When photographic reproduction became cheap and easy, there was a lot of debate in the art world as to it’s effect on diminishing the aura of the original artwork by producing mass quantities of representations of the original in smaller, less realistic ways, and whether or not photography can be called an art at all. If you’ve seen Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” painting you might get the idea. Heat transfers have sucked the object of art out of skateboards. Once upon a time, way back in the eighties, the graphics printed on the bottom of a skateboard were considered an important selling point. In this day and age of heat transfers, mall store blanks, and new graphics every month, only a certain type of skater/artist is attracted to hand silkscreening skateboards. That’s enough undergrad art history for now.
Screen printing industry forums have all had posts with lots of questions and few practical answers concerning skateboards. The majority of traditional screen printers work with textiles. The second largest group is the “graphics” or things like signs and banners, art prints, etc. (Somewhere in there are the guys who make schwag like keychains, can cozies, and water bottles, or other 3D objects, which is sometimes a completely different process.) What this means is that a lot of the answers given come from a flat point of view. For example, consider this glib response to a question of how to make curved screen for printing full board graphics: “Print the design on flat veneer and then laminate it.” While this approach can actually work, and has been done, it’s not practical for people without who don’t press their own wood, and for those that do because most of the industry doesn’t do it that way. The basic process is the same, but skateboards are a whole different monster. A lot of screening forums end up being trolled by people who end up soliciting your business instead of offering practical advice. Screen printers can be a close mouthed group, often guarding their knowledge like a national secret because they are trying to maintain a competitive edge. This is even more true of your average skateboard printer. They might answer a question or two, but once it becomes clear that you are actually going to do it yourself the well runs dry. At the time the idea for this article was conceived, even the Skull and Bones forum on screen printing wasn’t very helpful.
Warning: Unnecessary delays in providing usable information to follow. Pages to follow are more to the point. Want to skip ahead?
- Read - Basic theory (below)
- Read - Artwork and prepping screens
- Read - Exposing screens
- Read - Preparing to print. Inks and Squeegees
- Read - Print!
- Read - After printing. Clean up and reclaiming screens
- Read - Gallery of random action photos
I’m here to share some of my admittedly limited knowledge of silkscreening as it applies to skateboards, but not before I blather on about my experiences and other information that will likely infuriate you as I delay on getting to the actual information. I’m not doing this to blow the lid off the skateboard printing industry. Nobody is going to lose any business because of these articles. I’m just lowering the step to the first rung of the ladder for those already inclined to do it themselves.
If you’re still here, I’d like to say that heat transfers suck. They don’t look or wear the same as a screened skateboard. Sure you can have photographic quality reproductions of excellent design, but it’s just not the same. Heat transfers (at least where boards are considered) consist of a digital art file printed on a kind of fancy inkjet that prints onto a film which is then sandwiched between the board and a big hot pad that acts as an iron. The process is similar to heat transfers on t-shirts except they are usually screen printed on a waxy transfer paper instead of via inkjet. You can try that at home with a computer. Just like when you used to get t-shirt transfers in cereal boxes as a kid. You can now buy a machine that will inkjet directly onto a t-shirt, bypassing the heat transfer process. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone adapts an inkjet to print directly on skateboards. Transfers were invented as a way to cut costs from screening errors. The theory being that there are more mistakes made printing than there are in the transfer process, and it’s cheaper to throw away a messed up transfer than it is to trash a misprinted shirt or skateboard. The reality is that transferred t-shirts can look and wear kind of crappy if not applied right. With skateboards it’s a different story. If you take a look at a number of heat transferred decks you may notice some that might have a barely noticeable wrinkle under the graphic. That’s because you can apply a heat transfer over the top of another one. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be the same graphic. You can recycle unsold stock and make it new again.
Screen printing has been around for a long time. Common wisdom says it evolved from Japanese stencils ages ago. Like all civilized things, Europeans took much longer to catch on. Eventually, some English bloke named Samuel Simon patented it in the early 1900’s. Not to be outdone, a yank named John Pilsworth also patented a multi color process in 1914. No I am not a walking historian, but I do know how to use the free-hippie encyclopedia Wikipedia on the web . Screenprinting was originally called silkscreen printing because the screens were actually stretched with silk. Nowadays it’s specially made artificial fabrics such as nylon.
Screen printing purists: I’ll be making lots of vague and or technically not quite correct statements, but get over it. I’m just trying to give some basic information and not a technical dissertation. I don’t care if I’m not 100% accurate as long as the idea gets through.
Here’s how it works. You use a squeegee to push ink through a stencil that is held in place by or glued to the screen at the bottom of a frame. The screen allows you to have holes and inside areas like concentric circles (think of a target) without requiring the little bridges that a standard stencil needs. In the case of pretty much everything except t-shirts, you print multiple color designs one color at time. You need some sort of rig (more on that later) to make sure the object is in the same place relative to the screen each time you print it. Stick the object in place, line up the screen where you want the printed artwork on the object, then lock the frame in place. Print one color on one object, remove it and replace it with another. If you locked your screen in place, the jig will make sure that the next object has the design printed in the same place. Keep printing until you are out of objects. Let them dry, then set up the next color and go through the process again. Repeat until you have all the colors printed. You’ll need one screen for each color.
Next Page: Getting the Artwork On Your Screen:
Hey Know it all! Got some Mr Wizard type knowlege to share? We need your help. Although we may talk like it, we don't actually know everything. If you have an idea for another article or can offer some advice, we'd love to spead the knowledge.