Random Awesomeness – Tricks for Your Shop

Gold Foil on a Black T-shirt - Marshall Atkinson

In the apparel decorating business?  Check out these random tips to help run your shop better, inject some creative awesomeness into your designs, be more efficient, or simply get that job out faster.

Sweatshirts – when printing sweatshirts, preheat the sweats with your flash before printing to slightly shrink the fabric, and then use a roller to flatten out the fabric to make a great platform for printing.  Then print.  This action also does a great job of setting the fabric into your platen adhesive, so you don’t have to reapply as much, as well as preventing the shirt from moving during the print run.  Misregistered fleece can get expensive.

Shirt Dye Not Set – Having trouble and you want to check if the apparel fabric dye is set from the factory?  Take a shirt and soak in warm water.  If the water turns a color after a few minutes, the dye of the shirt isn’t set.  This should be reported to your shirt distributor.  Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of 50/50 shirts from one manufacturer having this problem.

Heat is Your Enemy with Performance Fabrics – The more you heat the shirt, the worse the dye migration chances you may have.  Control the heat, use proper ink, watch your flash dwell times, and don’t hot stack the shirts at the end of the dryer.  Instead, use two or three piles and as the shirts travel down the belt add a new shirt to the next pile.  Have a fan blow air on the shirts.  All shirts should be cool to the touch before going into a box.  Most dye migration problems occur long after your crew last reviewed them, as hot shirts in a box continue to activate the dye.  If your production manager ever says “Hey, they looked great when they left here!”  I’ll bet that they didn’t follow the procedure outlined above.

Save Money by Repairing All Air Leaks – that hissing sound isn’t a bed of snakes, but the sound of money blowing away.  If any of your equipment has an air leak, be sure to repair the challenge as each leak can cost up to $600 a year per leak in electricity on stress on your air compressor.  Don’t put it off.  

Want a Better Print?  – sometimes with cold ink out of the bucket, you need to work it with a spatula or stirrer before using.  This increases the viscosity of the ink and allows for a better print.  Don’t just dump ink out of the bucket and into the screen.  Give it a stir first!

All Thinking Needs to Be on the Work Order – having trouble with your crews constantly stopping and finding out what to do next on that order?  The problem could be that the instructions on the work order are not specific enough.  Standardize your language, include key information such as print order, dimensions, location, and any other helpful tips such as “print 3” down from neck seam”.  Think of your Work Order as a blueprint…the more information you convey to your work force, the faster they can make a decision and set it up correctly.  This means that a lot of those questions should be asked and answered long before it reaches the production floor.  If any of your crews ever has to ask “Hey what’s this mean?” – it means you didn’t fill out the Work Order correctly.

Sometimes the Key to Matching Color is In Your Squeegee Selection – We’ve all been there.  The ink is mixed correctly in the bucket, but the final print doesn’t match the Pantone color.  Before you remix or start doctoring up the bucket of ink to match, try examining the mechanical aspects of how you are pulling your print.  Look at your squeegee durometer, as a harder or softer squeegee can give you a different result.  Squeegee pressure and angle can also have an effect too.  If you are tweaking the print though, only change one thing at a time so you know the results of your attempt.  It is much easier to try dialing in the squeegee mechanics, than scraping out the ink and replacing it with another color.

Image on Press Platens – If after some time you can start to see the image you are printing on your shirt boards it means you are using too much pressure on your squeegee.  The ink should be printed on top of the fabric, not driven through it like a hammer and nail.  Back off on some of that pressure.  It will be ok Mr. Gorilla!

Got Multiple Buckets of White Ink on the Floor?  Regular White, Performance White, Polywhite, Top Score White?  They all look white in the bucket, but perform and also cost differently.  To quickly tell them apart, use different colored tape on the handles so you can determine what is what from across the room.

Use the Flashlight Feature on Your Phone – Concerned about that PMS color not exactly matching and wonder if the lighting in your shop is giving you the wrong color caste for the lighting?  Whip out your phone and turn on your flashlight.  This sometimes helps with determining if the problem is with your lighting, or you need to change something else.

