How To Make Stuff Pt 2
How to make cards, bookmarks, mousepads, t-shirts, mugs and more... as well as a discussion of both transfer and screen-printing.
2005-06-15
As an artist, you want your artwork to look great on the products you sell. You probably don't want to hand all of your possible profit to a faceless corporation, either. The best way to meet both of these goals is to make the goods yourself. Being able to say that you, the artist, made the items yourself adds value to your products, too!

The quality of the products that you make yourself will depend primarily on two things: the quality of your materials and equipment, and your attention to detail. A lot of the appearance of these products relies upon the care you take with the finishing touches, and your skill with lining things up straight and using scissors will play a large role.


Cards

If you've chosen to make prints, you can also make cards. The difficulties with cards are several. You have to use stiff, high-quality paper that looks good on both sides. You have to cut your paper to size. You have to fold them. And you have to fit them to envelopes.

Pre-cut, pre-scored (a cut that goes just far enough through a paper to make it easy to fold) cards are available at any office and craft supply store, and are often packaged with envelopes. The biggest drawback to these packages is price. Add to that price your own cost of ink and you won't be making much money on them unless you price them high enough to drive off a casual buyer.

It is best to use a dual-sided paper, one that has no difference in color between the front and the back. Whatever paper you use, make sure you do a test fold: some papers are brittle and will flake or crack at a fold-line. This is particularly problematic with laser prints, because of the heated-ink application process - make sure you do a test fold AFTER printing. Epson's double-sided matte is a respectable stiffness, and is a bright, attractive white for inkjet cards.

US letter-sized (8.5 x 11 inches) paper can be cut directly in half to produce 5.5 x 8.5 inch card templates, which fold in half to create a 4.25 x 5.5 card. This size fits perfectly into an A2 envelope, very commonly available at office and stationery supply stores. These can be purchased in lots of 500 for .10 per unit or less. You can cut pages in half yourself, using a straight edge and rotary cutter or a reasonably priced rotary cutter ensemble. You can also take them to a copy service shop and have your cards cut with a guillotine cutter for a reasonable fee and a fraction of the effort. Some printers will feed half-letter paper with no trouble, so you can print on pre-cut paper.

Most full-service copy shops also offer folding services. You can bring them a stack of cards which they feed through their machine. This can be risky, because paper jams can ruin cards, and the machine action can scratch or damage the surface of your card. Make sure the service you are using has some kind of guarantee or reasonable management before you trust them with your pre-printed goods. I personally fold all of my cards by hand, because I find that I have a more precise eye than some machines and I have a low level of trust.


Transfers (Mousepads and T-shirts)

Transfers are plastic-like sheets that you print directly onto with a standard inkjet (or laser) printer. These transfers are applied to fabric or fabric-topped products, with heat that melts the plastic material into the fibers, locking the colors in place. The advantages of transfers are that you can print any range or variety of color on them very easily, they are easy to do one at a time, and they aren't that expensive. Their disadvantage lies mostly in their life. Transferred products are susceptible to peel-up and must be washed and dried with care. Exact life and care instructions will vary per brand name. Generally, the more expensive they are, the better they survive multiple washings. The transfers will have specific instructions as to whether your design needs to be mirrored before you print, and which side of the transfer to apply to the fabric, whether or not a cover sheet is needed, etc. Transfer paper for dark colored cloth costs roughly twice as much as transfers for white or light-colored cloth.

Most transfers will have instructions for applying with a household iron. You may attempt this, and I've even heard of some people having limited success. But it's very difficult to maintain the temperature needed to get the transfer to stick, and even harder to maintain it evenly and with enough pressure at all locations across the image. I must have gone through fifteen or twenty mousepads before I figured out the trick to them: a professional heat press.

A heat press is a fairly hefty investment. A good one will run a thousand (US) dollars or more, before shipping, and not everyone will be able to afford that kind of set up. Fortunately, most towns have a t-shirt printing shop available, and these folks already have a good heat press. For a minor bribe, you can usually bring in your own printed transfer and blank shirt or mousepad and have them press it. If you approach the right people the right way, they may even allow you to use it yourself at no charge.

Every type of transfer will require a slightly different technique. Some should be peeled hot (use a plastic spatula to spare your tender fingers while you hold the fabric in place!) and some should be allowed to cool before the backing is removed. Peel smoothly, in one continuous motion. Because the peel temperature affects the texture, pausing mid-peel can result in a visible line.

