The Screen: From the Darkroom to Your Shirt

They are something not often thought about outside of the shop, but screens are one of the most important things in our industry. You can have all the artists in the world coming up with the most creative designs, and the best inks on the market lining the shelves, but if there isn’t a screen, there isn’t a print.

So let’s take a look at what happens after the art is ready to be transferred to screens.

We start with an aluminum frame and a polyester fabric which is stretched and adhered to the frame, and then we trim the excess fabric. And now we have a blank screen.

Next, the screen is coated with a thin layer of photo-reactive emulsion – a liquid that becomes insoluble when exposed to ultraviolet light – and left in the darkroom to dry. Afterward, the screen is placed in our direct-to-screen exposure unit, which will print a layer of ultraviolet blocking ink on top of the emulsion. The screen is then vacuum-sealed in a reaction unit and exposed to the UV light that will harden the emulsion, yet leave the blocking ink water soluble. The screen is then washed, removed of any water soluble emulsion, and the negative is born. It’s inspected against the art proof for any flaws before moving along in the process.

The printer then loads the screens into the press, lining up the crop marks that accompany each screen’s art in order to ensure proper alignment, and the appropriate ink is added to the right screen so testing and further alignment can begin.

The screen is then allowed time to dry and prepped for the press. The prep work involves taping the edges of the screen to avoid any ink making its way to the areas of the screen that were not treated in the above process. Each of the screens needed for a job, for each color being used, are then gathered and coupled with the blank garments for an order.

The printer then loads the screens into the press, lining up the crop marks that accompany each screen’s art in order to ensure proper alignment, and the appropriate ink is added to the right screen so testing and further alignment can begin. Once all is well, the test garment used during this process is reviewed by a designer before production can begin.

Upon the job’s completion, the press is “broken down;” the screens are cleaned of any excess ink; the tape is removed; and then the screens are taken to a cleaning station, where they will be returned to their blank state and stored until they’re needed again. 

As mentioned, screens are one of the most important parts of the printing process, and while it would be great to “save” each screen, this is not an option. Screens lose tension as they sit, affecting the printing process and quality. We use fresh screens to ensure we are putting out the best product. 

In closing, here a few fun facts: Threds burns over 150 screens per day. And the average time invested in a screen for one color is 30 minutes. So, a six-color print job has three hours of screen care invested!