The Most Metal Guide to Printing Your Own Band Shirts

Martin knows how to make killer band shirts!I’ve been fortunate enough to have a chance to work with one of the top names in the business side of band management – Martin Atkins. Besides being a super-cool guy, Martin is the former drummer for Killing Joke, Pigface, and Nine Inch Nails. Martin also runs his own record label, and has written two books that I HIGHLY recommend reading – Tour:Smart, and Welcome to the Music Business – You’re Fucked. I’ll give you a second to go to Amazon and put those books in your cart. Done? Good.

I recently sat down with Martin and went through the business side of my band, Lords of the Trident. After a few hours of merciless beatings and a complete dissection of my business model, Martin helped me come up with a brand new business plan, and a bunch of great ideas to save and make money. Ideas that I will be sharing with you over the next few articles.

What’s one piece of merchandise that EVERY band should have? Something that’s easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming than recording, and instantly turns your fans into a walking billboard? That’s right – BAND SHIRTS.

Now, maybe, like me, you’ve made shirts for your band before. Maybe you’ve used some local or online shirt printing company, and you’ve probably paid around $5-$8 per shirt, depending on the design. You sell the shirts at your shows for $10, maybe $15 if you’ve got rich fans, and you make a little profit. But using this model, the profit margin on your band shirts is WAY less than a CD (usually around $2-3 to produce, and sells for $10). And you also have to wait for all your shirts to be sold before doing another run, because the more shirts you order, the cheaper the cost for your band. This model sucks, because you ran out of medium shirts three shows ago, and you may have sold $100 more in merch if you only had a few more.

Drummer without a band shirt... or any shirt

And you already sold the drummer’s shirt back in Albuquerque.

So what’s a band to do?

Fang’s Band Shirt Tutorials – Learn to Screen Print!

Today I’ll be teaching you how to make your own 1-color screen-printed t-shirt on the cheap. When everything is all said and done, the cost to make these band shirts should be close to $3 a shirt – MUCH cheaper than doing them through a local t-shirt shop! And you can also print shirts as you need them, rather than doing a bulk order every 6 months. You can also screen print other things – bags, hats, patches…just about anything you can sling ink onto!

Step 1 – Make a design, and print it out!

The first step is the most obvious step. Before you print a t-shirt, you’re going to need something to print! Create a new 8.5” x 11” image in photoshop (or GIMP, or whatever photoshop equivalent you have). Then, create your image. For the purposes of this tutorial, you will only be able to do a one color image, so make everything pure black and pure white. The photoshop threshold tool will help you accomplish this quicker.

Got a kickass image? Does it contain dragons? Lighting? Perhaps an axe handle of some sort? PERFECT! Now you need to print this design out on transparency paper. This is also known as “overhead projector” paper. It is completely see-through, and you will end up with your black image on transparent paper. Make two copies, and print them in color. “But Fang,” you say, “the design is in black and white? There’s no color on the image? Why print in color?”

Mario Band Shirts??

“Woah…the colors, man…they’re like…IN the black. You know what I mean?”

The reason you print in color, even though you’re printing black and white, is that you want the darkest black that you can get. Don’t believe that “color” black is darker than “black and white” black? Print it out and compare!

Take the two printouts, line them up, and using clear scotch tape, tape them together. Now you should have a nice, thick, black…erm…design. It should be noted at this point that you can make the design bigger (8.5” x 14” Legal, or 11” x 17”), but most print shops do not carry anything other than 8.5” x 11” transparency paper. I bought a case of 100 sheets of 11” x 17” transparency paper and gave them to my local print shop for my screen printing purposes. If you want to get a case, you can order them here:

On to step two:

Step 2 – Let’s get handy – make a screen!

For this step, you will need the following ingredients. Pick them up at your local hardware store:

  • Standard wood screws – $2-3 tops
  • Furring Strips (usually 1 x 3 x 8’ – each makes approximately 2 frames) – $1 each
  • Drill bit that’s slightly smaller than your screws – $5 tops
  • Power drill (borrow a friend’s if you don’t have one)
  • Circular saw (borrow a friend’s if you don’t have one)
  • Industrial-style staples (NOT “paper staples” – the badass large type) – $5 tops
  • Staple Gun (borrow a friend’s if you don’t have one)
  • Duct tape – extra sticky, at least two big rolls – $6 per roll tops

You will also need screen fabric. You’re looking for fabric that’s as tightly knit as possible, and as see-through as possible. Silk-type curtains usually work. Hefty cotton will not work. It’s got to be that “hanging off of sexy lingerie” fabric type. Any color is fine. See the below picture for an idea of what you’re looking for:

Band Shirts and Curtains?

