Heat transfers, dye sublimation and direct-to-garment printing (DTG) are all equally reliable, but ask anyone and they’ll hands down choose screen printing as the preferred print technique, with good reasons why.
If you’re after high quality, durable prints that will last a long time, screen printing is the way to go.
With careful ink selection, you’ll be able to produce colors that are more pronounced, textured and vibrant than any other method.
Not only that, it’s a cost-effective solution for both getting started – not having to purchase expensive equipment, or to scale a production – price drops significantly when print numbers go up.
Nevertheless, screen printing isn’t something that you can pick up in a day.
It may be simple enough to produce a single colored print after a few good tries, but moving into multi colors is rather process and technique heavy that will take time to figure out.
Don’t be surprised to find yourself glued to Youtube or going around in circles trying to gain the needed experience.
Fortunately, once you master the essentials, it can no doubt lead you to rewarding results, not to mention opportunities that are highly lucrative.
Screen Printing equipment and how much it all cost
Screen printing at its core, is just a process of transferring a printed design onto a flat surface using a screen, ink and squeegee.
But essentially, the process is broken down into three parts. I’ll categorize it as:
pre – printing
post – printing
Each part requires different equipment and materials.
Keep in mind that the quality of your print may depend on the quality of the things you purchase so when in doubt, it’s best to invest in decent quality stuff especially when you are starting out.
That said, to keep things in the spirit of DIY-ness, I’ll lay out cost effective options that you can still use to achieve the best results.
Before we move on, please allocate some space for this project. Having a proper work area should be the first thing on your list.
You can convert a spare room into a work room/ dark room especially to store your screens. If you don’t have a spare room, do what I did and transform your bedroom into one.
Make sure to cover the windows with cloth or paper and seal off any remaining cracks that allow sunlight to creep in.
As we’ll be working with emulsion – a light sensitive material, it’s crucial to be in a UV free environment. You can also install some UV safe lighting (I’ll show you which to get later) at the same time.
Now let’s get started!
Pre-Printing equipment and costs
1. Design software
No need to get fancy here. Any decent desktop or laptop that is able to run a design program will suffice.
You can use any ink-jet or laser printer to start, all you need to know is which settings will produce the darkest/opaque prints that will totally block out UV light when you expose your screens.
I started with an old Epson ink jet printer and later upgraded to a Canon Pixma for about $100, both of which worked well.
3. Transparency films or vellum
Both of these are thin sheets that you print on to produce a stencil of your artwork or graphics.
Before printing your transparency, make sure the right film goes into the correct printer. Ink-jet and laser printers function differently – laser printers use heat to infuse ink onto the paper, so if you run inkjet transparencies through a laser printer, this might cause the transparencies to warp.
Use this to coat your screens evenly with emulsion. Sharp edge scoop coaters are meant for higher mesh counts while rounded edges are used on lower mesh counts. Or you can get this dual edged scoop coater 12 inch for $16 for all types of mesh counts.
7. Drying racks
Use them to lay your emulsion-coated screens horizontally while the emulsion dries. Optional for starting out, but it’s so convenient to have. You can purchase a screen drying rack for $70 or, better yet, build your own.
8. Exposure unit
To produce a stencil for your artwork, you need to expose the emulsion coated screen to UV light. The light generated from the exposure unit solidifies the emulsion, allowing ink to pass through areas which are not blocked out by emulsion.
Earlier I mentioned that a dark room is necessary for working with emulsion. If you don’t have a spare room to convert, you can store and dry your emulsion coated screens in a closet or inside a box. Just make sure no stray sunlight or reflected sunlight will expose dry emulsion.
UV-safe light bulbs
Ideal for working in a dark room. I usually get UV safe, yellow light bulbs for about $12. Whatever you do, please do not use black light as they emit UV rays and will expose your screens.
Great for lining up films when burning screens. When screen printing multi-color images, it’s essential to have all your color layers burned into the same spot on each screen for easy registration. This is where the t-square comes into play. Place the plastic edge of the t-square flush against the screen, and then place the film to where the registration marks line up with the aluminum edge of the t-square. This will make it very easy for you to burn each film into the same spot on each screen! Great tool for about $20.
Screen Printing Equipment and costs
1. Screen printing Press
While you can easily screen print with just a mesh screen and a squeegee, a press is recommended to hold the frame in place – even if you’re printing just one color.
You have two common types of ink in screen printing – plastisol and water-based. Plastisol seems to be the one most often used by beginners because it’s easier to handle, although I started with water-based and did just fine. You can read more about both inks, their pros and cons in this article I wrote.
