Save That Misprinted T-Shirt! – 7 Secret Tips That Really Work

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There are many reasons why printers occasionally misprint some t-shirts during the print run.  (Not that anyone in this industry will publically admit to making any mistakes.  We are all perfect you know.)  Hopefully, none of your staff is doing it due to incompetence, which probably would be an entirely different article.

This one though, is going to center on a few problems that could pop up, that if fixed, could allow you to ship that problematic “misprint” shirt with the order.  Some misprints are complete disasters, and you certainly can’t send those.  Those go instantly into the test print pile, or are used to clean the floor later.

Part of any shop’s quality control program has to move beyond just identifying problems, and move into fixing them.  Here are some tips for repairing some shirts to get that problematic order to ship complete:

  1. Fuzz balls or Thread Strings.  A piece of lint or a stray thread gets stuck on the underside of the screen.  After the squeegee stroke, there’s a hole or thin wavy line in the print that is pretty noticeable.  If your catchers are as well-trained as ours, they find these small inconsistencies and take steps to correct them.
    1. First, make sure you tell your printer to stop printing and correct the issue so the remainder of the production run does not have this problem.
    2. To fix the affected shirts just daub a little ink on a piece of cardboard.  Use a toothpick to gently smear the ink onto the shirt in the area.  Blend it, blend it in good…  Send the shirt down the dryer.
    3. Take a look around your press area.  If your equipment has not been cleaned for some time, you might consider taking a few moments to clean your press and surrounding area.  Also the lint challenge gets worse if you use spray tack, as the adhesive gets into the air causing all sorts of issues.  Try switching to a water-based adhesive that can be carded onto the platens.  Also, if your print crews are slobs, this is the main cause of the fuzz ball problem.  Owners: This is a floor supervisor management problem.  Make sure you have a word with your leaders.
  2. Distorted Circles or Squares.  Speaking of spray tack…too much applied to the platen can cause the printed image to distort when your press puller yanks it off the platen.  That left chest circle image is now egg-shaped.  That square is now a trapezoid.  Yikes!!
    1. Set aside all of the affected shirts.  Usually it’s limited to a few, as it normally occurs just after the platen adhesive is applied (too generously).
    2. What’s happening is that the fibers of the shirt have been stretched in the direction of the incredible force applied to get the shirt fabric off of the press.
    3. To correct the challenge, if you use your hands to stretch the fabric in the opposite direction that you see with the shirt, you can pull the image back into shape with a few tugs.  Eggs become circles, trapezoids become squares.
    4. To increase the chances that this problem won’t happen again, have the press operator and puller help fix the challenge.  Don’t just leave it up to the catcher.  Getting them involved in repairing the shirt and explaining how it happened will educate them on the cause and effect on how they are running the press.  This challenge is entirely preventable.
    5. Also, on the market are various lower tack adhesives to use.  These are especially valuable for shirts that don’t have a lot of fabric heft, such as burnout or some thinner fashion t-shirts.  These are more prone to having images distorted than a normal t-shirt.
  3. Board Marks.  This is when the ghost image of the shirt board shows up on your t-shirt, mostly due to a combination of heat and pressure.  It’s most visible on dark shirts, and this is avoidable with proper care during production.  Suggested methods of reducing board marks in your shop:
    1. Round off the corners of your squeegee rubber.
    2. Reduce squeegee pressure to as little as possible.  Remember, you are supposed to shear the ink through the screen not drive it into the shirt like a nail.  The answer to everything on press isn’t more pressure!!
    3. Minimize flash cure temperatures.  You only need to gel the ink, not cure it.
    4. Check your squeegee length.  Use squeegees that are just a little wider than your image if possible.  Never use squeegees that are wider than your platen.
  4. Scorch Marks.  Mostly on white shirts, you may have occasional light brown or tan scorch marks appear on shirts.  Check your heat and dwell times on your flash units and the heat setting on your dryer.  T-shirts aren’t pizzas; you just have to cure the ink so watch your temperature!