The pickiest part of applying the transfer is getting everything lined up correctly before you press. When you are designing for a mousepad, it's a good idea to oversize your image slightly and allow the design to spill over the edges. A design without straight borders is much easier to align... or rather, it's much easier to get away with minute mis-alignments if there aren't straight borders to draw immediate attention to the fact. Take your time at the lining up stage of pressing t-shirts and mousepads, or your results will be shoddy and your product ruined. It is best to trim to the edge of the printed area when pressing t-shirts; the blank areas still have a plastic texture to them. Be sure your product surface is clean and free of lint and cat hair before you press... anything caught between the transfer and the product is there forever.

If you go to peel off the transfer backing and find that a corner of the image is peeling up, immediately re-press without continuing to peel. Do not press for the entire time again, but only for a count of five or six. If the corner in question is not centered in your heat press, move it so that it is; cheaper heat presses do not have even heat and pressure and you'll get the best results in the center. Peel again from the opposite corner. If you have already peeled the backing off and find a bit of the image lifting off with a fingernail check (running your fingernail up against the transfer to see if it is inclined to peel up), cover the entire image with a piece of waxed craft paper and repress for several seconds. This can also save an image where the transfer has peeled off in a patchy pattern.

Let your item cool flat. As it cools, the transfer hardens, and a crumpled or lumpy cooling position can cause wrinkles that are difficult to get rid of without re-pressing. Be very careful not to let a hot transfer touch anything until it cools, particularly itself.

Avoid printing up large numbers of transfers before you will actually be pressing them. They have a tendency to curl, ink scratches off of them easily, and they are very easy to damage with water after they've been printed and before they've been applied. Some transfers will also bleed if they are allowed to sit un-pressed for very long, resulting in a blurred, messy image. Take good care of your blank transfer paper, and protect it from humidity, light and air.


Screen Printing

Screen printing is another animal entirely!

This is something you can do yourself on t-shirts and flat materials if you have a crafty, hands-on streak, but it is messy, limited in color and detail, and can be labor intensive. Screen printing is a process best suited to producing a large number of products at once, since most of the time is spent in set up and clean up.

Screen printing is literally done with a very fine screen, usually of silk, and is also called silk-screening. Onto this screen is applied a layer of photosynthetic goo. A transparency of your design is laid over this, and light is applied. Where the light hits, the photosynthetic stuff becomes a solid barrier. Where the light was prevented from shining by the lines of your design, the screen is still permeable. After setting, the screen is rinsed, and ready to use. It is important to note that very fine detailed lines do not work as well as bold, clean line-work for a procedure like this.

The screen is put tight against the material you will be printing on, and ink is put on the exposed side of the screen. The ink is squeezed through the tiny holes in the screen wherever the screen is still exposed, with a squeegee and a long even stroke with plenty of pressure. When the screen is lifted away, the ink remains on the material in your design.

For more than one color to be applied, there must be a screen for each separate color, and the material must dry thoroughly between each layer.

Screen printing can be applied to just about any kind of cloth, and also to plastics and some metals. Because of the intensive set-up, jobbing this kind of work out often comes with minimum orders. 144 is a common starting number, though screen-printing services are usually commonly available locally and often will be flexible (if more expensive) with smaller orders.


Bookmarks

Bookmarks, like magnets and stickers, are a low-cost item that allows customers to own a useful piece of art without investing a lot of money. This makes them a popular sales item.

As with everything else, there are a number of ways to make your own bookmarks. The easiest is just to print your work on a heavy cardstock and cut it down to shape. This, of course, probably won't hold up very well over time. One step further is to buy pre-made bookmark sleeves, which are basically plastic bags to slip over your bookmark-shaped print to protect it.

A very slick-looking option is to print your work onto good, high-resolution print paper and laminate it. I laminate mine with 5 mil lamination for a sturdy, quality feel.

If you are not willing to purchase a heat laminating machine or job out your lamination, there are several sizes and brands of self-adhesive lamination available. Large office supply stores often carry these packages. A great tip for applying these sheets: do not attempt to put them down on top of your work. The sheets are very flexible, and wrinkles develop extremely easily. Peel off the backing and lay the lamination sheet sticky side up, then rest your work on top of it and press flat.

