File Prep and Separations for Screen Printing


Please find some links and notes from the 2 Regular Guys Podcast. We welcome to the show, Dot Tone Dan! Dan Campbell will be joining us to go deep into screen printing pre-press. We will discuss proper artwork preparation as well as color separations and mots more in between!

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File Prep and Separations for Screen Printing

Are auto separations worth buying? How do they help?
Each are different in only small ways. Technically speaking, each will tell you they are very different. Perhaps so, but only in how they get to the end result. Each offer some additional features that others don’t. I don’t know of one that “doesn’t work”. They all work very similar in the end. They may not be the best option at all times, but they do help get work done where you could not have otherwise, on your own. You no longer have to turn work down and say “I can’t do that”. You can do it. It may not be an award winner, but your customer typically doesn’t need that. They help by enabling a new separator or shop owner to start to see what happens in percentages with separations…and what colors are blended to create others…and most importantly, is to be able to see their own modification results on press. Same goes for using a Freelance separator. You can see how we would handle it and after so many times of handing different projects, you start to see where we are headed or why we might do something and then you start to figure it out on your own eventually. There has been many of customers (who were interested) in my past that are now whats considered good separators today, and makes them all that much of a better printer.

Can you use Photoshop to separate and print spot color film?
For sure. One thing that I do predominately, is to use 600ppi for clean, sharp edges that provide me more extreme control over fine detail elements. When I say “Clean”, I mean of the smallest detail to where you see very little if any stair step of the solid pixel edges. Think of it like this. You send a vector file to a film printer. That printer outputs at 600dpi or hopefully higher. Your smooth vector edges in your computer circles and lines are still converted to raster image but appear smooth. It’s just so fine that to the naked eye, it’s hard to see any rough edges, but they are there. The same goes for raster Separations. Some have a hard time agreeing with this, but it’s proven. Separations come out better at higher than normal resolutions. Much like LPI, PPI and DPI, The need or the explanation for where it applies can be confusing. Typically, people base their resolution “need” on what LPI and MESH they will be using. Adobe will say that you need 1.5-2 times your halftone line count that you want to use. If that were always true, we would only need to use 110 resolution files for a 55lpi. The results of line work (in raster) would be horrible. As such, we know to use 300ppi file and have been doing so for year and still do. For me, I know 600ppi to be better for separations (and to your question), really benefits in SOLID SPOT COLOR work, mixed with halftone work. Here, I am not concerned with using 600ppi as it pertains to halftone output, but rather (to obtain a better vector look). Once printed, you cannot tell the difference on the shirt between vector and raster. Anyone who has ever tried to choke the under base of a pocket print that was provided by the customer at actual size and at 300ppi knows that you can’t choke the serifs or the thinner lines of a Times Bold letter T and don’t get me started on Script fonts. With 600ppi, (if I am creating the art), it can be done and done well.

What are the typical ways to set up a file in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for print?
Setting up a file for Photoshop is a whole discussion on it’s own. Lets look at both individually. Photoshop: you want to use RGB art. Even if you are taking art in from Illustrator or Corel, that was set up as CMYK color model, you want to bring it in as an RGB file. Stay away from “creating” CMYK files unless your end result is to be a CMYK print. If creating art, you want to start at actual print size. Think of that up front. Typically, always work large and reduce as needed. File resolution should be at 300ppi or higher such as 600ppi. Work in layers. Layers help a separation process all that much more, by providing the layers as a template or a mask for making selections and knocking out elements. Another benefit of layers is to be able to change out backgrounds. As a rule, use layers. I can say the same for vector work. So, RGB, at or near print size, 300-600ppi, and in Layers. Work environment is a bit more personal. Each artist has their won bag of tricks but there are some common tools we all use for separations and building art. The WORK ENVIRONMENT once set up, is saved as my personal “work space” in Photoshop. (Windows menu bar, Work Space, New Workspace) name it. I keep the following WINDOWS open at all times. Tools, Layers, Channels, Paths Actions and Character. Illustrator: Tools, Attributes, Separation Preview (A MUST HAVE), info, Swatches, stroke, Color, Pathfinder, Layers, Character, Align, Libraries, Transparency, Gradient, Pantone+Solid Coated, Actions, Link, Art boards. In Swatches, as a standard, I delete all unused colors and only keep in the colors I will be creating or pulling from the Pantone swatches. In Libraries, I keep a Base white (color is pink), so that I can see it on the white background and also see it when I am using Separation Preview. (Sep Preview makes use of multiplying colors to view the overprinting features. This can only be done in CMYK color mode and when you multiply white over another color, nothing happens, therefore, I use a random color like pink (unless there is pink in the art), then I use another color not being used. Same for a top white. Black ink also does not show how it’s being affected either. Black being multiplied is black, so If i need to, I can change the look (the color make up) of the black to something else, so I can preview it in Sep Preview. So many people are not aware of Sep Preview. Some even buy 3rd party programs so that they can flight check or view how the seps will look before they print to film. Sep Preview has always been in Illustrator for as long as I can remember.

