Wednesday, October 15, 2008

HowTo Start A T Shirt Printing Business




In these times of economic uncertainty, there are lots of unemployed people with little prospect for getting a job, and plenty of young people starting out in similar straights. The current economic mess is pretty rotten, but I believe it is possible to start a successful T Shirt printing business in times like these, because I did it myself!
When I graduated college in 1980, we were in the midst of a deepening recession. It was a cyclical downturn, not as bad as today, but wait! I was living in Eugene, Oregon. The lumber industry was really in the dumps, making the Eugene economy really dreadful. Unable to find work, I began freelancing T Shirt jobs while searching for a more secure position. When I sold my first shirt job, I simply got a down payment from the client for the necessary supplies, and I was off & running (lucky for me, it was an easy one color print!). Here we are 28 years and several economic downturns later. Sure I did great in the boom times, but my T Shirt printing business always put burritos on the table in the down cycles too.
If you have a garage, basement or spare room you can use, you're ready to go. We'll look at screen printing 101 in a minute. First, I will make a radical claim. After investing just a couple to a few hundred bucks in basic tools and equipment, you will be ready to print your first job. I believe a profit can be made from the get go in the Custom Screen Printing business. I direct your attention to my blog entry, The Zero Overhead Model for a description of my business model. Be sure to take a peek also at The Win – Win Deal, a sort of philosophical underpinning to how I conduct my business relationships.
A business is nothing but a web of relationships. I have a business because I have healthy relationships with my clients. They talk, I listen. Sure, you should do lots of marketing, study the various techniques and theories, but I guarantee if you circulate and talk up your business day in, day out, you will attract clients. Be sure to pass out business cards left and right!

Now let's dig into the screen printing overview. Whether you are an out of work fancy pants graphic designer or a DIY punk rocker, one of the best small scale entrepreneurial businesses to start is a T-Shirt printing business. The initial investment can be modest, and a profit can be realized quickly with proper care to details. A screen print on a T-Shirt looks great – screen printing ink is bright and dynamic. I'll mention ink jet printing and digital imaging later, but the thrust of this piece is screen printing (a.k.a. Silkscreen).

Here is a list of materials you will need for your first project: Wood (or metal) frame stretched with screen mesh, piece of foam rubber to fit inside frame for exposure process, screen printing ink (Union water base in is good to start with, or Speedball brand can be found in some art supply stores), squeegee, light sensitive emulsion, Light source (a halide work light is good), glass & weights to hold the glass down on the frame, and your design on transparency or film (the design should be positive, not negative on the transparency). Oh, and T Shirts to print on.

A well stocked art supply store can sell you all the basic screen print materials listed above. It is recommended to comparison shop, as the prices may vary dramatically. Also check with your local industrial screen print supplier (under “screen printing/supplies” in the yellow pages or online). If you are serious about setting up a shop, you want to buy from an industrial supplier like Midwest Sign & Screen.
Here are the steps to produce your first screen print project. Clean your stretched frame with mild soap, rinse and let dry for at least an hour. Coat the screen with light sensitive emulsion (check instructions for light conditions appropriate to your emulsion). Coat both sides then scrape away excess emulsion. Let dry overnight. If you didn't buy a pre-stretched screen, you will need to put your screen fabric on the wooden frame, so taut that you can bounce a coin on it. You can use a staple gun, but take care not to rip the screen mesh with the staples.

Put your art/design on a transparency. Either draw with india ink on translucent vellum, or print the design on vellum or other heavy transparent paper on a laser printer. Inkjet printers often do not create an opaque enough image for burning a screen. Warning: Some laser printers are too hot, and will melt vellum!!! If you draw on vellum with india ink, go over your lines or brush strokes twice to insure opacity. I successfully used a HP laserjet for years to create transparencies. It was necessary to use the HP brand cartridges; the generic/refilled ones did not make a dark enough film to successfully burn a screen. You can also send your graphic file to a film output service bureau for your film positive.

Burning the screen: SEE DIAGRAM at top of article. You need to do this step in the dark. I used Ulano Fotocoat TZ, an emulsion you can use in low light, check the instructions for your emulsion. Put your foam rubber on the floor or a table. Put your coated screen frame over it on the inside side of the frame (leaving the flat side of the frame pointing up). Put your transparency upside down on top of the screen. Put your piece of glass over the transparency, and weight it at the edges with books or some other heavy objects. If you have ink cans, they will do fine because they are heavy. Hang your light source about 18” above your screen and turn on for recommended exposure time. Develop with warm water. Spray the screen until the image area is free of emulsion. If your screen doesn't develop, use more water pressure. Blot both sides with newspaper when done developing, to remove excess emulsion. If your emulsion comes off too easily, ruining your image, increase your exposure time. For years I used a tanning bulb to burn screens, it had the power necessary to burn a fine screen, including halftone dots! Later I used two halide work lights, those suckers are pretty hot so use caution!

