Screen printing is a custom printing technique that uses a woven mesh to support an ink blocking stencil. The attached stencil forms open areas of mesh that transfer ink as a sharp-edged image onto a substrate. A roller or squeegee is moved across the screen stencil forcing or pumping ink past the threads of the woven mesh in the open areas.




There is considerable taxonomic, etymological and semantic confusion about this process, industry, and techniques known as custom screen printing, custom screen-printing, custom screen-printing, custom silkscreen, and serigraph. Much of the current confusion is based on the popular traditional reference to the process of screen printing as silkscreen printing. Almost no professional businesses, artists, or trade organizations use references to silk because of the general abandonment of silk as a viable mesh material after the 1960s.


Encyclopedia references, dictionaries and trade publications also use an array of spellings for this process with the two most often encountered English spellings as, custom screen-printing spelled as a single undivided word, and the more popular two word title of custom screen printing without hyphenation.




Custom Screen-printing first appeared in a recognizable form in China during the Song Dynasty (9601279 CE). Japan and other Asian countries adopted this method of custom printing and advanced the craft using it in conjunction with block printing and paints.


Custom Screen-printing was introduced to Western Europe from Asia sometime in the late 1700s, but did not gain large acceptance or use in Europe until silk mesh was more available for trade from the east and a profitable outlet for the medium discovered.


Custom Screen-printing was first patented in England by Samuel Simon in 1907. It was originally used as a popular method to custom print expensive wall paper, custom printed on linen, silk, and other fine fabrics. Western custom screen printers developed reclusive, defensive and exclusionary business policies intended to keep secret their workshops' knowledge and techniques.


Early in the 1910s, several custom printers experimenting with photo-reactive chemicals used the well-known actinic light activated cross linking or hardening traits of potassium, sodium or ammonium bichromate chemicals with glues and gelatin compounds. Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens studied and experimented with chromic acid salt sensitized emulsions for photo-reactive stencils. This trio of developers would prove to revolutionize the commercial screen printing industry by introducing photo-imaged stencils to the industry, the acceptance of this method would take many years. Custom commercial screen printing now uses sensitizers far safer and less toxic than bichromates, currently there are large selections of pre-sensitized and "user mixed" sensitized emulsion chemicals for creating photo-reactive stencils.


Joseph Ulano founded the industry chemical supplier Ulano and in 1928 created a method of applying a lacquer soluble stencil material to a removable base. This stencil material was cut into shapes, the custom print areas removed and the remaining material adhered to mesh to create a sharp edged screen stencil.


Originally a profitable industrial technology, custom screen printing was eventually adopted by artists as an expressive and conveniently repeatable medium for duplication well before the 1900s. It is currently popular both in fine arts and in commercial printing, where it is commonly used to print images on custom T-shirts, custom hats, custom caps, CDs, DVDs, ceramics, glass, polyethylene, polypropylene, paper, metals, and wood.


A group of artist who later formed the National Serigraphic Society coined the word Serigraphy in the 1930s to differentiate the artistic application of screen printing from the industrial use of the process. "Serigraphy" is a combination word from the Latin word "Seri" (silk) and the Greek word "graphein" (to write or draw).


The Printer's National Environmental Assistance Center says "Custom screen-printing is arguably the most versatile of all custom printing processes." Since rudimentary custom screen printing materials are so affordable and readily available, it has been used frequently in underground settings and subcultures, and the non-professional look of such DIY culture custom screen prints have become a significant cultural aesthetic seen on movie posters, record album covers, flyers, custom apparel, custom shirts, corporate apparel, commercial fonts in advertising, and elsewhere.


History 1960's to present


Credit is generally given to the artist Andy Warhol for popularizing custom screen printing identified as serigraphy, in the United States. Warhol is particularly identified with his 1962 depiction of actress Marilyn Monroe custom screen-printed in garish colors.


