T-shirt screen printing or ‘Silk screen printing as it is often called, has been around in one form or another for decades. From the simpler hand printed method, to large fully automated presses, the principle remains essentially the same. A negative image of the artwork is burned onto a tight mess that is stretched between a frame or ‘screen’. The image itself is opaque. Ink is pored onto the mesh, which is then forced through the holes via a squeegee that is either hand drawn or automated. The opaque negative image will not allow ink to pass through it, and so the positive imprint only is then printed onto the t shirt, which is placed beneath the screen on a platen.
A typical screen-printing set up can cost anywhere from $8,000-$35,000. depending on the amount of stations (platens) you use and the complexity of the press itself. A large conveyor heater is needed to dry the t shirts. An exposure unit, a make shift dark room, and a washing station to clean the screens.
Tshirt screen printing has one distinct advantage over other alternative methods available. It is fast. Between 30-90 t shirts an hour can be produced from a simple 6 color press. Ink costs are minimal too. However, because it is time consuming to set up and clean the screens, most companies charge the client a one time set up fee for each color separation. The screens are usually stored in case the customer ever needs to reprint tshirt printing.
The pros of screen-printing are: a very clean solid color print. Great for logos and sharp text. Perfect for mass production and keeping the printing price low. Excellent durability for washing and re washing many times before fading. Will last many more wash cycles than its counterparts such as digital printing (as used by large online ‘print on demand’ companies such as Café Press).
Cons of screen-printing: Not really suitable for photographic reproduction unless you are willing to have a lower grade of photo image. Each color has to be printed separately, and so there a separate screen has to be made and stored for each color. Screen-printing can also be a messy business to enter into.
Environmentally speaking, the t-shirt screen printing industry has cleaned up considerably over the years. Many companies, will only use enviro friendly soy based ‘plastisol’ inks. These are water soluble and odor free. They contain no air-polluting solvents or volatile organic compounds. The manufacture, transportation, storage, use, and disposal of their plastisol inks do not cause injury, illness, or environmental contamination when used responsibly.
If you are curious to see t-shirt screen printing in action then a quick search of YouTube will provide many demonstrations by very capable experts.