A Practical Guide to Starting a Screen Printing Business
Starting a screen printing business is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. You will get to create, design and print things that make your customers happy. Making owning a garment printing business a reality takes planning and an understanding of the industry first. There are many different factors to consider when establishing your shop. This article will detail the practical aspects of starting a screen printing business.
The estimated cost for starting a screen printing business can be very low, especially when compared to other businesses. You will need to budget for screen printing machines, blank t-shirts, screen printing supplies and a few other items. Screen Printing Starter Kits range in price, with better quality packages starting in the $6,900 range.
Your basic equipment needs can vary. Some printers tend to do as much DIY (do it yourself) as they can, and others prefer to focus on screen printing. No matter what type of person you are, there are a few basic pieces of machinery that every screen print shop needs.
First, you will need a manual press. Most people start out with a six or four color press with a corresponding number of stations (also called platens). These tend to be about six to eight feet in diameter. A higher amount of colors, or stations, will become heavy and you will get tired pushing the screens and stations around while printing. Plus, most screen printing jobs are only between one and three colors.
Second, you will need a good exposure unit to burn your screens. There are a lot of different options out there. If it is in your budget, get an exposure unit with a top and vacuum. These create a tight seal and press your film positive (transparency) against your screen, which aids in producing a better looking screen. Without a heavy top, and more critically a vacuum, light from your exposure unit can “creep” or “bend” around the image area of your film positive. This will cause you lose fine lines, small text and any halftones you are trying to print.
Third, you will want a conveyor dryer. Try to get one that is 220 volts. These dryers are bigger (compared 110 volt options) and can cure (dry) ink on shirts at a quicker rate due to a higher wattage rating. Other considerations are belt width and length. It is easier to lay a printed shirt on a wider belt. Remember, when the shirt is still wet, you cannot fold the image over or lay anything on top of it. As a start up, you will want a dryer belt that is either 24 or 36 inches wide. Be mindful, as some manufacturers make a conveyor belt that is wider than their heating elements. You should avoid these because they could lead to your print not being thoroughly dried. If your print passes through the dryer but not under the actual element, it may only get a surface cure. If your print is not totally cured, it comes out in the wash and you have an unhappy customer.
Similar to a dryer, you will need a flash cure unit. This is used to “spot cure” or “flash dry” your shirt. Typically, this is used when doing a “print, flash, print”, or using a white underbase. Both methods include printing colors on top of one another and are used to make colors more vibrant. You print and then swing the flash over the print for a few seconds, but continuing on with printing. A basic flash unit works here. The most popular one is 16” x 16” with a standard 120 volt plug in, such as the Lawson Econo flash Unit.
Besides the basic equipment, there are some extra equipment needs that make starting your screen print shop easy. Part of the screen printing process involves water, both for developing and cleaning. Having a wash out booth where you put your screens to get rinsed and cleaned helps keep your shop clean. As you wash your screens, you will want a filtration device to stop screen printing by-products from going down your drain.
Another popular accessory is a drying cabinet. Your emulsion coated screen needs to dry before it can be exposed. There Pro-Cure Drying Boxes have built in heaters and fans that create convection heat. Screens placed inside a dry box can be ready to expose in as little as 15 minutes. This is a great time saver, especially for screen printing shops in high humidity locations, where it can sometimes take all day for an emulsion coated screen to dry.
While screen racks often get lumped into the category of “extra” or ancillary equipment needs, they really are vital for every shop. Whether you plan to print part-time or full time, you will start to get a lot of aluminum screen printing frames and will need a place to store them. A rolling rack is a big help. Many people will have a few carts - one for clean screens that are ready for emulsion, one for drying emulsion, and one for screens you want to save for repeat jobs.
To get started, you will also need a variety of screen printing supplies. It is easiest to get everything from the same place. Good manufacturers will often provide free supplies with their start up screen printing packages.
An option besides the standard aluminum static frames are retensionable frames or panel frames. Typically, only one image is put into a screen. This is why screen printers have so many frames. However, a panel frame saves space and costs by allowing you to switch out the mesh while reusing the same frame. You can save the mesh panel and reuse it. This is especially helpful when saving screens for repeat orders, without having to invest the space to frame storage.
Now that you have your equipment, you need a space to actually print. There are a variety of options. Some screen printing shops want to be in a highly visible area with a lot of foot traffic. Rent in these areas tends to be more expensive per square foot. Others take the approach of finding a more affordable area to set up a shop. The advantage of this approach is your money goes further. Many people also start out printing in their basement or garage. While the location is a preference, having the right amount of space is key.
How much space you need all depends on the equipment. More space is always better because it gives you options. Ideally, you want to position your printing press close to your dryer, so you can pull your shirt off the platen and place it directly onto the dryer’s conveyor belt, taking as few steps as possible. In the most efficient shops, printers do not have to take more than two steps. That is how close the press and dryer are.
The ability to have different rooms will also help, particularly with cleaning and preparing screens. Since emulsion is light sensitive and you have to work with water, being able to create a separate room is a big advantage.
Once you have the equipment and space you are ready to start printing. While the process of screen printing is not hard, there can be a learning curve. Especially as a beginner, you might go through “the start up blues.” I always recommend beginners keep a bottle of aspirin nearby, as things do not always go as planned. You might mess up an exposure time, get pin holes or struggle with registering a multi-color job. Just realize that every single printer has struggled with the exact same issues. In fact, many still do.
It is important to remember that screen printing is an art and a science. While there is a clear process you should follow, there is no “right” way. Certain methods and techniques work for some, while you might find a different way. What matters most is the end result - did you print a fantastic shirt your customer loves?