Obviously you will need t-shirts blanks and fabric. You can create an account with wholesale suppliers like Sanmar or TSC Apparel. Or you could just run down to your local Walmart or check out Amazon and get yourself a pack of 12 Gildans for $30 to start with.
5. Test pellons
The cheapest option to test out your prints before committing to the actual product. These pellons will mimic ink on t-shirts and fabrics so printers often use them to show clients or prospective customers how a print will appear as a demonstration. They usually come in 15 inch x 15 inch and costs around $20 for 50 pieces. No brainer, indeed.
6. Spray adhesive
For about $10, it’s good for holding down and securing t-shirts on platens.
7. Masking tape or screen printing tape
Multipurpose adhesive tape that you can use to block out pinholes or open areas in the mesh. Get something that is ink and solvent resistant and can be removed easily without leaving residue, like this one for $12.
8. Flash cure unit
Especially needed when doing multiple colored prints. To “flash cure” means to partially cure or “gel” the inks in between prints so you can add one color after or on top of another e.g. white under-base.
Some printers I know use a flash cure unit to fully cure their t-shirts. The cheapest flash cure unit runs about $250 but if you want something the pros use, prepare to spend into the thousands.
To start things off at home or even in a semi-professional setting, I suggest using a combo of heat gun and temperature gun to get the job done. Decent ones go for about $30 each.
An important step to clean off traces of dirt, oil and grease on the screen, especially before coating the next stencil. Proper degreasing will prevent the emulsion from separating and may cause premature screen breakdown.
Many DIY printers I know use dishwashing liquid e.g. Dawn or a multi purpose cleaner like Simple Green. But if you want something specific, go with Franmar’s D-grease which will run you $14 for a quart.
For removing ghost images and haze when reclaiming screens. A good dehazer will save you money in the long run with longer usability of screens. For an eco-friendly dehazer, Franmar’s D-haze will run you $17 per quart.
4. Emulsion remover
Designed to reclaim screens by removing photopolymer, dual cure and diazo based emulsions and capillary films. Depending on the brand of emulsion, the same company will have an emulsion remover as well so make sure to check this with your supplier.
I hope this gives you a clearer idea of the costs involved.
Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list and that’s why I’ve added the additional 20% for miscellaneous items you need to buy.
Other things to take into consideration for how I came up with the total:
Calculated based on an Inkjet printer. If you have a laser printer, then you would adjust it by purchasing laser transparencies or vellum instead.
I’m going based on plastisol inks. In this scenario, the emulsion selection is different. For water-based, you should adjust accordingly.
I’ve added all Optional items into the Maximum Cost column
Both Minimum and Maximum totals are based on a 1-color screen printing press. Adjust accordingly if you want to use a 4-color press.
I added an Adobe subscription to the Minimum costs. Remember that this is a monthly recurring fee. I highly recommend a Vector program if you decide to get into screen printing. I go into detail the reasons why.
As you can see, the cost to start screen printing boils down to your individual goals, existing tools and most importantly, skill levels.
Some of you might be quite handy, so taking on the DIY route is possible. For some, not so much. You know yourself.
Also consider your ultimate goal.
I know many people who start out with the intention of pursuing screen printing, buying the best equipment, taking courses, etc, only to abandon it after a few attempts.
Surprisingly, some of them happen to be long time customers of mine.
Unless you’ve done some basic screen printing and want to commit to this and really get involved, go with the options from the minimum costs column.
Should you get screen printing “starter kits” instead?
Some online companies like Ryonet sell “starter kits” which include everything you need to start screen printing.
They also include tutorials and from what I’ve seen, do a good job welcoming beginners to the craft. The single color press is enough to learn the basics and even master single colored prints.
That said, some people I’ve spoken with outgrew the kit pretty fast.
And in the end, they had to purchase additional items like ink (colors), larger frames, squeegees and degreaser to name a few.
They eventually spent more money because they needed more things to go beyond the basics – which is what these kits are intended for.
So if you’re a hobbyist looking to wet your feet, these starter kits are a good start, but I would suggest finding used ones.
Check the local classifieds like Craigslist, Offerup, Facebook Marketplace or even eBay, I’m pretty sure someone is selling them along with the stuff it came along with.
However, if you’re looking at screen printing beyond a single color or hobby aspect, I suggest gathering and sourcing each item individually as you learn more about the materials itself, the tools of the trade and the vast options available.