HOWTO Screen-print a tee

My next novel, Little Brother, is coming out in a couple weeks -- it's a young adult novel about hackers who use technology to challenge authority. The folks from Instructables saw an early copy of the book and were really inspired by all the ingenuity demonstrated by the book's heroes, so they've made a series of HOWTOs in the voice of M1k3y, the techno-guerrilla who tells the story in Little Brother.

The first one has just gone live: Photo-Emulsion Screen Printing, a HOWTO for making t-shirts for your movement's wardrobe needs.

The general idea: After stretching fine-mesh cloth over a wooden frame, you spread a thin layer of photosensitive emulsion on the screen and let it dry. You then take a black image on transparent or translucent surface, place it against the screen, and then expose the screen to light. The light causes the emulsion to harden and bind to the fabric. Where the light strikes the screen, the emulsion will bind, making a solid layer. Where the light is blocked (ie where your black image is placed) the emulsion remains water-soluble. After exposing the screen, you spray down the screen with water, washing off the emulsion only where your image was placed; this clear area is where ink will be pressed through the screen when you print. Finally, you lay the screen on your t-shirt, other fabric, or paper, spread ink on the inside of the screen, and press the ink through the screen. If you use textile ink, you can heat-set the ink after it dries, and it'll be permanent and washable.
Link, Link to RSS feed for Little Brother Instructables


  1. I used to print tee shirts in my graphics shop and it is a NASTY business.

    Cleaning screens requires harsh chemicals and the ink? Very NASTY.

    The Plastisol ink says on the label “partial contents unknown” and when you cure the ink it releases gases into the air you breathe that causes neurological damage.

    I had a conveyor dryer with a vent and fan that blew a lot of the gases outside, but quite a bit still came out the sides I’m sure.

    I got out of the business pretty quickly, the money was good… but I felt bad about being a polluter and I hated working with nasty chemicals.

    I looked into water-based inks and they had some environmental advantages, but were more of a pain to work with than plastisol and you still ended up with working with some nasty chemicals.

    I don’t know, maybe nowadays there are like some soy-based inks or something that isn’t so toxic??? But, I suspect it’s still a nasty business overall.

  2. As an ex-screenprinter for eight years, I can tell you this is far from a HOW TO. There’s a lot of finer points to the process, for instance, “lay the screen on the t-shirt” just will not do. You need some sort of press apparatus that lines the screen at a very minute angle, or else all you’ll do is make a mess on the shirt.

    If anyone thinks all they need is emulsion, screen mesh and frames to print their own shirts, they soon discover it’s a lot more expensive. Which is why we would charge about $50 if someone came in wanting just one shirt with their band logo on it.

  3. I disagree with Johnny Cat. While there are a lot of finer points to screen printing professionally. This howto is adequate for the DIYer who wants to do a one-color print and who is willing to deal with an OCCASIONAL smudge or misaligned print.

    I used to do silk screening on tie-dye shirts for Grateful Dead concerts back in the mid-80’s (I know, I know.) and the results can be quite satistying.

  4. Okay, okay…on a tie-dye I can see the smudge not being a big deal. But “off-contact” is still an imperative factor in transferring ink to fabric. It just is! There’s a bunch of other things I left out too, but I’ll rest my face now.

    As opposed to stealing it. ;)

  5. Decent tutorial for a hobbyist. I’ll take pre-stretched screens and capillary film over emulsion from the can any day tho! Its all a matter of having fun.

  6. Agent 86< ./b>, don’t listen to me, it was just my knee-jerk reaction when I thought about my experiences as a pro printer. Now that I think about it, I really doubt there’s too much harm in just running off a few political shirts with a blow dryer or whatever. I mean, doing them in mass is another story… but just a few shirts here and there I doubt is very dangerous to your health. I professionally printed a ton of shirts for quite a while before I quit doing it and I haven’t been diagnosed with any neurological disorders (yet). YMMV, of course.


    I agree with pahool, while there are “finer points” to printing… for example, professionally, I used an expensive exposure unit that used a vacuum and rubber bladder to force the screen, glass and film positive as tightly together as possible to help remove bleed.

