Get in line: How to perfectly register a multicoloured screen print

You’ve done all the long-winded prep work; your screen’s coated, design exposed, ink mixed, paper cut to size and you’re ready to go.

So how do you make sure all this hard work doesn’t go to waste with some (more than charmingly) wonky prints?

Acetate at the ready.

What is registration, in the context of screen printing?
Registration is the process of making sure the various elements of your print align – layers of colour, space and texture fitting together or overlapping – in the way you intended.

I’ve come across various ways to register multicoloured paper prints at different studios I’ve used. The technique I’m going to share with you here is my favourite and the one I find to be most foolproof. If you have different methods you like using I’d love to learn about them – please leave a comment below!

This method works if you have a ‘professional’ screen printing table – vacuum and all – or just some hinges screwed into a table to hold your screen in place, like I have.

All you need for this registration technique is a sheet of acetate at least the size of your biggest element of your design (you can by an A3 sheet at Swaak in Utrecht for €1), and some tape. Washi style tape is good as you can reuse it and it’s not so sticky that it ruins the acetate, but normal tape will do.

Follow these seven simple steps for the perfectly registered multi-layered screen print, or if you prefer a more visual explanation scroll down to the video towards the bottom.

Here we go:

1. Tape your acetate to the table at a right angle to your screen (see image below). Stick the tape along one edge of the acetate, with a strip down both the front and back. Finish off with angled pieces of tape near each end (again on both sides) so it’s nice and secure. Leave the corners of the acetate tape-free so the sheet moves easily back and fourth, as though on a hinge.

2. Pull ink through the first layer of your print onto the acetate sheet below. (Don’t forget to re-flood the design so the mesh doesn’t get blocked while you’re busy with the next step).

3. Place your paper under the impression you’ve made on the acetate sheet and position it.

TIP: Often the first layer of ink won’t be the biggest area of colour in your print. To make sure you leave the right amount of space for the whole design, tape the stencil of the biggest layer(s) to the paper you’re going to use for the print so you can position it in the right place from the beginning (see images below).

You can also use this method to make sure there’s equal spacing around all sides of the print, if you want your design to be in the middle of the paper, for example.

4. Carefully lift the acetate and place two pieces of tape to mark the position of you paper

TIP: Place one piece of tape at the edge of the paper closest to you, and the other along the right edge (the opposite of the orange/pink tape shown in the image above!). Perhaps for left-handers it’s better to place the second piece of tape on the left edge? You tell me.

5. Lower your screen and pull your first print onto the paper below.

Voilà, the finished (fairly well aligned) coffee pot print!

6. Use the tape markings to correctly position the paper for the rest of your edition.

TIP: Still finding that some of your prints are badly aligned? Instead of relying on your tape marks, you can pull your acetate back across the table every time to position your paper correctly. Just be sure to flood your screen with ink so it doesn’t dry and block up while you’re busy positioning!

7. Repeat the process using the acetate to position your paper before each new colour in your design. As the acetate is wipe-clean, you can use it again and again. Just remember to wipe the ink off as soon as you’ve finished with it to avoid permanent marks.

And if reading all that was way too much like hard work, watch the video below to see the process in action. It shows the second layer of ink being printed. I recommend using the acetate to position the first layer too.

This video shows you how to line up the second layer of your print using a sheet of acetate.

A final point on registration…

Using a screen printing table with a vacuum will inevitably mean your paper is less likely to move while you’re lifting the screen up and down. But we don’t all have the luxury of a vacuum table… For me this method works nicely with my low-fi hinges-attached-to-normal-table set up. Sure, not all my prints are perfectly aligned, but that’s one of the beautiful things about screen printing: creating images that are a little bit off, each one unique, don’t you think?

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