With plenty of websites offering relatively cheap custom prints, it’s easy to get custom printed T-shirts, tote bags, and, these days, face masks. But even with all of these options, you might be wondering how difficult it is to make your own graphic T-shirts at home or in your garage. After all, that’s how many a successful streetwear label got their starts. DIYing can be more satisfying while allowing you to customize to a greater degree. And since larger companies use the same techniques that you can use at home (albeit on a larger scale) you can yield professional-looking results. What you need is a screen printing machine, heat transfer machine or manual screen printing kit.
It’s worth breaking down the different DIY ways of making graphic T-shirts because they each offer their own benefits and vary by quality. The first is screen printing, which involves using a mesh screen and chemical solutions to create a design. The best screen printing machines make it easy for you to make your own designs at home, let’s explore the pros and cons.
Screen Printing: Pros and Cons
The best screen printing machines create longevity and quality in your designs. The print won’t easily come off in the wash, and the design will look more professional.
One major drawback of screen printing is that, while possible, printing multiple colors is more challenging. Screen printing is also time-consuming, and because of photosensitivity, you have to work in special lighting conditions. Screen printing machines can make it easier to get more precise results and produce greater numbers of T-shirts. These machines are typically not electric, but rather manual devices that hold your frames in place so you can get even results.
How To Screen Print
There are different ways to screen print with the best screen printing machines, and one of the most popular is through photo emulsion. Many of the kits on this list include emulsion and sensitizer, and some kits come with screen printing ink. Here’s a (very simplified) explainer on the how-to of the screen printing process.
- Mix water with the bottle of sensitizer. Then, shake the bottle of sensitizer.
- Pour the sensitizer into the emulsion, which will look blue. Stir until the emulsion turns green.
- Apply a thin layer of emulsion onto your silk screen, then use your squeegee to even it out on both sides.
- Place the frame somewhere dry and dark so the emulsion can fully dry, without being exposed to light.
- Place the transparency sheet with your design on the frame and use a lamp to set the image. Then, use water to clean the screen of excess uncured emulsion.
- Align the screen over what you want to print your image onto, whether that’s a t-shirt, tote bag, or some other item. Then, apply your ink to the screen and use the squeegee to apply the ink to your item.
Heat Press: Pros and Cons
Heat transfer prints are quicker and easier, and they offer a wider variety of color options. While with screen printing you can only do one color at a time, heat transfer machines offer greater variety. Plus, they can be more user-friendly. The first DIY t-shirt project most people take on is iron-on. Heat presses use a similar mechanism, but are much more precise and have fine-tuned temperature controls. The drawback of heat transfer is that the prints can crack and fade in the wash, and the printed part of the shirt can look and feel stiff and plasticky. A heat press can be slower if you’re making bulk shirts.
How to Heat Press
When it comes to using a heat press, it’s comparatively more simple than a photo emulsion screenprint. The exact process will vary depending on the machine and paper you use, but it’s essentially as follows.
- Start with your image. It should be printed on photo transfer paper, which will typically be printed using an ink-jet printer.
- Place your t-shirt down on the heat press. If you’re printing on the front of the shirt, then the front should be facing up.
- Close the press down for a few seconds to make sure the shirt is flat.
- Then, apply the image and close the press again to transfer the image.
We’ve rounded up some equipment you can use to make your own custom graphic tees, totes and whatever else you feel inspired to create. We’ve primarily focused on screen printing kits and machines, but you can also find heat press machines in this roundup, too.
1. Speedball Advanced All-In-One Screen Printing Kit
You don’t need advanced machinery to screenprint, but there is some essential equipment you’ll need. This kit from Speedball gives you most of what you need to get started in screen printing, including a one of the best screen printing machines for beginners, squeegee, lamp and transparent sheets. There are also bottles of emulsion, sensitizer, remover and screen printing ink in different colors. For any beginner who’s just looking to try screen printing out, this is a great gift to get.
2. Siser Heat Press
BEST HEAT PRESS
If you’re looking for a heat press, consider this option from Siser. It has precise controls for more professional-looking results. The heat press is a more compact alternative to larger heat presses. This option is 9″ x 12″, so it won’t take up too much space if you’re working from your apartment. You can control the temperature using the digital panel, and this unit can reach temperatures of up to 430 degrees F.
