Whether you’re starting a T-shirt business or you like to design clothing garments in your free time as a hobby, screen print transfers are for you. And while the process may sound intimidating to some people, you’ll find it highly convenient once you get the hang of it.
However, this being a manageable process doesn’t eliminate the fact that you’ll require a few special supplies. For starters, the most expensive on our list is a heat press, which isn’t exclusive to screen print transfers. In fact, any process that prints designs on the fabric will need one.
You’ll also need the screen itself, emulsion, and a source of ultraviolet light to engrave your design into the emulsion. And there are a bit more items you’ll need, so keep reading to find out all the details.
The Short Answer
First, print your design on a screen printing film. Then, burn the design onto the screen using ultraviolet light. After that, you place the screen on transfer paper, pour ink on the screen, and press the ink through the screen. Lastly, transfer the design onto fabric using a heat press.
Preparing the Screen
If it wasn’t already evident from the name, the screen is the main instrument to screen printing. It’s essentially a fine mesh fabric stretched onto a wood or metal frame.
It’s traditionally made of silk, but they use synthetic materials nowadays to make them. And it’s what contains your design for the ink to seep through and onto the fabric. However, getting the screen ready for the ink is a two-step process.
Step 1: Printing Your Design on a Screen Printing Film
For your design choice, you have two options. First, you download an image online and print it on screen printing film, which you’ll need an inkjet printer for.
Your second option is to draw your design directly onto the screen printing film. But keep in mind that only black sharpies will do the trick. Other colors won’t burn your design into the screen.
Step 2: Burning the Design Into the Screen
This is arguably the most challenging part of screen printing. But if you follow this guide carefully, you’ll be alright.
First of all, you’ll need a can of emulsion, which is the substance that burns your design into the screen. And it’s light-sensitive, so before you get to work with the emulsion, you’ll need to turn the lights off. Otherwise, your screen will just turn into a big blank canvas.
Apply emulsion to both sides of the screen. Then let it sit in the dark until it’s dry to the touch, or use a blowdryer to speed the process up.
Then place your design on the screen. And don’t forget to flip the sheet of film so the design is mirrored when you look at it. Otherwise, it will come out mirrored on your fabric.
Now, you’ll need to turn on your ultraviolet light source, traditionally a flood lamp, and make it face the screen for two minutes.
After the time is up, immediately rinse the screen off with high-pressure water. At this point, you should be able to see your design perfectly on the screen, and you’re ready for the next step.
Printing Your Design on Transfer Paper
This step would be obsolete if you were screen printing directly onto fabric. However, this is the main feature of screen print transfers. You will print your design on a sheet of paper and then transfer it onto fabric.
So place your sheet of paper onto the board using an adhesive. This way, the sheet of paper doesn’t move during the ink stroke, in which case the design would get messed up.
Then, lower the screen and place it on top of the paper. You’ll then spill the ink onto the back of the screen, flood the ink, and stroke down once towards the bottom of the screen using medium pressure. At this point, your design should be printed on paper and look crisp.
What Kind of Paper to Use
You have two options to choose from. The first is regular transfer paper. It’s a particular type of paper designed to hold the ink instead of absorbing it. So when you transfer the ink to the fabric, it doesn’t come out patchy as it would with conventional paper.
On the other hand, parchment paper can work in a pinch if you’re out of transfer paper. It’s a cheaper and more available substitute for transfer paper.
Curating the Ink
This is the process of heating the ink enough to be dry to touch. This helps the design stay in place on the paper and prevents it from smudging when handling the sheet of paper.
You can either use a conveyor dryer or a flash dryer to cure the ink.
Applying Transfer Powder
After you’ve curated the ink, it’s advisable that you coat your paper with powder. Its commercial name is plastisol transfer adhesion powder. And while it’s not necessary to use it, it’ll extend your design’s lifetime on fabric and give it more resistance to washing.
Adding Multiple Colors on the Same Paper Sheet
You’ll probably want to throw in a few colors on the same design from time to time. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that adding more than one color is possible. The bad news is, you can only add two.
After you’ve printed your first color, cure it halfway until it’s barely dry to the touch, then add the other color. Trying to go for a third color will result in the first color getting over-cured.
Using the Heat Press
This is where you’ll need to spend some money. A good heat press will ensure that your design transfers from paper to fabric without looking patchy and disconnected. So investing in a high-quality heat press will be worth it moving on.
Set your heat press to 320 degrees Fahrenheit (160 Celsius), place the garment on the press, place your transfer paper on the fabric, and lower the arm onto the fabric for 40 seconds.
After the timer is done, put the heat press arm back up and slowly peel the corner of the transfer paper off the fabric. If your design is not fully printed yet, place the paperback on the fabric and reheat for an extra 40 seconds.
However, if the design is fully printed, peel the paper off completely. And your garment should have the design printed on it.
Mistakes to Avoid With Screen Print Transfers
Getting Adhesive on the Screen
This can occur when you’re using adhesive to glue the transfer paper to the board before placing the screen on top of it. A mistake some people make is over-spreading the adhesive, so it sticks to the screen.
It becomes very difficult to clean the screen for another use when this happens. Too much adhesive, and you’ll have to throw away the screen altogether.
Overcuring the Ink on Transfer Paper
Whether you’re doing one color and curing or half-curing to create a two-colored design, overcuring will cause the ink to dry out and stick to the paper entirely. Therefore, when you attempt to transfer the ink onto fabric, the design comes out patchy or doesn’t leave the paper.
Not Flooding the Screen Properly
Flooding the screen is when you first pour paint on top of the screen with the paper placed on top. Printing the design happens in two motions, the flood stroke and the ink stroke. Flooding is when you swipe the spreader with minimal pressure to spread the ink over the design equally.
Failing to flood properly will have your design come out looking patchy.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Conveyor Dryer and a Flash Dryer?
They both get the job done. However, a conveyor dryer is faster and requires less work, making your life easier when mass-producing T-shirts.
On the other hand, if you’re on a tight budget, a flash dryer is better. Granted, it’s more laborious to cure the ink using the flash, but it’s much cheaper than a conveyor.
What’s the Appropriate Temperature for Curing the Ink?
The standard temperature to cure ink is around 280 degrees Fahrenheit (~135 degrees Celsius). However, different fabrics require different ink viscosities, which require different temperatures to cure.
So do a quick Google search to find the perfect temperature for the particular brand of ink you’re using.
What’s the Difference Between Screen Print Transfers and Conventional Screen Printing?
Screen print transfers print your designs on paper instead of directly on the fabric, which can be especially helpful to people starting businesses. This allows them to mass-produce designs on paper, store them for however long they want, and heat press them onto shirts whenever they get a new order.
What Materials Can You Transfer Onto?
Fabric and paper are the most used materials when screen printing. On the other hand, you can print on plastic, metal, wood, and glass by using special inks. However, you’d require a special heat press for each material.