Embrace Photo Silkscreen Printing for under $75!

Embrace Photo Silkscreen Printing for under $75!

I have no formal training in the visual arts, but I’ve been determined to learn to do photo silkscreen prints since I learned about the process in high school. Unfortunately, a lot of the ‘how-to’ literature scares one to thinking one needs a vacuum-press table, a complex exposure system inside a formal dark room, enormous wash basins, and pro-grade halftone filters, etc, etc, etc…

As it turns out, one does not. Using a pre-made and readily available materials, it is quite simple to do quality prints for only $75 USD.

The process works like this: A light-sensitive emulsion is applied to the screen. A black and clear image is placed atop the screen, and the screen is exposed under a photo bulb, which hardens the emulsion, except under the black image. Then the un-hardened emulsion is washed away, leaving the screen open only where intended. Brilliant.


Pre-fab or homemade polyester screen [I used an 8”x10”]
Piece of glass the same size as your screen
Thick foam that matches the INSIDE dimensions of your screen, painted or covered in black
Rubber squeegee, two inches smaller than your frame
Diazo Photo Emulsion and Sensitizer (such as Speedball® brand)
Water-based Silkscreen ink
250 or 500 Watt Photoflood bulb and reflector apparatus (available at a photo supply store)
Electric Fan

Preparing your image:

    Select or create an image, and import into editing software. Force your image into only two colors - black or white. This has to be on or off. To do this in Photoshop, go to Image‡ Adjustments‡ Threshold, and play around with the Threshold Level. This can also be done in any software by converting the image to a bitmap. To create shades of gray, one must use halftone dots, which I can’t figure out how to do in Photoshop. Please share your ideas.
    Print your image in black and white. If you have digital “stair steps” on the edges, trace over them with a black marker. Next, photocopy your image onto clear acetate, AKA overhead transparencies. To aid in the exposure process, make two identical transparencies, and secure them atop each other (using staples along the edges, or double-sided transparent tape. (You can also draw directly on the acetate with india ink, or use vinyl letters.)

Preparing the screen:
    Tape the inside edges of wooden frame of your screen. (I did not do this, and regret it.) Following the directions, mix your photo emulsion with the sensitizer, until it has a uniform color. Work in a dark room, and dim the lights (it does not need to be darkroom safe), and stay away from windows. Add the emulsion to your screen, using your squeegee or a strip of cardboard, and cover the entire surface. Keep flipping the screen, and spread the emulsion evenly. Elevate the screen above the floor (e.g. on some scrap 2x4s) and place next to a fan in a COMPLETELY DARK room, such as a windowless basement, bathroom, or closet. I let mine dry overnight, but an hour would be adequate with a fan.

Exposing your screen:
    In low light, place your dried screen upside down on top of the foam. Place the doubled-transparency on top, and then add the glass.

    Secure your lamp 24” above the screen. I used a microphone stand for maximum adjustability, but you could secure yours to the ceiling, or suspend it from a chair or foldable TV tray. If using a 500-watt bulb, expose the screen for 15 minutes. For a 250-watt bulb, increase the time to 30 minutes. (There are ways to do this with standard lamps and high-watt light bulbs, but I think it’s worth the $30 to do it right, for both clarity of image and electrical safety. You can also use the sun, but the results are uncontrollable.) The exposed emulsion will darken significantly.

Wash the screen:
    Wash the screen in a sink or the bathtub with warm water. You can attach a spray nozzle to increase the force of the water. Take your time, and eventually the goo will start to magically disappear. You can rub lightly with the soft parts of your fingertips, but eventually it will just start to happen. Incredible!
    Dry the screen again for another 30 minutes.

Print your image:
    Lay the screen down on a piece of paper. Add a thick glob of ink alongside the top width of the image, atop the emulsion. Keeping the frame secure, grab the ink with the squeegee and pull all the way down in one motion. Experiment to learn how much pressure is required. Pull the screen off carefully, and be amazed at your good work.

If you wish to print on fabric which will be washed, add a fixer such as Versatax® to your ink before you make your print. You can also the iron the image on high, with a piece of parchment paper between the iron and the fabric.

You can buy diazo emulsion remover, which allows you to use your screen again and again. I’m amazed at how easy this is with the right equipment, and after a little more practice, I plan to build a larger screen system with a high “dpi” screen. Post will follow…



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Richard May on May 15, 2011:

Silkscreening changes very little from the process used by the amatuer enthusiast to that employed by the professional printer. This inexpensive do-it-yourself project is therefore a good introduction to the intracacies of professional silk screen printing.

Selvage on Apr 11, 2010:

Where can I buy the screen and does the basic Dye work instead of ink? for example, self mixed tie Dyes?

blue feather on Feb 24, 2010:

I have been doing home silkscreening for years and I would recommend sunlight for exposing the screen. its cheaper and uses less energy!