Want More Efficient Workflow?  Your print or embroidery staff should never leave their machine to go “get” anything.  Instead, have everything they need brought to them for their jobs and lined up in order so all they have to do is set them up and run them.  This takes some coordination and planning, but the more your crews stay where they are when they work the faster they can turn over jobs on the production floor.  Mount cheap fire engine bubble lights on poles that they can turn on if they need approval or have a question, so your floor manager will come to them, instead of them walking the floor trying to find an answer.  Swarm your machines with everything they need, and you’ll get more accomplished every day.

Train Your Artists – Creative types are great for working out the details on an image, but usually lack any training on the mechanics of what it takes to print.  Give them the opportunity to learn by having them train in the screen room and the production floor so they can understand mesh counts, registration, and why you put one color before another in the print order.  By training I mean they do the work for a few days…not just stand there for five minutes while someone describes what they are doing.  Get their hands dirty and in the trenches.  Learning is growing.

Microbes Eat Ink – sorry, it’s not a screen-printers horror movie, but a great way to clean your squeegees and floodbars with plastisol ink.  If you are using a solvent based parts washer in your shop to clean these items after every job, you might consider a better alternative.  The Ozzy Clean washer uses bioremediation technology to clean your items just like before, but since it’s not a solvent you will lower your VOCs and hazardous waste.  The microbes are suspended in a fluid that is slightly heated, and your staff can use their scrub wand and brush to clean your squeegees and floodbars just like usual.  The only difference is that instead of using a nasty smelling solvent, the microbes in the Ozzy Juice eat the petroleum based plastisol ink that is washed down into the tank.  The only by-product is water and CO2.  Check out their website, or source this at Napa or Grainger.

Make Screen Reclaiming Easier – by making sure all ink is carded off of the screens and placed back into buckets with lids…neatly.  Ink buckets should not look like a Jackson Pollack painting.  Have a rule that anyone that can’t clean up their ink buckets gets to spend some time on rag detail.  There is nothing worse than trying to get a pile of screens reclaimed, only to find a huge gob of ink still in the screen.  Have your production folks pay it forward by cleaning up after themselves.

Make Some Smoke Ink – Got some old ink that you aren’t using?  Throw some dark colors in a bucket, then add the same amount of black.  Stir it up.  Add about double curable reducer to the mix.  Stir it up.  You should get a translucent dark color.  The more reducer you add the more transparent the ink will get.  This absolutely looks awesome on any t-shirt.  On a red shirt it will print maroon.  On a royal shirt it will print navy.  This is fantastic on a heather gray or heather color t-shirt.  What’s great is you can use the same screen and ink with multiple shirt colors and not have to change ink colors.  Also this will quickly become your go to color for any drop shadow effect.  Plus this has zero hand, as it is basically all reducer.  This is a great way to use up some of those weird PMS colors that those “designers” always specify, that you used for that one job a year and a half ago and haven’t touched since.  We mix this stuff up five gallons at a time.

For On the Pocket Printing with an Auto – just use your sleeve platens, and just load the pocket onto the board like a little mini t-shirt.  It’s much easier and faster to print then trying to use lasers or other cues to line up the pocket straight.  Don’t forget you’ll have to burn your screen upside down in the right position.

Need Some Funky Textures for Photoshop? – Are you buying those?  What?  Get your camera phone out you lazy dog and just go out and take some pics yourself!  The concrete on your shop floor.  Some tree bark.  Even the texture of some blue jeans or a shirt could work.  Carpet.  The clouds up in the sky.  A bowl of noodles.  Really anything.  Enlarge it.  Posterize it.  A crazy unsharp mask or two.  Maybe a gaussian blur.  Convert it to a bitmap.  Whatever.  Invent your own that fits your style and use them.

Mixing Any Pantone Color is Simple – With the right system.  Most shops don’t even charge for this anymore as it’s a default service.  Using an ink mixing system that uses a digital scale you zero out after each ingredient.  Colors aren’t mixed by eye, but rather by weight.  There’s a neutral base that takes up the most volume, and concentrated pigments are added in one at a time.  Mix it up, and you’ll get a perfect match every time!  Not to mention it is far cheaper per gallon than ready mixed inks.  You should contact your ink rep for more information.  

When Receiving in Inventory – Try to receive your inventory the same day that it came in, so if there are any mistakes they can be rectified quickly.  There’s nothing worse than calling up your customer to tell them that they are missing three mediums on the day the job was supposed to be produced.  A better system is to have the discipline to check everything in to ensure it is what it’s supposed to be.  For anything under 144 pieces, count every shirt.  For 144+ crack open every box to check color, size and style.  Check your packing slip against what you have in front of you, and mark it into your system with notes to keep track of what’s going on.

