Everything You Need to Know About Emulsion for Screen Printing

Emulsion for screen printing is an essential component in the screen printing process, allowing you to transfer your designs onto various materials with precision and clarity. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced screen printer, understanding the ins and outs of emulsion is crucial for achieving professional results. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the world of emulsion for screen printing, exploring its properties, types, application techniques, and troubleshooting tips.

Section: What is Emulsion?

Emulsion is a photosensitive liquid substance that acts as a stencil or barrier to transfer your design onto a screen during the screen printing process. It is typically composed of two main components: a sensitizer and a polymer. The sensitizer initiates the chemical reaction that hardens the emulsion when exposed to light, while the polymer provides the emulsion with its adhesive properties.

Types of Emulsion

There are two main types of emulsion used in screen printing: diazo-based and photopolymer emulsion. Diazo emulsion is the traditional choice, containing a light-sensitive diazo compound that requires mixing with a diazo sensitizer prior to use. Photopolymer emulsion, on the other hand, comes pre-sensitized and is ready to use straight out of the container. Both types have their advantages and disadvantages, depending on your specific printing needs and preferences.

Diazo Emulsion

Diazo emulsion has long been a popular choice among screen printers due to its versatility and durability. It offers excellent resolution and can withstand more aggressive printing techniques, such as high mesh counts and heavy ink deposits. However, diazo emulsion requires mixing with a diazo sensitizer, which adds an extra step to the preparation process. Additionally, diazo emulsion has a shorter shelf life compared to photopolymer emulsion, requiring careful storage and handling to maintain its effectiveness.

Photopolymer Emulsion

Photopolymer emulsion has gained popularity in recent years for its convenience and ease of use. It comes pre-sensitized, eliminating the need for mixing with a sensitizer. This makes it an ideal choice for beginners or those looking for a more straightforward emulsion application process. Photopolymer emulsion also tends to have a longer shelf life compared to diazo emulsion, allowing for more flexibility in storage. However, it may not be as durable as diazo emulsion, especially when subjected to aggressive printing techniques or prolonged exposure to certain solvents.

Section: Choosing the Right Emulsion

Choosing the right emulsion is crucial for achieving optimal print quality and durability. Several factors should be considered when selecting an emulsion:

Mesh Count

The mesh count of your screen plays a significant role in determining the type of emulsion you should use. Higher mesh counts, such as 230 or above, require emulsions with finer particle sizes to ensure proper penetration and adhesion. Lower mesh counts, on the other hand, can tolerate emulsions with larger particle sizes.

Ink Type

The type of ink you plan to use also influences the choice of emulsion. Water-based inks, for example, may require emulsions with better water resistance to prevent breakdown and deterioration during printing. Similarly, specialty inks like metallic or discharge inks may require specific emulsions designed to withstand their unique properties.

Exposure Method

The exposure method you employ can affect the emulsion’s performance. Different emulsions may have specific exposure requirements, such as exposure times or light sources. It is essential to consider the exposure method you prefer and choose an emulsion that is compatible with it to achieve accurate and consistent results.

Application Technique

Consider your preferred application technique when selecting an emulsion. Some emulsions are more suitable for manual coating, while others are designed for automatic or semi-automatic coating machines. The viscosity and drying time of the emulsion can also impact your coating technique, so choose an emulsion that aligns with your preferred method and equipment.

Section: Preparing Your Screen

Proper screen preparation is essential for ensuring the adhesion and longevity of the emulsion. Follow these steps to prepare your screen:

Cleaning the Screen

Begin by thoroughly cleaning the screen to remove any dust, debris, or residual ink. Use a gentle screen cleaner and a soft brush or cloth to carefully clean both sides of the screen. Pay close attention to the mesh, ensuring it is free from any clogs or blockages that could affect emulsion adhesion.

Degreasing the Screen

After cleaning, degrease the screen to remove any oils or contaminants that could hinder emulsion adhesion. Use a dedicated screen degreaser and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper application. Rinse the screen thoroughly to ensure all degreaser residue is removed.

Coating the Screen

Once the screen is clean and degreased, it is ready for emulsion coating. Begin by setting up a clean and controlled environment to minimize dust and debris. Place the screen on a level surface, ensuring it is securely held in place. Use a scoop coater or emulsion applicator to apply a thin, even layer of emulsion to one side of the screen.

