From Fish-Glue Emulsions to Newfangled Presses: Lessons Learned in Screen Printing
Roberts reminisces with an old friend and fellow screen printer, who recalls the outdated, and sometimes offensive, techniques he used and a few important lessons he learned from his many years in the screen-printing industry.
“Things are so much better now than they were when I first came into the industry. I remember back in the day cooking my photo-sensitive emulsions over a hot plate, mixing the chemicals with fish glue, and cooking it down to the right consistency,” my friend recalls. “Then we used tissue paper and painted the foul-smelling mess onto the screen, stuck the tissue paper to it, and let it dry for a day or two in the dark. The screen room smelled so awful that it was a relief to get out into the print shop and clear our sinuses with a good lungful of lacquer thinner. Back then, that’s what we used to clean screens, and it clung to our clothes and seemed to sink deep into our pores. My wife could still smell it on me after a week of vacation, and I didn’t even clean the screens. The poor soul that got that job could clear a bar just by walking through the door.”
I am passing a wonderful evening with the gentleman who introduced me to my first squeegee nearly 30 years ago. He’s giving me the “you don’t know how good you got it, kid” speech. I’ve heard this same rant several times from him throughout the years, and it never fails to fascinate me. I had thought that he was making up the fish-glue step of the process until a few years ago, when I came across an old screen-printing how-to book from the late 1950s, and, sure enough, there was the fish-glue recipe in all its glory. When the book was published, there were new and better ways to make a screen, but the authors still felt it necessary to cover the fish-glue technique in great detail. It was cheap and it worked. The book included a list of ingredients that were apparently available at local pharmacies, most of which would carry a ten-page OSHA warning these days, along with the fish glue, which could be purchased at a hardware store. You could also buy the lacquer thinner that would ultimately dull your sense of taste, give you a permanent headache, and condemn your average screen cleaner to a life of odiferous bachelorhood.
My friend is close to 80 and still an active and sprightly old gentleman. He seems to have survived the rigors of un-regulated chemical attacks quite well and is enjoying his re-tirement. He and his wife dig the vegetable garden, play with the grandkids, and venture forth now and again for the guilty pleasure of a visit to the one-armed bandits in Atlantic City, and once in a while, to the blackjack tables of Vegas. He never wins big, he says, but he doesn’t lose much. His wife laughs about how that would make a great epitaph for him.
My friend comes from the generation that faced down fascism in Europe and imperialism in the Pacific and then returned home to find a good job, a nice girl to marry, and a little piece of real estate to call home. Turns out that the good job included cooking fish glue and exposing screens with an arc lamp that burned at approximately 1000°F, just down the hall from some very volatile, lacquer-based chemicals. No big deal for these guys, though; they’d been through a lot worse and survived quite nicely.
The screen-printing process was well established by the time my friend’s generation came along, but they weren’t satisfied and spent their time figuring out how to make things work better and become more efficient. Year in and year out they heard that a newfangled piece of machinery was coming along and it would throw them out of work. But as the years went by, my friend realized that even with all of its problems and limitations, there’s just about no better way to produce an inexpensive, repeatable image than by applying a stencil to a screen and forcing ink through it with a squeegee. The newfangled machine always ended up with the image costing dollars, while the screen print invariably cost just pennies and usually looked better.
Someone came up with the idea of screen printing T-shirts during the 1960s and soon all the screen printers were all off to the races, including my friend. He started his own business, and by the time I walked through the door to his shop in the early 1970s, he was employing a half a dozen graphic designers, three times as many shop employees, and running a fleet of automatic carousel presses on a two-shift rotation that still couldn’t keep up with the demand. I suspect I must have looked quite amusing to him with my torn jeans and much-too-long hair, but he needed a catcher at the end of the belt, and I needed a job until my band took off for the big time. So he hired me.
We had just about nothing in common except that we shared inquisitive natures, and soon I was pumping him for answers about this screen-printing thing until one day he called me over to a manual press, put a squeegee in my hand, and taught me how to pull it. He told me later that he did it to shut me up, but it didn’t work. Apparently I was constantly coming up with clever, but impractical, ways to make the job easier. He first diagnosed this, quite correctly, as a manifestation of my lazy nature, but one day I actually came up with something that worked, and it also saved him a fair bit of money. I suppose I moved up about a half a notch in his estimation that day, and he began giving me a little more responsibility. And I started wearing my hair just a little shorter.
So here we are all these years later and I’m still pumping him for answers. Except these days, his replies are a little less practical and a little more philosophical. We have had a lovely dinner and have retired to the area around the woodstove and, while the wives catch up on the family gossip around the kitchen table, I hit him with the big question: “What have all these years in the business taught you?”
He thought for a few moments and then shook his head. He didn’t think he could give me a good answer for that question, but he would tell me what he regretted the most after all these years. “I remember that I had a reputation for hitting the roof whenever anything went wrong. It used to drive me to apoplexy whenever something happened that should have been caught by the operator, and I always ended up eating the cost in merchandise and time lost. I would yell and scream and wonder how they could be so stupid. I’m sure I humiliated every one of my employees at one time or another, yet the mistakes continued to happen. I know those people were not stupid, and I had no right to call them that, and they were usually as mad at themselves as I was at them. This is my biggest regret. After all these years and all those jobs and all those people, the only thing you are left with are the relationships you built with your fellow workers. It took me many years to discover that a little calm understanding worked better in those situations than a screaming tantrum. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson I learned after all.”
If anyone is interested in the recipe for fish-glue emulsion, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll forward a copy to you. I may have to ask you to sign a release, though, and you are completely responsible for any mayhem caused by the noxious odors in your screen room.
Gordon Roberts has a history in screen-printing production management that spans more than 25 years. He has held supervisory positions in shops that represent a broad spectrum of application areas and markets, including printed electronics, apparel, signage, and re-tail graphics. Roberts has presented training courses on the basics of screen-printing production and on shop management for the Screentech Institute and is presently a consultant for the screen industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.