Should You Become a Screenprinter?
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Should You Become a Screenprinter?

Look at all the variables to see if delving into screen printing is a smart move for your business.

By Bill Stephens

You've run a successful cut-vinyl sign business for years, but now you've been asked to quote on a bunch of signs in multiples of ten to thirty-five. Anytime you have to produce more than a half-dozen copies of the same sign, screenprinting becomes a cost-effective option.

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  • Screen printing almost qualifies as a natural extension of a cut-vinyl sign business. Basic signmaking design skills are involved and a vinyl cutter can easily create screenprinting artwork. But be warned, there is equipment to buy and a significant learning curve to tackle, so give yourself plenty of time and look carefully into what is involved.

    Before getting started take a look around at your shop. Can it accommodate a screenprinting operation?

    The amount of shop space needed is, naturally, determined by the size of the job. (And we're only going to be talking about handprinting here, not automatic.) The most basic set up consists of a screen, a squeegee, a pair of hinge clamps and a printing table. To print a 2' x 3' sign for instance, you need a screen with an approximate inside dimension of 32"x50", a slightly larger screen table at 36" x 50" to allow for mounting hinge clamps, a squeegee a couple of inches larger than your print area, and a little working room. The space requirements go up from there.

    One practical consideration is how big a print you can successfully pull by hand. This limit will be determined by your own physical size, strength, and ingenuity. But don't think too big: an awkward stretch will have to be repeated many times and much more than mere reach is involved. Consistent pressure has to be maintained along the whole squeegee for the entire printing stroke; and you'll be pushing against mesh tensioned at around twenty newtons. The larger your screen, the more force required.

    Some have printed large jobs by having two printers pull the squeegee at the same time. But this requires perfect synchronization and should be considered a stop-gap solution at best.

    A one-arm squeegee offers a more reasonable alternative. This device is basically a metal arm to which you clamp your squeegee. A handle for the operator is mounted on one end, a counterweight on the other. The counterweight side rides along a steel track, perfectly matching the movement of the printer pulling the handle on the other side. While a one-arm can handle much bigger jobs than direct printing, it also represents a significantly larger investment in equipment. Neither method requires much working space, but working space is only a fraction of the area required for a screenprint operation.

    Storage of equipment and substrate can take up a good bit of space. For example, you need a nice, clean place to dry those prints you've pulled. Larger shops solve the problem by buying wire racks mounted on casters. The racks support a series of spring-loaded trays, which fold down one at a time to accept each successive print. When filled, they can be rolled out of the way. A beginner, however, might prefer to make do with some form of homemade shelving.

    You'll also need some sort of a protected area to store screens. Screens can easily be ripped and restretching costs money. You'll also want to file screens holding frequently reprinted artwork. It's a waste of time and money to reclaim a screen when you'll be reusing it in a couple of weeks. To save restretching costs you may also find yourself holding onto screens stretched with special meshes.

    Storage space will be needed for your inks and chemicals. Many of these are solvent-based, and a fireproof storage cabinet may be needed to satisfy fire regulations. And speaking of solvents, you'll need to consider ventilation for your shop as well. Air-dry inks and their evaporating solvents can produce a pretty nasty atmosphere. Even if you do your screen cleaning outdoors, printing itself exposes a lot of solvent-based ink to the air.

    Find out about all the legislation that affects screenprinting in your area. This includes fire, and health and safety regulations. Collect and read the WHMIS sheets on all the products you'll be using. When choosing inks and chemicals always go with the most environmentally friendly options, and never take shortcuts with environmental regulations. You don't want to be forced to shut down a successful operation.

    Now that you have decided to go ahead with screenprinting, let's look at the places where you can cut corners and where you should leave those corners alone. For example, in choosing a screen frame, no other frame material can compete with aluminum. Frames spend a lot of time soaking wet; steel frames rust and wood frames rot. At some point in the recent past, aluminum actually became cheaper than top quality wood, and aluminum frames of a sufficient gauge should last the life of your business.

    Definitely don't waste your time trying to build and stretch you own screens. Homemade screens usually can't withstand recommended mesh tensions, and you can't hope approach those tensions without professional stretching equipment. You could make much better use of your time printing or going out looking for new customers.

    A good supplier can save you a lot of time, and he can help you produce good work right from the first. They'll start you off right with properly tensioned frames containing the right mesh, squeegees of the proper durometer, and the right inks for the job. Screenprinting inks, for example, come in a bewildering variety, and no single ink will suit every job, but a knowledgeable supplier may already know the proper one to use. They will also have access to a laboratory that can test your substrate to see which inks work best. Remember, final responsibility for the success or failure of the ink is yours alone. Always make test prints before you start your production run.

    I suggest that you don't expose your own screens at first. This reduces your profit per job but postpones your need to deal with a whole new set of variables and defers a substantial investment in equipment. And, by focusing on learning to print, you'll be free to concentrate on producing good work and developing your customer base. If you can't find a supplier that offers a screen exposing service, try a screenprinter in a non-competitive market.

    On the other hand you can cut your own positives. This not only saves you money it allows you to control exactly how the final sign will look. Your vinyl cutter can cut Rubylith just as easily as it cuts vinyl. This material is a photo-opaque film consisting of two sheets of plastic: a red layer set on top of a clear layer. You cut it just like vinyl then just weed it like vinyl. That's your positive.

    When you walk into your screen maker with a finished positive, he knows exactly how big a screen it will take to do the job. (A screen will be larger than your artwork by several inches on all sides. This extra margin is important to the proper functioning of the screen, so don't try to scrimp on it.)

    The positive is used to expose the screen using a photographic process. Basically, a positive is just a mask, and it works this way: The screen is coated with a photosensitive emulsion and dried in a light-free area. The positive is then taped on to it, and the screen is then exposed to a strong UV light source. This ultraviolet light hardens any emulsion it touches. Areas masked by the photo-opaque red material remain soft and can later be washed away with a gentle spray of cold tap water. In the printing process ink is forced through these open areas to create your print.

    When printing becomes routine for you, you'll know it's time to consider exposing your own screens. At that point you'll probably have a pretty good idea of the equipment you'll need because by then you'll already be an experienced screenprinter.

    I hope you're encouraged to add screenprinting to your signmaking techniques. It's an easy trip if you take it one step at a time.

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