American entrepreneur, artist and inventor Michael Vasilantone would develop and patent a rotary multicolor custom garment screen printing machine in 1960. The original rotary machine was manufactured to print logos and team information on bowling garments but soon directed to the new fad of printing on t-shirts. The Vasilantone patent was soon licensed by multiple manufacturers, the resulting production and boom in printed t-shirts made the rotary garment screen printing machine the most popular device for screen printing in the industry. Screen printing on garments currently accounts for over half of the screen printing activity in the United States.


Custom graphic screen-printing is widely used today to create many mass or large batch produced graphics, such as posters or display stands. Full color prints can be created by printing in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Custom screen-printing is often preferred over other processes such as dye sublimation or inkjet printing because of its low cost and ability to print on many types of media.


Custom printing technique


A custom screen is made of a piece of porous, finely woven fabric called mesh stretched over a frame of aluminum or wood. Originally human hair then silk was woven into screen mesh, currently most mesh is made of man made materials such as steel, nylon, and polyester. Areas of the screen are blocked off with a non-permeable material to form a stencil, which is a negative of the image to be printed; that is, the open spaces are where the ink will appear.


The custom screen is placed atop a substrate such as papyrus or fabric. Ink is placed on top of the screen, and a fill bar (also known as a flood bar) is used to fill the mesh openings with ink. The operator begins with the fill bar at the rear of the screen and behind a reservoir of ink. The operator lifts the screen to prevent contact with the substrate and then using a slight amount of downward force pulls the fill bar to the front of the screen. This effectively fills the mesh openings with ink and moves the ink reservoir to the front of the screen. The operator then uses a squeegee (rubber blade) to move the mesh down to the substrate and pushes the squeegee to the rear of the screen. The ink that is in the mesh opening is pumped or squeezed by capillary action to the substrate in a controlled and prescribed amount, i.e. the wet ink deposit is equal to the thickness of the mesh and or stencil. As the squeegee moves toward the rear of the screen the tension of the mesh pulls the mesh up away from the substrate (called snap-off) leaving the ink upon the substrate surface.


There are three types of custom screen-printing presses. The 'flat-bed' (probably the most widely used), 'cylinder', and 'rotary'.


Textile items are custom printed in multi-color designs using a wet on wet technique, while graphic items are allowed to dry between colors that are then custom printed with another screen and often in a different color.


The custom screen can be re-used after cleaning. However if the design is no longer needed, then the screen can be "reclaimed", that is cleared of all emulsion and used again. The reclaiming process involves removing the ink from the screen then spraying on stencil remover to remove all emulsion. Stencil removers come in the form of liquids, gels, or powders. The powdered types have to be mixed with water before use, and so can be considered to belong to the liquid category. After applying the stencil remover the emulsion must be washed out using a pressure washer.


Most custom screens are ready for recoating at this stage, but sometimes screens will have to undergo a further step in the reclaiming process called dehazing. This additional step removes haze or "ghost images" left behind in the screen once the emulsion has been removed. Ghost images tend to faintly outline the open areas of previous stencils, hence the name. They are the result of ink residue trapped in the mesh, often in the knuckles of the mesh, those points where threads overlap.


While the public thinks of garments in conjunction with custom screen printing, the technique is used on tens of thousands of items, decals, clock and watch faces, and many more products. The technique has even been adapted for more advanced uses, such as laying down conductors and resistors in multi-layer circuits using thin ceramic layers as the substrate.


Stenciling techniques

A macro photo of a custom screen-print with a photographically produced stencil. The ink will be printed where the stencil does not cover the substrate.


There are several ways to create a stencil for screen printing. An early method was to create it by hand in the desired shape, either by cutting the design from a non-porous material and attaching it to the bottom of the screen, or by painting a negative image directly on the screen with a filler material which became impermeable when it dried. For a more painterly technique, the artist would choose to paint the image with drawing fluid, wait for the image to dry, and then coat the entire screen with screen filler. After the filler had dried, water was used to spray out the screen, and only the areas that were painted by the drawing fluid would wash away, leaving a stencil around it. This process enabled the artist to incorporate their hand into the process, to stay true to their drawing.


