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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for the ‘Screen Printing’ Category

Options for Printing T-Shirts

Monday, October 1st, 2012

I wanted to know how t-shirts were printed, so I checked out YouTube (an incredible resource for short “how to” films). I assumed that screen printing and heat transfers would be the major methods for printing on t-shirts, and the YouTube videos confirmed my expectations.

Screen Printing T-Shirts

A screen printing press looks a bit like an octopus. It has multiple arms, each supporting a single screen. Although one name for the process is “silkscreen,” the screens are now usually nylon or metal. Each screen prints one color on the t-shirt, and each color station includes a flat, ironing-board-like support for the shirt. You place the t-shirt around (as opposed to just on top of) this support as though you were “dressing” the support panel. This places only one layer of fabric on top of the support and therefore keeps the fabric absolutely flat once the screen has been lowered.

Once the screen is on top of the fabric, you can pour the thick ink mixture onto the screen and draw the rubber squeegie across the mesh, forcing the ink through the open areas of the screen (but not through the areas masked off by the design). Once this step is complete, the ink must dry. (Usually the solvent is flash dried with intense heat, although UV inks are now often used in screen printing, and these dry instantly upon exposure to ultraviolet light.)

To step back a bit in the screen printing process, the masks used to block out certain areas of the design while allowing ink to pass through other areas are prepared in the following way.

  1. You create the design on a computer using a raster art (bit-mapped) or vector art (line art) program, such as Photoshop or Illustrator. Alternatively, you can scan an image and save it in Photoshop. For this process, you need a positive (rather than negative) image.
  2. A light sensitive emulsion is slathered across the bottom of a screen stretched over a wood or metal frame.
  3. The art (laser printed in black toner on clear acetate) is placed on the glass of a lightbox. The stretched screen with the light-sensitive emulsion is placed over the art
  4. The intense light within the light box exposes the emulsion on the screen.
  5. The screen is then hosed down with water. The water washes away the liquid from the area that had been blocked by the artwork. The non-image areas of emulsion, which had been hardened through exposure to the light, do not wash wash away.
  6. Then the t-shirt can be printed, as noted above (one color per screen, consecutively, with each color in register with the others).

Benefits of Screen Printing T-Shirts

Screen printing ink is thick and saturated. You can print brilliant colors on fabric, and the t-shirts will withstand many washing cycles without the printed art showing any wear and tear.

T-Shirt Heat Transfers

Both laser printing and inkjet printing can be used to create artwork that can be fused to a t-shirt. Special transfer paper (designed for either inkjet printing or laser printing) is used in the process. The operator prints the graphics and type backwards (in a mirror image) so it will be “right-reading” once transferred to the t-shirt. Using heat and pressure (a hot iron against a t-shirt placed on a rigid surface) the operator can transfer the image from the carrier sheet to the fabric of the shirt.

Screen Printing vs. Heat Transfers

It has always been my experience that custom screen printing allows for thicker ink deposits with brighter colors, as well as more durable designs. That said, screen printing is not cost-effective for short print runs since preparation for a screen printing run takes a lot of time.

In addition, many t-shirt printers can only apply one or two colors to a t-shirt with custom screen printing. However, the more skilled screen printers can actually print 4-color process work (including halftone images). It’s just more tricky to produce this level of detail on fabric using the thicker screen printing inks, so the image will not be as precise as a sample of 4-color offset lithography on paper. In addition, some screen printers have the skill to print on darker colored fabrics while others prefer to only print on white t-shirts.

Heat transfers (laser or inkjet) are cheaper than screen printing for shorter runs since they do not require set-up time. It’s also easier to transfer highly detailed artwork to the t-shirt, since the transfer actually sits up on the surface of the shirt rather than seeping into the fibers of the fabric.

However, it has been my experience that heat transfers are not as durable as screen printed t-shirts, and the inks are not as brilliant as custom screen printing inks.

The Future: Direct to Garment Inkjet Printing

One final method is gaining traction as the technology improves. It is called “direct to garment printing.” The process omits the transfer sheet. Instead, inkjet or dye sublimation equipment prints the artwork directly into the fibers of the garment. This means the image is less likely to crack than a heat transfer image sitting on the top of the t-shirt fabric. And unlike screen printing, this digital process can be infinitely variable. You can print a different image on each t-shirt.

