How to Make a Reusable Mesh Screen Printing Stencil

How to Make a Reusable Mesh Screen Printing Stencil main article image
Posted on April 22, 2022 by Carrie Christenson

Hello crafters!  Today I’m showing you how to make some reusable mesh stencils without the need for an electronic cutting machine or any super fancy equipment.  I’m even showing you a hack to make it even more affordable too!

I started by attempting to make this into a baking post but it was giving me trouble for getting perfect results. I honestly think it was more user error on my side so I’ll include how to turn this same product into a food-safe item too.

Supplies Needed:

So let’s get started!  

Design the Graphic

I’m using Silhouette Studio for designing my project but you can use any software program you’re comfortable with.  The basic version of Silhouette Studio is free if you need software.

Start by opening the graphic in the software.

screenshot of opening design file

gamer graphic in software

I wanted a clean black and white only print so I am using the trace tool to trace the entire graphic.  Open the trace tool and then draw a box around the entire image.  Adjust the threshold level so that only the main shapes are traced, I want the colored dots to stay out of the yellow.  Then click on the trace button.

trace tool highlighting the design

Slide the original design off to the side so you can see your newly traced image.

graphic trace of image

Next, with the design selected head up to the top left corner and fill the design with black and also change the box to the right of it to black as well.  You want it to be a very crisp black and white image for printing to get the best stencil possible

Print the Graphic

Let’s set up the page to print the image.  I like using a borderless page when I print so I don’t have to worry about any margins.

Head to the File tab at the top and click on the “Print Page Setup” to pull up the menu that lets you pick your paper size.  To find the borderless paper size click on the US letter and there should be an arrow on the right that will show the borderless option

page setup screenshot

Before printing though, make sure that you have the letter media size selected by heading to the page setup menu (top icon on the right-hand side of the screen).

setting the media size screenshot

Next, use the transform tool to center the graphic on the page.  This makes it easier to line up your design on the shirt so it’s worth taking the time to get this set up correctly now.

how to center the graphic screenshot

Now you’re ready to send to the printer, click on the printer icon in the top left-hand corner of the screen and click the print button.

print screenshot

You should have a menu like this pull up once you’ve clicked print.  Make sure to change the settings to print black and white only, glossy paper, and use the best print settings.  You’re going to want a really crisp black and white print to get the best stencil.

Head to your printer and empty the paper tray out and place one printer film in the tray so that it will print on the cloudy side of the paper.  If you’re unsure which side that is lick your finger and touch the very edge of the paper.  If your finger sticks that’s the correct side.  (Make sure you have clean hands first, LOL)

picture of the printer film

picture of the film in the printer tray

One last step, if your printer has settings on the actual machine, make sure to tell it that your paper is glossy there too.  Taking the time to fix the settings will help make sure that you get a perfect print without any smudges. 

picture of printer settings

Finally, you’re ready to hit print!  I don’t know about you but I always get nervous when printing on fancy, expensive paper.

picture of the printed graphic

Wahoo, my page printed perfectly on the first try!  I should note that you will always print with the image being the correct way up and not mirrored.  This isn’t like heat transfer vinyl if you’re used to working with that material instead of screen printing. 

Make the Stencil

This is the really exciting part, making the actual stencil. First, let me explain to you how to set up the light portion.

I should mention you can buy an entire kit from Ikonart Stencil but it’s really expensive and personally, it was a little too rich for my blood.  I looked at the light specs and decided to see if I could find one just like it on Amazon for a fraction of the price.  Guess what, I found it!  

To hold it up at the right height I already happened to have this table clamp arm that holds a phone normally.  The exact style I have is no longer available, but here is a very similar product, plus it’s handy for filming any videos or taking pictures of your amazing projects.  Win/Win!

The last item you need is a piece of black foam core or any matte black surface.  I got mine from the dollar store, can’t get more budget-friendly than that!

So as long as prices haven’t changed it’s about $56 for the setup if you don’t already have a holder of some sort.  This also prevents you from getting the items from the entire kit that you might not use like the laser printer films and it only includes the blue regular stencil films that don’t work with textiles so you would have to buy that film separately anyways.

How to Set Up the Stand

You’ll want to clamp the stand or set up your stand with the light attached so the light is parallel to your work surface.

how to attach the light to the stand

Next, make sure the bottom of the light is about 18” away from the surface.  The black foam core goes on top of the work surface and is what you layer your films on top of.

