What is the most important part of your screen printing shop? Many would likely say their press and that seems to be the logical answer. Although the most vital might be your art department and setting up a quality color separation studio with the proper computer, film positive printer and software to handle not only basic t-shirt artwork, but also high-end complex images.

Your studio needs to be equipped with a computer of decent quality and speed, although the latest and greatest and highest price isn’t required. Doing color separations and high resolution artwork effectively without waiting for your system to respond in a timely manner has more to do with the type of hard drive and amount of RAM installed, and not the speed of the processor, video graphics card or cost of the computer.

separation studio screen printing

A basic i5 processor is good enough, and if paired with a solid state drive (SSD Drive) and 16 GB of RAM, you’ll be whizzing around Photoshop and Illustrator at lightning speed! And as far as graphic cards are concerned, yes, a good graphics card can speed up the system but really doesn’t provide an immense difference when doing t-shirt artwork. Expensive graphics cards are needed more so for gaming. If opting for one as opposed to using the integrated graphics capabilities of your syetem, don’t go crazy here.

In a nutshell, using an SSD Drive is top priority as that alone can increase the performance and speed of your system by as much as 500%. No other single change or upgrade can come close to the drastic spike in performance a solid state drive provides! In fact, I have a Lenovo all-in-one desktop system that I use mostly for email (sort of like an iMac) with a slower i3 processor using a 500 GB SSD drive. This system is at least twice as fast as a newer computer with an i7 processor and traditional 2 GB spinning platter hard drive and all of that speed is due to the SSD drive.

The type of printer used for screen printing film positives is a bit more involved as this all depends on several factors. The first requirement is size. At the very minimum, your printer will need to handle 11″x17″ film and ideally 13″x19″ film. Not all inkjet printers can handle large film and paper so make sure the model selected does.

Another thing to consider is if using your inkjet printer with a RIP such as AccuRip or FilmMaker. If so, you’ll need to verify the printer is supported by the RIP as not all are. If not using a RIP, this is somewhat less important. A good rule of thumb here is to stick with Epson printers that can output large film sizes as these are normally supported by most RIP software.

As a side note, color separation software for screen printing such as UltraSeps include functionality to print halftones directly from Adobe Photoshop without the need for a RIP. We’ll get to the software end of your separation studio a bit later on.

Another rule of thumb with choosing a good inkjet printer is to avoid the “all-in-one” type printers. These devices are engineered for home users looking to make copies, fax, etc. and are a poor choice. Stick with printers built entirely for large format paper/film output only! Large format printers can also deposit more ink and have higher quality inkjet print heads that can take a beating and withstand years of heavy use. These features are especially needed when used in a screen print environment.

Regarding software, primarily three different types are needed and if deciding upon a RIP, then four. The first being vector graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw. Between the two, it likely doesn’t matter which one to go with although Illustrator is viewed upon as the global industry standard. Illustrator probably has a 99-1 user advantage in the graphics industry as a whole and somewhat less if compared just within the screen printing business. So if in doubt, go with Adobe Illustrator.

The next would be a raster program for full color and photographic images. Color separations of high-end, photographic or complex art is also done within a raster program and the only real choice here is Adobe Photoshop! Photoshop isn’t the 500 lb. gorilla of raster programs, its the Godzilla! Many others have tried to dip their feet into this type of software and have failed miserably. Its not a good idea to skimp here by trying a free product such as Gimp or something not mainstream like Corel Photo Paint. In all honesty, its Photoshop or why even bother?

Important to note is that using the latest version of Photoshop isn’t needed, and this applies to Illustrator as well. So if not opting for their Creative Cloud subscription service, sniff around for older versions on the cheap as they can sometimes be found. Don’t go back any further than CS3 however as you’ll encounter problems with modern computers. With Macs, the earliest version that works, at least with Macs as of 2010 is CS4.

t-shirt color separations ultraseps

Almost as important as Photoshop is color separation software. In fact, its likely the most vital piece of software you’ll be needing when working with complex t-shirt artwork. There’s several known choices available although the most comprehensive that does the best job is UltraSeps. Software like UltraSeps and QuikSeps Professional (QuikSeps if looking for something cheap) provides the ability to generate high-end color separations quickly within Adobe Photoshop.

This type of software has the ability to create usable spot color separations from complex and photographic style images. Its also used when art contains far too many colors that would require a ridiculous number of screens. Color separation programs can break these difficult files down to a manageable number of colors that can be printed on smaller presses.

Full featured color sep software also provides help with enhancing artwork, cleaning up images, increasing file resolution, converting photographic images to black & white artwork and more. Some also convert separations to halftones thus providing a no cost RIP solution for those without it. All t-shirt printers need separation software.

The final piece here is RIP software and most printers should be using it. RIP’s provide the ability to print halftones from any graphics program and to specify the LPI, angle and dot shape of the halftones. They also allow you to control the abount of ink deposited by the inkjet printer to provide more or less ink. Normally, the desired benefit is to lay down more ink resulting in darker films.

There isn’t much to RIP software for screen printing, and no special knowledge is needed to use them as they basically work in the background as an engine to send data to the printer. Ironically, not many choices exist although we prefer FilmMaker over the other choices. The only downside is that FilmMaker is a Windows only application. Although most shops running Macs in the art department usually have a Windows system available which could easily be setup as a print server for the RIP.

And that’s about it folks! Best of luck with setting up your screen print color separation and artwork studio!