Sending Out for Heat Transfers? – You can print your own fairly easily.  Simple one to three color transfers aren’t that hard to do, you just need to learn how to print.  Transfers are printed reversed onto special paper, and then coated with a powder adhesive.  The paper is then loaded onto your dryer belt, just like a shirt.  Gang up two or three dozen left chest logos per page, and in a short amount of time you can have hundreds of heat transfers ready to use.  These are great for neck labels, custom small order company store programs, or sometimes for items that can’t take the heat of a dryer.   We use Tullis Transfer Paper and White Stuff Adhesive.

Buying Habits on Supplies – as your shop grows in size, don’t forget to start increasing the size of the container of the consumables you purchase to save money.  You might have just got into the habit of buying gallon sized buckets, and never thought to change.  Try ordering five or thirty gallons buckets of black or white, depending on your usage.  The ink isn’t a cantaloupe.  It won’t go bad.  Ever wonder how that larger shop is always cheaper?  This is one of the ways…with their volume discounts and buying drums of ink, often they are paying $10-$20 a gallon less than a smaller shop for the same ink.  Do a search history and see what you buy the most of every six months or so.  Instead of purchasing that gallon bucket, size up and get it a little cheaper per gallon.

Sign Up with Your Local Utility Company for an Energy Audit – even if you are renting.  Your local utility company can provide a free auditor to come out and inspect your facility and recommend great ways to save money on your energy.  They will provide you with a comprehensive report, and a grocery list of stuff you can do to lower your usage.  This is always my first recommendation to do on a sustainability journey that can see dramatic decreases in costs.

Art Department Bored? – Are they guilty of reusing the same old textures and hackneyed creative designs for client, after client, after client?  Better fuel inject some awesomeness into their brains quickly!  Maybe a field trip to the mall to check out what’s on the rack, or at least twenty minutes aimlessly cruising through some Pinterest boards.  You could even invent a special 15 minute contest, winner gets lunch, to come up with the best design that features three random objects in the room, or maybe a client’s logo.  Get some fun in there will ya?

Check Your Dryer Temps – Use a donut probe and adjust your temperature and belt speed to dial everything in according to the instructions from your ink manufacturer.  Most plastisol inks cure at 320 degrees, but performance inks will cure at 290.  Are you adjusting for the difference?  Once it’s dialed in, post the temp and belt speed on the dryer so you can tell if your print crews are messing around with the settings.  On a dryer log book, divide the belt in the dryer into nine zones and measure and record the temperature of each zone.  Temperature is such a crucial component to how we print, it is imperative that you have a close eye on your results.  Don’t just assume things are working correctly.

Cross Train Your People Now – Give the trimmer time running the embroidery machine, or teach them to hoop.  Have the guy that cleans your screens learn how to mix a Pantone color.  Teach your floor managers how to ship or burn a screen.  Move people around and give them time driving the car in each department, regardless of your shop size.  This will engage your staff, make them more valuable, and give them some empathy for what other people do in your shop.  It will also help that diva employee you have that feels like “nobody can do my job” see that they aren’t as untouchable as they think they are.  Your goal should be for every critical task in your building, you need at least three people that know how to do it perfectly.  This is going to take some time and planning…so get crackin’!!

Build Your Shop’s Brand Guidelines – Do all of your shop’s marketing and collateral that you send out look the same?  Are they fantastic pieces of creative art that really shows off your company and makes you look extremely professional, or are they just some hack job that was thrown together in Word?  As decorating industry professionals everything we do is visual.  Don’t settle.  Yes, I know the cobbler’s son is always barefoot and you don’t have time…but that’s wrongheaded thinking.  Make time for this.  Create your own personal Branding Guidelines and templates to use.  Everything from your pricing lists to your website should look the same and just scream “I know what I’m doing”.  By the way, I look around on the internet all the time and check out shop’s websites.  1993 is calling.  They want their dated look back.  You can do better.

Add Some Spunky Awesomeness to Your Print – Use some textural gold foil, crystalina or even some high density clear.  Throw it in on some details, or a key highlight.  Nothing too obvious or overwhelming, but just to give it that extra “something”.  Unsure about what to do?  Try it out on a half dozen shop shirts first and get the hang of it.  Learn before your earn.

