Screen printing is a printing technique where a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil. A blade or squeegee is moved across the screen to fill the open mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse stroke then causes the screen to touch the substrate momentarily along a line of contact. This causes the ink to wet the substrate and be pulled out of the mesh apertures as the screen springs back after the blade has passed. One color is printed at a time, so several screens can be used to produce a multi-colored image or design.
A screen is made of a piece of mesh stretched over a frame. The mesh could be made of a synthetic polymer, such as nylon, and a finer and smaller aperture for the mesh would be utilized for a design that requires a higher and more delicate degree of detail. For the mesh to be effective, it must be mounted on a frame and it must be under tension. The frame which holds the mesh could be made of diverse materials, such as wood or aluminum, depending on the sophistication of the machine or the artisan procedure. The tension of the mesh may be checked by using a tension meter; a common unit for the measurement of the tension of the mesh is Newton per centimeter (N/cm).
A stencil is formed by blocking off parts of the screen in the negative image of the design to be printed; that is, the open spaces are where the ink will appear on the substrate.
Before printing occurs, the frame and screen must undergo the pre-press process, in which an emulsion is 'scooped' across the mesh. Once this emulsion has dried, it is selectively exposed to ultra-violet light, through a film printed with the required design. This hardens the emulsion in the exposed areas but leaves the unexposed parts soft. They are then washed away using a water spray, leaving behind a clean area in the mesh with the identical shape as the desired image, which will allow passage of ink. It is a positive process.
In fabric printing, the surface supporting the fabric to be printed (commonly referred to as a pallet) is coated with a wide 'pallet tape'. This serves to protect the 'pallet' from any unwanted ink leaking through the screen and potentially staining the 'pallet' or transferring unwanted ink onto the next substrate.
Next, the screen and frame are lined with tape to prevent ink from reaching the edge of the screen and the frame. The type of tape used for this purpose often depends upon the ink that is to be printed onto the substrate. More aggressive tapes are generally used for UV and water-based inks due to the inks' lower viscosity and greater tendency to creep underneath the tape.
The last process in the 'pre-press' is blocking out any unwanted 'pin-holes' in the emulsion. If these holes are left in the emulsion, the ink will continue through and leave unwanted marks. To block out these holes, materials such as tapes, specialty emulsions, and 'block-out pens' may be used effectively.
The screen is placed atop a substrate. Ink is placed on top of the screen, and a flood bar is used to push the ink through the holes in the mesh. The operator begins with the fill bar at the rear of the screen and behind a reservoir of ink. The operator lifts the screen to prevent contact with the substrate and then using a slight amount of downward force pulls the fill bar to the front of the screen. This effectively fills the mesh openings with ink and moves the ink reservoir to the front of the screen. The operator then uses a squeegee (rubber blade) to move the mesh down to the substrate and pushes the squeegee to the rear of the screen. The ink that is in the mesh opening is pumped or squeezed by capillary action to the substrate in a controlled and prescribed amount, i.e. the wet ink deposit is proportional to the thickness of the mesh and or stencil. As the squeegee moves toward the rear of the screen the tension of the mesh pulls the mesh up away from the substrate (called snap-off) leaving the ink upon the substrate surface.
There are three common types of screen printing presses: flat-bed, cylinder, and rotary.
Textile items printed with multi-colored designs often use a wet on wet technique, or colors dried while on the press, while graphic items are allowed to dry between colors that are then printed with another screen and often in a different color after the product is re-aligned on the press.
Most screens are ready for re-coating at this stage, but sometimes screens will have to undergo a further step in the reclaiming process called de-hazing. This additional step removes haze or "ghost images" left behind in the screen once the emulsion has been removed. Ghost images tend to faintly outline the open areas of previous stencils, hence the name. They are the result of ink residue trapped in the mesh, often in the knuckles of the mesh (the points where threads cross).
While the public thinks of garments in conjunction with screen printing, the technique is used on tens of thousands of items, including decals, clock and watch faces, balloons, and many other products. The technique has even been adapted for more advanced uses, such as laying down conductors and resistors in multi-layer circuits using thin ceramic layers as the substrate.