Now you’re ready to layer the films to expose the stencil.

picture of the layers for the stencil

Here’s a close-up shot of their instructions:

close up of the instructions

As you can see from the instructions on the page, the layers go purple stencil film shiny side down, then the printed film so you can read the design correctly, and finally a clear plastic sheet that comes with the purple stencil film.

all items lined up ready to expose

Make sure it’s all layered neatly and centered underneath your light. Next, turn on the light and expose the film for about 35 seconds and then turn the light back off.

uv led light on to etch stencil

You can now move the films, put the clear sheet back in the stencil pouch so it doesn’t get damaged and you can set the printed film aside.  You don’t need it anymore but you can always save it for another stencil if needed.  Maybe you want to make it out of the blue material instead in the future.  

The purple film isn’t going to look different.  Don’t freak out!  This is normal and you won’t see any changes until you get it wet.

Rinse the Stencil

You’ll grab your waterproof clipboard and attach the purple film to it.  You do need the backing so please don’t skip this step.  It can be any clipboard, mine has flowers on it that I got from Target years ago, no need for a special clipboard as long as it can get wet.

Turn your water on and let the temperature get to a warm and comfortable temperature, not scalding hot but not cool.  If you have a sprayer feature on your faucet, even better.  

Now start rinsing the purple stencil with the water and moving the sprayer head around to wash the portion of your design.  This will take a few minutes.  You’ll want to keep spraying it until the design portion is perfectly clear.  Hold it up to the light if you need to make sure that it’s nice and crisp

washing the stencil in the sink

When you’re done it should look like this:

picture of the rinsed stencil

Just be careful not to spray it longer than needed so you don’t accidentally wash away the non-design portion of the film.  Now you’ll set it on some clean towels to let it dry completely.

stencil drying on paper towel

Once the stencil is dry, take it back over to the light and expose the film for about 2-3 minutes.  The longer the better, that will increase the durability of your stencil so you can wash and reuse it for multiple projects.

picture of curing the stencil with uv led light

Screen Print Your Shirt

Now we’re ready to screen print your shirt (or any textile).  Make sure you’ve ironed your item and lint-rolled it to remove any fuzz and wrinkles.

I placed a piece of cardboard inside the shirt so the ink doesn’t accidentally bleed onto the back of it.

shirt with cardboard inside

Peel the stencil off of its plastic backing carefully, and set the plastic aside.  You’ll want to keep it for when you’re all done for storing the stencil.

peeling the stencil off the plastic backing

The stencil is sticky on the back so it will grip your shirt, take your time lining it up on the shirt properly and then press down to get a firm hold.

stencil lined up on shirt

I used a plastic spoon to scoop out some of the screen printing ink onto the top of my stencil.  You don’t want to use a lot of ink but make sure you have enough to fill your design in.  Just make sure it’s a little wider than the design so you can fill the image in one swipe.

picture of stencil on shirt

Next, take your squeegee and pull the ink down over the stencil in a smooth motion.  You might need to swipe a few more times to make sure it’s covered well.

ink ready to spread on shirt

Once your design is inked, scoop off any extra ink with your spoon and set the squeegee aside.  Then carefully peel the stencil off of the shirt.

ink spread on the shirt over the design

I don’t know about you but I’m always nervous and excited to see if the print worked!  I lucked out and got a perfect stencil on my shirt!

screenprinted shirt

Now let it dry, you can use a heat gun or blow dryer to speed up the process if you want.  Finally, you’ll want to heat set the ink to make it permanent so pop it in your heat press or iron it.  Now you have a custom screen printed shirt that won’t crack or peel like heat transfer will over time!

heat setting the shirt in the heat press

Since this stencil is reusable, you can wash the stencil, let it dry, and repeat for another shirt.  I have two boys who have the same taste in clothes at the moment so I made one for each.

two screen printed shirts

Only one was willing to be my model for the day though, kids man, they are a tough sell!  I had to bribe him with candy which he’s happily chewing while I snapped this picture.

kid wearing the shirt

To Make a Food Safe Stencil

As promised there is a way to make these for food!  It’s simple, follow the exact same steps as above but after curing the stencil for the 3 minutes you add a coat of this food-safe glaze on each side of the stencil and let it dry.  The only other item you need is rubbing alcohol for mixing with the glaze powder and for cleaning the brushes afterwards.

I tried making a large cake stencil with the purple film but found that it’s a little tricky getting crisp stencils.  You also must use royal icing with these stencils, buttercream is too thick and won’t work.

I will be trying again with smaller stencils for cookies and might get the blue film instead.  

I hope you guys enjoyed this fun project!  I can’t wait to see what you make and let me know if the light stand hack works for you!  Just make sure the light matches the specifications for the Ikonart light and it should.

-Carrie Christenson

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