    But, if you just want to throw out some “fuck bush” shirts, etc. then guerrilla-style printing will do fine. And if you are careful in the process, I’m sure you can come out with some pro-looking stuff. (especially if you use film positives instead of trying to use ink-jets on transparency paper or whatever) … even though, I HAVE seen some good stuff come out that way on occasion (when layered) and even laser printing on vellum paper has worked OK. I mean, as a pro… I used film positives, but before I went pro I experimented with all kinds of crap and some even worked well.

  7. shit… I screwed up with my “bold” tag up there… it was only supposed to bold “Agent 86″…

  8. You ‘press’ the ink throgh the screen with a squegee (sp?), sort of like a window washer’s. It can be done on a kitchen table, but I don’t recommend it; it’s a helluva mess.

  9. Having done this, yea, there are some details missing (like wanting to probably use three or four transparencies to make sure no light gets through, and having to press very uniformly to get the image to not have streaks in places), but it’s a lot of fun; you can’t get shirts like this from a commercial retailer.

  10. My wife and I have been doing things more or less this way for a few years now, without any real problems. Hell, we even use our glass-top Ikea coffee table as a faux-lightbox, just to make sure that our multi-screen prints line up, and we’ve never encountered any problems. Sure, higher-tech tools would be fun, but they’re hardly necessary; saying anything else is mere snobbery when it comes to hobby screenprinting.

  11. our band used to hold screen parties where one night we would get together and tie off and dye shirts, then after they had dried, we would screen designs to promote our band. we would screen everything from shirts and hoodies, to t-backs and posters with h2o based inks , then heatset them in the microwave. primitive but effective!

  12. Did everyone catch that Cory has a new book coming out?

    I’ve seen precious little about it.

  13. I saw m1k3y and thought ‘milky’ to myself for the entire book. It wasn’t until I started to write a review that I realized what the right name was. I still like to think ‘milky’ though (even though it suggests lactation).

    I just use acrylic paint on t-shirts. It usually doesn’t come off. Laborious, yes, but if you’re doing a lot of detail and just one shirt it’s all fine and dandy.

  14. In the hopes that Cory reads these, I’d love to suggest that a future printing of the book (I read an advance copy — it’s terrific!) or this feed show how to encrypt AIM convos. There are tools available for pidgin, which work, and are, in fact, useful. I go to a totalitarian school that has been known to read students IM convos and even (“accidentally”) began blocking any message that contained the word “proxy,” referring to proxies to circumvent the school’s Web(non)sense server. So, this encryption stuff is actually useful, and I would be pleased if it achieved greater market penetration.

  15. as someone who has a very underground record label, i’m pretty familiar with DIY t-shirt printing. i think the one thing you should note with this kind of operation is that it only really works with light colored fabrics. for darker shirts (white on black punk-t stuff) you have to screen upwards of 3-5 times for the image to come through… meaning that you have to have a very precise (probably mechanized) alignment system in place. if you’re printing on white or light shirts though, this is good to go, and shouln’t be that messy or hard to do (as above commenters are insinuating). the key, as cor3y notes in the instructables, 1: is to use a 150 – 200 watt bulb, 2: realize that you will have to expose the photosensitive emulsion to the light longer as the bulb ages, and 3: note that the emulsion has a shelf life, even in the fridge, of one or two months, and loses efficacy after that. Light colored tees is also key. this is a full afternoon project, but don’t be discouraged!

  16. A one of the lucky few to have actually read little brother (I have it in my hand right now) all I can say is, I love this story! Seriously, it’s filled with all the technical info you could want and has a great story that’s eerily close to life. If you want to read something this summer read Little Brother.

    This is the first book I’ve read by Cory and now I need more.

  17. Pahool,
    Were you ever at any of the Chicago area shows in the 80’s? Maybe I bought one of your shirts. Alas, all but 3 of my GD shirts are gone now. 2 from AZ and 1 from Colorado.

Comments are closed.