Emulsion Coating Techniques

There are various coating techniques you can employ to achieve a smooth and even emulsion layer:

Flood Coating

In flood coating, apply a generous amount of emulsion to the screen and use a squeegee or coater to spread it in a single pass. This technique ensures complete coverage and helps prevent any gaps or thin spots in the emulsion layer.

Two-Sided Coating

For double-sided screens, use the two-sided coating technique. Apply emulsion to one side of the screen, ensuring complete coverage. Flip the screen and repeat the process on the other side. This technique helps maintain consistent emulsion thickness on both sides of the screen.

Capillary Film

Capillary film is a pre-coated emulsion film that can be used as an alternative to traditional emulsion coating. It provides a quick and convenient way to apply emulsion to screens, especially for those who prefer a more consistent and controlled coating process.

Drying the Screen

After coating, the screen needs to dry before proceeding with the exposure process. Place the coated screen in a clean and dust-free drying cabinet or room with proper ventilation. Allow sufficient time for the emulsion to dry completely, following the manufacturer’s recommendations. Improper drying can result in emulsion smudging or adhesion issues during exposure.

Section: Exposing Your Screen

The exposure process is crucial for transferring your design onto the screen accurately. Follow these steps for successful screen exposure:

Preparing Your Artwork

Before exposing the screen, ensure that your artwork is prepared correctly. Convert your design to a high-contrast black and white image, as this will facilitate the creation of a clear stencil. Ensure that all details are crisp and well-defined, as any imperfections in the artwork will be transferred to the screen.

Setting Up the Exposure Area

Prepare a dedicated area for the exposure process. Ideally, this area should be light-tight, allowing you to control the exposure conditions accurately. Install a suitable light source, such as an exposure unit or a high-intensity UV light, ensuring it is calibrated correctly for the emulsion you are using.

Creating the Stencil

Position your coated and dried screen onto the exposure unit, with the coated side facing down. Place your prepared artwork on top of the screen, ensuring it is aligned correctly. Secure the artwork in place using a transparent glass or acetate sheet to achieve even pressure and prevent movement during exposure.

Exposure Time and Distance

The exposure time and distance will vary depending on the emulsion type, mesh count, and light source used. Refer to the emulsion manufacturer’s guidelines for recommended exposure times and distances. Conduct test exposures with different time and distance settings to determine the optimal exposure conditions for your specific setup.

Washing Out the Screen

After exposure, carefully remove the artwork and transport the screen to a washout area. Use a gentle but powerful stream of water to wash away the unexposed emulsion, leaving behind a clean and crisp stencil. Pay close attention to detail areas and ensure that all unwanted emulsion is washed out thoroughly.

Section: Troubleshooting Common Issues

Screen printing can present various challenges during the emulsion application and printing process. Here are some common issues you may encounter and their possible solutions:

Emulsion Peeling or Lifting During Printing

If you notice the emulsion peeling or lifting off the screen during printing, it may be due to inadequate exposure or improper drying. Ensure that your screen is properly exposed, allowing the emulsion to fully harden. Additionally, make sure the emulsion is thoroughly dry before printing to prevent any adhesion issues.

Stencil Breakdown or Softening

If your stencilbreaks down or softens during printing, it may be a sign of overexposure or using the wrong emulsion for your ink type. Adjust your exposure time and distance to ensure proper curing of the emulsion. Additionally, check if your emulsion is compatible with the ink you are using, as certain inks can cause the emulsion to break down or soften.

Underexposed Areas

If you notice areas of your design that appear underexposed or not fully cured, it may be due to insufficient exposure time or incorrect distance from the light source. Increase the exposure time or adjust the distance to ensure proper curing of the emulsion in all areas of the screen.

Overexposed Areas

Overexposed areas can result in excessive emulsion hardening, making it challenging to wash out the unexposed areas. Reduce the exposure time or increase the distance from the light source to prevent overexposure. Additionally, ensure that your artwork is opaque and properly covers the screen to avoid light leakage and overexposure.

Pinholes or Tiny Dots in the Stencil

Pinholes or tiny dots in the stencil can be caused by dust or debris on the screen during coating or exposure. Make sure to work in a clean environment and use a dust-free coating and exposure area. Additionally, consider using a degreaser before coating to eliminate any oils or contaminants that could cause pinholes.

