One of the many great things about screen printing is that you don’t have to print only on t-shirts. You can print on just about anything — cardboard boxes, tote bags, and wood are a few examples. These items are pretty common in the screen printing industry, and knowing the nuances as well as a few tricks can help you take on those orders with confidence. Let’s dive in.
PRINTING ON BOXES
Custom packaging is a super awesome way to level up your brand aesthetic. To do this, you won’t need a big setup. All you’ll need is some water-based ink, a squeegee, an exposed screen, and a press.
To set up the job, you’ll need to get the measurements of the box when it’s flat. You can use a ruler or a T-square to measure both the full width and length of the box and then each individual panel. To make this easier, you can fold the box up and then unfold it. Use the creases to give you a template for measuring.
Measuring your box will help you create your artwork. You can set up a template in Illustrator by creating rectangles the exact size of your panels on the canvas. Then place your design on the template and move it until you’re happy with where it will be printed on the box.
Because you’ll be printing the box when it’s flat, place all the aspects of your design on the same screen. This is another reason those measurements and templates are super important. You’ll only need to print with one screen, but when you fold the box up it will have multiple printed panels.
You’ll want to use a screen with a higher mesh count. Water-based ink is thinner to start with, plus a box won’t absorb much ink. You don’t want to lay down too much ink and smash out your design.
There’s a reason behind using water-based ink to print boxes. Plastisol won’t bond with the box. It sits on top, and you need the ink to hold up during shipping. Water-based ink will seep into the cardboard, creating a bond that won’t rub off during shipping.
Now that the press is all set up, let’s get printing.
First, lay down a thin layer of water-based pallet adhesive to help keep the boxes in place while printing. To ensure the design prints on the same area on each box, pick a spot on the platen that will be easy to repeat every time you lay another box down. You can use tape, marker lines, or even simply line the box up with the front and sides of your platen.
Lining up your design to the box is super important. Registration marks work best for this, but if your design is too long to accommodate registration marks, you can eyeball it.
You won’t need a ton of off-contact to print on boxes, but you want the screen to release off the box. 1/16” will be enough for off-contact.
The most important thing to be mindful of when printing on cardboard boxes is the seam. You want to align the box so you aren’t hitting the seam every time you print. Whether you push or pull, align the box so you can print over it flawlessly.
Pro Tip: The fewer print strokes you do, the better. More print strokes can run the risk of laying down too much ink and smashing out your design.
RELATED: HOW TO PRINT YOUR OWN CUSTOM BOXES
Now, let’s talk about curing.
There’s a few ways to cure water-based ink. You won’t really need to cure the ink, because the uncoated cardboard will absorb the ink. All you need to do is help to dry the ink out.
First, you can run it through your conveyor dryer. The box may end up a little bowed right out of the dryer, but it will flatten again within an hour or so.
If you don’t have a conveyor dryer, you can use a flash unit to cure the boxes. However, this might not be the safest option. Flash dryers get extremely hot, and if you’re not paying attention, you can scorch your box or even set it on fire. You can also use a heat gun to cure the ink.
Don’t have any of that equipment? With water-based ink, you can cure your prints without any heat. If you’re going this route, you can add Warp Drive to your ink before you print. The agents in Warp Drive will chemically cure the ink over a period of 48 hours.
Whether you choose to use Warp Drive or not, air-drying the box just takes a little time and space. Once you’re done printing, fold the box open and place it out of the way to dry. This usually takes a couple of days. The ink will be dry to the touch when cured.
You can print on cardboard boxes with ease and level up your branding. Water-based ink is great for printing on many substrates. Let’s check out another use for it.
PRINTING ON WOOD
Printing on wood is popular for a rustic, crafted feel. Depending on the type of wood you’re printing on and the level of detail in your design, you’ll want to do some things differently. For each type, make sure the wood you’re using is uncoated.
Wood will either have a fine grain or a rough grain. Printing on fine grain wood means you’ll need a screen with higher mesh count. You don’t want to lay too much ink down. Wood is porous, but a fine-grain wood will be less porous. This also means that you can resolve more detail on fine-grained woods. That’s another reason you’ll need a higher mesh count.
