What Is A Silk Screen?

September 2, 2009 | Merch Expert

Many times bands contact us wanting merch printed, but are not exactly sure what the process of printing a t shirt involves.  We are often asked, “Will this be an iron on transfer?” or “Why can I not do a full color print?”  For those not familiar with the process of silk screen printing, this can be a confusing subject.  So what is a silk screen and how do you print Custom T-shirts with this process?

A silk screen is simply a rectangle frame, with a piece of mesh stretched across it very tightly.  Think of it as a picture frame without the glass and picture and a wedding veil stretched over it.  For as complex as shirt printing may seem, it is a very simple and tried and true way of producing a high quality image on apparel.

There are two types of frames for a silk screen.  The first is aluminum.  This is much more sturdy and can withhold many thousands of prints.  It is also very hard to bend and will keep shape nicely.  The second type of frame is a wood frame.  These frames are often less expensive, but are more susceptible to warping and breaking.  Frames come in all sizes depending on the needs of your print shop.  Many times, a common size will be 18″ x 24″.

The mesh on the inside can come in all different sizes as well.  The most common and versatile size is 110 mesh count.  This size is the most common for most printing situations.  There are also sizes that go as low as 56 all the way into the 300’s.  The lower the mesh count, the more ink that is able to pass through.  The higher mesh counts allow less ink to pass through.  Higher mesh counts also allow for more detail in your design, whereas the low mesh counts are for basic logos with not much complexity.

For an image to be transferred onto a screen, it is a several step process.  First the screen must be completely cleaned using emulsion removers, haze removers, and degreasers.  After this step, a light-sensitive emulsion is applied to the screen.  This is much like a photo emulsion and this process must be done in a darkroom much like a photographer would use.  After the emulsion has dried for several hours, a film printout is made of the image on to a transparency much like those that are used in a classroom setting for an overhead projector.  Next, the image is placed on the screen, and is exposed to light causing the parts that are not covered with the image to be fully exposed and hardened.  The image is then sprayed out with a high pressure water nozzle leaving a negative space for the image.  The final step is to let the screen dry and then you are ready to print merch with it.

Silk screen printing allows for several different types of inks to be used such as plastisol and water based.  The most common ink is plastisol and it is what you would typically find on a band t shirt.  Each color represented in a design must have its own screen thus making it a very tedious and precise process.  The ink is passed through the screen using a squeegee.  The ink is them cured on the shirt with extreme heat so that it dries.

Band merch is most often printed this way and this is the most cost effective method to printing your band t shirts.  Silk screen printing is an art in itself.  Designing for it is an art as well as you must take into consideration how it is printed.

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