DIY Silkscreen Tutorial

Silkscreening! This is a super fun and relatively easy method for printing your own designs on paper or fabric. I was taught how to do this DIY method by a friend who did a trade with me for a septum piercing (how punk were we) and I’ve made lots of patches and other silkscreen art since, though it’s definitely been a while since I had a setup in my house. I also took a workshop last year that was really informative. Now that my studio is up and running I installed a light area in our storage closet and I finally got it all figured out this week. I thought it would be fun to photograph a tutorial as I made up my screens, so here’s how to do your own DIY screen printing!

Things you’ll need:

Silkscreen mesh

Wooden frame

Staple gun

Extra staples

Squeegee and/or plastic putty knives

Masking tape

Thumb tacks

Screen printing ink

Scrub brush

Soft sponges

500 watt light

Diazo Speedball photo emulsion kit (buy it here)

Transparencies

Laser printer (not inkjet)

Sink with cold running water

Dark room or light-tight cabinet

Fan

Iron and ironing board

I make my own screens because the ready made ones, while convenient, are super pricey and stretching the mesh myself is pretty straightforward. Using your staple gun attach the mesh to the wooden canvas frame so it is stretched tight and even, as pictured. Once the screen mesh is secured (or if you have a clean pre-made one) it’s time to coat it with photo emulsion.

The photo emulsion kit I use has a bottle of emulsion and a small bottle of sensitizer that you have to mix together. Fill the small bottle halfway with cold water and shake really well to loosen all the material, then mix it into your emulsion and move into your dark room. You’ll need a bit of light to see what you are doing but nothing too bright or you will expose the emulsion and wreck your screen.

Working quickly but carefully, pour a line of emulsion onto the top of the screen and use your squeegee to pull it down and spread it evenly over the mesh. You want a thin, even layer with no drips. Flip the screen and use the squeegee on both sides and wipe any excess back into the bottle.

Once you have evenly coated the mesh it’s time to dry the screen. I push tacks into the corners on the mesh side and lay it flat to allow air to circulate around the screen. If you have a fan it will speed up your drying time.

Once the screen is dry it is time to expose it to light to burn your image. You’ll need your design printed on a transparency sheet (the kind they used for overhead projectors) using a laser printer. The black that is printed onto the sheet will block the light from setting the emulsion beneath it in the screen, allowing it to wash away when you are done burning. This is what allows the ink through the screen and prints your image. Simple designs are best, images with a lot of greyscale or very fine lines can be challenging. There are different levels of mesh available; the very fine ones are good for detail but larger mesh is only able to burn simple images like solid black text or thick line drawings.

Flip your screen so the mesh is on top and lay your transparency on backwards as this is the underside of your screen (my design is the same both ways so it doesn’t matter, but text should be backwards). A piece of glass can be used to lay on top of the transparency and hold it tight against the mesh.

Finding the right amount of time to expose the screen to light is the hardest part of silkscreening, and I recommend a test sheet when you are first starting out. Using a thick piece of card cover your design except for a strip at the top. Expose for 30 seconds then pull the card down to expose another strip and expose for another 30 seconds. Using a timer, work in increments until the screen is done and after you wash it out you’ll be able to determine how much time is needed for the best result.

I have a 500 watt work light from Home Depot with the glass and cage removed that works great. At a distance of about 14″ from the table surface it takes 3 minutes to burn a screen.

When the screen is exposed to light the green emulsion will turn a turquoise colour wherever the light has set it, leaving your design in bright green like a ghosted image when you remove the transparency. Gently wash the emulsion out of your screen with cold water and your fingertips or a soft sponge only. Be very careful not to scrub or scratch the mesh as this may remove emulsion in places you don’t want it removed or even damage the material. The screen has worked if the emulsion behind your design washes clean but the rest of the emulsion is set. When you hold it up to the light you can see through your design but not the rest of the mesh.

Lay your screen out to dry and get ready for printing! This is the fun part. I like to put masking tape around the edges of the frame to cover any areas that may leak ink onto your printing material, and also over any small holes that may have appeared where you don’t want them.

Now to print! Gently tap a line of ink onto the screen just beside where your design is using a spoon, and drag your squeegee or putty knife firmly across your design to spread the ink through the screen. You only need to do one or two passes with the ink to make a print, any more and you can end up with ink bleeding outside the lines of your design.

Lift your screen carefully and voila! You can print as many things as you want and the screen has a pretty long life once burned if you care for it properly. Get creative!

After your prints have dried give them a quick iron to heat set the ink and you’re done. This all sounds like a daunting process but it isn’t that bad, and the printing part is so much fun. The possibilities are endless! 🖤

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