If you’re using a piece of wood with a rougher grain, you’ll want to lower your mesh count. You’ll need to push more ink through the screen in order to make your print nice and vibrant. Remember, you can’t resolve as much detail on rough grain wood. If a section of your wood is very rough, you might not get a solid print. It just adds to the rustic feel.
RELATED: MESH COUNT AND YOU
The biggest thing to consider when printing on wood is making sure the wood doesn’t move as you’re printing on it. You can create a jig on your platen with paint sticks, squeegee rubber, or anything else to hold the wood in place. A layer of water-based pallet adhesive will help as well to make sure the wood doesn’t shift during printing.
As always, make sure to get enough ink down if you’re printing on a rough grain piece. Water-based ink is the best to use for this, as it will dry on its own. If you run wood through a conveyor dryer, you can potentially scorch or burn the wood. To achieve the look you’re going for, you may need to do multiple print passes. Your off-contact just needs to be enough to release off the wood.
For prints with finer detail and a finer grain of wood, you’ll want more off-contact so the screen fulling lifts off the wood. For these types of designs, do one solid print stroke using a stiffer squeegee blade.
As with the cardboard boxes, cure the ink however you’d like. You can run it through a conveyor dryer, use a heat gun, or air-dry it. Add Warp Drive for extra insurance if you’re air-drying. If you’re curing it with a heat source, keep an eye on the wood to make sure you’re not scorching it or, even worse, setting it on fire.
Some print jobs work great with water-based ink. Other substrates work better with plastisol ink. Let’s go over a couple things to print on with plastisol ink.
PRINTING ON TOTES
Tote bags are becoming more and more popular. More state governments are banning plastic bags at stores, prompting consumers to shop with reusable bags. Whether you’re shopping at a farmer’s market or grocery store or packing for a trip, tote bags aren’t going anywhere.
To set up the job, you’ll want the right size platen. Tote bags come in all shapes and sizes, and if you have a small bag but a large platen, you’re one step behind. Choose the size of tote you want to work with first, and then size your artwork and platens accordingly.
Speaking of artwork, your design needs to be rotated 180 degrees from what you’d normally do.
For shirts, the top of the shirt is at the closest part of the platen to you, but the top of the tote is at the edge closest to the platen.
Make sure you have this correct, or you’ll have to remake your screens.
Depending on the texture of the bag, you may want to select lower or higher mesh counts. Since canvas totes usually have a rougher texture, a lower mesh is recommended.
Let’s get printing.
Lay down some water-based pallet adhesive on the platen, smear some plastisol ink on the screen, load the bag onto the platen, and start printing.
You may need to do multiple print passes if the tote bag material is thicker. After the first print stroke, check the bag to see if it’s what you’re looking for. If not, simply do another pass until you’re happy with it.
Since a tote bag has two sides, you can print on both. Make sure one side is cured before you start printing on the other side.
RELATED: PRINTING WITH PLASTISOL VS. WATER BASED INK
You can cure tote bags just like you’d cure a shirt. Run it through the conveyor dryer or use your flash dryer to cure it.
The lighter weight the tote bag material is, the quicker it will be to cure. Totes made of thicker material will take a bit longer. Keep an eye on your tote bags to make sure they’re all curing properly.
PRINTING ON SPIRIT TOWELS
Printing on towels isn’t much different than printing on a T-shirt. The main thing to remember is that towels are more absorbent than shirts. Because of that, we’ll need to use a screen with a lower mesh count to allow more ink onto the towel.
Now that the screens are ready, let’s get on press.
Lay a layer of water-based pallet adhesive onto the platen. If you’re doing longer runs of towels, you’ll want to scrub the lint off of the platen occasionally to keep that adhesive tacky.
Place the towel on the platen, making sure to line it up with where you want the print to be. Because towels are going to absorb more ink than a t-shirt, you may need to do more print passes.
Cure towels like you would a T-shirt. If you have a bigger or longer design, make sure the entire design is cured before tossing it in the box.
Printing on T-shirts pays the bills, but sometimes stepping out of the box can be a fun way to explore new projects and passions. There’s a world of items waiting to be printed on.