The white curtains, NOT the red ones.

The best place to pick up fabric of this type? Try your local thrift store! In my hometown, we have a place called “Dig and Save”. Basically, anything that people donate to a thrift store that doesn’t sell get shipped to Dig and Save and thrown into giant cardboard boxes. You can buy clothes and accessories for $1.00 a pound. I bought enough see-through fabric for about 200 screens. My cost? $1.25.

Got the fabric? Good! Let’s make a frame! First, determine how big you will need your frame to be. I’d recommend making the frame at least 2 inches bigger than your design on each side. For instance, if you’ve got an 8.5” x 11” transparency, make a 10” x 13” frame. Now that you have your dimensions, let’s get started.

1.) Cut the furring strip(s) into your intended lengths to make your frame.

2.) Use the power drill and your drill bit to drill screw pilot holes into the wood. This will ensure the wood does not split when you screw the frame together.

3.) Screw the frame together.

4.) You should now have a wooden box! Congrats, you passed shop class!

5.) Cut the fabric to stretch over the box. You’ll want to make it a bit bigger than the box, overlapping on each end. This will help you pull the fabric as tight as you can.

6.) Staple one side of fabric down to the wood.

7.) Using a partner, grab and pull the fabric as tightly as you can over the other side. Staple this side down. Repeat for the other two sides.

8.) Cut a strip of duct tape as large as one of the side. Cover the fabric and the staples with half of the duct tape, then grab and pull tightly to stretch the fabric even tighter. Once it’s stretched, tape down the other side of the strip. Repeat for the other sides

9.) You will now have a very tight mesh screen covering the bottom of your wooden box.

10.) Using duct tape, make a lining around the inside of the box that connects the mesh to the wood. This is to ensure that no ink will leak through the cracks in the wood and on to your shirts.

11.) You may wish to make an addition lining out of duct tape on the bottom of the box.

You will now have a nice, tight, blank frame that will look like this professional frame (but with a lot more duct tape):

If you’d prefer, you can buy pre-made professional frames, and skip this step. However, you’ll probably pay $15.00 USD minimum for one of these frames. Each of my frames cost me about 75 cents to build, and there’s no visible difference on the final shirts.

You can buy pre-made, professional frames here: (Amazon) http://tinyurl.com/7wplv82

Step 3 – How I made my basement into a chem lab!

My favorite part of this whole process – the part where I get to pretend I’m a chemist!

The Process of Making Band Shirts is Dangerous

Pictured: Me and my bald friend, about to get shot

For this step, you will need the following ingredients:

  • Photo emulsion and sensitizer – $24 – (Amazon) http://tinyurl.com/7jyjslv
  • Fabric Ink Squeegee – $7 – $20 depending on size (Amazon) http://tinyurl.com/7zfjhoq
  • 150w clear light bulb – $2-$3
  • “Tin bowl”-style cheapo light fixture – $10 tops
  • Glass square to cover design – can be stolen from a picture frame
  • Non-UV-emitting “yellow bug bulb” – $3 tops
  • Black fabric – a few old t-shirts will do

Here’s the step where we turn your screen into the negative to use for printing your design. First step is to find a nice, DARK environment. I’m talking NO light. A basement does the trick.

1.) Replace the bulb in this room with your bug bulb, and turn off all the other lights. This will ensure that no UV light hits your screen. This is extremely important.

2.) Mix the emulsion paint and sensitizer according to the directions on the bottle. This will make the paint UV sensitive, so don’t expose it to any strong UV lights (especially the sun)!

3.) Using the (now green) paint, coat the screen completely. Use your squeegee. You need all transparent parts covered in a thin layer of paint, but don’t overdo it! If you put too much paint on the screen, it will dry with extra globs of paint on the screen which are extremely hard to remove, and will mess up your design.

4.) Scrape any extra paint back into your can. Place the sealed can of photo emulsion paint in your refrigerator. The shelf life in a fridge is around 4 months versus 1 month unrefrigerated.

5.) Let the screen dry overnight in a closet, or if your environment has NO ambient light, you can put a fan on the screen and it should dry in 1-2 hours.

Once your screen is fully dry, you’re ready to expose your design.

Get that man a band shirt!

Ahh yeah baby, expose that design!

Using your light fixture, hang your 150w light bulb exactly 12 inches above your screen. Don’t turn on the light just yet. Place some black fabric under the area so no ambient light jumps up and exposes the bottom of the screen. Place the frame SCREEN DOWN on the black fabric. The frame should be open towards you. Place your transparency on the green, painted part of the screen, and place your glass over the transparency. The weight of the glass will press the transparency down, and will help with exposing fine lines in your design.

