The Merchmakr Compact Screen Printing System is a Kickstarter project that looks very interesting, largely due to its unique approach to printing multiple colors, which they refer to as “HotSwap”.
My first full-time job was in 1978 in a screen printing company; I hand cut color separations for sportswear, team shirts, and various other items of clothing, and create embroidery designs for letterman jackets and motorcycle gear patches. I’ve worked in screen printing time and again throughout my career, designing t-shirts for a variety of clients. In 1985 I bought my own monochrome printer and had a little off-print of original designs sold in local boutiques and occasionally at flea markets or swap sites. If the Merchmakr had existed back then, I would have loved to have picked it up instead of the awkward and crude booth I ended up with (and which I still have, although I haven’t used it in a few years).
When I first saw the Merchmakr Kickstarter ad, I found it interesting, but I had a few red flags on my mind based on my previous experience. First is the idea of switching screens on the fly; Registration (alignment to make sure colors are aligned as they should) is always difficult and usually involves several test prints to get them right. The idea of switching screens to print a shirt seemed impossible to me. Second, water based inks were mentioned. I prefer plastisol (a rubbery solvent-based ink that needs to be heated to 320 degrees to cure) because water-based inks dry quickly on the screen as they dry, clog the design, and cause poor prints. I was sure that the time it would take to switch screens would as good as guarantee drying and clogging.
But instead of going with my initial suspicions, I emailed the Merchmakr (DIY Screen Printing Supplies) people asking them about it. It turned out that my guesses were correct, but they made an effort to address them and resolve these issues. The fact that this machine is a product of an actual screen printing company is very comforting. They actually understand the needs of printers.
The artwork is placed on the screen in position on the print stand and the imaging unit is lowered. The result is screens that are perfectly coordinated.
The solution to the registration problem is surprisingly simple and brilliant. Typically, screens are prepared for design regardless of registration, provided that they are customized on the press. Most screen printing machines allow a high degree of customization in all directions, so it almost doesn’t matter how the artwork is brought onto the screens. Merchmakr takes the opposite approach. Their screen frames contain a registration tab that ensures the frames are mounted in the same position, and they have created an imaging unit that they can use to create the screens on the press. If the screens are properly installed in the press, the registration is already perfect because the screens were created that way from the start.
Ink drying on the screens is a common problem with the low-end hobbyist inks, most commonly used by amateur printers. The Matsui branded professional ink that comes with the Merchmakr has a longer drying time and won’t clog the screen. Thanks to the specially developed clamp for the screens, these can be changed and attached very quickly. Here is a video that demonstrates the process. As you can see, it’s easy enough for kids to be able to do.
One of the uses they suggest for the system is printing shirts on site for bands or teams. In these circumstances, the process becomes a spectator event and customers enjoy standing and watching. Hence, speed is not essential, as it would be in a manufacturing store that runs out of hundreds of shirts every day.
Screen printing is one of the easiest and most affordable businesses to do. Skills are quickly mastered, the equipment and supplies are not particularly expensive, and it is possible to be up and running with a simple monochrome printer working in a garage or guest room. Some of the greatest screen printers in the world started out with such a simple setup.
The Merchmakr is an ideal system for young entrepreneurs or artists who want to get into the screen printing industry on a budget. It is not a production machine; Trying to print hundreds of multicolored shirts at once would be a mad exercise (DIY sells these multicolored print stands too if you want to outfit a pro shop), but for small runs of 2-3 color designs this would be perfectly fine, and as a single color machine, it is very competitive. If you plan on printing a dozen shirts a year, this (now deprecated) weak yudo plastic machine would be enough, but the Merchmakr is a far superior machine that is much more solidly built and not much more expensive. If you want to make small quantities, print a few dozen shirts at the same time for your band, club, school or team, or small editions of any kind, then Merchmakr is the best offer I’ve seen in a long time. I was also able to see a high school art class using this system for projects.
If you have a kid interested in creating their own t-shirt (or tote bags, jackets, etc.) for sale, you may want to join this Kickstarter campaign while you can. If I were still doing screen printing projects myself, I would start right away.
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