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Screen Printing - A guide for stencil printing at home

Updated: May 11, 2023

At WR-AP we like to get hands on with our projects, so why should our branding be any different? We thought it would be a good idea to give screen printing our own tote bags a go, not only to keep costs down but to keep with our practice wide ethos of sustainability. In this blog we'll be looking at stencil printing an image of one of our projects onto the first side of our bag.

What you’ll need for printing:

· Screen

· Squeegee

· Screen printing inks for fabric

· Image for your stencil

· Cutting mat

· Craft knife / scalpel

As this was our first trial, we chose a variety of certified cotton bags so we could get to grips with the feel and print quality you could achieve on each. We tested organic, fair trade, and recycled cotton bags using both monotype and stencil screen printing methods. The monotype experiment wasn’t very successful, the horizontal lines smudged into the white and it was a bit of an uneven print (mainly because my inks are a few years old and a bit goopier than they should be). It’s definitely a method you should try if you’re into print making though, just keep in mind it’s more suited to organic artistic pieces rather than the rigidity of this kind of image.

So, first things first, we’ve got to prepare our stencils for printing. We’re going to need a different stencil for each colour of ink we want in our print, we’ve got four colours so we’ll need four separate stencils. I’ve decided to cut straight into printouts of our image to retain the accuracy of the graphic and make it easier to align the layers. This is fairly simple and just requires a scalpel / craft knife, cutting mat and a steady hand. It was only after the hour I spent cutting the stencils that the team told me they had a paper cutter so that could be used to make it even more accurate. You’ll only really be able to use your stencils for one run so try and get all the layers you need with each stencil done in one go. This should also mean the first few will be ready to print your next layer on without too much hanging about.

Once you’ve got all your stencils cut it’s time to prep your printing station, I always get ink everywhere when I’m making a print so it’s a good idea to cover your surface to make cleaning up a bit easier. It’s a good idea to tape the interior edges of your screen to stop the ink pooling in between the mesh and the frame. It saves you time cleaning it later and gives you less chance of cross contaminating your colours.

Get your bag and put a piece of card inside to prevent any ink from leaking through and put it down as flat as you can with your first stencil on top. You’re also going to want to set up a system to make sure your layers line up correctly with each other. I tend to just mark this with masking tape so I know where to lay the bag and where the screen sits, but you can also use clamps. I don’t have any myself but am definitely going to invest in some if we go with the hand printed bags, it just makes alignment so much easier and means you can work with both hands which is super useful when you’re pulling your ink. A tip to check if you’ve done this correctly is to do a test on a piece of acetate or thin plastic over your design so you can see if any adjustments need to be made.

Now you’re all set up it’s time to get printing! Place your screen on top of the bag and stencil you’ve set up and dollop your ink along the top edge. You don’t need too much, just enough to go across the area of the design you’re going to be printing. If you do have clamps it’s a good idea to flood the screen, this just means pulling the ink without your stencils to get an even layer from your first print. Pop your squeegee at the top of your screen and, holding it at roughly a 45-degree angle, bring it down across your screen applying quite a bit of pressure. Try and be as consistent as you can with this to get a more even colour. Lift the screen, check your print, and repeat.

If you’re ready to move on to your next layer you’ll need to rinse your screen thoroughly, if there’s any pesky dried bits of ink left just gently massage it with a sponge or soft brush. Never push too hard when washing your screen though as you could pop right through! I know it’s very exciting but don’t forget to let each layer and the screen itself dry before progressing onto the next as it’ll just become a smudgy mess. Keep repeating these steps until you’ve printed all your layers.

TOP TIP: Heat seal your design so it doesn't come off in the wash using an iron! Set your iron to 'cotton' or match your fabric then cover it with a sheet of greaseproof and do over your design for about 3-5 minutes.

Hopefully this guide has helped make your printing dreams come true or at least made you want to give it a go! This one has been tailored specifically to printing on fabric but it's exactly the same process to make a paper print too, just make sure you're using graphic inks as opposed to the fabric ones. Thanks for reading and don't be afraid to share any of your outcomes with us.

This blog has been written by Amber, our design and communications lead. Amber is a 2020 Communication Design graduate from the Glasgow School of Art and founder of Bloom & Body, a small ceramics business focusing on the human form. You can read more about her here.

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