‘When I’m Sixty Four’: Screen Printing Wisdom

Decades of screen printing has taught Andy MacDougall at least one thing: We're a crazy bunch.

It’s 2017. Let that roll around in your brain pan for a minute. In a few months, I turn into the lyrics of a Beatles song:

• I checked with my wife. Yes, she will send a valentine, and me to her. I pulled a fast one years back and married her on Valentine’s Day. No way to forget our anniversary, and being a cheap son of the tartan, the flowers and cards all do double duty.
• I stay out till quarter to 3, just not as often as I used to, and she still lets me in. She feeds me, she needs me – all is good there.
• We have grandchildren, although if Josh sat on my knee it would collapse – the kid is pushing 6 feet. Then he would pick me up. I’m only half kidding when I tell him he’ll be pushing me around in a wheelbarrow in the future.
• And my wife, she’s out there in the garden digging the weeds, just like the song says.

When that little ditty came out, I had no idea what screen printing was. Now I’ve been doing it more than half my life, and the reality is that I still don’t. I’ve got some ideas. I’ve learned the basic concepts, but when I go to a tradeshow and look around, talk to other printers and technicians, and see the machines being used, I realize how far I still have to go. I don’t think I will ever know it all, although I keep trying. The concept is simple: Put a stencil on some mesh. Slap some ink on. Squish it through the stencil with a flexible blade. I show 5-year-olds how to do it all the time.

The reality is, and this is the one thing I know I have learned in my soon-to-be 64 years: This process will trip you up and spit you out if you underestimate it. It makes people who are normally friendly, rational, and peaceful lose their hair, cry out with words not suitable for Screen Printing magazine, throw dripping squeegees across rooms, kick holes in screens, and attack inanimate objects (presses, computers, printers, stacks of paper, cans of ink). I’ve done all these things. It’s never solved a problem.

You name it, we blame it. It’s like Murphy invented this activity known as screen printing in order to compress all his laws into one singular process. On the other hand, we know the solution to all the problems we have:

Digital printing!

I’m just messing with you. If the solution truly were that simple, there would be no more screen printing. But the process is too unique, the products too diverse, the applications too widespread, and the economic benefits too rewarding for it to sink into the sunset of obsolescence like a fax or teletype.

Accepting that a simple process can be so complex goes a long way toward understanding it. Much like baseball, in a sense. A bat, a ball; you hit it, you catch it. So why can’t a 9-year-old little-league all-star play first base for the Yankees? Same equipment, same rules, but different levels of competence, skill, and maturity are required. This example is kind of stupid, but it explains why so many ignore all the technical stuff that we have learned in the last 100 years and just plow ahead, “silk screening” at a little-league level, ignorant of the major leagues.

If you’ll indulge me a bit more, let’s keep going with the sports analogies. Baseball. Basketball. Soccer. Football. Spot the similarity? The ball, but are they the same? No. Different rules, different equipment, different playing fields. This is screen printing’s problem as well. Textile. Graphics. Industrial. Electronics. Medical. Glass. Some think it’s all the same “ball.” Are the rules and equipment we use in each of these areas the same? Can we take a T-shirt printer – a good one, who makes nothing but bank cranking out one- and two-color shirts for local schools, teams, and businesses – and drop him or her into a cleanroom running a fully automatic press line producing solar cells?

They are both screen printers. Their products are both screen printed. The process basics are the same. But the tools and the entire landscape they work in are completely different. Yet the world lumps everything into one area: mostly the guy hacking away with a blade on a hand press. New workers coming into the process are handicapped because the usual entry points – high school and college art classes, or a tabletop at a friend’s place – never offer the benefit of learning about all the different “sports” that use the screen printing “ball.” They just play little league and figure that’s it.

What do you think? Should we be educating young people that there’s more to the sport? Should we alert the general public that their T-shirt and their smartphone passed through a screen printing assembly line? Or should we keep it a secret, known only to those of us smart enough to keep drop-kicking ink buckets every other week? “Drop me a line, stating point of view.”

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