Large Format Printing: Your Options for Political Signage

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

With the presidential election less than two months away, it’s definitely the season for political signage. And surprisingly enough, there are multiple options to consider if you need to produce this printed product for a client.

Methods for Custom Printing Your Political Signs

While it is certainly possible to use offset custom printing technology to produce paper signage on thick cover stock, by far the more common methods are screen printing and digital inkjet printing.

If you will be printing a one-color or two-color job, you might want to approach a screen printing company. Screen printing uses metal or synthetic screens through which a thick ink is forced with a squeegie. Open areas on the screen allow the ink to pass through onto the printing substrate, while areas blocked out on the screen keep ink from passing through the screen onto the paper.

Set-up charges are rather expensive for screen printing, so the longer the press run the better. For instance, one vendor charges over $8.00 per sign if the press run is 10 copies but only $2.00 per sign if the press run is 100 copies. Long runs drive down the unit cost significantly.

Some screen printing companies do not count the background color (white or yellow, for instance) but only charge for each additional color for type and graphics printed on the sign. One thing to remember is that screen printers often give you a list of standard colors (one particular blue or red, for instance), but if you want to match a particular PMS color, they will charge you extra for the PMS match.

An alternate technology used for much shorter press runs (such as one copy or five copies) is digital inkjet printing, using four process colors to simulate the full color spectrum. Digital inkjet is also a good option for signage incorporating photographs into the design. And with the increasing use of UV ink technology, it is possible to produce political signage that will withstand exposure to both sunlight and rain.

(As a side note, for long runs of signage including 4-color imagery, screen printing can actually be an option as well, since it is possible to use finer halftone screens than in the past.)

The Substrate onto which You Will Print Your Political Signs

Large format printing companies offer a wide variety of substrates for your signs. Cardboard “fold-over” signs are one option. The front and back of the sign are screen printed onto one side of the press sheet, and the sign is then folded in half. A wire structure underneath the cardboard provides the frame that is stuck into the ground.

Polybag plastic sleeve signs are another option. The sign is printed on the front and back of (essentially) a bag with a black interior coating, which creates an opaque barrier between the two sides of the sign. The “bag” fits over a wire support structure, which you can stick into the ground.

A third option is Coroplast, a corrugated plastic similar in structure to the corrugated cardboard in paper cartons. Coroplast has a flat front and back attached to a center made of plastic fluting. Coroplast is both lightweight and durable. You can screen print or inkjet print right on the flat sign material. Wire supports can then be inserted into the fluting of the Coroplast, and the stakes can be inserted into the ground.

For more durable political signage, some custom printing suppliers use .040 aluminum sheets. These can be screen printed or digitally printed depending on the number of colors required and the press run of the sign. The printer can then laminate the sign, which will give it a high gloss appearance, both protecting the ink and increasing the sign’s visual impact.

Unlike political signage produced on Coroplast or cardboard, aluminum signage needs a more substantial mounting structure than just thin wire. Sandwich-board stands (like a tent) are one option. Another option is an inverted “L” bar from which the sign can be suspended (with the base pole inserted into the ground). Other structures for hanging aluminum political signage involve frames made of metal or plastic into which the rectangular signs can be slipped.

Banners: An Alternative to Political Signs

Political signs need not always be printed on rigid material such as thick paper, Coroplast, or aluminum. You may also want to consider inkjet printing your political signage onto vinyl banner material. Large format printing vendors can heat weld the seams of such banners (for added strength) and insert grommets (holes reinforced with metal) through which you can add ropes for handing the banner.

How to Specify Political Signage to Your Printer

Here’s a recap of specifications to consider when you contact your commercial printing supplier:

  1. Printing technology
  2. Size of sign
  3. Number of copies
  4. Number of colors
  5. Whether to print on the front only, or on both the front and back of the sign
  6. Substrate (Coroplast, cardboard, or aluminum)

Large Format Printing: Standee Lightbox Case Study

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

As a commercial printing broker and designer, I think that certain avenues for graphic design are still expanding, in spite of the drop off in others. I’ve read a lot over the last few years about the growth in label production (particularly personalized labels), flexible packaging, and large format printing.

