March 23, 2018
So there is this guy who really wants me to write about screens. I believe his exact request was for a comparison between the economics and quality of wood screens compared to aluminum screens compared to retensionable screens. What's the difference? What should he purchase? Why? These are all good questions. The answer is aluminum.
Just kidding. Just kidding. Alright Eric Mason, I will get into some details here and actually break this topic down for you. You owe me. Like seriously, I will need a "go Bears" or something out of your mouth by the time this is all finished. I know how much you love Chicago sports teams.
Let's talk wood screens. They are cheap. They do the job. Tension is pretty good. What could go wrong? Well...about that. They warp. Sometimes they warp very quickly. Other times they are warped when you receive them. Does this mean you can't use them? Well no, they are usable. They just aren't great as a warped screen really makes screen registration difficult. It makes ink deposit inconsistent. Don't you argue that with me. I know what you are thinking. Yes, 110 count mesh is 110 count mesh. Ink deposit shouldn't change. However, I will argue that a warped screen will have different off-contact distance from the right to left. Perhaps not. It could have different off-contact distance from front to back. No matter. It's different. Problems will arise from this. The mesh may stick to the print where the screen is close to the print and won't quickly "snap off". This leaves texture. This may cause the fabric to pull up off the platen. Eric, you don't want that. You are interested in high quality screen printing. That is why you print with ELT-S Series ink. It cures at a low temperature. Want some? Call me, I have a few gallons.
So next on the list is aluminum screens. What's the deal here? I will tell you Mr. Mason. Aluminum screens are fantastic as they will not warp like its wood screen step sister. You can coat, print, and reclaim over and over again while the frame remains consistent and happy. The price is just a little higher than wood screens but not enough to deter you. The only thing you need to worry about is mesh tension. When you receive a properly stretched aluminum screen it will be very tight. The more you use the screen and the older it gets, the more tension you are losing over time. Eventually, it will feel tight but it will measure zero newtons. This is normal. The screen is usable. It's just not ideal as you must keep increasing your off-contact distance higher and higher. Not a huge deal until you are inconsistent with your squeegee pressure and the registration does not line up from print to print. No good. At this point, either trash it or get the razor out and slash it. Glue some new mesh. Use a stretcher...which is not a bunch of guys with strong hands holding it tight while someone glues it to the frame. I know this worked with wood frames and staple tape in the old days but lets be better. Everybody come back into the now. Live in the present. Live in the present.
There are only a couple real downsides with aluminum frames. Sometimes it is difficult to prep the screen when you go to stretch new mesh. Some of my customers have experienced trouble in the past getting the mesh properly glued down. Personally, I would leave this to the professionals and just send them off to get stretched. Call me, I know a guy. The other problem only happens when your aluminum screens are poorly welded. If a weld has a hole in it, you will likely get water/chemicals/other nasty stuff inside the frame. Sounds like not that big of a deal...unless you have a vacuum exposure unit and film positives like the majority of the industry. This is now a problem as that screen is about to get liquids all over it during the exposure process. This is no good. Get a quality frame and you won't have to worry about this.
Retensionable screens are another interesting animal. What I love about them is the ability to tension screens to the max. This allows for less off contact distance, easier registration, and simply better printing all around. It is great! What I don't love about them is the fact that stretching screens is a lost art. Without the best equipment and some training, you will likely rip more screens than you stretch. Long story short, if you are going to wing it, please don't go this route as you truly need to do a good job or it is going to cost you more than it saves you. If you are going to go all in and do this well, your prints will be impressive and you will have less on-press problems. The initial price of these frames is pretty expensive. After that though, you simply buy mesh or mesh panels when they need to be replaced.
In conclusion, stick with aluminum or retensionable frames as they will be a better fit for most businesses. Due to the labor, equipment, and learning involved, I think most shops are better off sticking with aluminum frames. If you are a shop who wants to exceed expectations, dive into the retensionables as you know the quality they can help provide. Just make sure you do your homework and account for the extra labor and learning involved.
Director of Product Development