A method that has increased in popularity over the past 70 years and is tremendously popular is the photo emulsion technique:


   1. The original image is created on a transparent overlay such as acetate or tracing paper. The image may be drawn or painted directly on the overlay, photocopied, or printed with a laser printer, as long as the areas to be inked are opaque. A black-and-white negative may also be used (projected on to the screen). However, unlike traditional plate making, these screens are normally exposed by using film positives.

   2. The overlay is placed over the emulsion-coated screen, and then exposed with an ultraviolet light source in the 350-420 Nanometer spectrum. Other light sources do not work well. The UV light passes through the clear areas and create a polymerization (hardening) of the emulsion.

   3. The screen is washed off thoroughly. The areas of emulsion that were not exposed to light dissolve and wash away, leaving a negative stencil of the image on the mesh.


Photographic screens can reproduce images with a high level of detail, and can be reused for tens of thousands of copies. The ease of producing transparent overlays from any black-and-white image makes this the most convenient method for artists who are not familiar with other custom print making techniques. Artists can obtain screens, frames, emulsion, and lights separately; there are also preassembled kits, which are especially popular for printing small items such as greeting cards.


Another advantage of custom screen printing is that large quantities can be produced rapidly with new automatic presses (up to 1200 custom shirts in 1 hour). (The record is over 2000 shirts an hour.)


Screen-print methods



    the most common plastisol based custom print used in garment decoration. Good color opacity onto dark garments and clear graphic detail with, as the name suggests, a more plasticized texture. This print can be made softer with special additives or heavier by adding extra layers of ink. Most plastisol inks require heat (approx. 300 degrees fahrenheit for many inks) to cure the print.


Water-Based inks

    these penetrate the fabric more than the plastisol inks and create a much softer feel. Ideal for printing darker inks onto lighter colored garments. Also useful for larger area custom prints where texture is important.


PVC/ Phalate Free

    relatively new breed of ink and custom printing with the benefits of plastisol but without the two main toxic components - soft feeling print.


Discharge inks

    used to custom print lighter colors onto dark background fabrics, they work by removing the dye in the garment this means they leave a much softer texture. They are less graphic in nature than plastisol inks, and exact colors are difficult to control, but especially good for distressed and vintage prints.



    consists of a glue custom printed onto the fabric and then foil is applied for a mirror finish.



    silver flakes are suspended in a plastisol ink to create this sparkle effect. Usually available in gold or silver but can be mixed to make most colors.



    similar to glitter, but smaller particles suspended in the ink. A glue is custom printed onto the fabric then a nano-scale fibers applied on it.


Expanding ink (puff)

    an additive to plastisol inks which raises the custom print off the garment, creating a 3D feel.


Caviar beads

    again a glue is custom printed in the shape of the design, to which small plastic beads are then applied works well with solid block areas creating an interesting tactile surface.


Four color process

    Custom artwork is created using dots (CMYK) which combine to create the full spectrum of colors needed for photographic prints this means a large number of colors can be printed using only 4 screens, making the set-up costs viable. The inks are required to blend and are more translucent, meaning a compromise with vibrancy of color.



    a clear base laid over plastisol inks to create a shiny finish.



    a special ink additive for custom printing onto technical or waterproof fabrics.


Print Gocco

    Print Gocco is a Japanese commercially-produced home screen-printing system. Masters are created with the use of flashbulbs to burn an image into the screen. Over one-third of Japanese households own a Print Gocco system.




Screen printing custom t-shirts is more versatile than traditional printing techniques. The surface does not have to be printed under pressure, unlike etching or lithography, and it does not have to be planar. Custom screen printing inks can be used to work with a variety of materials, such as textiles, ceramics, wood, paper, glass, metal, and plastic. As a result, screen-printing custom t-shirts is used in many different industries, including Custom clothing.