Screen Printing

by Ben N on July 6, 2014

This weekend, I finally got to learn how to screen print.

About a week ago, I was over at my sister’s house and saw that she had her screen printing supplies out. Amy has a fair amount of screen print experience and has sold custom t-shirts with original designs for some time at local art studios. I’ve been wanting to learn screen printing and figured that now was my chance if she was working on some more soon. So, I spent WAY too many hours this weekend learning by doing but have a few t-shirts to show for it!

To start with, we need the actual SCREENS to print with. The screens are just an artificial “silk” stretched over a simple wood frame. Amy’s husband, Fred, works at an art studio where there was some (bad) student artwork that was left behind but the paint was too thick for simple painting over. We stripped some of these old canvasses off the frames, then pulled out the staples and got back to just the plain wood. Next, we cut pieces of the cloth the size of the frames and stretched them out with pins. Then, we pulled on the silk while stapling it down to the wood. When done, the cloth is stretched extremely tight and even on the frame. This sounds simple, but recycling frames and stretching cloth seven or eight times ends up taking a LOT more time than you think it should!

Next, we had to cover the stretched cloth with emulsion. The emulsion is a photo-sensitive paint-like material that will create the stencil in the frame. Right after it’s mixed up, it can be in light, but then has to be transferred to a dark room to dry. Amy’s house happens to have a sauna on the property which isn’t used much in summer. The door on it seals tight to keep the heat in, but we thought it would work well to keep light out as well, so I set to work converting the sauna into a dark-room. I filled in the single window and covered it with black tag-board and tape. There was also a small area of glass block I covered, and I closed the small air-vent for the wood stove. When I was done, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I was pretty sure it would be dark enough for the screens.

Back in the house, we set up an area in a hallway (away from direct light) to mix up the emulsion. We used a Speedball Diazo emulsion kit. It includes two bottles that you add a little water to and mix together. It makes a great icky green paint to spread on the screens. The trick here is to get a nice even coat and not have it be too thick. It also helps to wear gloves and cover everything with newspaper, because this stuff gets EVERYWHERE if you don’t watch what you are doing. Using a squeegee really helps applying the emulsion to the screen. Once we had the screens done, we took them to the sauna-turned-darkroom, set them inside, to sit for 24 hours to dry.

Back home that night, I worked on creating my artwork. Some time back, I had seen a neat graphic on the web that I saved for future use, say, as a T-shirt design for example… In Photoshop, I sized and rotated the image and cleaned it up a bit. This rustic anvil with a quote on it seemed to fit well with a lot of the D.I.Y. and save-the-planet work many of my friends do. I figure it would be a popular image. I wasn’t able to learn who originally designed this image, but I hope whoever did doesn’t mind me making a few shirts based off of it. Once I had the work looking the way I wanted, I printed it out onto clear acetate on a laser printer. I also created a simple logo for my clean transportation blog at 300MPG.org, and printed that out as well.

The next morning, I was back over to Amy’s house for Round Two of screen print work. This time, we would photographically expose the screens, rinse them, dry them, and if all goes well, make a few T-shirts.

The first thing was to prepare an area for exposing the screens. The directions call for using a certain amount of light at a certain distance from the screen for a certain amount of time. We set up in an inside hallway three clamp-lamps with 100-watt light-bulbs twelve inches off the floor. We put down a black packing blanket on the floor and had a zig-zag of two other packing blankets that would prevent light from coming in down the other side of the hall. We went to the sauna and slipped inside to grab our dry-emulsion-covered sceens, threw a black cloth over them and then returned with them to the dark hallway. We set the acetate artwork on top of the screens and then placed those under the lamps (doing all this in the relative dark) and placed clear glass over the top. (The glass keeps the acetate from moving off, especially if there is any air-movement nearby.)

With that, we turned on the three lamps and let them expose the screens. In effect, we had built a photographic enlarger that would do three contact prints at a time. We left, and set a timer for forty-five minutes.

Once the screens are photographically set, they need to be rinsed until all the emulsion under the black areas of the artwork comes off. This takes a fair amount of water, so we decided that this would be done in the front-yard with the garden hose. I grabbed my two screens and Amy grabbed the single one she was working one. Both of us armed with hoses, we attacked the screens with blasts of water. After minutes of spraying, I could see my pattern starting to emerge, and “300MPG.org” began to appear, and eventually become negative space against the remaining green screen.

I started on my second piece, spraying the screen with water. Spraying and spraying and spraying. Nothing seemed to be happening. No amount of water would dissolve out the design. Amy’s turned out just fine, so what was wrong with mine? After fooling around with the screen for some time more, we finally decided that I brought both screens outside and that in the few minutes that I was rinsing the first design, the overcast daylight SET the entire other screen, essentially negating the pattern that I had burned into it.