Now, turn the light on, and let the screen expose for 45-50 minutes. Once this time has passed, turn off the light, and immediately remove the glass and the transparency. You must now run luke-warm water over the screen. Do NOT use hot water. A garden hose on the “shower” setting usually works the best. After a few minutes of spraying the water, you’ll see the parts of the screen that were covered by the black of the design start to wash away. Continue to spray until all of the paint is gone from the design. Let the screen dry with a fan blowing on it for at least an hour.

You now have a perfect negative of your design! If there’s any extra parts that got accidentally exposed and washed, cover them up with duct tape. You want to make sure that the ink will only be pushed through the design, and nowhere else. Now, the final step!

Step 4 – Print your band shirts!

Fantastic Band Shirt Inspector?

Do not print this shirt. Ever. I will come to your house and beat you to death with your own squeegee.

For this final step, you will need the following ingredients:

  • Blank shirts – Try www.JiffyShirts.com, they have the cheapest prices I can find.
  • Your (cleaned) squeegee from step 3
  • Water-based fabric ink (any color you wish) – $10 – $25 based on size – (Amazon) http://tinyurl.com/6lmwboa
  • 1-2 250w heat lamps – $12 – $15 a piece
  • Flat wood to print the shirts on – I prefer finished cabinet wood – $12ish

Take your finished cabinet wood and cut it so that you can fit a small t-shirt over it. This will be your “printing board”. I’d recommend making at least two. Cover the edges with duct tape so shirts will go on and come off easier. Don’t use cardboard as your printing board, as this will create “ridges” in your design.

Place your screen on a fresh t-shirt. Have a friend press down on the sides of the screen so that the screen stays in place, and is flush against the shirt. Drip a bunch of ink in the top of the screen (but not in the design). This will be your “reservoir” for later shirts.

While your friend holds the screen down, take the squeegee and place it in the ink. With very little pressure, pull the ink across the design while keeping the squeegee at 90 degrees to the design. Your design should now be covered in ink completely. Make sure there are no missed spots.

Now, hold the squeegee at 45 degrees, and with moderate pressure, push the ink across the design and back towards the reservoir. Once you reach the top, pull the screen off of the shirt. Boom! A perfectly-printed band t-shirt!

Have your partner remove the shirt from the printing block. The design is still wet, so don’t touch it or let it come in contact with anything else. Place the shirt under your heat lamps for about 10-12 minutes. This will dry the design and heat-set the ink so that it doesn’t wash out. You can also hang them up to dry, but make sure to heat-set them at some point, otherwise you’ll have unhappy fans.

Repeat 1000 more times. Now you have band shirts! Once you’re done, it’s very important to wash all of the ink off of the screen and your tools IMMEDIATELY. Once it dries, it will set permanently, and will ruin your screen.

Congratulations, you now have almost literally printed money! Well, assuming your band doesn’t completely suck, that is.

Can I buy your band shirt?

I’d like 10 of your finest shirts, please!

At this point, I feel I should explain the difference between water-based fabric ink and plastisol ink. Plastisol ink is the type of bright, plastic-y ink that you see on many professional and multi-colored t-shirts. This type of ink usually lasts a little longer than water-based ink, but there’s one drawback to using it – you basically need a $300 flash dryer in order to even start to THINK about using plastisol ink. In order to cure the ink, you need to heat it up evenly to a very specific temperature. I’ve heard of people putting plastisol shirts in their oven at home, which apparently will work, but it also causes toxic fumes, so…yeah.

Water-based ink still needs to be heat-set, but it can be set at a much lower temperature, making it easier to work with. One downside is that it’s not quite as vibrant as plastisol, and it may give you that “old-washed-out-t-shirt” look after a while. I’ve been using it for a while now, and I haven’t experienced any complaints from my fans.

Well, that’s it! Now go forth and make shirts!

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Want to email me directly? Tell me how good/horrible my advice has been thus far? Email me at LordsOfTheTrident@gmail.com. If you give me an idea for an article, I’ll send you a FREE album as a reward!

Editor’s Note: The above article is reproduced with permission from www.WeLoveMetal.com. It has been slightly updated/augmented for a Madison audience.

Fang VonWrathenstein was born when a volcano containing metal and steel erupted at the beginning of time. His one and only mission: create the most metal band in the world. He is the lead singer of Lords of the Trident, and commits the rest of his barbarian time to helping young, inexperienced bands make it in the cut-throat world of music

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