Screen Printing:

Pushing the Creative Comfort Zone

Use these steps when embarking on the process of producing retail-quality prints to expand your offerings.

By Thomas Trimingham, Contributing Writer

August 28, 2020

If you’re fortunate enough to have customers that request highly detailed prints, it can be important to consider how you can offer them. There’s a reason that few printers can handle such retail-quality graphics: Most don’t want to be uncomfortable.

Printers who admit they need help and want to learn how to achieve higher details can eradicate limiting habits and make room for newer methods to attain superb quality. The process of reaching a higher level in art and screen printing often involves unlearning. An exercise in subtraction instead of addition allows space for new techniques.

Embracing Discomfort
Most experienced screen printers know how to print a one-color design on a garment. The steps become routine, and certain parts of the process must be managed or quality will decline. After a while, a certain comfort level develops. If all steps are performed correctly and in the right order with certain variables, the chances of success almost are certain.

From that point, the true challenge to improve involves welcoming failure as a necessary part of the process. Understanding the limits and pushing past them is the best way to learn how to adapt and stretch to a new level. It’s important that everyone — from shop owners to screen techs — not take this process as a personal judgment.

With this being understood, you also shouldn’t try to learn how to print higher details in a tight timeframe. The odds of failure will be too high in such a situation, so it is better to deliberately work on this type of project without the added pressure of a looming customer order.

Defining Your Baseline
The first step to producing highly detailed, complex prints is figuring out where you are presently. A simple method for checking your printing quality is to create test files, then have them imaged and printed on a selection of meshes. Once these files are done, you can use them to check for a variety of possible areas to improve your results (see Figure 1).

A good test file will include a selection of elements and text that will start large and shrink in size to expose any screen-making issues. You also should include your most common halftone sizes so you can see how well they print in your final test.

Explain to your screen and production departments that the test should be completed using your shop’s standard processes. If your production process is unique for test images, then results will not be consistent with what is normal for your other work.

Once screens are made and printed, invite your local screen or emulsion suppliers to help you troubleshoot the results. You may even want to bring in a consultant to help you with your screen-making and process setup. There are a lot of variables and rapidly diagnosing the issue can save hours — even weeks — of time getting you up to speed.

Controlling Variables
If your screens look decent under 10-15X magnification, print the image and review it. Remember, keep the same standards used in regular production to ensure a result with accurate data.

The following are possible variables to evaluate in your test prints:

1. Watch for halftone frequency issues. Adjusting mesh count, halftone count or checking screen tension can help clear up these issues. First, eliminate anything that can’t be an issue, then slowly move to the next one. Ensure all screen tensions are optimized for your meshes. Then, ensure the angle and dot frequencies are ideal for the mesh being tested. Don’t attempt to go to a higher-dpi dot until you can manage a clean
lower-dpi one.

2. Watch for excessive dot gain and tonal compression. This is where your 60%-90% dots mash together and look solid. The best print should demonstrate a solid 100% area and a clean differentiation between other halftone percentages. If you can’t see a difference between dot values, slow down and check print pressure, speed and squeegee angle.

3. Ensure ink is clearing out well from the screen stencil. If you see a lot of ink staying in the screen, you may need higher tension or the ink may be too thick.

It’s important not to rush through this process. This is about being able to print a certain level of detail and dpi consistently on every job that needs it. Once your art, screen and production departments can print a clean test on common mesh counts, with no difference among press operators, then you have real data indicating you can handle the level of detail being tested.

Educate Your Customers
The fun part of this process is when you have consistent, high-quality results and proven ability to handle detailed work, you can market it to your customers. You also can produce self-promotional work to showcase your newfound skills.

Pick a couple of your best, most loyal customers and create a high-quality piece for them as an incentive to see if they will get excited and want to order it. This type of effort has a high success rate, but even if it doesn’t always work, the samples will be great sales pieces moving forward.

When talking with customers, highlight a couple of points so that they understand what you’re showing them:

1. It can be helpful to talk about some of the steps taken to make a higher-quality design and print. Assuming your customers won’t use this information to become more nitpicky, they should understand you now are less of a commodity and can provide higher-quality prints.

2. Adjust pricing if you can educate and demonstrate how the extra complexity benefits the customer. Some printers won’t do this, but they have a hard time when their customers price shop with other printers that can’t provide the same quality. Educating your customers can allow you avoid comparing your work to other, lower-quality decorators who try to undercut your prices.

3. Showcasing your new abilities to your customers can encourage them to show their clients, and this can create more demand for a new level of printing. When people see what you can do, they will think of your company in a new way and look for opportunities to offer your services to their friends (see Figure 3).

Test, Refine, Execute
It’s both exciting and exhausting to realize there isn’t a finish line when it comes to testing and improving printing quality. When you reach a new level, you then must establish all the consistent habits in your staff and with your equipment to maintain it. You also will realize that you can add and develop new skills that will make things even better. Moving up a rung on the ladder makes you eager to keep climbing, but you also can briefly look down and enjoy how far you’ve come.

Depending on your business, it can make sense to spend a week annually attempting a new level of printing using special effects or high-dpi halftones. This can energize and challenge your staff, creating an environment where everyone is trying to improve their skills. The concept is to first test a goal, then adapt and refine your process based on the results, and finally absorb what makes sense and execute it as a regular business offering at a much higher level.

Thomas Trimingham has been helping screen printers for more than 25 years as an industry consultant, freelance artist and high-end separator. He currently is the marketing communications manager for the M&R Cos. For more information or to comment on this article, email Thomas at

Screen Variables

1. Look at screens when they are exposed, washed out and dry. Review them under magnification and look at your stencil edges, thickness (EOM) and the smoothness of the emulsion’s surface (RZ).

2. If the stencil edges in the image area are ragged (see Figure 2), you may need to adjust exposure time or check the positive films’ darkness. If the films aren’t dark enough, you may need to use higher pressure when washing out the screens.

3. If the emulsion’s surface appears not to extend much beyond the mesh surface on the print side, then you may need to adjust your coating technique to build up slightly more emulsion.

4. If the emulsion surface in solid areas is too bumpy, it can cause more ink bleeding around the edges of smaller dot shapes, causing excess dot gain. To correct, adjust the screen-coating technique or change emulsion.

5. Ensure enough open stencil area vs. mesh threads. If screen tension is poor — less than 15N — the open area may actually be smaller than the thread size. Printers often compensate for this by increasing stroke pressure during printing so that ink doesn’t stick to the screen.