3. AWT Professional-Grade Screen Printing Unit
BEST PRO OPTION
This screen printing kit from AWT is a great way to get consistent results, thanks to the hinged design that opens and closes to hold the shirt in place. In addition to the warp-resistant wood frame and 12XX polyester mesh, a squeegee is included for even results. This is one of the best screen printing machines money can buy, and is professional-caliber. We don’t recommend this option for beginners, but if you’re looking to invest it’s a great option.
4. RoyalPress 12″ x 15″ Heat Press
If positive reviews are your priority, this is one of the best screen printing machines you can get. It has over 500 5-star ratings on Amazon and is rated “Amazon’s Choice” by the retailer. If you want to heat press T-shirts, this option from RoyalPress is 12″ x 15″, making it large enough to make larger prints on the front of T-shirts. The digital display panel allows you to monitor time and heat. You can also go beyond just T-shirts, though. Included with this press are kits for making hats and even mugs.
5. Cricut Easy Press 2 – Heat Press Machine For T-Shirts
BEST COMPACT MACHINE
Cricut has exploded in popularity thanks to its relatively affordable, space-saving products that allow you to tackle a wide range of DIY projects. This heat press machine is a compact way to create graphics for T-shirts and totes. You can easily control the time and temperature settings using the control panel. The Easy Press is available in three different sizes depending on the scale of your project. The price shown is for the 9″ x 9″ size.
6. VEVOR Screen Printing Machine
BEST FOR QUICK RESULTS
This screen printing machine makes it easier to make individual prints with multiple colors, which is more difficult to do with only a single screen. There is a single workstation and four arms that can each hold one screen, allowing you to quickly make multiple prints on one shirt or the same print on multiple shirts in rapid succession.
7. Speedball Screen Printing Frame
If you’d rather buy the pieces of your screenprinting kit individually, this option from Speedball is just the frame, so you can buy the solutions and squeegee individually. The frame is made from durable hardwood, and the mesh is made from a 110 monofilament fabric that makes for more precise results. The screen is also replaceable. It comes in a few different sizes, and the price shown is for the 10″ x 14″ option.
8. Speedball Diazo Photo Emulsion Kit
If you have the screens and other equipment but just need new supplies, this emulsion kit includes an 8 oz bottle of remover, a 6.6 oz bottle of photo emulsion and a 1 oz bottle of stabilizer. Plus, an instruction and suggestion booklet is included to make it easier for beginners.
9. Jacquard Screen Printing Kit
BEST ALUMINUM KIT
Speedball isn’t the only name in the DIY screen printing game. Another solid option is this simple kit from Jacquard. It includes an aluminum frame screen, an aluminum-handled squeegee and four jars of printing inks, photo emulsion, sensitizer, acetate sheets and a stir stick.
10. AWT Screen-Eze Screen Printing System
BEST PRO KIT
Is your screen printing business taking off? Maybe it’s time to upgrade to a professional kit, like this option from AWT. The mechanical system makes it easier to more accurately and quickly print images on t-shirts and totes. You can choose between just the tabletop screen printer or add on the full-size stand if you have the space for it.
11. Winado 8 in 1 Heat Press Machine
This machine from Winado is a comprehensive option if you’re looking to get into heat press image transfers, and it works for everything from mugs and coasters to baseball caps and t-shirts. Plus, the kit comes fully assembled, so you can easily get started on printing once the kit arrives.
12. Silhouette Silkscreen Starter Kit
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
If you’re looking for a basic, affordable kit for starters consider this option from Silhouette. This option is designed for screen printing, and it includes a frame, a squeegee, black fabric ink and both silkscreen and heat transfer sheets. There are even included heat transfer designs.
13. Cricut EasyPress Mini
BEST SPACE-SAVING MACHINE
Big on ideas but short on space? The Cricut EasyPress Mini is a compact and affordable machine if you’re looking for a heat press. There are three different heat settings, and the compact size makes it more nimble for smaller items like hats. The unit has a similar shape to an iron, making it intuitive to use. The heat press comes with an insulated base, so you can set the press down, worry-free.
14. Blick 1-Color Garment Screen Printing Machine
Blick is one of the most popular sources for art and craft supplies, and their in-house Blick line is a great resource for more affordable materials. This machine is designed to attach to your screen using the metal hinges, while the board securely holds your t-shirt. This allows for more precise results. This machine is a good option to use with one of the kits on this list, such as the one from Speedball.