Here is a design for a three-color T-shirt printing machine that can be built with common tools and supplies available from a lumber yard and screen printing supplier. The total cost of the project will be less than $200, provided you have the tools or they can be borrowed. While you can purchase a used manufactured, good-quality, manual rotary T-Shirt printing machine for about $1,000, this design is a viable option for printing multicolor shirts with a small budget.
Sand smooth the corners of a 4-foot square piece of 3/4-inch thick plywood.
Draw the shape of the shirt board on the plywood using a ruler and pencil. The shirt board dimension is 15 by 18 inches, surrounded by 2 1/2-inch channels. There is a larger channel at the back of the shirt board to keep the shirt away from the screen and clamps. Check the diagram for exact dimensions.
Once the shirt board is drawn on the plywood in pencil, use the jigsaw to cut the shirt board and surrounding channels out of the plywood. Take your time and wear safety glasses. When the cut is finished, round the corners of the shirt board with the jigsaw to prevent T-shirts from snagging. Sand smooth the shirt board and channel edges.
Take the 4-foot piece of 2x2-inch wood and fasten it under the shirt board with wood screws, running the wood from the center of the shirt board to the opposite end of the plywood. It will serve as a support beam to the shirt board. Bevel and sand the end of the wood piece just under the front end of the shirt board to prevent T-shirts from snagging when loaded onto the press.
Use the jigsaw to cut a 15- by 18-inch piece of masonite or pressed board and round the edges to exactly match the shirt board. Fasten the cut piece to the shirt board using wood glue and brad nails or small wood screws. Place the nails or screws about an inch from the edge of the masonite or pressed board piece so that they do not fall in the imaging area of the shirt board, where they could interfere with print quality.
Position the three sets of screen printing clamps around the three sides of the shirt board and fasten with wood screws, taking care to align the clamps in a straight line parallel to either side or back end of the shirt board. Set the finished T-shirt printing machine on the saw horses and fasten to the saw horses with wood screws. The machine is ready to use. It can hold three screens and print shirts in good register up to three colors.
With this homemade T-shirt printing machine, it will be necessary to build your own custom screen frames that will fit the dimensions of the machine. Use 2x2-inch wood to build screen frames, or buy wood stretcher bars at an art supply store. Screen mesh must be stretched over the wood frames to complete screen construction.
Although this design has been used by professional screen printers, a well-manufactured rotary manual press will produce superior results and offer enhanced ease of use.
This article explains how to build a T-shirt printing machine. It does not cover how to screen print, or how to put an image on a screen.
- Steve Lafler