Kitpack Your Orders by Each Press – Make it easy for your production staff to get the jobs out by pulling everything they need to work on the orders and lining them up in the order that they need to be produced.  Screens, shirts & ink.  Nobody ever has to wonder what to do next, or waste time looking for something.  It’s all right there and waiting.  Plus, when there’s a big row of something waiting, people tend to work a little bit faster.  You can also save a bunch of time by ganging jobs that all use the same color, or all use the same platen boards (sleeves, youth, jumbo, etc.)  Think ahead to work faster.

Build a Photo Tour of Your Shop with Pinterest or Instagram – I take camera phone shots of things going on in the shop constantly.  Cool prints or embroidery, people working and having fun, or just anything interesting.  Every Friday I post these to a Pinterest board.  What is really great about this is over time, we’ve amassed such a collection of images that when someone says “Can you print over the seams of a hoodie” or “What does an 118,000 stitch embroidery job look like”, I have an example to show them.  I send them the link to the Pinterest board, and inevitably, they cruise through the other pictures that are loaded.  This always leads to better conversations later, and sometimes orders for different techniques that they viewed on the board!  For Instagram, I’m currently doing an experiment where a I load one picture every day.  So far, we’ve gotten three new clients from it…so I’d say it was a success!  Click here to follow my Pinterest board.  Click here to follow my Instagram shots.

Train Your Operators Not to Miss Boards.  The speed you want to run your press is fast enough to load with a quality straight print without missing any boards as they come around.  If your operator has the setting so fast that they are missing boards, at the end of the day they will actually print less shirts than someone who it steadily loading without missing.  This is a conversation that you need to have with a newer printer usually, but I’ve seen veteran printers run this way too.

Got a Fuzz Ball or String in Your Print?  Don’t chuck that shirt to the misprint pile just yet.  Try taking some ink from the screen and dabbing it with a toothpick.  Smear it into the missing area a little bit and rub it around.  This might take some practice, but in a few minutes you can save that shirt.  Afterwards, find out why you have fuzz balls and strings in your print.  This is usually a sign that the press needs cleaning, or the platen tape needs to be changed.  Housekeeping!

Scorching Tri-Blends Constantly?  The trick with printing these is to make sure that the fabric is tacked down well on your platens.  During the print process when you flash, the air between the fabric and the platen board can get superheated.  This causes the shirt to scorch and get crispy.  Tacking the boards evenly, and not just where you are printing (like the left chest area only) but all over the board, will prevent this from occurring.  Unfortunately, we learned this the hard way.

Segregate Your Screens After Imaging – If you have a giant screen bank of ready to use screens for jobs, but your production scheduling folks are wasting a lot of time looking for the right ones, try segregating them by the number of colors on the job.  Orders with only one screen are on one shelf, orders with two screens are on another shelf, and so on.  Each group of screens are taped together with some masking tape and labeled with the job number, design name and ship date.  When you only have to look in one particular area, it makes it much easier to find what you are searching for and much, much faster.

Got a Great Tip You’d Like to Share?  Help out the community and post it in the comments section!!  Thanks in advance!!


  • Thanks for all your info you share. I’m surfing your articles today trying to put together a daily 15 minute cleaning practice for my team.

  • Pamela Mannell

    Marshall your blog is so informative and practical I really look forward to reading each post. I started the SGP when I was with a different company, they had not received accreditation when I left to start my own company T-1 Print. I came to New Orleans to present to Marcia from Sydney, Australia. I would like to go through the SGP process next year but in the meantime I am trying to put continuous improvement practices in place now where possible. I noticed on your Pinterest Tour that you don’t tape your screens. At T-1 Print we only tape one line around the inside, I can see you have something instead of tape, what is it please? You are doing such a nice service to the industry Kind regards Pamela


    • First thank you very much for your kind words!! I appreciate you trading my blog and taking the time to comment. It’s great to get feedback.

      You still can start your SGP certification. Let me know if you need any help.

      As far as the screen taping goes, we out source our screen restretching to a company called Graphic Screen Fashion from Chicago. They do an excellent job, and produce great frames that have a system that has a special caulk that fills in the gap between the mesh and the frame. It doesn’t come off and will eliminate the need for tape on the inside of the screen.

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