Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign

Andy MacDougall’s screen-printing adventures take him to a Toronto traffic sign shop, a historical New York exhibit, and training activities in Rome and at home.

We cognoscenti recognize traffic signs as another example of screen printing being everywhere on everything, but most people don’t even notice them, except when they blow through a stop sign. If you go on a road trip to Niagara Falls – the Canuckistan side – you will definitely see the handiwork of Anthony Baarda and his crew of Royston and Patrick. They work in the Niagara Regional District sign shop and supply all the road, police, and fire signage for 12 municipalities, working primarily with aluminum covered in vinyl or reflective film. It’s a big shop, with a couple of eco-solvent printers, vinyl cutters, and both a one-arm and automatic 4 x 6-foot screen press, plus exposing and reclaiming areas.

They maintain an inventory of more than $300,000 worth of stock signage, which allows them to reduce the panic jobs and keep production under control. Runs range from one-offs to hundreds or even thousands. When I visited, they had just installed a new screen press and I wondered why. Wasn’t everything digital now?

“No, we still do approximately 70 percent of our signs using screen printing,” Baarda explained. “It’s a combination of things. Cost is one. Longevity and durability is another. We can offer a 10-year guarantee and be confident. Although a lot of the digital flatbeds are appealing, there are curing issues printing UV inks on reflective materials. We’re going to be screen printing for a while here. With the proliferation of digital-only sign shops, our place and a few others that still offer screen printing stay pretty busy.”

Meanwhile, in Gotham City
The Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle in New York ( opened an exhibit on screen printing and connected with Guido Lengwiler, author of A History of Screen Printing. The museum had been desperately seeking historical photos and found the 1913 photo of the first screen shop, Brant & Gardner, used in the book. Lengwiler quickly got permissions from family members and the museum now has rare images from the early years.

Carli Beseau, manager of the museum’s education department, wrote, “We are excited about opening the educational space ‘The Print Shop.’ It will stay open the entire summer and includes a wall that explains the process, contemporary examples of screen printing, and a custom screen printing machine made for free public workshops.”

Start ‘em Young
Last fall, we started an introductory screen-printing program for a local group of elementary school students and it has taken off. Now teachers and kids in other grades are clamoring to sign up as they see the results: enthusiastic young learners experiencing the thrill of making something with their hands. This is universal, by the way: Our friends at Tind Screen Printing in Athens do it, Lengwiler runs programs for children in Switzerland, and we see lots of others across the US and the rest of the Americas introducing kids to screen printing. [Plus, meet the youth of teen collective Stitching up Detroit.]

If you think this isn’t a big deal and is just kids doing art, you’re wrong. Screen printing is more than art – it’s manufacturing. As a society, we used to excel at manufacturing. Lately, not so much. The defeatists say we can’t do it in North America, yet the so-called maker movement and thousands of small startups are redefining the concept of local manufacturing. It’s crucial to our society that we teach our children that yes, we can make quality things here, and yes, there is an opportunity to combine imagination, skill, and raw materials to make tangible things.

When in Rome…
I recently had the privilege to conduct workshops in Rome focused on using water-based inks for poster printing. American veterans, Speedball Art Products, along with one of Rome’s oldest screen supply houses, Seritalia, sponsored the events at host studio Clockwork Pictures.

In Italy, there is a re-awakening of interest in screen printing artworks on paper, but it’s handicapped by the continued use of solvent-based inks. The workshops allowed participants to explore the opportunities and challenges of water-based production. One of the more surprising discoveries
was the sharpness of detail we were able to achieve with our test prints. Studio owner Fabio Mechini had printed the test design using solvent-based poster ink through a 305 mesh. We used the Speedball acrylic through a 230 and the results were spectacular.


The takeaway from these events around the world? Our favorite printing process still has lots of room for growth. Far from being a dead technology, it continues to attract new people and amazes many with its proliferation in industrial/functional printing. As one of the kids in our class said after printing his first shirt: “This is totally rad!”

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