For Want Of A Nail


How many times has an order or something gone wrong in your shop and you thought to yourself, “Hey, we are better than this!  How did that happen?”

This type of situation reminds me of that old Ben Franklin parable:

     “For want of a nail the shoe was lost,

       For want of a shoe the horse was lost,

       For want of a horse the rider was lost,

       For want of a rider the battle was lost,

       For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

       And all for want of a horseshoe-nail.”

When you trace back how your challenges happen it usually comes down to some seemingly small detail that is overlooked or a task that is so common that people just quit doing it correctly for some unexplained reason.  

Apathy?  Lazy?  Untrained?  Too harried?  All four?

Then all hell breaks loose when your client is on the phone and something is amiss.  Not good.

Let’s take a look a few basic things that tend to get overlooked in a production environment:

Instruction Details

The age old problem.  One salient point of the order somehow didn’t make it onto the Work Order and in the process throws the whole thing off.  Now production doesn’t have it ready, and it won’t ship in time.  When the customer service rep is asked about it later they say, “Well, I sent Fred an e-mail”.  

You’ve heard that before from your staff, right?

Deflecting and blaming others doesn’t solve the problem.  If information is missing or something changes like a shipping address or the quantity of mediums for the order, you have to get up out of your chair and go make sure it’s right.  This means talking to someone or even replacing some of the work order documentation.  Do it right then.  The only way to be 100% sure is to check.  Insist on excellence.

Also, the deflection game is a bad habit.  Your customers aren’t going to single out someone in your company and say, “Well, it was Fred.  You know him!”  They are going to blame the entire company as a whole.  If they are mad enough, they will take their business somewhere else.  

Not to mention, they will tell everyone they know about the problem.  Then whatever dumb problem Fred missed is the reputation your entire company is going to be painted with by a lot of people.

I hate to break it to you, but other companies know how to print or embroider a shirt.   Maybe even better than you.  Don’t let the internal finger pointing get out of control.  

Get a sense of urgency and accountability established instead.  Work with a team mindset.  When one order goes awry, it’s the entire company’s problem.  Band together and solve your issues before they make it out the door.

For want of a detail, the order was lost.


Color Matching

How many shops have a Pantone book available within easy reach for their press crews?  

And by easy reach, I’m not referring to the five year old, dog eared copy in the art department which your artist hangs onto like it was solid gold.  (Or worse you hear, “Hey, has anyone seen the PMS book?”)

Why is this important?  

Trust me, your clients are going to check the colors.  Especially when you print over an underbase.  Doubly so if you are one of the dozen or so shops on the planet that can still get away with charging for a PMS match.  If you are charging, it better be perfect.  It better be perfect anyway, but you understand what I mean.

Any brand manager worth their salt is going to look.  It’s pretty hard to explain why you didn’t hit the color and that “we’re close”.  It always sounds lame.   In reality, nobody ever checked…they just printed what was labeled on the bucket.  Don’t try to pass that off, your customer doesn’t believe you anyway, as they have the printed results in front of them as proof you missed the easy lay-up.

Even if the ink color is perfect, plenty of things can influence the final print.  Mesh count and EOM, squeegee durometer and pressure, printing over an underbase, even the shirt color.  Don’t get lulled into sleep with the lazy “we used the right bucket of ink” argument.  

What’s on the shirt is all that matters.

Do you know what is going out the door of your shop every day?  Do you have procedures in place that someone is checking and signing off on the job?  Does your quality control program consist of just crossing your fingers?

What is the number one reason why more printers DON’T check to see if their color matching is accurate?  

You guessed it, the PMS book isn’t easily available.  Nobody wants to walk “all the way over there” so they just think, “Looks good to me…”  Of course when that job is rejected they aren’t personally eating the cost either, so what do they care?  If you don’t demonstrate that it is important enough to provide them with the correct tool to gauge the printed color hue, I could argue you don’t care enough either.  

Get a brand new one (yes, with all the numbers out of order so you have to use the index in the back) and keep it within about five footsteps away.  Make a special place for it at each work group, and use that same set-up on all presses in the shop.  

