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Speedball Ultimate Screen Printing Kit review

Filed Under: Crafts

Speedball Ultimate Screen Printing Kit
Street Price: around $100-150

If you're looking to get into screen printing, this is actually a pretty good kit. There are, however, a few items missing and a couple of caveats. First, don't count on making fabric prints out of this box alone. The description says it is possible (which it is), but the inks included are NOT designed for fabric use, they are for printing on wood, cardboard, etc. Also, and I realize I'm being picky, but you'll want to invest in a storage container. There was a time when Speedball boxes were sturdy enough to hold everything, but the box is way too flimsy. That and you're gonna need to buy a few extra items before you get started.

What you do get is a complete introduction to the primary three methods for screen printing: stencil printing, resist printing and photo emulsion printing. The box comes with a DVD for instruction, although it is a mediocre dub from a VHS (complete with tracking issues at the start). Grab a notebook and come coffee while you take notes on the process. You won't be doing half the stuff you see in the video at first, but it is a great overview for what you can do in screen printing.

Now, onto the actual printing process and how I was able to make t-shirts with a little extra ink.

Speedball Ultimate Screen Printing Kit Review(click thumbnails to view gallery)

Speedball Ultimate Screen Printing Kit reviewwhat's inside the boxback in the boxthe dvdbackboard

The Stencil

Of course, the easiest way to make a print with a screen is using a simple stencil. For this, you'll need something called freezer paper. It's like a cross between wax paper and parchment, and was apparently quite popular back when we called our fridges "iceboxes." Seriously, when was the last time you put something in the freezer wrapped in freezer paper? You'll also need masking tape, not just for the stencil, but for the edges of your screen as well.

Anyway, I just used a craft knife to slice a very simple design into the paper, taped the paper over the screen (on the bottom of the screen), waxy side up (which means the ink will push against that side, and the waxy coating will resist it) and went to town. Don't worry too much about small slits in the corners of your stencil, however. I was a little sloppy and wound up with a nick here or there, but unless you apply way too much pressure (see below), the ink won't go through slits, just open areas.

The Ink

While the ink in the box says it isn't really made for fabrics, I did happen to buy some silver ink (Versatex #330 Silver Lace) that was intended for fabrics. The problem with raw silver ink is that the ink itself is a little hard to push through the screen, which I'm guessing is because of the silver particles making up the color. In my tests I had to squeeze harder and more often, which actually results in fuzzier edges.

So to help thin it out you can buy intermediary liquids (just as you can buy stuff to increase drying time for longer runs, or stuff to make the ink less opaque) or you can just add in some thinner ink. Since I was impatient and cheap I decided to add some of the non-fabric ink as a test. I mixed in a dollop of yellow, which turned my ink a nice light green-silver color. This gave me a perfect consistency for clean edges, but what about colorfastness on the shirt?

The shirt

I used a Hanes tagless cotton shirt for my printing, but you don't have to be picky. The key is making sure the fabric has been washed once (which we did), and if your ink has any requirements be sure to follow those. Again, since the ink with the kit wasn't supposed to be fabric-ready, I just mixed a little in with the Versatex fabric ink. One wrinkle in my plan is that I bought a bunch of forest-green shirts. Ordinarily fabric inks will lay on top of the shirt, so the fabric color isn't a huge issue. True, most folks are going to feel more comfortable with white shirts because you're likely designing around a white background. In my case, I wasn't-- instead, I was making some shirts for a sister blog, Download Squad. Be aware that inks not intended for fabric may change colors a bit when the "mix" with a color shirt. They aren't really mixing, but if you don't put enough ink down the two colors will certainly interact in your eyes.


Using the smaller screen with the stencil taped to the bottom (and taped according to instructions so ink doesn't get all in-between your screen and frame) I placed the screen on the shirt, centering the design as I wanted. When I dolloped a little ink on there, however, I put the line of ink at the top of the screen. Sadly, the squeegee is too wide to go top-to-bottom! So I quickly and sloppily moved the ink to the side, which resulted in a little more mixing than I wanted originally. My original intent was to have a section of silver, then yellow, with a little mix in the middle-- a common silk screen effect. But in moving the ink I wound up with more mix, which was OK as I learned a little bit more about the ink itself this way. The lesson? Your first few shirts are tests. Just accept it and move on.