The steps

1)in a dark room tape your transparency (i do a double transparency layer to block light) on a sheet of glass or plexi-glass and then put the glass onto the screen so the glass holds the transparency onto your screen so it doesn't come up (make sure the image is facing the right way for printing)

2) put a dark surface on the underside of the screen to prevent light from bouncing off the ground and hitting the under side of the screen (i use an old canvas covered in black poster board, you can use cardboard & dark fabric, whatever- as long as it covers the back of the screen)

3) put a towel over the top of the screen so light doesn't get to it while you are carrying it outside. 

4) so outside, take towel off top and expose for 2-3 min (we live at 5200 ft, so it might be longer at sea level)...i sometime I set screen ensemble on the sidewalk, if the glass holding the transparency is smaller than screen, sometimes I hold facing the screen at the sun, knowing where my fingers were will cause holes i will have to patch later)

5) recover with towel, so that if the transparency moves on your way back inside it won't effect your imagine. 

6) carefully and quickly remove the glass (i just turn frame over on a table to get it out) and then rinse with warm water as indicated above...

once you start doing sunlight exposures its great!!! its very easy and quick..just have to live somewhere with frequent enough sunlight :)

Ann E. on Dec 05, 2009:

Spending $75 is way too much to get started.  I teach a class called Impromptu Screenprinting where your initial investment is about $10, if that much.  You won't make hundreds of imprints with this method but who wants to make hundreds anyway!  

Looks like I need to make a tutorial......

UpStateSCSilkScreen on Feb 11, 2008:

One of the best ways to stop pin holes from messing up your shirts is to tape the whole screen up on the botton side around the image with 3" paper tape .. pin holes can pop up at any time .. this will prevent ink from getting on the printed work ...  also if you see small pin holes around the emage after you've burned the image you can use finger nail polish to stop up the holes in your screen  this works great .. We use Red finger nail polish because it's easler to see .. We don't reclaim our screens we just tare them out, save the frames and put new mesh in ..   One more little hint .. Try pushing the screen across the image instead of pulling it .. its less work on the fingers .. use your thumbs to push the squeeage  its a more natual feel ..   try scooping the ink taking it over the print then push the squeeage across the image the print looks way more cleaner  ..  one more hint .. White ink is very thick push your squeeage across your print twice .. Once youve printed your image on your shirt dry the print then print it again it makes the print look better on darker items .. I know a lot of people may already know this  but i was trying to help the first time people more .. I know it was hard to get help when i first started out ..

Chris Gardner on Nov 24, 2007:

Just go to a copy shop and ask them to copy your art onto an overhead transparency. You can also print at home if you have a laser printer and the appropriate sheets.

The problem with this method is, of course, your art can only be 8 1/2 x 11. To get it bigger, you could take your art and screen to a screenprinting shop and ask them to blow it up and expose it for you. 

KidDestrukt on Nov 23, 2007:

how do i photocopy onto acetate?

shalanah on Sep 28, 2007:

I've just done a test strip of my first photo emulsion in a long time... i'm having difficulties with the emulsion though.  when i hold my finished screen up to the light small holes appear in the hard (suppose to be resist areas) emulsion.  i'm not sure if this is due to my squeegee technique or if i used too warm of water to wash.  do you have any tips on applying emulsion to the screen?  when do you know you have a good coat?

Chris Gardner on Apr 01, 2007:

None of the literature I read made the distinction. Mine was blue- 48,000 Kelvin, but I wouldn't go out an buy a blue one if you already have a white one. The high wattage matters most. Cheers.

blisskitty on Mar 31, 2007:

is there a preference between the blue or white photo flood bulb for exposing the screens?

TheHomeWorksCo on Mar 16, 2007:

If you plan to use the screen again, make sure you wash out the screen AS SOON AS YOU ARE DONE WITH IT! I used to do this in school and had no problems getting the emulsion out of my screen (I don't know if the cleaning chemicals were stronger or what) But if I let my screen sit out in the garage for a while with emulsion still on it, that stuff never comes out again.

el_wombato on Mar 15, 2007:

I'm too lazy to type up the steps myself, but this guide should explain how to create a halftone bitmap - just ignore the stuff about multiple screens.

Be aware that the halftone dots have to be fairly large, so don't expect a lot of detail to survive.

badbadivy on Mar 15, 2007:

Wow, Chris. I swear, man, you are constantly posting things I really want to know! Thank you!!

bruno on Mar 15, 2007:

Awesome walk-through. Thanks Chris! Now if I could just find the time to use the screen that has been sitting in my garage for two years...

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