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Choosing the Right Manual Screen Printing Press for Your Shop

Buying a manual press is probably the most discussed and pondered issue for individuals getting into the garment printing industry, more than any other piece of startup equipment. Making the right decision here can impact your success and failure, and certainly your level of frustration on the front end of the screen printing learning curve. The conversation will usually go down the road of, “Should I buy a four-color press or a six-color?” And then the other available options come close behind.

The number of colors in the machine description, six-color for example, will mean the number of screens that you can set up at the same time. Owning a six-color press will not very likely translate to you printing mostly six-color jobs. The bread-and-butter for most of us in the industry is one, two and three color work, so a four color press will do all those types of jobs. But, with a six-color, you have the potential of printing most any job that may come your way, including full color images on dark garments.

Remember, you can also set up multiple jobs on your press at the beginning of the day for your production staff. A four-color press can be set up with four separate one-color jobs, etc. So this is another option and opportunity to weigh in your press purchasing decision.

The platen is the board where you lightly adhere a garment for printing. (The purists in the industry will chastise you for calling this board a pallet, by the way.) Some presses, even multiple color presses have only one stationary platen for printing. A single stationary platen can be limiting when you are printing dark garments that require a flash after you print the underbase. In other words, you’ll be waiting for the flash if you have to pull the flash unit over the garment before printing the colors on top.

More commonly, you will see multiple platens on the presses you are comparing. You might see the same number of platens as screens on the press, or fewer platens than screens. Today, most presses can only have a single screen down on a single platen at one time, so the number of platens around the press does not have to match the number of screens. More plainly, on most presses you cannot be printing on one side of the press while someone else prints on the other.

These platens will move around the press independently from the movement of the screens around the press. Presses come standard with adult size platens, and a common add-on purchase will be youth platens, depending on your marketplace. At some point you will need additional sized platens for youth garment, sleeves, shorts, sweatpants, etc.

Platen movement around the press occurs for two reasons. 1) To print a white underbase on a dark shirt, you will rotate the platen under a flash cure unit, and then back to print the others colors on top of the white underbase. (No waiting for the flash step as with a stationary platen press.) 2) Platens move so we can have someone else loading and unloading shirts while we print. A helper loading and unloading will speed up the process. During day-to-day printing though, most manual presses have a single operator. Automatic presses will commonly have two operators, a loader and an unloader.

Micro-registration, “Yes or no?” is another common thread of conversation. Some presses come with micros standard, and some do not. Registering your screens, one to another so a multicolor image lines up correctly, is more a function of a good set of films, tight screen mesh, and properly locating your multicolor image in the same place on each screen than anything else. In other words, a quick setup begins with the screens, and not the press.

Many old time printers (who predate micro-registration systems) can set up presses very quickly without using micros. Can micro-registration systems speed your setup? Yes, but you can still learn to setup a press very quickly without. As with all things in this industry, use or non-use of micro-registration systems will be a matter of personal preference. A common complaint with using micro-registrations is in the movement of the screen coming into registration in on place, but knocking out in another. Using micros takes a bit of practice know exactly how the screen will move with each turn of the micro knobs.

“So, what should I buy?” First, buy what you can afford. This alone may be your single deciding factor. In the end, screen printing is screen printing is screen printing, whether we print on the most expensive or least expensive device. Second, buy the press that allows the number of colors to best service your particular market(s) of choice. If your intention is to do process and simulated process work (photographic images especially on dark garments), a six color press will serve your needs far better than four. Platens that rotate will speed production substantially when printing dark garments.

Remember, whatever press you buy, you will likely keep and use it as auxiliary equipment when adding more machines to your production shop, so rarely will you be making a bad investment here.

Terry Combs is a 30+ year veteran of the screen printing industry. He is an industry teacher and consultant through the website TerryCombs.com, offering hands on and online classes. And, he is the owner of the screen printing supply company, GarmentDecoratingSupply.com.
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