Emulsion Remains Sticky or Tacky

If your emulsion remains sticky or tacky even after proper exposure and drying, it may be due to underexposure or improper drying conditions. Ensure that your screen receives sufficient exposure time and adjust the drying conditions to allow for complete drying of the emulsion. Consider using a dehumidifier or a fan to improve airflow and speed up the drying process.

Section: Reclaiming and Reusing Screens

Reclaiming screens by removing the existing emulsion allows you to reuse them for future printing projects. Follow these steps to effectively reclaim your screens:

Emulsion Removal

To remove the emulsion, apply a dedicated emulsion remover or stencil stripper to both sides of the screen. Use a soft brush or a scrub pad to scrub away the emulsion, working in circular motions. Rinse the screen thoroughly with water, ensuring that all emulsion residue is removed. Repeat the process if necessary to achieve a clean and clear screen.

Degreasing and Cleaning

After removing the emulsion, degrease the screen to eliminate any oils or contaminants that may have accumulated during printing. Use a screen degreaser and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper application. Rinse the screen thoroughly to ensure all degreaser residue is removed. Finally, clean the screen with a gentle screen cleaner to remove any remaining residue and prepare it for future use.

Storage and Maintenance

Proper storage and maintenance of reclaimed screens are essential for their longevity. Store the screens in a clean and dry environment, away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures. If possible, keep them in a dust-free cabinet or cover them with a clean cloth to prevent dust or debris from settling on the screens. Regularly inspect the screens for any signs of damage or deterioration, and replace them as necessary.

Section: Emulsion Safety and Storage

Working with emulsion requires proper safety precautions to protect yourself and ensure the longevity of the product. Follow these guidelines for safe handling and storage:

Protective Gear

When working with emulsion, always wear protective gear, including gloves, safety goggles, and a respirator mask if necessary. Emulsion contains chemicals that may irritate the skin, eyes, or respiratory system, so it is crucial to take precautionary measures.


Ensure that you work in a well-ventilated area or use a fume hood to prevent the buildup of fumes or vapors. Proper ventilation helps minimize exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and ensures a safe working environment.

Storage Temperature

Store emulsion in a cool, dry place with a stable temperature. Extreme temperatures can affect the emulsion’s performance and shelf life. Avoid storing emulsion in freezing temperatures or direct sunlight, as this can cause degradation or spoilage.

Proper Sealing

Emulsion containers should be tightly sealed after each use to prevent air exposure and maintain the emulsion’s effectiveness. This helps prevent premature hardening or contamination, ensuring that the emulsion remains usable for an extended period.

Section: Advanced Techniques and Tips

For experienced screen printers looking to push the boundaries of their work, here are some advanced techniques and tips to consider:


Multicoating involves applying multiple layers of emulsion to achieve a thicker stencil for more intricate designs or special effects. Each layer is exposed separately, allowing for precise control over the stencil’s thickness and opacity.

Halftone Printing

Halftone printing is a technique that uses various dot sizes to create the illusion of shades and gradients. By mastering halftone printing with emulsion, you can achieve detailed and photorealistic prints with varying levels of transparency and opacity.

Special Effects

Experiment with specialty emulsions that offer unique effects, such as high gloss, matte, textured, or glow-in-the-dark finishes. These special emulsions can add a touch of creativity and uniqueness to your screen prints, making them stand out from the crowd.

Fine-Tuning Exposure Settings

Continuously fine-tune your exposure settings by conducting test exposures and analyzing the results. Adjusting exposure times, distances, or using different light sources can help you achieve the desired level of detail, sharpness, and durability in your prints.

Continuous Learning and Experimentation

Screen printing with emulsion is an art form that requires constant learning and experimentation. Stay up to date with the latest techniques, technologies, and materials in the field. Attend workshops, explore online resources, and collaborate with other screen printers to expand your knowledge and refine your craft.

Emulsion for screen printing is a versatile and indispensable tool that opens up endless possibilities for creating vibrant and high-quality prints. By understanding the properties, types, application techniques, and troubleshooting tips discussed in this comprehensive guide, you can confidently navigate the world of emulsion for screen printing and achieve professional results. Remember to always practice proper safety precautions, embrace creativity, and enjoy the process of bringing your designs to life through the art of screen printing.

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