To finish a laminated bookmark, radiused (curved) corners look classy, disguise minor cutting imperfections and remove the sharp corner as a weak point most likely to peel or snag on things. You can pick up cheap, portable corner clippers in the scrapbooking section of a craft store. These are generally not strong enough to punch through two layers of thick lamination and a layer of cardstock, but they can imprint a precise curve that can then be cut by hand with scissors. More professional corner radius punches that can get through heavy lamination become worthwhile if you are doing large quantities, and run about $80.

It is a simple addition to punch a hole in the top of the bookmark and thread in a pre-made tassel. Tassels are inexpensive in bulk. A ribbon or attractive string could also be substituted if you like the extra dangly bit but aren't keen on the commercial look of the tassels. Experiment! Maybe your bookmarks could include a beaded dangle, or feathers. The more personal touches you add and the more original each bookmark is, the more value it will have.

Because a bookmark is something that a customer will have and use often, it is your best advertising. Put your URL or contact information attractively in the design, or place it on the back. A simple address label can be used under lamination or inside of a sleeve, or you can print your information on the back. Because it is sometimes tricky to get double-sided printing lined up correctly, consider a repeating design with your web address, name and personal logo.


Stickers and Magnets

Magnets can be made in a host of ways. Some successful methods I've explored include laminating small prints and affixing craft magnets to the back. Self-adhesive magnets and magnet sheets or rolls come in a variety of sizes and types, including a standard business card size. Print out a design of the right size, slap a strip, sheet or craft magnet on the back, and you've got an attractive, easy magnet. I highly recommend the laminating, as magnets are the kind of thing that are often in high-mess areas, and you want these to hold up well. I do not recommend most magnet sheets that you run through your printer: these magnets tend to be weak in sticking power, tear easily and aren't always waterproof. The image quality is also not as good as you will get on high-resolution print paper.

Stickers can be made with a simple strip of two-sided tape (with peel-off backing) on the back of a laminated print. They can also be printed on a number of sticker papers available at local copy stores. The downside to these sticker papers is that you are restricted in size and shape. Quality can come with a large price tag, and you generally have to print an entire letter-sized sheet of them at once. It can be tricky getting your image perfectly aligned with the die-cut (shaped cut-out) stickers.

For great, professional-looking stickers and magnets, consider a Xyron sticker/magnet maker. They come in a variety of sizes and are more fun than a pillowcase full of kittens. These machines laminate and apply the backing (adhesive, magnet or a second side of lamination) in one easy, heat-free step. The replacement cartridges can be pricey, but they are widely available in craft stores everywhere. I recommend making the initial product purchase on-line at Xyron.com if you choose this method; even with shipping (to Alaska!) I saved more than $50 from local retail prices.


Mugs

Ceramic mugs require specialized equipment to press oneself. The transfers for regular ceramic mugs work only with dye sublimation printers, and a specific, circular-shaped heat press is needed to transfer the image to the mug. The quality of this press is crucial; a poor press will cause poor color transfer, bleeding, and in extreme cases, cracking due to uneven heating. Mugs are heavy and expensive to ship, as well as fragile. For their hassle, the returns are not that high. If you're set on mugs, consider buying them in bulk from a company that specializes in such printing, or going through an on-demand company that will handle drop-shipping (and the associated hassles) for you.

Another mug option is screen printing, usually onto insulated mugs. As with t-shirts, this is the action of pressing a permanent ink through a screen to produce your pattern. This is a much more complicated set-up than the screen printing onto t-shirts however, since the ink is being applied to a curved surface. This is a job for a company which already has the setup for it.

One other option is a 'snap-in' mug. These are two-part kits, where a print is squeezed between a mug body and a clear plastic protective exterior. A whole range of products come in snap-in style, including keychains, mugs, snow-globes, buttons, clocks, and watches. These are easy to assemble, fairly cheap, usually available in small minimum quantities, and you aren't limited to a single design or color. They do tend to look fairly cheap, unfortunately.


Stay Current

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: keep in touch with the current technology! Products and methods for making them are changing faster than politicians switch platforms. There will be a better, faster, more efficient or more attractive way to do things tomorrow or the next day. Now if only they could figure out how to put more hours in each day.


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