The Merchmakr compact screen printing system is a Kickstarter project that looks very interesting, mostly because of its unique approach to printing multiple colors, which they call “HotSwap.”
My first full-time job was as at a screen printing shop in 1978; I hand-cut color separations for athletic gear, team shirts and various other garments, as well as laying out embroidery designs for letterman jackets and motorcycle gang patches. I’ve worked off-and-on in screen printing throughout my career, designing t-shirts for a wide variety of clients. In 1985, I bought a single-color printer of my own and had a little sideline printing original designs for sale at local boutiques and the occasional flea market or swap meet. If the Merchmakr had existed then, I would have happily snapped it up instead of the cumbersome and crudely-made stand I ended up with (and still have, though I haven’t used it in a few years).
When I first saw the Merchmakr’s Kickstarter solicitation, I thought it looked interesting, but there were a few red flags in my mind, based on my previous experience. First is the idea of changing screens on the fly; registration (alignment to make sure the colors line up together as they should) is always tricky and usually involves several test prints to get it right. The idea of switching screens to print a shirt seemed impossible to me. Second was the mention of water-based inks. I prefer plastisol (a rubbery solvent-based ink that requires heating to 320 degrees in order to cure) because when I’ve tried water-based inks, they dry in the screen quickly, plugging the design and causing bad prints. I was certain that the time it takes to change screens would pretty much guarantee drying and plugging.
But rather than go with my initial suspicions, I emailed the Merchmakr folks (DIY Screen Printing Supplies) and asked them about it. Turns out my suspicions were valid, but they have taken pains to address them and solve those problems. The fact that this machine is a product from an actual screen printing supply company is very reassuring; they actually understand the needs of printers.
The solution to the registration issue is surprisingly simple and brilliant. Typically, the screens for a design are prepared with very little regard for registration, assuming that they will be adjusted on the press; most screen printing machines allow for a wide degree of adjustment in all directions, so it almost doesn’t matter how the artwork is put on the screens. Merchmakr takes the opposite approach; their screen frames include a registration tab that makes sure the frames are mounted in the same position, and they created an exposure unit that allows them to create the screens in place on the press. If the screens are properly installed on the press, the registration is already perfect because the screens were made that way from the start.
Ink drying in the screens is a common problem with the low-end “hobbyist” inks that are most commonly used by the amateur printer. The Matsui brand professional ink that comes with the Merchmakr has a longer drying time and doesn’t plug the screen. Also, the specially-designed clamp for the screens allows them to be changed and set in place very rapidly. Here’s a video demonstrating the process. As you can see, it’s simple enough that kids can do it.
One of the uses they suggest for the system is printing shirts on-site for bands or teams; under those circumstances, the process becomes a spectator event, and the customers are happy to stand and watch, so speed is not essential the way it would be in a production shop where hundreds of shirts need to go out every day.
Screen printing is one of the easiest and least expensive businesses to get into; the skills are mastered quickly, the equipment and supplies are not horrifically expensive, and it’s possible to get up and running with a simple single-color printer operating out of a garage or spare room. Several of the largest screen printers in the world started out with a simple setup like that.
The Merchmakr is an ideal system for the young entrepreneur or artist who wants to get into the screen printing industry on a budget. It’s not a production machine; trying to print hundreds of multicolor shirts at a time would be an exercise in madness (DIY sells those multi-color print stands too, if you want to outfit a pro shop), but for short runs of 2-3 color designs, it would be completely suitable, and as a single-color machine it’s very competitive. If you’re planning to print a dozen or so shirts a year, that (now discontinued) flimsy plastic Yudo machine would do, but the Merchmakr is a vastly superior machine, much more solidly constructed, for a price not much higher. If you want to do small quantities, printing a few dozen shirts at a time for your band, club, school or team, or short runs of any sort, then Merchmakr is the best deal I’ve seen in a long time. I could also see a high school art class using this system for projects.
If you have a kid who is interested in creating their own t-shirt (or tote bags, jackets, etc) for sale, you may want to get in on this Kickstarter campaign while you can. If I were still doing screen printing projects myself, I’d be jumping at it.