With the advent of inkjet large format printing as well as the refinement of screen printing to hold finer halftone dots, I think that large format printing is in a growth phase, which will continue at least until digital signage and menu boards become more ubiquitous.

New Standee: A Lightbox for the Film DREDD

That said, I was installing a new standee last week for DREDD, an upcoming science fiction action film. It was a lightbox: a large format acetate sheet printed with a graphic design and lit from behind with fluorescent bulbs. The whole electric and graphic structure was encased in black cardboard (printed through flexography, except for the offset printed title and film credits).

The graphic film panel came rolled up, and covered on the printed side with a thin protective sheet of plastic film. Unlike most prior lightboxes I had installed, this one was not very heavy. Other lightboxes had showcased thick lenticular graphic panels (printed to simulate movement when the viewer moved to one side or the other in front of the lightbox). To protect these fragile lenticular prints, they were always attached to a protective sheet of plywood prior to shipping, which was discarded prior to installation and which made the entire standee box weigh approximately 50 to 80 pounds.

In contrast, this graphic panel was just an image on clear acetate lit from behind, far lighter and clearly more economical to ship to thousands of movie theaters than the lenticular posters.

What I Saw When I looked Closely at the Acetate Graphic Panel

The graphic was “back printed” on the dull side of the acetate sheet. That is, it was printed “wrong reading,” or backwards so as to be “right reading” when viewed through the glossy side of the acetate (the front of the graphic panel).

There also seemed to be a layer of white ink to diffuse the light (although this could have just been the effect created by printing on the dull side of the film). I suppose that along with the even lighting of the five fluorescent bulbs behind the graphic panel, the goal of the white diffusion coating was to eliminate any “hot spots” that would draw undue attention to the lights themselves.

I looked closely at the perimeter of the acetate lightbox panel. The edges that were to be covered by the flexo-printed cardboard (outside the image area on the clear acetate) included color bars, much as you might see on a press sheet produced by an offset custom printing provider. I could see cyan, magenta, yellow, and black patches as well as overprints of various colors. The inkset had been augmented with green and orange ink, as well as white ink for the diffusing background layer.

I carry a magnifying glass with me when I install standees and other signage in case I want to look at the manufacturing work in fine detail. I saw a dot pattern in the color patches. It did not present as rosettes (indicative of offset printing) or as the fine stochastic spray of inkjet printers, so I thought the DREDD graphic panel might have been screen printed. I also saw commercial printing registration marks (overlapping cross-hair targets to show the alignment of the colored screens during printing).

What I wanted to know was how the job had been printed.

I Called a Signage Shop

After closely observing the DREDD graphic panel, I thought I had a good idea of the manufacturing process used, but I wanted to confirm my hunch. Therefore, I called a local large format printing vendor I work with. This shop focuses on screen printing, inkjet large format printing, and custom printing images on flat plastic and then molding the plastic into three-dimensional forms using heat and pressure. So I consider this vendor an expert.

This is what the printer said. Due to the lack of small, random spray dots (indicative of inkjet digital printing) and the presence instead of a visible, regular dot pattern, the signage vendor thought the DREDD graphic had been produced via screen printing. This would make sense, given the large distribution. (Probably thousands or tens of thousands of copies of the DREDD lightboxes had been printed for delivery to theaters across the country and beyond.)

The signage vendor noted that screen printing would account for the color bars, extended inkset, and white background diffusion ink (both inkjet and screen printing can use extra PMS colors to increase the color gamut of large format printing projects).

Here’s an Option for a Short Press Run

If the job had been a backlit poster with a short press run (say one copy to several hundred copies, but not 1,000 copies or more), the preferred printing technology would have been inkjet large format printing. The “give away” in looking at such a digital print under a magnifying glass or loupe would have been the minuscule, irregularly spaced dots (all of equal size). This pattern indicates inkjet printing.

What All This Means to You

I would encourage you to always be expanding your knowledge of printing, particularly of those types of printing that are growing. The more you know, the more valuable you will be as a professional, the better and more cost-effective design and production decisions you will make, the more options you will have for various projects, and the more enjoyable your work will most probably be.