I already had HOURS of work put into that screen. Needless to say I was more than a little disappointed to have it turn out useless. The upside was that we already had extra screens prepared, and I could easily expose another one.

This time, we exposed the screen through the artwork for only 30 minutes, instead of 45. When the exposure was done, I took the screen straight to the hose and immediately began washing it. The artwork quickly started to appear. Woohoo! This time, I got it right.

Next, the screen has to completely dry. Toweling off the screen is a good idea to make it dry quicker. That is, unless you get a towel from a cat-owner. Do NOT dry your screen with a cat-hair-covered towel. Luckily, I had a lint-roller handy. After de-linting, a hair-dryer helped speed drying the screen.

With both the anvil and 300MPG.org screens now dry, we could do some test prints onto paper. I did notice a few spots where the screen wasn’t perfect. Edges and big areas could be covered with masking tape. However, there was an area by the ‘g” in .org that didn’t turn out so well, and required some detail. I fixed this by painting in with some pink acrylic paint and letting it dry.

My sister had a supply handy of several colors of paints, although for this I really only wanted black and white. I set the screen over some paper and then applied some paint to the squeegee. Dragging the squeegee across the screen, the paint gets squished through the non-masked areas of the “silk” and down onto the cloth (or test paper) below. The first test wasn’t so good, and I had to wash the screen, touch it up, dry it, and try again. On the second attempt, it worked much better and I made a bold black web address on the test paper.

I had brought several old T-shirts with me to print on. I sort of figured “why bother” with new ones when I had a pretty good chance of making them “not-so-perfect”on my first attempt. Before printing, the shirt is placed over a piece of plexiglass, non-corrogated cardboard, plastic, or any other flat and rigid material to make a flat surface to press the screen against AND keep the ink from bleeding through. I set up a couple of shirts over various materials and got ready for my first official T-shirt screen-printing.

I started with the web address, and it turned out pretty well, simple black lettering on a white T-shirt. I seemed to get the “knack” for it pretty well. Ink has to be on the right place on the edge of the squeegee to make it through the screen. Getting the right amount of ink, in the right place, and how fast the squeegee moves over the screen is one of those things that just has to be tried. I could try explaining it, but it really is best learning simply by doing it.

Emboldened by my good experience with the first shirt, I was ready to try the one I really wanted, the anvil logo in white on a dark shirt. The white paint was a little thicker than the black, more like frosting, while the black ink was like chocolate syrup. I prepared my shirt, put the screen on top, and squeegeed the ink. With my breath held, I lifted the screen to see…….. It looked great!

The bright white really popped on the dark blue cotton! I did four T-shirts in total before I had to clean up and leave for an appointment. All that’s left is to let the shirts dry and then iron them to permanently set the ink.

Learning to screen-print is fun and exciting. Above all, I realized how much time and work goes into creating an original screen. Especially when you have to REDO the screen. Although it can be pretty disappointing when things don’t turn out as expected, it’s pretty great when it all turns out in the end.

So go ahead. Get your hands dirty. Learn something new. In the mean time, I’ll be ironing my T-shirts.

‘Til next time,

-Ben

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Mother Earth News Fair Roundup

by Ben N on June 11, 2014

Recently, I got to travel to the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, WA to give presentations on electric vehicles and DIY projects. While I was there, I also got to check out a few presentations as well as booths and vendors. What I really seemed to notice as a theme this year was very NEW versions of old tools as well as cleverly designed products created with small and local manufacturing. Here’s a few notable things from this year’s fair.

Leading the list was rocket stove technology. You couldn’t throw a bowl of granola without hitting a booth that had at least some type of rocket stove. These ranged from tiny backpacking tins to a gorgeous (and pricey) stainless-steel Kimberly Stove. Silver-fire had some nice products that seemed appropriate for both everyday use and for the doomsdayers.  Their “Dragon-Pot” was a nice design of a stock pot with built-in chimney/skirt specifically for use with rocket stoves.

The second morning of the fair was a bit cool, which naturally drew people towards Wood Pellet Products latest design, a simple self-feeding pellet-stove patio heater. This compact heater is completely passive. Unlike other pellet stoves, it doesn’t use any electricity to power a blower or an auger to add fuel. The simple gravity hopper design keeps a constant supply of fuel going straight to the combustion chamber and a well-located air-intake makes it burn hot and clean. There’s even a nice little glass window for a lovely ambiance. Tucked back behind their booth, I could see a prototype bake-oven, which I did see later in the day installed on one of the stoves. It’s a simple rectangular box that goes on top of the stove, with the exhaust gasses passing through a chimney wall. The oven was fairly compact but looked like it might be just big enough for a pie on each of its two shelves. It was pretty nice to be able to talk to the guy who designed the stove, instead of just some salesman. I even got to try one of the meatballs he was heating in the oven.