Ideally every press should have one, but at $123 or so it can get expensive.  I would recommend having at least one for each dryer, so that makes it available for two autos at least, with a manual thrown in there if you can squeeze it in.  

Make sure you are checking at each set-up, in clear natural light (use the flashlight on your phone for a quick tip to see how your light color can shift when checking), and signing off on the Work Order by someone responsible AND the press operator.

For want of a Pantone book…the client was lost.  


Pressure Point

When printing on an automatic press can you see the image on the boards?  If so, you may be using too much pressure.  Walk your floor right now.  What’s on your press boards?

The optimum print has the ink sit on top of the fabric, not hammered home like a nail through wood.  Too much pressure affects registration, print quality and how much ink is being transferred to the shirt.  If you are over 50 psi on your squeegee pressure for the print, how many bananas are you feeding the gorillas a day?  Lighten up. 

Lots of rookie printers use a lot of pressure to cover up for the lack of skill in registering the job.  They think: “Can’t get it to line up?  Mash it until it does.  Of course, this causes some bleeding issues where the different colors touch.  But hey, at least it’s registered.”  

Don’t put up with this.

Squeegee angle, durometer, and screen tension all come into play here too.  If your squeegee looks like a capital L when printing, you might want to check that pressure.  Your goal is to adjust the angle and pressure on the squeegee to use just enough pressure for the ink to clear the screen.  Probably in the 20-25 psi range, depending on the equipment and other factors.  Most newer automatic presses have a gauge right on the end of the screen arm, which makes checking easy.  

Believe it or not, there are some shops that (gasp) even record the pressure on their work set up sheets, along with other print information so they can dial it back in later for reprints, or also for quality control.

Why is this important?  For starters, using less pressure will make the print look and feel much better on the shirt.  Also, you can dramatically reduce the amount of ink used to print, as you aren’t losing all that ink when you pound the ink through the fabric.  You aren’t getting paid to decorate your press platens.

For want of checking a gauge…the print was lost.


Tension Meter

Quick, go to your screen room and ask your crew when was the last time they checked any screens to see if they had proper tension.  

Do they even know what the proper tension should be?  Do they know how to measure?  Do they have a Newton meter that is available?  Or do they just thump the screen with a finger and declare, “Sounds good to me!”.

My guess is that if you are having trouble with registration, especially at the top and bottom of the print, you have some crazy tension issues.  You never check tension either, but instead point a crooked finger at either the equipment, art department or the press operator.

Screens are the keystone to the entire screen-printing operation, but so few shops invest in the right tools to make sure that everything functions the way it is supposed to.  A good Newton meter used correctly, will determine the tension for the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) of the screen.  They should be equal.  This can help your team in the screen room make some good craftsmanship decisions about the screens for use in your shop.  If you are using retensionable screens, it may be time to jack them up a notch.  If you are using static frames, it may be time to retire that screen and remesh.  

Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Click Here to check out a short infographic I made that gives some basic information about screen tension.

The problem with under-tensioned screens is that they won’t perform like they need to during the mechanical print process.  A slack screen can cause registration issues, off-contact issues, even ink texture issues on the substrate.  If your press crews are struggling keeping a good looking print, I’d start backtracking the problem from the press to the screen room.

For want of a tensioned screen, the registration was lost.


Mmm Donuts

Screen tension isn’t the only production detail that is often overlooked.  Another big challenge is the dryer temperature.  Often it isn’t set correctly or is not accurate.  A lot of things can affect how your dryer cures the ink as it travels down the belt.  Just because your temperature gauge is set to a particular temperature number, doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening in the actual chamber.

The best way to find out if your ink is being cured properly is to measure the temperature of the ink as it’s going down the belt.  Don’t believe your dryer control panel number, check for yourself with a great device called a Donut Probe.  

This handy gizmo looks like it sounds, a donut.  Inside the donut are two crossed wires.  You simply place the donut probe with the wires on the wet shirt ink, and as the dryer belt moves the shirt down into the heat chamber you can see the readings increase on the probe’s control panel.

Did the ink reach the right cure temp?  With the donut probe you know exactly what the temperature was for the ink.  Sometimes this is dramatically different than what is on the read out on the dryer control panel.

Zero guessing.