Case Study for Multi-Channel Marketing

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

There’s a new buzzword in printing. It’s “multi-channel marketing.” Multi-channel marketers embrace the new digital technologies rather than hide from them. They integrate offset and digital custom printing with social media and other Internet-based modes of communication.

Their goal is to communicate with prospective clients along multiple “touch-points”: that is, however the clients themselves prefer to be contacted. By offering information and expertise that includes “ink-on-paper” but is not limited to this medium, a vendor (of whatever kind) can establish its credibility and offer value to customers. And the “product” reflecting this value can be anything from a print catalog to an email campaign, to a downloadable whitepaper on how to improve one’s marketing results.

I’ve heard that multi-channel marketing is one good way for printing companies to survive and even thrive in the face of decreasing custom printing volume. Printing companies essentially become consultants, offering clients their knowledge and experience (as well as their product, ink-on-paper and toner-on-paper) as a means to an end rather than as end products in themselves.

The goal is to help a business understand what its clients (the actual end-users) need and give it to them. In this way a commercial printer can help expand brand awareness for the client, which translates into increased revenue.

This is why I think this is a great idea, whether it’s referred to as “convergent media,” integrated media,” “multi-channel marketing,” “multi-touch marketing,” or any other name. And here is an example of a multi-touch marketing campaign that I found particularly effective.

Skippy Steakhouse: A Case Study in Branding

That’s not really its name, but let’s call it Skippy Steakhouse to make it generic. Any steakhouse could do this.

The steakhouse has a physical presence: the building, the staff, the raw materials (the uncooked food), and the final product that only they can provide: the signature taste of the cooked food. But Skippy Steakhouse has more than this. It offers ambiance, and a positive and predictable dining experience. You can be confident that every time you sit down for a meal, it will be of high quality, the servers will be personable, and your bill will be fair.

From a Marketing Perspective

The aforementioned are internal, subjective experiences, but they include a branding component.

  1. The restaurant interior has a certain look and a regional theme that appeal to a particular demographic (families, in this particular case).
  2. For starters, the appearance of the building interior is reflected in the logo. You recognize the building immediately, since the logo sits above the entrance to the restaurant. All interior signage (large format printing) reinforces this look as well. And the logo carries through into the appearance of the menu. The tone of the restaurant is rustic, and the photos of food are large and inviting. The colors and typefaces match the tone of the restaurant just as the interior design of the restaurant (fabrics, paint, wood molding) reflects the tone of the dining experience.
  3. The print component doesn’t stop here. There are collateral materials along with the menu (table tents and such) including the same branding colors, typefaces, and tone of writing. All of these visual images reinforce in the mind of the client the subjective experience of eating a great meal. When the patron sees coupons, advertising, or even just the logo, he/she will remember a positive experience.
  4. But it doesn’t stop there. Skippy Steakhouse has a website (a “pull” medium, since you have to go to the URL to find the website). The website includes the same colors, typefaces, and rustic theme. Unlike a lot of websites, it also includes sound (appealing to an additional sense). You can hear birds chirping and have a rustic experience online as you learn about the restaurant. You can also post comments (you are encouraged to do so). After all, the new multi-touch marketing is a conversation, not a sales pitch. You tell the restaurant what you like and don’t like, and the restaurant takes this information and improves your experience.
  5. And it goes further. Once you sign up for the restaurant’s loyalty program, you get periodic emails with coupons (a “push” medium, since emails come directly to your computer or smart-phone). People love coupons. Instead of going to the restaurant once a week for $40.00, a 25-percent-off coupon will encourage many people to go twice a week and spend $60.00 ($30.00 + $30.00)–and feel good about it. The coupons continue the branding experience (same colors, typefaces, etc.). The goal is to make the image of the restaurant (physical printed coupons—toner on paper) call to mind the experience of the food and ambiance and encourage the customer to come back and eat again.
  6. Finally, the loyalty program has a physical, plastic, printed card (custom screen printing, I would assume). You hand in the card along with your Visa when you pay. You get points. Your points add up, and when you get a certain number, you get a discount on the next meal. So you keep coming back, happy and well fed.