In what ways do you use both vector and raster that can speed up the process?
Building the foundation of the art/Design is faster in vector, but rendering, blending in spot colors, is faster in Photoshop. If I am re-drawing a logo or tracing something, I do that in vector, then bring into Photoshop for the rendering. What makes you decide to choose to use vector seps over raster seps? When the files are very basic, limited in color and limited in blending, I use Illustrator. An Athletic lettering with an outline doesn’t need to be done in Photoshop. It can without issue, but just doesn’t need to be. Fast, simple stuff, can be easier than working in raster. IN the past, we were very concerned with file size and that would have been a good argument for using vector, but hard drive space, and ram usage is much more efficient today and not as much of a concern. Still, Vector can be much smaller in file size “typically”. An .ai file can be 150k while the same file in Photoshop can be 5mb. On the other hand,what file type you need for production can be different in each shop. Some assume you need .eps to send to the RIP but the eps is usually about 7 x larger than a .ai or a .psd. Some Rips require different file types.

What is the most important starting point of a good color separation?
Where do we begin, and how can we prepare for that? Assuming we are using Photoshop, that would be RGB, Layered, (the ability to make selections easily), 300-600ppi at actual print size. Color limitations, Pantone colors that are required in the art, knowing the garment color and size up front.

What should a new print shop (or new to sim process) look out for when first trying simulated process printing or even 4 color process printing?
First know that most all of what you know about printing spot colors will be changed. You stroke faster, lighter, Closer off contact, You will need higher mesh, thinner inks, sometimes translucent inks, higher tension, a more accurate exposure, Higher mesh, a different coating technique for thinner emulsion on higher mesh, a more opaque film positive, sharper or newer squeegees, harder squeegees with no nicks in the rubber. All things you don’t see with spot color printing. Know that what you see in the fist sample print, is not what it will be at 10 shirts in after the inks start to gain. Print 5-7 scrap test prints before judging what you might need to change if anything. Screen mesh tension consistency and accuracy is vital. You cannot change from a 305 to a 200 because you are low on 305 mesh. You cannot run 3 of the 305 mesh on 15 newtons and another two screens on 25 Newton screens. Learn to start documenting how you finally printed it. Document everything about how you printed it. People don’t do that enough. It will bite you in the back side on re-orders. On the surface, we imagine that printers can just load in my separations into the press, look at an art proof showing what it is I’m trying to do, and they put the right colors in, and use the right mesh and it all works out as planned. That isn’t always reality. I’ve worked with some very mechanically skilled printers that are in the top of their league, they know things about printing, characteristics of multiple presses, inks, and how to deal with various garments, but some of the best, can struggle with dialing in a print (the way I see it) or the way I want it. It’s an artistic approach itself. Mark Coudrey, Andy Anderson, Rick Roth, They all know this. You can’t really see on the paper print…what I want it to be on the shirt. Subtleties that you can only get by press technique adjustments. More angle, a harder squeegee, (a sharper or newer squeegee), a slightly different blue that leans more towards the purple side. These are all things (changes) that the average press operator doesn’t know that I want out of it unless I am out there with them to communicate that or if they happen to be an artistic printer themselves. The best results have come from when I’ve been at the shop, and had the printer start out doing what he does, and print a few test prints. We look at it and it’s almost there, but not totally. Then I get involved and kind of guide them as to what to tweak…and we get there. Had I not gotten involved, results would not be (as good). Good enough, but could be better. They can’t read my mind and see what I see. In some cases, it can go from an almost needing to re-separate, to a (nothing changes in seps at all, but we totally change up how we print it). I don’t know how to improve on that from a freelance separators standpoint and get people to see what I see and what to change. So having the separator (in house) is a very strong aspect. Having that artist in the art department be able to come out into the press floor and provide feedback/guidance as to what they are wanting, is very beneficial to the end result. Lastly, Document everything. There is nothing worse than setting up a job for the 2nd time on a re-order and wondering how we got the look of this sample print (the last time).

Dot Tone Dan Campbell:
I’ve dabbled in just about every area of screen printing with an emphasis on art and color separations over the span of 30 years. I’ve had my own manual shop and have worked for many well known names. I’ve partnered with Pierre from Blue Moon to take 5 different show awards and I am 1/3rd owner of I am currently the creative director for IDP, a contract printer in Huntsville AL. We also service our local customers in Huntsville Al. I also provide freelance color Separations by night. Contact me at

Here is the files Dan shared with us that you can use in your shop. Dan Campbell Files

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SGIA ExpoOur regular listeners know this, but 2 Regular Guys are all about garment decorating, a bit of fun, and no rants or lectures or selling. We are not doing this for our employers, but rather for our industry. Since February 2013, The 2 Regular Guys have been the first and the most listened to garment decorating industry podcast on this planet! We are humbled by all of you tuning in each week. We work hard to bring you information that will make your business better, and our industry better. Take a look at our incredible weekly guest list and you’ll understand where this industry goes for news, interviews and the heartbeat of garment decorating. Thanks for listening!

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