Check your manufacturer’s spec sheet of the ink you are using and find out what the minimum temperature is to cure the ink.  For plastisol, most will cure at 320 for regular or 270 for low bleed polyester.  Don’t have a spec sheet?  Go to the manufacturers website and download one, or ask your supplier rep.   

One of the challenges is that you may have the dryer set much hotter than you need to cure the ink, but something is affecting the way the unit is curing the ink so it never reaches the correct crock temperature.  

I’ve seen drastic problems with shop doors open on a windy day, and gusts coming into the shop right down the belt.  This instantly lowers the chamber temperature.  Another similar issue is with print crews having big industrial fans blowing air down into the dryer chamber.  Believe it or not, both of these can have an adverse affect on the heat in the dryer.  Even seasonal weather changes with air temperature or humidity can cause problems.  

At the end of the day, you are relying on these dryers to cure the ink properly.  Unless you want to spend a lot of nights awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering if everything you print is being cured correctly; you have to have faith that the thousands of shirts you are sending down the dryer are hitting that mark.  

If you use your donut probe as part of a monthly preventative maintenance program, you can have that assurance.  

Imagine the inside of your dryer chamber is divided into nine zones, similar to a tic-tac-toe diagram.  Zones 1 through 9.  Each month, use your donut probe and record the temperature for the zones on the same day (let’s say the fourth Monday of the month).  Make up a simple Dryer Zone Log Form, or download this one by Clicking Here.  Do this for each dryer.  Now, if you have any curing issues with your shirts, you can refer to the log and see that the temperature has been consistent or not.  If you haven’t been measuring, you won’t know when the problem could have surfaced.

For want of correct dryer temperature, the ink print cure was lost.


PM Plan

There are two types of people regarding planning.  One regularly keeps track of things and schedules maintenance on a regular basis.  The other puts it off, and when things break, calls in the repair guy.

Which one are you?  I can tell you which one is aimed at a lower operating cost and a more efficient shop.  

Putting a Preventative Maintenance Plan together is an essential part of any well run shop.  Every single machine should have a section in a master Log Book.  Printing presses (both automatic and manual), heat presses, embroidery machines, digital printers, forklifts, dryers, automatic folding machines, ink scales, air compressors…really any mechanical device that is critical to your success.  Detail each page with the name of the equipment, model number, date purchased, description and any other pertinent details.  Each time you change a filter, grease the parts, add fluid, change a gear, whatever…record that effort into that Log Book.

This is especially true for leveling your platens or any other task that is crucial for smooth operations.

Why is this pain in the butt documentation so critical?  For starters, it keeps you honest.  If you can’t remember the last time you did something, you have a big problem.  But the main reason is that all machines are mechanical, use parts, and are prone to eventually break.  Keeping a detailed log of what’s going on is akin to a doctor reviewing your medical history when you complain about not feeling well.  Having all that info helps you rule out anything not related as you have proof that certain tasks were performed.

If you don’t have a plan, your shop can still function and operate well.  Until…  One day, usually when a critical job is due, the press won’t work, or the air compressor goes down, or the dryer can’t stay at temperature, or the embroidery machine heads seize, or the digital printer nozzles get clogged, or…  The list goes on and on.  If you are an owner or manager of a shop without a true Preventative Maintenance Plan, the shop isn’t running as well as it should.  All is not lost, however.  Just start one.  Click Here and use this to get going.  Modify it to suit your needs.  Just fill out the info, three-hole punch it, and throw it into a binder.

For want of a plan, the day’s production was lost.


So that’s six things that could going wrong.  Guess what?  There are hundreds, if not thousands more lurking in your shop right now.  

What critical detail are you missing?  Are you consistently discussing the need to handle things correctly with your staff?  Do they know that details matter?  When you do have a problem are you backtracking it all the way upriver to the source and changing something to kill the problem from occurring again?

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.”  For a lot of shops, that sums up how these challenges start.  It’s up to you to make sure you have a box of nails handy.  Otherwise, see ya’ later kingdom.


“It’s the little details that are vital.  Little things make big things happen.” – John Wooden

“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” – Pat Riley

“Leadership is an ever evolving position.” – Mike Krzyzewski


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