Let the screen dry. Put over T Shirt and add ink to one side of the screen, creating an “ink reservoir”. Holding the screen frame down firmly, pull 2 – 3 strokes and lift to check your print. Clean screen immediately when finished. You can do multiple prints. If your print smudges, try a finer screen mesh. If insufficient ink gets on the T Shirt, use thinner ink or a more open screen mesh. I used to print one color jobs in my dorm room with no press, just the screen frame and a squeegee, it kept me in beer money and date money!
A word about inks, for years I used a homemade press and waterbase inks (Union brand is good). Most commercial T Shirts are printed with plastisol, a plastic base ink. You will need a dryer to cure plastisol. I recommend an entry level spot dryer, it maybe runs 5 – 600 bucks. Shop around. I was in the biz for a decade before I got one! If your business takes off, you will eventually want a spot dryer and a conveyor dryer.
Injets and digital technology. Yes, you can print backwards on “T shirt transfer paper” with an injet printer and iron the design on a shirt. It's a cool way to go for short run, full color. Also, there are now machines from U.S. Screen that do digital imaging direct on shirts. They are great machines but start at 17K or so, we are talking serious capital. Sure, I want one, but it just ain't in the cards for me at present. By contrast, my 6 color, 6 station workhorse manual printer was a marvel, and it cost only $3600.00 brand new. Paid for itself in a couple months, and it's still running today 9 years later in my buddy David's shop.
The other diagram is my design for a homemade three color T Shirt press using thick plywood, masonite, screws, nails, sawhorses, and screen frame clamps. It's funky, but you can print tight register three color jobs on this rig with practice. You may want to sell only 1 color jobs until your level of craft improves, and you can confidently handle multi color work.
So let's build a press—start with a 4' X 4' piece of 3/4” thick plywood. Cut the shirtboard area away with a jigsaw. This is a lot of jigsawing, start with a fresh blade. The channels should be 2.5 – 3”. The indents at the back of the shirt board are for the material at the bottom of the T Shirt to have a place to fall as to not interfere with the print. Round the corners at the front of the shirt board so as not to catch the shirts as you load them onto the press. Run a 3' long piece of 2” X 2” under the shirt board /press table for support. Bevel the front of the support board, again so it doesn't catch shirts as you load them on the press.
Top the shirt board area with a piece of 1/4” masonite to create a smooth printing surface. Nail down with brads at the edges, out of the live print area. Buy 3 sets of screen clamps from a screen print supply house and mount them on 1/4” masonite too, so they are at the same level as the shirt board area. With this homemade press, you will be making your own screen frames to fit the peculiar size of the press. Painting stretcher bars work pretty good, or just buy 1” x 2” or 2” x 2” wood to make your frames.
There are many fine rotary manual presses for T Shirt printing available, both new and used. I recommend checking the Screenprinters page of industry links of suppliers for presses, dryers, shirts and equipment. NOTE! This is the most important link in this post, it's a virtual bazaar of everything you need to get into this business. Remember too, all the suppliers want to sell you as much stuff as they can. It's fun to get all the latest gear and equipment, but experience tells me that a profitable shop buys only what it needs to produce the work it has.
A note about pricing jobs. I started out as a hungry student who needed to learn how to make a decent print, so naturally I came in at the low end of the price scale in the shirt biz. Once I got the quality thing down, I charged a higher than average fee. There is always a market for quality. Most buyers are looking to push your price down, especially after years of low cost Walmart stuff from China!
Don't work cheap, it will just piss you off. Talk to people in the field to see what the going rates are. A screen printing press should generate at the very least $50 per production hour for a small scale shop, really $100 is do-able. If you can put together 10 - 20 production hours per week you will be fine. There are lots of other business tasks to eat up the rest of your time, believe me.

If you are seriously considering trying a business like this, do not hesitate to email me with any questions. I will answer them as well as I can.
Copyright 2008 Steve Lafler.

54 comments:

Steve said...

Nice article Steve, you should mention the dangers of becoming not so boho.All your creative juices can evaporate whilst helping other people realise their designs on a t shirt. The art of staying Boho is complex, and if word gets out you print great T shirts it will become more complex still.

Steve Lafler said...

This is a brilliant comment. You have identified one of the central problems of my life. All I ever wanted to do was draw art comics/underground comics, whatever you care to call them. But the shirt biz took off, and has used up lots of my time where I would have rather been making art.
ON the other hand, the business has freed me to create the wildest comics I could imagine with no concerns about playing to "the market", and that is invaluable to my heart and soul.
I appreciate the thoughtful comment and hope others will too.

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nice article, however, it would really help if you posted some pictures also :-)

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Anonymous said...

Alisa, you are right about that! Try adding parenthood to the mix and it's extra tough to remain boho. But I done it somehow... --Steve

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Steve Lafler said...

This post is about starting a T-Shirt printing business, doing custom work for a variety of clients. I still suggest that this is a strong business for the right individual. The post is not about starting a web site to sell a line of T-shirt designs, which I consider a far more difficult business. I would never recommend a T-shirt web sales biz to anyone, as it's chances of success seem minimal. It's not a business I know a darn thing about!
--Steve

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It’s actually pretty hard to get a detailed graphic or multicolor work without the help of a screen-print table/press craze or at least a clamping worktable element. It can get pretty pricy except you go the cut-out route.

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