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Silk screen printing

Silk screen printing is one of the best options for hobbyists and potters to reproduce crisp and detailed decoration. But there are many details to know.

Key phrases linking here: silk screen printing, ceramic transfers, ceramic transfer, tissue transfers, tissue transfer - Learn more


Historically, screen printing has been a popular technique to reproduce single or multi-color designs for ceramics and pottery (it has a long history in the tile industry, designs were screened directly onto flat tiles. In the process, a frame having a tightly stretched silk fabric holds an ink-blocking stencil. A rubber squeegee pushes the ink through the screen onto the surface below. When done well, good detail and crisp edges are possible. Potters use the process to create their own tissue transfers, these are normally done on leather-hard ware (but also doable on bone dry or bisque). Water slide decals can also be made effectively using silk screen printing. Although many books are available on the process, most people search videos instructional videos on Youtube. Supplies and equipment can be found on or various online distributors. Of course, the inkjet printing process has replaced silk screening in many areas, that being said the latter still has some advantages.

The most important detail to consider is how to make the screens and prepare negatives. If you are serious and want to really invest in this technique a good start is to buy a 20x24 aluminum frames (like those used to print t-shirts) and clamp hinges to secure them to backboards. Prepare artwork to fill about 14x18in of that (most people will put many smaller designs inside this area and print them selectively onto transfer paper as needed). Take your artwork to a silkscreen printing company (there are countless t-shirt and uniform printing businesses everywhere) and have them expose and prepare the screen. These companies are busy, give them a few weeks to finish it and bring a few pieces of pottery as a gift, especially for the worker who actually made the screen (this will help grease the wheels the next time you come!). One caution is not to get too large a squeegee, most often you will be screening a subset of the designs on the frame onto a smaller piece of tissue.

For complete control of the process, equipment must be purchased. The main expense will be an exposure unit (a lightbox in which to harden the light-sensitive emulsion), this can cost $500-1000. A darkroom is needed, to prepare screens for exposing, and various chemicals and other supplies. Consider buying a multi-color press for maximum flexibility. These devices enable four screens (rotating about a center), each will accurately position over the artwork to print its color. Photorealistic results can be obtained using the standard CMYK color set. These units do take quite a bit of space. Used ones are often available on Ebay for surprisingly low prices (a few hundred dollars for example).

Of course, many potters and hobbyists use the simple DIY kits available online. Some of these even enable the exposure step using sunlight!

No matter which method, a negative must be made to light-expose the emulsion. Vector illustration software to produce a PDF file is the best option to produce crisp edges and high quality (e.g. Adobe Illustrator). To print negatives (using a laser or inkjet printer) buy clear acetate having an emulsion coating that holds the ink. These emulsion-coated acetates are not crystal clear, but the exposure unit has very bright light so they still work. Different types of these are available, watch a few videos and read about them to find the one best for your printer. Best quality is obtained using RIP software to control your printer directly to spray more ink to produce a blacker image. Certain brands of printers will work much better or will be better supported by the software.

It is common to use commercial underglazes for the ink, while most are intended for brushing some brands do have a consistency that is better for screen printing (e.g. ones the gel like Crysanthos, Speedball). Many people also make their own inks by mixing silk-screen mediums with a stain/melt mix.

The tile industry is a massive user of this process and has accumulated by far the most knowledge in the details of its use.

Many glaze defects are associated with the misuse of the silkscreening process.

Related Information

An underglaze tissue transfer with clear overglaze at cone 6

This was applied at leather hard stage on Plainsman M370, bisque fired on, dipped in clear G2926B glaze, then fired at cone 6. The transfer was purchasing online. Since the pigment contains cobalt it does feather somewhat at the edges, this would be less of an issue at low temperature.

