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How It’s Made: Riverzedge Arts Merch

Thanks to YOU, teen artists in our Print Studio are filling out their professional portfolios with incredible merchandise for retail partners and commercial clients.

Teens like Indy G. (15) and Aaron M. (16) are becoming experts at turning design concepts into things you can actually wear. And they want to help YOU learn more about the first step in any of our print jobs—”burning” a screen to print with!

Step One: Printing the Design

In our studios, teens will first print out a digital or hand-drawn design onto a sheet of transparent acetate. This is done using a simple Canon Pro-100 printer.

Indy and Aaron don’t have to worry too much about their printer settings, as Studio Director Kim Keiter has already calibrated the Canon to produce the densest possible black.

This creates a completely opaque black design on the transparency which will act as a shield from unwanted light in the following steps.

Step Two: Exposure

Indy and Aaron will take the acetate and select a screen which their peers have already coated with a light-sensitive emulsion.

Here in our studios, that emulsion is typically Ulano QLT (blue), one of the best emulsions for textile printing due to its durability over time.

The emulsion is a soft, viscous material that coats the screen, creating a continuous blue surface. “You can’t let any light hit the screens once they’re blue,” Indy explains, “or else they’ll harden up. So we have to keep them in the dark room.”

Aaron places the acetate on the glass surface of a machine called an “exposure unit,” seen below, and layers the screen on top of the transparency. He emphasizes that “You want to set it down ever-so-gently so that you don’t crack the glass.”

Next, Aaron adjusts the transparency to ensure that it’s about one hand’s width from the screen, quipping that it’s “like a nice table runner at Thanksgiving dinner.”

Indy, meanwhile, takes measurements of the position. They explain that “if it’s just one screen, it doesn’t matter as much. But you want to make sure that, if you have multiple screens, they line up as closely as possible. Otherwise, there will be weird gaps between the colors.”

Indy then runs the machine, and the rubber lid above the glass surface vacuum-seals the screen and transparency in place, which is Indy’s favorite part. “You can see the outline of the screen where the vacuum sucks it in,” they observe.

Inside, a mercury bulb emits a powerful UV light from beneath the acetate, hardening the emulsion into a tough, solid substance where the acetate is transparent.

Because the design printed onto the transparency is completely opaque, the emulsion above it is shaded from the exposure unit, remaining soft.

Step Three: Rinsing and Drying

With the emulsion hardened, or “burned,” Indy rinses the screen with water to wash away the softer emulsion, creating an empty space in the screen in the shape of the intended design.

From here, the screen is left in front of a fan to air dry before being secured to the printing press. The empty shape Indy creates in the screen allows ink to pass through, creating a single-color impression on the final product.

Each color in a given design will require its own screen, meaning Indy and Aaron may repeat this process up to six times before printing one shirt. Cause all great art takes time!

Once a screen is burned for every color, the teens are ready start printing t-shirts, tote bags, and other amazing pieces for their clients and customers.

Each screen will be fastened into the studio’s six-armed printing press, and the youth can get to work!

The love donors like YOU show for these young artists equips Indy and their peers with the industry-standard tools they need to design, burn, and print like professionals.

And with YOUR support, they’re building portfolios they need to build sustainable careers as printers, designers, and more.

Consider making a gift today to help youth like Indy and Aaron find a path to a more equitable, more creative future.