Street Chairs: How to Screen Print in your Bathtub
When I first moved to SF, I noticed a crazy amount of stray chairs on the street. I started capturing photos of these chairs, and eventually started drawing them. I wanted to find a way to share this series, and began experimenting with screen printing as a medium. For the first Square Maker's Market, I printed and framed 7 of these drawings and sold them as a Square merchant.
Materials & Tools:
- Piece of smooth, flat plywood that's larger than your screen
- Speedball screen printing hinge clamps
- 4 nails or screws
- Hammer or drill
- Graphic squeegee that's wider than your design
- Stirring sticks
- Acrylic screen printing ink
- Spray bottle
- Table or flat work surface
- Newspaper or butcher paper
- Archival art paper
- Large basin to wash screens
- Paper towel
- Red polyethylene screen tape
- Scrap wood pieces
- Scrap cardboard
Step 1: Design & Screen Burning
Screen printing is perfect for line drawings and single-color artwork. There are a few different ways you can transfer your art to a burned screen; I chose to digitally vectorize my art and outsource the printing.
Most cities have local shops where you can get screens burned and artwork printed onto paper or tee-shirts. I went through Anthem Screen Printing in SF, since they offer 1-2 day turnaround on pickup or delivery for screen burning. I was crunched for time & a dark room, or I might have attempted burning the screen myself.
Follow the instructions for the specific sizing for your preferred screen size and artwork prep if you're outsourcing the screen burning. Take careful note of if the printer requires your artwork to be reversed or not.
While your artwork doesn't need to be vectorized, it does need to be 100% black and white. The black will be the ink when printed. The printer will print your art onto a transparency, which will then be used to burn the image onto the screen. Make sure your lines aren't too thin, or it will be difficult for the ink to print through the screen. I used a 1pt stroke weight for my lines, though I wish I had made them thicker. If you're burning more than one image to a screen, make sure to leave plenty of room in between the artwork.
Step 2: Build Printing Press
It's possible to buy a pre-made tabletop screen printing press, but it's way cheaper to do it yourself. I went to my neighborhood hardware store and asked if they had any scrap wood lying around that I could take or buy, and they did.
You'll need to buy a pair of Speedball's screen printing hinge clamps, and nail or screw them to a large, flat piece of plywood. It's best if your surface is slightly larger than your screen size. Nail or screw the clamps to the piece of wood, about 3" in from the edges of the board.
It's possible to use a table or other surface to screw the clamps into, but I wanted mine to be portable and easy to break down. Because my plywood was relatively thin, I used a block of scrapwood underneath the clamps to make sure there were no screws protruding from the end. You'll want to nail or place another piece of scrapwood underneath the other end of the platform to keep it even.
Twist the wingnuts on the clamps so that they're loose enough for your screen to fit in between the two clamps. Place the screen in between the hinges, and tighten the wingnuts. Here's a good visual guide.
Since there's a bit of space between the clamps and the wood, I placed a notebook or piece of scrap cardboard underneath the art as I was printing. This will ensure that your paper is in full contact with the ink coming through the screen.
Step 3: Prep Screens
Use the red polyethylene screen tape to securely mask the edges of the screen. Usually the emulsion won't go all the way to the edges, and you don't want any ink to spill through the cracks. Make sure it's airtight, and any yellow/white part of the screen that you don't want printed is taped. If you burned multiple prints on a screen, you'll also need to tape off any other art that you don't want to print.
While it's possible to use other kinds of tape, I highly recommend using polyethylene tape, since it's watertight and won't damage your screen when you remove it.
Spray your screen down with some water and wipe it with a paper towel before printing to make sure there's no dust or ink on either side.
Step 4: Print
Put down some newspaper on the floor of your work area so you don't spill. If you don't have a big enough area to print, use your bathtub. It's easy to clean. Make sure to wear clothes that you don't mind getting ink on. You will get inked, and it won't come off. It's best to wear gloves, or to have a friend with clean hands, so you don't smudge your artwork after printing.
Put your piece of paper (always make a couple test prints first, before printing on nice paper or tee-shirts) in between the screen and your platform. Load up the top of your screen with your preferred ink color. Pull the ink over the image with your squeegie, keeping your squeegie at an acute angle facing towards you. Press down hard and push the squeegie back up towards the top of the screen at a 30° angle. Be careful not to move the screen while you're printing.
Lift the screen carefully and remove your artwork. It's best not to let the screen sit for too long between prints, or the ink will dry and won't print correctly again the next time.
In between prints, particularly for a design with thin lines, I will sometimes spray the screen to keep the ink wet or scrub the design area with a wet paper towel.
Step 5: Drying & Cleaning
It's best to make all of your prints for one design in one huge run. Make sure you have enough dry & clean surfaces for your prints to dry in between prints. You'll notice a lot of inconsistencies in between the prints, but that's kind of what makes it magical. Cut down your printed art as necessary, and frame to your liking.
When you're done printing, remove any tape that's covering artwork (but leave the tape around the edges) and wash the screen in a large sink, bathtub, or outside with a hose. Be sure to scrub the design area again with a wet paper towel to remove any trapped ink.