All Touchpoints Reinforce the Message

All of the physical, printed items (signage, menu, table tents, plastic loyalty cards) and all of the virtual elements (website, emails, e-coupons that you can print out) work together, so you feel that wherever you go you have a positive interaction with Skippy Steakhouse. They’re there in your neighborhood. They’re there on your computer and iPhone. The experience travels with you through the day.

This kind of multi-channel marketing campaign takes thought. It has to be an integrated effort, with all offset, digital, and custom screen printing reinforcing the message, and all Web-based services complementing the custom printing.

Large Format Printing: Observations on Movie Theater Standees

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

As noted in prior PIE Blog articles, in addition to other custom printing related pursuits, I install “standees” and signage at movie theaters. This gives me first-hand access to many printed products I otherwise would not see. I’d like to make a few observations that you may find useful, whatever kind of custom printing products you yourself may buy.

Printing on Vinyl

Among other signage I install, static clings are an interesting custom printing product. They stick to glass with no adhesive, just because of their static charge.

I have noticed a few things about these transparent plastic signs:

  1. They appear to be printed via custom screen printing technology. I had initially thought that inkjet would be the main mode of production, so I checked with a loupe (high-powered printing magnifier). The images had a distinct dot pattern, and the dot pattern was closer to the rosettes of offset printing than to the minuscule scattered spots indicative of inkjet printing. I knew that offset printing was not an option. After all, an offset press could not hold sheets of vinyl flat enough to carry them through the print rollers.
  2. Another reason I judged the production method to be custom screen printing was the thickness and vibrancy of the ink, especially the opaque white ink. In fact, all the colors seemed to be opaque (unlike offset custom printing). I was also impressed by the crispness of the 4-color photographic images as well as the reasonably fine line-screens used for the halftones.
  3. Totally unrelated to printing, but very related to marketing goals, I’m not so sure how long static clings will stay up. Consider this before you choose static clings as a marketing vehicle, and do your own research. Upon my return to some of the theaters, I noticed that the static clings had peeled up or fallen off the windows. That said, if you’re using these signs as a temporary advertising item, I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Wooden Sticks to Stabilize Portions of Diecut Standees

Somebody had been using his or her head, maybe even while they had been eating.

Fragile portions of standees (usually the diecut figures attached to the large graphic panels) often are made rigid with chopsticks glued to the back of the corrugated board. Keep in mind that many of the figures attached to the backgrounds have arms, legs, etc., that otherwise would have no support and could be easily dented, bent, or ripped off. By using a hot-melt glue gun to attach wood chopsticks in various configurations to the backs of the images, those who produce the standees had strengthened them quite a bit. By now I have seen 20 or more individual standees with this structural addition.

How does this affect you? If you’re designing three-dimensional point-of-purchase displays, use your imagination. Think about making fragile parts of your structures more resilient. If the displays must be shipped, choose something light to save on postage—like a chop stick.

Packaging Is Key

This is one problem of which standee creators seem a bit unaware. Fifty pieces of cardboard in a large carton move around. If these pieces are square cut, they will be reasonably safe, but with diecut fingers and toes, the figures attached to the background graphic panels of standees often get mashed before the job arrives at the theater. This can minimize the effectiveness of any point-of-purchase display. Think about it. If you come upon a giant Star Wars standee at a theater and all the main characters are dented, bent, and creased, that takes away from the overall “wow” factor.

So consider this in your print buying work, because it actually relates to all kinds of printing. Make sure your commercial printer packages the final job well. This goes double for fragile work. If you’re printing a book, you may ask that the covers be varnished, or perhaps you could request shrink-wrapping of a certain number of copies in the cartons. Or even paper slip sheets between every five or ten copies (within the cartons) would help. After you have paid dearly for a good custom printing job, why let the printed pieces be damaged in transit?

Access Holes in Standees

If you look closely at a standee from behind at a movie theater, you’ll see a remarkable thing: multiple holes the size of a teacup saucer. You might think these are to lighten the product, and this might well be a side effect. After all, standees are quite heavy when assembled, and they often must be moved.

But the real reason for the holes is to give the installers access to the interior of the standee. This makes it possible to affix one piece to another with screws or diecut tabs. You can get your hands into the guts of the structure to attach everything that needs to be attached.

Now you may be asking how this pertains to you, particularly if you buy book printing or brochures or posters. In this case it probably doesn’t, but if you design or print any three-dimensional products, it behooves you to consider how they will actually be assembled and used.