    1. You can sometimes take the scorch marks out with hydrogen peroxide on white shirts.  Use a properly labeled spray bottle, and mist some hydrogen peroxide on the affected area of the shirt and allow to dry.  This can sometimes take out the scorch mark, but depending on the severity of the challenge, isn’t 100% effective.
  5. Using the Spot Gun.  As ubiquitous as a squeegee in a t-shirt shop, the spot gun is a pretty common sight.  If you don’t have one of these miracle cure devices, you should look into it.  They are essentially power sprayers that focus a cleaning fluid with a tremendous force through the shirt to remove ink, stains, dirt, and other weird splotches on fabric.  Be sure your staff uses proper Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and check your SDS sheets for chemicals, as usually the better the chemical works the more harmful it is to people.
    1. The most common use of the spot gun is to blow out ink deposited on shirts from pinholes.  These are tiny spots in your emulsion that are missed by your screen room during their quality control step.  On press, these develop over time and small dots of ink will appear on your shirts.  These are caused usually by dirty glass on your exposure unit, or debris on the film positives.  If your shop switches to a Computer to Screen system, these problems are eliminated overnight.
    2. Dirty shirts.  Sometimes the shirts have dirty splotches, oil spots, or other weird spots on them.  More often than not, this is caused by the condition of your press or the work habits of your crew.  Believe it or not, you can’t eat Cheetos and load a t-shirt press at the same time.  Yes, I actually just wrote that…as I’ve had to say that to a printer before.
  6. Rough Ink.  Your print impressions should have printed ink deposits that are smooth to the touch and have a nice soft hand.  So what do you do if the ink is rough or textured like an old cobblestone street?
    1. After the shirt is dried, try using a heat press with a smooth silicone mat and apply some heat and pressure to smooth out the ink.
    2. While it’s easy to blame the ink for this problem, the root cause lies somewhere in the mechanical method of printing.  Every problem is different, but I would look to screen tension and off contact as the main culprits for this type of problem.  Properly made screens with good EOM (Emulsion Over Mesh) should allow the ink to be deposited into the opening in the screen during the flood stroke.  The squeegee just shears the ink in the opening and deposits it onto the surface.  If you have good screen tension, level platens and sharp squeegees this should allow you to print incredibly smooth, opaque ink deposits.
  7. We Forgot – The Case of Some Missing Art.  Occasionally, I’ve seen instances where the art department left off something in the seps, the screen room blocked out a chunk of the art, the print crew taped off portion of the art fixing a pin-hole or registration mark, or other “mysterious” reasons why a detail or item on the art was left off.  Worse, the print run happens and the challenge is discovered too late.  What do you do now?
    1. Depending on the situation of course, you may need to make a separate “fix” screen that just has that one tiny bit of art that was left off.
    2. Your best printer, taking their time, can load the shirts onto the platen and line up the already printed shirt with the newly added fix.  This takes some skill and special care.  And lasers.  If you haven’t bought lasers for your shop yet, get in your car right now and go down to your hardware store and buy several sets.  These project thin red lasers lines down onto your platen.  You can use these to line up the screen fix with the printed shirt focusing on a few landmarks on the printed shirt so each shirt can be loaded exactly.  (We use them for lining up pocket tees for ordinary jobs too).
    3. Does this work all the time?  No.  Will it take the entire afternoon to fix?  Yes.  You will get nothing else accomplished while you try to save these shirts.  However, that’s better than repurchasing them any day. Or the embarrassment of leaving off a key detail in the print and having to explain that to the customer.

Final thoughts.  While some problems occur beyond the control of your staff, a good many are due to employees not paying attention, shop cleanliness, improper training, and just ordinary focus on detail.  It’s up to the leaders of your shop to enforce some general rules on housekeeping, promote training, and build your quality control program.  Make sure you keep a log on these problems, and if you can track down the root cause of the issue.  Remember the tried and true maxim, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure”.   Shop managers should be actively working on reviewing these challenges constantly and developing policies and procedures to eliminate them.

What are your secret tricks?  These are just the ones that came to mind for me, but if you have any that I’ve missed please share!

 

 

 

 

Are Your Print Crews Failing You?

