Build Your Business:

Key Traits for Screen Room Staff

August 12, 2013

I’m sure we can all agree on the importance of using the right emulsion, mesh, frames and other commodities in the screen room. There have been many articles written describing their proper uses, but not many have delved into one of the real challenges all screen printers face: hiring and staffing.

Your screen room is an important keystone of your screen printing business and, if not managed properly, it can hamstring your business very quickly. If you gather enough printers, I’m sure there are plenty of stories to be told that involve some screen room disaster.

Many shops place their least skilled and troubled employees in the screen room. It’s messy, grubby and monotonous work. It’s like doing the dishes forever. It’s true that the work is not very glamorous, but I’ve never understood the mentality of shop owners who corral their troublemakers into this one spot. Without properly prepared screens, you will fail no matter how great of a printer you are. In fact, if you trace back any printing problems with which you are struggling, I’d bet a good percentage of them originated as screen room challenges.

For staffing in this critical department, here are some key traits that you should look for when building a professional screen room team.

1. Hustle: The screen room’s daily task list is composed of a set of individual steps that must be completed in sequential order before the next one can begin. Moving with a purpose through this list, and completing each step in an orderly, clean, efficient and technically sound manner, is the key to getting the throughput you need to keep your production schedule on track. Look for people that enjoy working quickly and can keep moving. Beware of people that get distracted, are chatty, walk slowly or have to be micromanaged.

2. Cleanliness: Let’s face it: The screen room area will be a little messy. Your print production team should have carded off all the ink from the screens already, but getting that last bit and any leftover masking tape can be an occasional problem. There also is a lot of water used in dip tanks, spray booths and the like — not to mention filling and using the scoop coater for transferring emulsion onto the screen. Some team members might like to work in a disaster zone, but the most professional teams will work cleanly and keep everything organized and ready to go. Excessive product or overspray from the booths is mopped up. From my perspective when touring other shops, the screen room’s cleanliness is proportional to the attitude and professionalism of the production department. Shops that don’t have a lot of issues on press tend to have great prepress crews.

3. Communication: Your screen room staff has to communicate dozens of times a day with your production and art teams. From simple requests, such as getting a new screen burned quickly if one pops on press, to a discussion on the correct mesh to use for an upcoming job, your staff has to possess communication skills to be effective. Within the screen room team, there needs to be constant internal communication centered on needs. Keeping your screen bank full with all of your mesh counts can be a chore, especially if you work with a limited number of screen frames. All it takes is a few big screen count jobs and you may be out of the frames you need for that next job. It takes good communication skills in this department to juggle the needs of production and maintain the screen room’s throughput evenly.

4. Technique: Besides actually printing a shirt, the department that relies on proper technique every day is your screen room. A lot of variables go into a properly made and print-ready screen. If your staff doesn’t control these variables each time, you will have some big challenges on the print floor. From thoroughly cleaning, de-hazing and keeping up with screen tension, to coating your screen with the proper emulsion over mesh (EOM), prepping the screen for imaging is crucial.

Next up is aligning the image on screen. If you use halftones and film positives, I’m sure you’ve experienced issues with moiré caused by the interference with the halftone angle and the mesh by not placing the film on the screen properly. After that, there are the challenges with light exposure and washing out the screens. For each of these crucial steps, automation has been introduced to help standardize and alleviate the problems of performing them by hand. For shops that can’t afford an automatic screen washer, screen coater, direct-to-screen (DTS) imaging system or advanced light exposure unit, success lies in the technique the staff uses to perform each step. Like a professional golfer lining up a putt, the screen room staff has to do things the same way each time. Even with automation, using proper technique with each step ensures success. Make sure you train your staff to use the correct techniques in each step, but also to understand the consequences if they fail.

5. Reasoning and time management: A good screen room manager should possess the ability to look ahead into your production schedule and know what’s expected without being told. Getting those screens burned early for that big order or using the right mesh for metallic ink shouldn’t involve a discussion. Rather, the understanding and comprehension on how to prioritize daily tasks is crucial to running a tight screen room. If your manager has the day off or is sick, someone else needs to be trained so there isn’t a drop off. There is some cycle time in the screen room, as it takes chunks of time to clean, prep, coat and expose screens. Things don’t happen magically, and it takes planning and good time-management skills to push everything out on time for production. As a rule, screens should be ready and waiting at least one business day before the production team needs them. It takes some effort and a lot of cooperation with the art and sales teams to make that happen in reality.

6. Professionalism: Want excellent screens coming from your screen room? Hire, train and maintain people that are proud of their work and are dedicated to doing it the right way. Cross train your staff so that they are proficient and skilled with all the different processes in the screen room. Give them the knowledge and depth of understanding of why they need to do their jobs correctly and what can happen if they don’t. People with a professional attitude will see the value in their work, and will want to succeed and do it right. If you are building your screen room staff with the misfits and deadwood employees of your company, challenge yourself to find better and more competent team members. One motivated and professional employee can outwork two or three that are just there for the hours and are happy pulling tape all day.

At the end of the day, the screen room team usually is the last to be thanked. However, they probably they are the ones in most need of gratitude. If you are looking to build your competency in this area, start with the traits listed above, of course, but also in how you view this team. Make sure that they understand their value to your company and the importance of their hard work.  

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.