How Screen Printing Works: A 5-Step Breakdown
min read

How Screen Printing Works: A 5-Step Breakdown

Screen printing is over 100 years old, but a lot has changed since then.

Screen printing is an art, and there’s no doubt about it. It takes close attention, it takes skill, and it takes people who care deeply about their craft.

It’s also a fascinating process! So we put together a step-by-step guide on how the t-shirt screen printing process works here at Real Thread.

While it might not be EXACTLY the same from print shop to print shop, we wanted to give you a general idea of what’s what when it comes to good ‘ol screenprinting.

Whether you’re entirely new to screen printing, took a short screen printing class in college, or are maybe even a professional screen printer, we hope you enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the t-shirt screen printing process.

Step 1: An Idea. Your Idea.

Every project starts at the same place — you! Part of what makes what we do such a joy is working with so many talented people and helping make their designs come to life on a beautiful t-shirts.

When you send in your idea, the art team will create a free hi-res digital mockup of your t-shirt design. The artists will account for the ink colors and how they react with each different t-shirt fabric, and give you an exact image of what your shirt will look like out of the box, so there are no surprises. Once you approve your digital t-shirt mockup, we’re on to the next phase.

Step 2: Reclaiming & Burning the Screen

From here, your design is sent to the screen room, where the image will be burned onto a freshly cleaned screen (or multiple screens, depending on the color count in your t-shirt design). 

The best way to think of how screen printing works is to consider each screen a giant stencil. When creating your design on the screen, we first cover it in a layer of this green material called emulsion. An emulsion will be the solid part of your stencil that doesn’t let any ink through the screen.

After that, we burn your t-shirt design onto the screen. Our CTS (computer-to-screen exposure unit) will knock out the emulsion in the space where the design goes, creating the area the ink will go through, which you can see as the yellow mesh in the photo above.

Step 3: Mixing Up Colors!

Our mix masters play with the delicate balance of combining ink colors to give you the exact color or shade you want. 

We even happen to Pantone match! If you’re super particular about your brand (as you should be), there is no need to fret; we’ve got you covered. The ink mixer mixes the inks using the Pantone Matching System and loads the inks into the press, ready to print.

Step 4: Onto the Press

This step is the climax of the custom t-shirt process — inking up those shirts! A press operator will align your screens and load your shirt using a laser alignment tool to ensure your tees are always printed in the exact location.

Another press operator will unload your t-shirt once it has gone through all the screens. They’ll give each shirt a thorough look to ensure no errors or quirks with the screen or the press during printing.

From there, they’ll load the shirts onto the dryer. This dryer isn’t quite like your standard clothing dryer at home. This baby’s MASSIVE, sending your shirts through on a belt  where a catcher on the other end receives them. The catcher will hold your finished t-shirt next to your hi-res mockup to ensure the two are identical.

Step 5: The Finishing Touches

Your custom t-shirts can go two routes from here. On to the finishing team for add-on services or straight to shipping to get out the door. If you included add-on services, like custom tag printing or hem tags, your t-shirts would go to our tag printer or seamstress, respectively. The specific finisher will again inspect your shirts before they are shipped to ensure that every last detail is added to perfection.

Once everything is complete, your shirts will be neatly folded, boxed up, and shipped to you, waiting to see your face full of delight once you get them.

The more you know, the better. Knowledge is power.

That’s it! As you can see, there are a lot of moments during this process that requires a diligent eye to ensure everything is running smoothly. And no run of shirts is 100% the same. Each design, each ink color, and the t-shirt fabric are uniquely different and require a disciplined team of artists to ensure a beautiful t-shirt.

That’s why we have a team of experts who care deeply about their work and do it all to ensure that your custom t-shirts live up to your idea that starts it all. We’ve been doing this since 2009 and are confident we can help make your custom-printed apparel dreams come true.

Ready to get your next idea onto the press? We’d love to connect you with  our team of t-shirt artists and experts on it and give you the perfect t-shirt.

Originally Published 06/08/2017| Updated 05/29/2023

Custom T-Shirt Buyer's Guide Mockup

Get our free Custom T-Shirt Buyer's Guide

A 25+ page how-to guide full of tips, tricks, and money-saving recommendations.
Thank you! Check your email, the guide is headed your way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.