With the shirt, screen and ink in place you're ready to push that ink through the screen. This is where a live human really helps, telling you how hard to push down, and how many times you can squeegee. It had been a long time since my last print (a decade or more), so I just went on instinct and the terse directions in the box. One pass across with moderate pressure, then back the other way, then once over and back again. In all, four swipes across. This did the trick, as my edges were clean and the ink didn't push through those sloppy corner slits I cut.

The real trick in squeegeeing seems to be applying the right pressure and the right number of passes. Too heavy and the print can bleed past the stencil edges, and too light will result in a very faded print. Compounding the stress is the fact that you won't really know what you've got until you lift up the screen. When you DO lift it up, and if you want to just peek and see how it went, try to pivot the screen up, acting as though there was a hinge at the top. Be sure to keep the fabric from pulling up with the screen, and you might have a shot at lowering the screen again and trying to push more ink through.

The box does come with a base and hinge setup for the larger screen, which enables you to lift the screen and reset it while keeping everything aligned. However, the kit suggests you can't do this for fabric, as the screen should be totally flat with the backboard with printing. Of course, being a DIY kinda guy, I have already figured out that you can still do fabrics, you just have to have a way of securing the shirt to the board while you remove the hinges. Ideally this allows for multiple ink passes, so alignment of the screen to the shirt becomes important. I'll cover this once I set it up (in another post). What the box includes, remember, is primarily designed for printing on flat stuff, like paper or cardboard.

Finishing up

Once the ink dries (I let it sit overnight, but you don't have to wait that long) you'll need to iron it to "set" the ink. Yes, you can use a heat-gun, but I didn't have one. Instead, I simply turned the shirt inside-out, set it on the board and mashed down with a medium-high temperature setting. Very unscientific, but the color appears to have stuck around after one wash. Is that too early to declare success?

The photo emulsion stuff

I did test the photo emulsion, which I'll write up soon. But I'll say it is pretty tolerant to mistakes, and works as advertised. You'll want to make sure you have pushpins (not just thumbtacks, there is a difference) or a dark, cool area to dry the treated screen, however. The screen has to dry with the surface down, which means the entire screen has to be elevated, and since it is light-sensitive, you're going to want to keep it in a dark place. Like, really dark. However, airflow will dry the screen faster. If you don't have a light-tight ventilated box, try making one from any box you got over the holidays!

The other thing you'll need is a way to print on transparencies, since that is the best way to set up a way to "burn in" the image to the screen. I just used a laser printer and transparencies, but permanent markers on transparency works.

All this just adds more steps to prepping your screen, and the rest of the process is the same. Oh, and you'll be keeping the leftover photo emulsion in your fridge. The chemicals are kept apart when shipping, which means you have to fill a tiny little container half-full with water (it has a trace amount of some very nasty chemical you don't want to get on your hands), and mix that into a larger bottle. That bottle (provided in the kit) will live in your fridge for up to 4 months, according to instructions.

Note that there is a product out there called PhotoEZ that is essentially a pre-coated, pre-packed set of emulsion screens. This means you can skip all the setup and drop a transparency onto the sheet, let it set up, rinse it off and start printing.

The resist stuff

I didn't use this, but I have in the past. Basically you paint what you want to print, then paint a mask and then wash out the first stuff. This leaves holes where you want the ink to go through.

The bottom line

This is indeed a complete kit for screen printing, once you realize there are a couple of easy-to-find items you'll need to add to the process. Be sure to check out the gallery for all the steps, and what the pieces look like. Also be aware that you will need fabric inks and possibly other chemicals for doing long runs, t-shirts, etc. But if you're looking for a reasonable introduction to serious screen printing, this is just what you need. If you're looking to just put a toe in the waters of screening, buy a smaller kit or try piecing one together yourself.

  • Fern

    Really appreciated this view. Was doing some research on the Speedball kits for printing on fabric. Now I know to get different ink.

  • M.E. Williams

    I hate, hate, hate resist-style printing. I think. Maybe.

    When I was writing that first screen printing article, I came across a lot of different tutes for supposedly quick-n-dirty resist printing that involved painting around a design that had been drawn onto mesh with marker. It always took a long time and the results always looked messy; it seemed like a lot of effort to go. IMO, the real "quick and dirty" method is either freezer-paper stencils or that pre-coated PhotoEZ screen stuff, depending on the complexity of the design.

    That silver ink would work well with a screen mesh that isn't quite as fine. I think I read somewhere (one of the many, many links in my article, and I'm not sure which one) that different meshes are good for different kinds of ink and printing applications - like, fabric ink gets one kind of mesh and paper ink gets another. Of course, they don't give you that in the kit. :(

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