7 Easy Ways To Cure Screen Printed T-Shirts Like A Pro
If you’ve just started pursuing screen printing tees as a hobby or intend to set up shop in the future, then learning how to cure screen printed T-shirts is a must.
Curing is the crucial final step in the screen printing process. Inks should be properly heat cured so it sets nicely into the garment. Failing to do so will result in the design cracking and fading.
In screen printing, there are two common types of inks used:
- Plastisol Inks – durable, thick and versatile. Provides clear graphic details.
- Water-Based Inks – less opaque, offers a soft- hand feel, fashion forward and eco-friendly.
Read more: Screen Printing Ink Types You Need To Know
Both ink types differ in curing temperature and time.
Plastisol ink typically cures at a temperature around 290 – 330 degrees Fahrenheit while water-based inks cure at above 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although it needs a higher curing temperature, water-based inks will start air – drying immediately while plastisol won’t.
In any case, to get both ink types to bind to the garment on a molecular level, you’ll need to employ a heating method that will reach the desired temperatures.
7 Creative Methods To Cure Screen Printed T-Shirts
1. Oven-baked T-shirts
You’ve probably seen a few people curing t-shirts in their home oven. I agree, it sounds weird and not very practical, but it actually works!
Nevertheless, using an oven is not recommended. For one, you might end up with a burnt shirt if you’re not careful.
Also, if you are curing plastisol ink in that same oven for baking and cooking, the released chemicals will definitely be a health hazard.
However, if it is your only option, here’s what you need to do:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place your folded t-shirt on the metal tray. Place it on the middle rack and keep an eye on it as to not let it burn.
You’ll notice some vapor being released which is most likely the water from the pigments (if you’re using water-based inks)
To check to see if it’s reached the desired temperature, I suggest investing in a temperature gun.
Also, if you see the ink breaking when doing the stretch test, put it back for a second or third bake.
2. Using an Iron
Another inexpensive way to cure screen printed t-shirts is to use the basic household iron.
A standard iron can go up to 350 or 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough for curing t-shirts.
If you’re using plastisol inks, you need to gel the ink first before curing it. Gelling means bringing the ink to a semi-dried state at around 240 – 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hover the iron over the ink (do not come in contact with wet ink) until you reach gelling temperature – check using a temp gun. Only when the entire image is semi-dried, cover it with a piece of parchment paper.
Place the iron over the design for a minute or two. Re-check the temperature again. Repeat if it doesn’t hit the curing temperature.
For water-based inks, skip the gelling portion and allow it to air-dry for 5-10 minutes. Then straight to ironing the design for 2-5 minutes. Again, check using the temp gun periodically.
Move the iron around so that every part of the design is heated.
A common problem with using an iron is the risk of scorching some areas while under curing others.
In addition, some iron may not give enough heat to fully cure the ink. So, if you’re just printing shirts for yourself and are not worried about the ink disappearing gradually, then iron is the cheapest option.
3. Hair Dryer
Here’s another curing technique that’s popular with diy-ers – using a regular hairdryer.
Not only is it convenient and safe, heck you probably have a couple at home!
The bad news is, hair dryers just do not get hot enough – maxing out at 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you’re printing with plastisol inks, skip this method.
For drying water-based inks however, using a hair-dryer is still a viable option. Curing will obviously not work as water-based inks require a minimum of 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
So even if you buy a commercial hair-dryer, achieving the binding effect of curing is certainly out of range. Plus, using a hairdryer can result in ink bleeding (caused by too much air blow)
A DIYer actually tried this method and was actually disappointed with the results. Even at maximum temperature and a timed dry of 40 minutes, the ink wasn’t cured and faded in just a few washes.
4. Heat Gun
Perhaps the most popular way of curing ink on a budget is to use an industrial heat gun.
Heat guns are basically small flash units and even entry-level ones will have the ability to reach up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit! Plenty of heating power for what we need.
But popular doesn’t necessarily mean efficient.
Not only is it time-consuming, but curing with a heat gun is fine for small runs and smaller prints.
When you have larger areas to cover, it will be difficult to maintain heat consistency throughout. Plus, if you point too close, the risk of scorching the garment becomes too real!