For instance, maybe you’ve been tasked with producing a cardboard point-of-purchase display that will hold stacks of magazines at a political convention. It happens. I did this once for a client. In cases like these, it is prudent to remember that a point-of-purchase display is an object, not just a marketing design. You need to consider its physicality. You need to consider the stress points (i.e., will the weight of the magazines eventually cause the display to cave in?). You need to consider the weight (shipping costs add up). And you need to consider the ease of assembly—and probably other things as well.

If you buy custom printing for a three dimensional cardboard object like a display box, have a prototype made. It’s much better to use it, bang it around a little, and find out what will go wrong—before you buy 1,000 copies and have them sent all across the country.

Screen Printing with an Online Printing Company: Print on Almost Anything

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

At some point in your schooling, maybe even in grade school, you probably did some screen printing. Maybe in art class. Using a frame with a stretched nylon screen, perhaps not as fine a mesh as a stocking, you used a squeegie to force printing ink through a stencil attached to the screen and onto the paper below. It’s a simple process, and essentially the same as commercial silkscreen (also known as screen printing or serigraphy).

Where might you see examples of screen printing?

The screen printing process deposits a thick film of ink on a variety of substrates. You may have seen a portion of text printed right on the wall at a museum to describe the paintings or sculpture in the room. More than likely, this was done via screen printing.

The printed t-shirts you wear (those with thick ink deposits rather than appliques) are another example of screen printing.

Probably the silkscreen you used in school differed from commercial screen printing presses in only a few respects. First of all, it probably only had one screen. When you wanted to change inks to print new portions of your artwork in different colors, you probably had to clean the ink off the screen, remove the stencil that blocked ink from the non-image areas, and then attach a new stencil prior to printing the next color.

A commercial screen printing press, used by online printing companies, can have a single flat bed on which the paper or fabric rests and multiple arms with screens bolted onto them that can be rotated into position to lay down ink onto the t-shirt, convention portfolio, or whatever else you’re printing. This will speed up the printing process significantly.

Also, your school silkscreen probably used a screen made of silk or a synthetic, whereas commercial screen printing presses can use polyester mesh screens or even more durable stainless steel screens.

Photo screen printing provides new options.

Initially, artists either blocked non-image areas of the screen by applying a thick film or painted portions of the screen with block-out solutions to prevent ink flow. Starting about seventy years ago, photography was brought into the screen printing process (think of the pop art posters created by Andy Warhol).

In photo screen printing, the screen is coated with a light sensitive emulsion that is selectively exposed to a light source through a positive image of the artwork (the reverse of the process whereby offset printing plates are burned). The (positive) stencil keeps the light from reaching the image area of the artwork. When the screen is exposed to light, the light source hardens only the non-image areas, allowing the emulsion on the image areas to be easily washed away with water prior to printing. Non-image areas remain blocked out on the screen. With process inks, four screens, and considerable skill, a screen printer can produce full-color photographic images on a wide variety of substrates. Although the thickness of the screen printing inks makes fine-screen halftone work more challenging, the process is evolving.

When should you choose screen printing?

There are a few major reasons to choose screen printing.

First among these is the ability to print on unusual surfaces such as walls and garments. This is in part because screen printing does not require the intense pressure of offset lithography, so you can print on surfaces that are not flat. You can even print on mugs, pens, and such, depending on the flexibility of the screen and your creativity in devising holders for the objects.

Set-up (make-ready) operations for screen printing are involved and lengthy, however, adding to the cost of the process. Therefore, screen printing is your best choice for longer press runs. For shorter press runs, digital printing processes such as inkjet printing are coming into use (even for items that are rounded, such as pens or mugs), depending on the ingenuity of the printer in developing carriers to hold the items motionless under the inkjet nozzles.

You may not have realized this, but…

Here are some uses for screen printing, some of which you may never have imagined:

  1. Electronic printed circuit boards
  2. Medical devices
  3. Glass, wood, metal, and plastic items
  4. Clocks and clock faces
  5. Snowboard graphics

As you cherry-pick your team of digital printing companies, it’s a wise decision to include a quality screen printing shop in the mix.

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