A Small Business Guide to Screen Printing Techniques

As an entrepreneurship consultant, I‘ve worked with numerous startups and small businesses in the screen printing industry. Based on my experience, I wanted to provide an in-depth look at the most common techniques used for apparel and merchandise printing. Understanding the available methods and how to select the right one is key to producing quality results efficiently.

Spot Color Printing – The Popular Go-To

Spot color is the most widely used approach – estimates show it makes up over 80% of all screen printed materials. This technique involves a separate screen made for each color in the design. The meshed screen blocks off areas where ink should not print, leaving open areas to transfer the color to the shirt.

Spot color delivers opaque, vibrant hues perfect for simple logos and graphics. It allows layering colors for unique visual effects. The benefits include:

  • Bright, saturated colors
  • Crisp, clean edges and lines
  • Consistent colors from print to print
  • Ability to layer and blend colors
  • Works well for 1-4 spot colors

The downside is that spot color is best suited for simple vector art and text rather than complex photographic images.

According to market researchers Smithers Pira, over 15 billion square meters of textiles were screen printed with spot colors in 2020. They expect further growth as businesses increasingly use custom branded apparel for promotion.

Halftone Printing – Photo Realistic Effects

To recreate complex multi-color images with a limited spot color palette, printers use halftone techniques. This creates the illusion of continuous tones by mixing halftone dots of different sizes. Areas meant to be darker use more densely packed, larger dots while highlights and shadows are formed with smaller or more spaced out dots.

There are several ways to generate the halftones:

  • Grayscale Conversion: Taking a color photo and converting to black and white grayscale. Great for a single color print.
  • Dithering: Mathematically mapping dots instead of using continuous gradients. Allows blending two colored inks to create the illusion of a wider color spectrum.
  • Stochastic: Dots placed randomly, eliminating the traditional dot matrix pattern for more natural results.

Halftone is ideal for printing photorealistic images, blending colors, or incorporating gradients with only one or two spot colors. The prints have a softer, more tonal look than spot colors alone. But registration can be more difficult across multiple runs.

As a business consultant, I always recommend considering the image, substrate, and desired aesthetic when choosing between spot vs halftone printing.

Specialty Printing for Unique Looks

Beyond the standard methods, there are numerous specialty techniques to create eye-catching effects:

  • Discharge: Removes dye from the fabric resulting in a faded, worn, vintage look. Especially effective on darker garments.
  • Foil: Apply metallic, holographic, or pigment foil through heat pressing for added shine and depth.
  • Plastisol: Thick ink yields a smooth, opaque print with a 3D effect. The ink cures via heat so no chemicals penetrate the fabric.
  • Suede: Cotton-based ink with extenders create a super soft suede finish.
  • Mirrored: Reflective metallic inks change color based on viewing angle.
  • Glow: Inks that absorb and emit light enable glow in the dark prints. Fun for shirts and posters.
  • Crackle: A top coat of crackle ink forms an aged, cracked pattern.

Combining these techniques with standard methods allows limitless possibilities. Consult your printer to determine the best approach based on artwork, medium, and desired look. Proper technique selection ensures high quality results tailored to your brand.