If you’re using this method, I suggest practicing on scrap clothing or unwanted garments first. Pay attention to distance and how far you need to hold the heat gun.
5. One-stop Heat Shop – The Halogen Lamp
I’ve spoken to many diy-ers who started off using heat guns and quickly transitioning to halogen lamps. I was no exception.
Halogen lamps emit higher levels of UVB and has a wider coverage compared to the spot heating methods mentioned previously e.g. heat guns and hair dryers.
A 300-watt halogen lamp operated at full power can instantly reach a temperature of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. So, between a 500-watt halogen lamp and a heat gun, the former is more efficient.
Not only that, halogen lamps heat up within seconds and are relatively portable. This allows it have multi-uses.
I’ve used it as an exposure unit to create stencils; a flash unit between prints and for curing – placing it at least an inch or so above the shirt while moving it around the area.
Read more: How to Build a Super Easy DIY Screen Printing Exposure Unit
A halogen lamp works for both plastisol and water-based inks and is literally a one-stop heating element for DIY-ers!
6. Using the Almighty Heat Press
Walk into any screen printing facility and you’ll find the good ol’ heat press machine.
As a stable heat source designed for heat transfer applications, this is the best curing method for home diy-ers.
Perfect for small scale operations, this option is recommended for hobbyists and startups.
Gelling, flashing and curing t-shirts with a heat press is simple.
If you’re gelling or flashing plastisol ink, hover the top portion of the heat press above the garment.
Check with a temperature gun.
Curing for both plastisol and water-based requires a Teflon sheet to be placed over the print area. Set the desired temperature and pressure and press.
If you have the extra money to splurge on a heat press, I highly recommend it as it’ll help you get the job done fast, efficiently and professionally.
Read more: 8 Heat Press Features You Must Know to Avoid Regret
7. Natural Air Dry
The final method is the air-dry method.
This is mainly used for water-based inks that contain evaporative chemicals such as solvents or water.
Simply hang or rack the t-shirts after printing in order to prevent smudging and allowed it to air-dry.
You can also prop an ordinary fan up to increase air movement and expedite the drying process.
Some water-based inks can achieve full cure after 24-48 hours of air-exposure, but screen printing with this kind of ink type requires intermediate to advanced technique due to the ink drying faster than normal.
If you’re using regular water-based inks and want to air dry, use it in combination with one of the methods above like a heat gun or halogen lamp.
How to ensure longer lasting prints?
Proper curing can be a challenging feat.
There are plenty of horror stories related to heat gun scorching and iron burning, so while the suggestions above may work to a certain extent, you need to understand that getting a job done right requires the correct tool.
In your quest to find the right balance, determining the ink type you’ll be working and complexity of the printed design are both crucial first steps.
Is your print small? single colored and using water-based prints? Or will you use plastisol inks on a multi-colored job?
Knowing these variables will set you to employ the right tools.
Testing the waters
The next steps in guaranteeing a high quality cure for screen printed T-shirts is to perform both a “wash test“ and a “stretch test“.
The “wash test” is the gold standard screen printers use to tell if the print has been properly cured. This is especially helpful if you’ve got a big order on the line, or if you’re testing out a new curing method or ink.
To do a wash test is easy – simply launder the garment and check for noticeable differences before and after the wash.
Be aware that some fading after a wash is unavoidable. Use your discretion and determine if that amount of fading is acceptable or not.
If the fade is significant or part of the design has been washed off, this means the print has been under-cured. Go back to the drawing board.
You should keep doing multiple wash tests to continue validating your curing method.
The next popular curing test to seeing long lasting prints is the “stretch test”.
Gently stretch the printed area and check for cracks or tears. If you don’t see any when the garment returns to its original state then the ink is most likely cured. Otherwise, go back to the drawing board.
Now that you know what to do and look out for, make sure you perform these preventive tests. It will undoubtedly save you tons of headaches and regrets later.
Your future cure
On a closing note, you should probably determine your long-term printing goals – are you doing this as a hobby or are you planning walk down the commercial path?
Investing in the right method to cure screen printed T-shirts today will give you the proper motivational base to continue your screen printing journey.