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Alex Oster is sales manager for Equipment Zone, a manufacturer of direct-to-garment printers and pretreat systems, and has been involved with direct-to-garment printers for the past six years. Contact him at alex@equipmentzone.com; 800-408-0040.

So you saw the infomercial on TV and bought a Yudu, a self-contained screen printing setup. Or maybe you picked up an amateur screen printing set from a crafts store or a set of inkjet heat transfer paper from an office supply store. Simple screen printing setups like the Yudu are a great way to get introduced to garment decorating. Everything needed to get started comes in one box, along with instructions and how-to videos. Many people will purchase a kit like the Yudu, use it once or twice and then relegate it to the corner of a closet. But for those who get bit by the garment-decorating bug while using their kits and want to start an apparel imaging business, a few changes are all it takes to go from hobby to professional level. Here are some tips to make that beginner screen printing kit more efficient, plus a guide to upsizing when business is ready.

Douglas Grigar, who teaches screen printing classes for The Grendel, shows two students how to scoop coat emulsion onto a screen. (Image courtesy TheGrendel.com)

Supercharged startup

Now that you’re printing dozens of shirts at a time, make some small changes that will cut costs and increase profit margin. If you’ve ever purchased screen printing ink in a tube or bottle, you know it’s expensive and that it gets used up pretty quickly. Professional screen printers get their ink in quarts or gallon sizes. That means you have to buy much more of a color at one time, but it’s also a great deal cheaper than purchasing ink in tubes. A quart of ink can cost as little as $20. Look for water-based ink, which will be compatible with your current setup and can be air-dried or dried with a heat gun. Buying pails of ink (as they’re known in screen printing parlance) instead of bottles can save a lot of money.

Buying emulsion and a scoop coater and learning how to coat screens from YouTube how-to videos and articles in Printwear magazine and online at www.printwearmag.com will eliminate expensive capillary film from the workflow. Make certain to get an emulsion that’s compatible with the type of ink being used.

Also be sure to purchase T-shirts from a wholesaler instead of a department store or craft shop. You’ll have to buy a case of shirts at a time—that’s 72 shirts—and convince them you’re a real business, not just someone looking to score cheap Ts.

Grigar demonstrates how to tape the sides of a screen, covering up the blank edges of the screen which would otherwise allow ink to soak through. (Image courtesy TheGrendel.com)

The screen printing class checks out a test print on a pellon square, a piece of fabric that screen printers use to test their designs so they don’t waste a T-shirt. (Image courtesy TheGrendel.com)

Upgrade setup

By the time you’ve printed a few hundred shirts, you’ll know if the garment decorating industry is for you. If so, it may be time to make some big changes. Said changes mean a larger investment, but the start-up costs of a screen printing or heat transfer business are reasonable—nowhere near the costs of starting up many other types of businesses.

Before investing in a screen printing shop, it’s important to get professional training, advises Mark Vasilantone, president of screen printing equipment manufacturer Vastex International. People ask him, “I don’t know which printer and dryer to buy; can you tell me?” To which Vasilantone replies: “We want to teach you how to screen print and then you’ll know which press to buy.”

Professional training and advice is abundant in this industry and can assist you in buying the right equipment for your shop. It can also prevent mistakes. One example involves a beginner who laid the entire shirt on top of the platen, a time-consuming procedure that can cause misprints. It wasn’t until he saw a screen printing demonstration that he finally learned the proper method, draping only the top of the shirt over the platen.

When it comes time to choose equipment, allow some room to grow. Though the work up until now may call for just a one-color one-station press, remember that business won’t always be this small. If budget allows, consider proactively purchasing a larger press than is needed right now or purchasing a press that is expandable and will enable added colors and stations as business grows.

A professional screen printing operation will have a multicolor screen printing press, conveyor dryer, flash dryer, exposure unit, washout sink and other supplies. Many of these items can be built with parts from a hardware store (a plastic shower stall can make an excellent washout sink) or added on slowly.