Just a booth or two over from the patio heaters was the Whitlox Homestead, showing off some interesting blacksmithing technology. This small family business had designed a forge that runs on WOOD instead of coal. I was immediately interested, as I would LOVE a small forge, and have access to plenty of scrap wood. They had both a full-size and a min-forge for sale and some accessories, a blower, and even an aluminum casting setup. I threw my name into the hat for their raffle for a chance to win a mini-forge. I returned at the end of day Sunday to see my name NOT posted as the winner. As I jokingly cursed the name of the winner out loud, a very burly man, accepting his prize at that very moment, turned to face me, who I immediately complimented as both lucky AND handsome! (Me and my big mouth….) I did end up placing an order for a mini-forge. The design is such that it fits in a flat-rate post office cardboard box, and shipping was included.

Another interesting nuvuo-retro machine there was an electric rototiller. The “Tillie” features traditional wood handles combined with a modern electric hub motor – one like you would see on an electric bicycle. The hub motor has hefty T-shaped cutting blades mounted around it. The blades actually clamp on to the motor – an innovative way to combine a bicycle motor with something else, which means not only easy replacement and blade sharpening, but also a simple upgrade path to other tools. There was a small raised bed for attendees to try the Tillie hands-on. It’s very simple to use. An electronic scooter thumb throttle on the right handle makes the machine thrum to life. Although powered by two lead-acid batteries, the weight was all at the business end, making it easy to handle.

Back indoors, one of my favorite booths was Angora Valley, with their pair of restored 1910 sock machines! I had never seen one of these before. Looking like the child of a type-writer and a pair of knitting needles, the machine could crank out a sock as fast as you could turn the handle. I was able to see a demo of it running. Pretty neat stuff. These were used in the war years to make sure our soldiers had enough socks! I also found out that you can knit with possum fiber! For a moment, I thought they were putting me on, but it was confirmed by another (non-related) knitter that happened to be coming by right then. The possum fiber is hollow (like a polar bear’s!) so it is extra warm. I saw a pair of possum-fiber gloves they had for sale and was impressed with both the softness and the quality.

If hauling bodies after the Zombie Apocalypse is more your thing, perhaps you would be interested in the WorkHorse Garden Cart. This Mad Max wheelbarrow is all stainless steel and bolt together with EVERY SINGLE PART being independently replaceable. The cart had the feel of something that you could build a stone house with. Solid. Very solid. Last wheelbarrow you will ever need. http://www.simplylivingfarm.net/workhorse.html

My father recently built a chicken tractor, so I was interested when I saw a few on display at the fair. Quail Manufacturing was showing off a pair that included an interesting system to raise and move the tractor, not unlike what my Dad designed for his. The locking cam wheel system was easy to use and the “rolling tongue” was a nice idea as well.

I also enjoyed watching and getting to speak with a few of the folks from the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. While I’m always interested in blacksmithing demos, the wood-working demonstration is what really caught my eye. A re-enactor would stand on a beam cross-cutting into the log and make chips fly everywhere. Then he would switch to a broad-axe and hew down the side, quickly producing a straight, flat edge. It was impressive log work. I got to heft the axes and even take a few swings with his Gransfor-Bruk ax, a model they don’t even make anymore. Is it possible to have ax envy? I’m pretty sure that it is and that I have it. Amazing what a big difference a good tool makes.

Of course no trip to the Mother Earth News Fair would be complete for me without checking out the electric cars! The display was smaller than last year, pared-down to only about five or six vehicles. However, there was Tesla Model S’s there both days and I saw people given test rides in both the S and an NEV all weekend. Even gas cars are pretty quiet WHILE PARKED. It was nice to see EVs coming and going with people getting to see what they are really like while moving! I finally got a chance to see a Coda sedan. Under the hood, the electric motor and power electronics looked pretty robust. The owner told me that he got it because he wanted something with better range than the Leaf, and he likes the performance. It’s also interesting in how “plain” the car looks. Some people dislike that many electric cars have unusual body designs. By contrast, the Coda looks like it could just be ANY car. Too bad that didn’t help sales, and the Coda car brand is now defunct.

And finally, the actual reason I was at the Fair was as a presenter. I gave presentations on my electric car, my electric motorcycle, and on all my DIY backyard projects, which all seem to be heading towards the intersection of renewable energy and just being a Dad myself. Attendance at my presentations was good, although I was head-to-head on two of them with keynote presentations by both Ed Begley Jr. and Joel Salatin!

It’s also always a blast to see our friends at Earthineer, the local electric car club, other presenters, and the Mother Earth News Staff.

As always, the Mother Earth News Fair is a lot of fun, with more interesting people per square foot than anywhere else. I hope you enjoyed hearing about it and check out some of the links.

Take care,

-Ben

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Magnetic Knife Block

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