One of the most frustrating things in the t-shirt business is explaining to a client why an order that was printed and shipped wasn’t as perfect as it could be.  Every shop makes mistakes, no matter how many quality control steps and controls there are in place.  The reason?  It’s all centered on people doing the work, and people can lose focus.  They can be distracted.  Printing is a repetitive task.  Sooner or later the focus is going to be less on what they are doing, and more on something else.  Maybe they just aren’t right for the job?  Here are some of the most common challenges, and a tidbit or two on how to correct them:

  1. Squares & Circles.  The human eye naturally sees these and always knows what they should look like.  Using too much spray tack, or carded water-based adhesive on the platens can lead to your press puller stretching the shirt when removing the shirt from the press.  Instead of perfect squares or circles you get trapezoids and eggs.  Sure, after washing, the shirt will go back to the original shape, but clients will reject these shirts if they see them.  Be sure to spend time with your press crews and train them in the proper application of the adhesive, or look for low-tack versions of the product.  If you do have some of these on the order, you can usually pull these back into shape with your hands by stretching the shirt fabric in opposite directions of the image distortion.
  2. Off-Centered & Crooked Printing.  This is caused by either the press operator loading the shirt incorrectly, or your platens are not centered on the press arm of the press.  Press loaders that concentrate their efforts on raising their daily production numbers are often guilty of loading the shirts incorrectly.  Be sure that their speed matches their skill level in loading these correctly.  The puller and catcher are responsible to check for this issue and inform the loader about the problem.  If your platens aren’t all centered on the arm, your press operator or preventative maintenance tech should correct this issue.  Don’t just put up with it!!
  3. Pinholes in the Print.  This is where there is a small area or dot in the print that suddenly appears during the print run.  More often than not this is caused from two sources.  Lint or a stray thread from the shirt from the bottom of the screen is the most common.  The other could be some debris from your environment, especially caused if your press has so much lint on it that it looks like a sheep that needs to be sheared.  Keeping your printing environment clean can go a long way to minimize this issue.  Your printing crews need to be on constant lookout for these challenges.  A good catcher can pull these affected shirts to the side and often correct them by applying some ink to the shirt with a toothpick and then sending them back down the dryer.  Don’t just reject them.
  4. Dots of Ink or Dirt on the Shirts.  This is where a stray dot of ink or streak of dirt appears on the shirt.  The ink issue is commonly caused by a breakdown in the emulsion on the screen, or from using film for exposing the image.  Attention to detail in your screen reclaim area, and switching to a computer to screen imaging system can help prevent these issues.  For the dirt challenge, make sure your shop carts and tables are kept clean and that your employees hands are clean as well.  Please no food allowed in the production area.  Explaining to a client why there’s a Cheetos stain on the corners of the shirt is a conversation you don’t want to have.
  5. Undercuring or Scorching Shirts.  In the process, printing shirts use ink that all dry by heat.  Controlling that heat is key to success.  Most plastisol ink cures the moment it hits 320 degrees.  It doesn’t need one degree more than that.  Your preventative maintenance plan must include reviewing your dryer temperature often to ensure your dryer temps are where they need to be.  Use test strips or a donut probe and keep a log weekly of the results for each dryer in your shop.  Also review your flash cure units to ensure they are working properly, and adjust the temperature accordingly.  During longer print runs these flash units can be adjusted as the platens will heat up with use.  A way to test if your shirt is under-cured is to scratch the ink with your fingernail.  If it is completely cured nothing will happen.  You can also stretch the garment to see if the ink will crack.  Some shirts, like the popular burnout style, are very prone to scorching.  These are not only delicate, but usually more expensive than a normal blank.  Take your time, and watch your heat.  Your press crews are responsible for ensuring that the right techniques and controls are used for these jobs.  This is all about training, but you need to have the expectation that they will handle these types of jobs correctly, every time.