Ink interpretations

You may have to change the type of ink you’re using. While the water-based ink being used with the Yudu is suitable for small jobs, it can make life difficult in a larger screen printing operation. Pinning a dozen shirts printed with water-based ink on a clothesline to dry isn’t a big deal, but try that with a 100-shirt order. Other issues arise when using water-based ink in a production setup, one being that the ink dries relatively quickly in the screen, which could clog and ruin it. 

Grigar shows a student how to use a scoop coater to apply emulsion to a screen. (Image courtesy TheGrendel.com)

A student removes the tape from the sides of a screen. If the proper tape is used, removal should be easy. (Image courtesy TheGrendel.com)

Plastisol ink has none of these disadvantages and should be considered when expanding production. Plastisol can be left on the screen for an extended period of time without the possibility of clogging. It has a higher opacity than water-based ink, so prints that need two passes of water based may only need one pass of plastisol. You may miss the soft hand of water-based ink prints, though, as plastisol inks have a thicker hand. 

One major caveat is that plastisol cannot be air-dried. The ink must reach a temperature of approximately 330° in order to cure and become wash-fast. That means you’ll need to invest in a flash or conveyor dryer to cure the shirts, which will cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The upside? Once shirts that have been printed with plastisol ink are cured, they are completely dry and ready to wear; you can hang up your clotheslines instead of on them. 

Likewise, heat pressers should consider a machine that accepts different attachments, such as different sized platens. A smaller heat press platen makes it easier to decorate bags, sleeves and other small garments, so you can diversify product offerings. Purchasing plastisol heat transfers in bulk from an online supplier is a great way for those who currently use inkjet heat transfers to cut costs and improve quality.

Investigate all options

While you may have caught the garment decorating bug, it might not have been the screen printing strand. Screen printing can be a messy process. Plus, it’s very physical. Simply put, screen printing is not for everyone. That being said, there are several other processes that the novice embellisher should explore. 

A professional screen printing operation will have a multicolor screen printing press, conveyor dryer, flash dryer, exposure unit, washout sink and other supplies. (Images courtesy Vastex International)

One such process is direct-to-substrate (D2) embellishment, where designs are printed directly from computer to garment. Because some of the time-consuming steps in screen printing, like making the screen, are absent when using a D2 printer, it’s easier for direct-to-substrate decorators to create individualized, low-quantity garments. Plus, these printers aren’t limited to one- or two-color designs or simple artwork. Designs can have thousands of colors and intricate details. D2 printing isn’t as physically intensive as screen printing, to boot.

The main drawback to direct-to-substrate printing is the price tag. A used printer can cost thousands of dollars, and new printers usually cost more than $15,000. Accessories like a heat press can push the price tag for a D2 business even higher. But, even though the cost to start up a direct-to-substrate business can be higher than, say, a heat-printing business, D2 printer owners are usually able to sell garments for a healthy profit, since many other printers can’t match their low-quantity/multi-color output.

Another option to consider is a vinyl cutter. A cutter can slice designs into pieces of vinyl that are then heat pressed onto garments. Vinyl cutters are versatile and, thanks to a variety of different vinyl material, can be used to create T-shirt designs as well as signs and car wraps. Entry-level cutters can cost just a few hundred dollars, while more professional models can cost thousands, and models that print on the vinyl and then cut can increase production for sure, but along with that, price point. Budding businesses might also want to consider an embroidery setup. A few changes are all it takes for a hobbyist garment decorator to move into a professional level. 

Regardless of which is chosen, there’s a lot of learning to do. One of the keys to being successful, Vasilantone reiterates, is, “Education and training, training, training. A craftsman can get good work out of a bad machine, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t get good work, even out of a good machine.”

While your main goal may be making a profit, don’t forget to have fun. People love the screen printing business because it can be a really creative and gratifying way to spend time. There’s no vaccination or cure for the garment decorating bug, so don’t forget to enjoy yourself if you’ve been lucky enough to be infected.