Ceramic tissue transfers: Good goat, better pig

Tissue transfers with transparent glaze

These are whiteware mugs (Plainsman M370) with tissue transfer designs that were applied at the leather hard stage. The pieces were then dried, bisque firing, clear glazed and then fired to cone 6. Tissue transfers are sold online in a wide range of designs (in full color also). They can also be made at home by silk screening the appropriate type of ink onto the tissue paper (you can make your own ink using ceramic pigments). These overglaze transparent recipes are G2934 matte (left) and G2926B glossy (right). The matte glaze softens the edges of the design. The pig is a good demonstration of how crisp the edges of lines can be (once the application techniques are mastered). This method of decorating is far less expensive than decals. And does not require an extra firing. While the ink is somewhat powdery, it can be stabilized with spray starch if pieces need to be transported for firing.

Silk screening using a professionally made screen

Silk screening is a popular decorating method. It is difficult to get a better quality screen than having an aluminum framed one made at a shop that specializes in this process (you can buy those hinges from a screen supplier). This screen is 16x20 inches and I have multiple designs on it (I made them in Adobe Illustrator). I am about to screen lettering and a logo onto a tile using an ink I made (because I have found drastically different melt behaviors in commercial underglazes). I find that simply mixing the ink with water to a very thick consistency works best (it is very easy to plug up the screen if you employ hardening mediums, they are difficult to wash out).

Why it is not a good idea to use straight stain

Two ceramic mugs with a rubber-stamped logo using a stain/glycerine ink

The logo on the left was rubber-stamped using and ink mix made of only glycerine and Mason 6666 black stain. The glaze is shedding off during firing. Multiple properties needed by a stamping ink are not present here. First, the stain dries as a powder, it has no hardening or bonding properties, glycerine is its only mechanism. Second, it is too concentrated, the black color is so powerful that it bleeds excessively into the overlying glaze. Third, it does not melt during firing so it does not bond with the body below. And, it either develops only a fragile interface with the glaze above, or sheds it off. The piece on the right mixes the stain 50:50 with a glossy transparent glaze (having 20% kaolin), it lays down better, accepts the overglaze layer better (because it has less glycerine), presents less problems in handling before glazing and it has no issues with the overglaze crawling off during firing. Black stains are potent, a 75:25 stain:glaze mix would work even better.

Here is some motivation to make your own underglazes

Underglazes melting to different degrees

Commercial hobby underglazes are high in stain and very expensive. But does expensive mean suitable? To help answer we have over-fired these commercial products in a melt fluidity tester (to cone 8). They are recommended for use from cone 06-6 (some can go higher e.g. the green). Underglazes need to melt enough to bond with the underlying body, but not so much that opacity is lost (any melting loses opacity). Excessive melt can also cause design edges to bleed. To work well at greater thicknesses, underglazes need to have a firing shrinkage similar to the body (an ill-fitted underglaze and body forced into marriage are eventually going to divorce, in the form of flaking or cracking at their interface). Thus, while a regular glaze would melt enough to go well down the runway on this tester, an underglaze should not flow at all. At this temperature, none of these have achieved the right degree of maturity (the green is too refractory, the others over-melt to varying degrees). The only one that has a chance of suitability at cone 6, two cones lower than this, is the blue. Clearly, the base recipe and stain percentage in each underglaze recipe color needs attention, if that can be achieved all of these would mature to the same degree.

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Silk screen mediums

A professionally-made silk screen frame


Glossary Ceramic Ink
You can make your own ink (or buy it) and apply it to ware using various methods (e.g. rubber stamping, silk screen, inkjet decals).
Glossary Ink Jet Printing
Ink jet printed decoration is now pervasive in all parts of the ceramic industry. And in hobby also.
Glossary Ceramic Decals
This process of printing a design (using ceramic inks) onto film-coated paper to create a waterslide transfer. On wetting, the film decal can slide off the backing on to the glazed ware.
Screen printing on Wikipedia
Ceramic Transfer Printing
Tissue paper ceramic transfers
Sanbao Studio - Ceramic transfers
How to Set Up a Home Printmaking Studio in a Small Room
Elan Transfers - underglaze decals for contemporary ceramic artists to use on their own pottery.
By Tony Hansen
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