  6. Using Heat Part 2 – Technical Fabrics.  More and more popular these days is the prevalence of dri-fit, wicking and technical fabrics for production runs.  Dye migration is most always caused by an excessive use of heat during the production process.  Switch to a lower temp cure ink, and adjust your dryer temperature accordingly.  Most of these ink systems cure at 280 degrees.  Every time you heat the shirt, you are activating the dye in the shirt more and more.  It’s a cumulative effect, so when your platens heat up, you flash the shirt with each color, and then send the shirt down the dryer you are adding to the problem with each step.  Try to mitigate this problem by just doing enough with each step to proceed to the next, and by being careful.  At the other end of the dryer, get air moving on the shirts by having a fan on the dryer belt and stacking the shirts in multiple piles on the catcher’s table, with fans blowing air on them constantly.  The shirts have to be 100% cooled down before they go into a box.   If you don’t control the built up heat in the shirt, what will happen is that the box will act like an oven and just continue to cook the shirts.  This is why your client will report that some of the shirts have problems, but not all of them.  It’s usually the ones in the middle of the stack in the box that have the issues.  Using the right ink, controlling the heat during printing and drying, and cooling the shirts before packaging will eliminate your dye migration issues.
  7. Registration.  Whole articles have been dedicated to this subject alone.  I won’t get into everything here, but it’s your press crew’s responsibility to resolve these challenges and not accept or overlook these problems.  There are a lot of variables that can affect your registration, and these include artwork, screen tension, press set-up, screen & platen leveling, and just plain ol’ crew skill level.  If you are having registration issues, it is important to eliminate variables one step at a time.  I usually start with the art first.  Then screens, and then press issues.  Eliminate them individually until you find the reason for the issue.  However, none of this matters if your press crews just overlook the issues.  Insist on excellence.
  8. Set-Up & Work Flow.  How much you get printed in one day is completely linked to the dedication and hustle of your staff.  Why didn’t that order ship on time?  Could the reason be the people responsible for printing it?  Can they read and understand the work order?  Do they review the job details and discuss what has to happen before printing?  Your staff’s attention to detail is what is going to separate you from the herd in your area.  Hopefully, all the kinks have been worked out on the order before it gets to the production floor, but it’s their responsibility to review the order and see if they have the right shirts, screens, inks and that they are following the instruction as outlined on the work order.  I’ve been to a lot of shops and seen press operators wandering around the production floor looking for their screens, a bucket of ink or a flood bar.  If you make it easy for your press crews to get the job done, they shouldn’t have any reason to turn and burn more orders for you every day.
  9. Support Staff.  Who is helping your staff achieve their daily goals?  Are they doing a good job for you?  Does the ink guy mix the right color and it is dead-on Pantone perfect?  Is your art staff creating easy to print art, or do they use more colors for jobs just because you have more print heads available?  Are they masters at creating underbase plates, or is there always a problem with how they choke something?  How often do you reburn screens because they have to adjust halftones in the image?  Are your managers quick to review jobs and approve, or do you waste a lot of time waiting to run an order because they can’t be found?  Your press crews have to be the most vocal staff in the company about your challenges.  Talk to them constantly.  Are they getting everything they need to do their jobs quickly and professionally?  Make sure they understand that they don’t have to “put up with something”.  Work together to resolve your challenges.  I’m not saying they should be screaming maniacs or throw people under the bus; but they should bring issues to your manager’s attention for resolution when they see something that isn’t right.
  10. Dependability.  Is your staff dependable? Are they there for you every day, ready to work, and professional?  This past year or two I have had many conversations with printers about their staff and how they can’t rely on their print crews.  Some have attendance problems.  Some lack good attitudes.  Some just constantly have a hand out for more money without backing that up with performance.  My advice?  Find new people.  Why put up with these issues if you don’t have to.  The number one rule in managing people is to give clear expectations on how things should work, establish these as standards, and then adhere to them religiously.  If you keep spending any amount of time talking or complaining about someone on your staff, document their behavior, reset the tone of what you need from them, and then if it doesn’t improve find someone new.

So, there is ten to start the conversation.  Are there more examples for discussion?  Certainly.  What drives you bonkers?  If you’d like to contribute to the discussion leave a comment or e-mail me at matkinson4804@gmail.com.