test samples for visual representation goes a long way too.
Related to ink manipulation and blending is proper flash curing. Often, printers make one of two mistakes with flash curing. First, they flash cure for too long. Instead of blending, each color will start to “stack” on top of the previous one, resulting in a thick and heavy print. The other, more common flashing mistake, is flashing too often - typically between every color. When interviewed, those that flash between every color are attempting to keep their images crisp or clean. They do not understand that to much flashing hinders more than it helps. The root cause of images losing their crispness once printed brings us full circle as it relates back to improper mesh selection for the artwork. The mesh count is too low and the printer is depositing too much ink through a coarse mesh.
In conclusion, these three essential tips help you create a successful screen print. Truly understanding how they work individually and in conjunction with each other requires testing and experimenting with the different variables. Your enthusiasm for learning from trial and error increases your ability to deliver the best screen printed garments.