DIY Screenprinting Tutorial

A “screen” consists of a wood or metal frame and a woven polyester mesh tightly stretched (like a drum!) and attached to a frame. The objective is to create as flat and highly tensioned a surface as possible on which to spread the liquid emulsion, which will eventually form the stencil through which you can apply paint to fabric or paper (or anything flat, really!). The tutorial below will help you make your own photo-emulsion screen from start to finish.

BUILDING/SOURCING A FRAME

Build your own 8” x 10” frame: you’ll need 1×1 or 1×2 pine (use 2×2 for strength in frames larger than 10”x 15”), wood glue, saw, and either nails or screws. Measure the wood into four equal pieces (or two sets of two equal pieces) and cut at a 45 degree angle (this is a mitre joint). Use glue on the corners, assemble with your choice of nails or screws, and then clamp to a table to dry. At least one side must be flush to a flat surface, and the wood may have some irregularities, so mark the good side with an X to remember.

Stumped for ideas on how to access the tools you need to build a frame?

Picture frames from thrift stores ($1-$5): To test if a frame is strong enough to withstand the pressure of stretching a screen, hold vertically with one end on the ground and the other in your two hands. Wiggle the frame from left to right. If the sides are moving, it is either too wobbly (don’t use it!) or needs a little reinforcement (add metal L-brackets to each corner).

Pre-stretched wooden frames ($20-$30): sold as a part of Speedball printing kits, or on their own. They have a groove cut around the perimeter that accepts a piece of cord, which is pushed in with a chopstick or a butter knife until the desired tightness is reached. They include a piece of mesh suitable for fabric printing (110 TPI, usually). Metal frames are also available, prestretched with your choice of mesh, but cost upwards of $60.

A retensionable metal frame ($100) uses a locking strip and is tightened using wrenches. It would be an economical purchase if you plan to use it many times. I would recommend finding a source for these if you want to do achieve detailed multiple layers (ie posters), as this would require a higher level of mesh tension to reduce irregularities in the print run.

STRETCHING THE SCREEN/MESH CONSIDERATIONS

The best type of mesh to use for beginners and home studios is a type of see-through curtain you can find easily in a thrift store ($4-10 for a large piece suitable for 6-18 screens). Wash mesh before use to remove any oils, dust, or fabric softener. “Gauze sheers” as they are called may be white, yellow, or even purple. You may need to alter your exposure time if you use a yellow or purple one (white may reflect more than yellow requiring a shorter exposure). Most have a thread count of 80-110 threads per inch (TPI). They are made from the same basic stuff that professional mesh is made of (polyester), but the threads themselves may be of varying thickness, and aren’t available beyond 110 TPI. Very important when selecting sheers: do not use anything made of cotton or silk! Natural fibres absorb the emulsion (and paint).

Thread count refers to the amounts of threads per inch in fabric. It is important to know about if you are printing detailed images, using special paint (glitter, puff paint, metallics, etc), or printing on paper. The higher the thread count (200-400), the more likely paint is to clog the screen (and the more important it is to use a machine stretched screen, since you will be using a lot of pressure to push paint through and therefore risk shifting the screen mid-print). With a low thread count, fine details will be lost because the stencil will not be able to bridge the gap between the tiny squares formed by the threads.

Lay mesh out and cut it to the size of frame, allowing an extra 2-3” on each side for your hand to hold. Before stapling, make sure the lines of the thread are parallel with the edges of the frame. You’ll know you’re stretching it properly if the hand you use to pull the screen over the edge ends up hurting! Staple in a 12:00-6:00, 3:00-9:00 pattern, working from the middle to the corners. Having a hammer on standby is helpful to make sure the staples are snug to the frame. Something I don’t normally do, but would help to make a screen tighter is to dip the mesh into a bowl of water and then stretch it. As it dries, it will tighten. This may help beginners to achieve better screen tension. There are professional stretching tools available, but the combination of wood frames and gauze sheers could most likely not handle the amount of tension those would offer.

Finish edges with duct tape (or packing tape in a pinch, it just won’t last as long). This protects the wood and prevents errant threads from sticking to your emulsion or paint.

To re-use your stretched screen, use emulsion remover to rinse off the old stencil. Screens should be reclaimed within days of creating them, or else you risk being left with a permanent stencil. One reason I like using gauze sheers is that they are inexpensive and therefore disposable. No stress about cleaning the stencil off the screen within the week, a big advantage if you want to reuse your screen over a long period of time.