Building a Printshop

As a graphic design studio, Beanwave’s work with commercial clients usually comes with constraints (and rightly so), so having an outlet to experiment and play creates a healthy balance between design and art.

I dipped a small toe into the world of screen printing back at art college some 25 years ago and found it fascinating, but only in the past year did I get around to dipping in the rest of the foot. One thing led to another, and now there’s a printshop here at the studio where I create art prints for the love of it and, for the discerning connoisseur, for sale, too.

Sounds easy, but it’s been a story of resourcefulness, trial and error, frustrations and joy.

The first thing to do was make some space. Screenprinting and its various processes take up a lot of space, even if you’re only doing A3 size prints. Luckily, behind the design studio is a small room which, as you can imagine, had become a bit of a dumping ground for bits and bobs. So after a clear out and a lick of paint, that became the designated printshop. The next challenge was to get a basic screen printing set up together and there wasn’t much (any) budget for this.

Screens, inks, squeegees, film, etc are all readily available and aren’t megabucks, so those were easy to acquire. Specialist equipment for exposing screens is pricey though. But ultimately, it’s just a high UV light, so surely there’s got to be a cheaper way to do it? Yes, there is. A ¬£10 outdoor floodlight from Screwfix, fitted with a 1000w halogen bulb, glass lens removed and hung from the ceiling. Works a treat. It takes approximately 2 min 40 seconds to expose a screen – longer than a specialist unit would take, but hardly a deal-breaker. And there’s a handily placed hose outside for washing out screens.

From this point, I could do the whole process: coat screens in photo emulsion, print film, expose and washout screens, and print. Lovely fresh print. Perfect. Except, when printing on paper there is a tendency for paper to stick to the screen, particularly when using large areas of ink and although you can adjust the snap off (the gap between screen and paper), it is still tricky to get consistent quality prints this way. It’s why screen printing on paper is usually done on benches or tables that have vacuum beds.

Vacuum beds are brilliant. Basically, it’s a printing table with lots of tiny holes that allow air to get sucked down by a vacuum pump, so when paper is placed on the top the vacuum holds it down and it can’t stick to the screen while printing. But they are pricey, even second hand. But after a bit of searching the internet, I found this brilliant blog for building your own.

Thanks to lockdown, various offcuts of wood in the garage and an old vacuum cleaner, I managed to build my own small vacuum table. And it works. Yes, I was surprised, too.

One last hurdle though, was how to switch on and off the vacuum cleaner. They don’t make the nicest of sounds, so you don’t want it on in between prints (plus it’s a waste of energy, too), but fiddling about with a switch isn’t an option when you need your hands for handling screens, squeegees and paper. The fancy-pants printing tables have a mechanism where the vacuum only comes on when the screen is lowered, and off when it’s raised. Nice. But I can’t replicate that mechanism with my setup. So if you can’t use your hands, how else do you operate a switch? I’m no clever dick, so that wasn’t an option. Instead I found a supplier of industrial quality foot switches, wired it into a circuit with the vacuum power and hey presto, I was off and running.

So there we have it. A DIY screen printing workshop. Primitive, yes, but it works. The printing fits in between and around the day job of commercial graphic design work, which keeps printing as more of a treat, not a job to do.

I’m now screen printing various art prints in limited editions, which you can find here in our shop.

11th October 2020

File under: Art Prints, Screenprints