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Top 4 Ways We Screen Print a Vintage Shirt (With Examples)

Top 4 Ways We Screen Print a Vintage Shirt (With Examples)

We print a lot of vintage style t-shirts. It’s what people know us for. From Better in Toledo to Lion Store to Thackery’s, we’ve made a name for ourselves with our retail line of shirts with retro designs and logos. In fact, some people assume it’s the only way we know how to print. 

But who doesn’t love a vintage shirt? The soft, well worn feel. The distressed, faded print. It’s a look that doesn’t get old because nostalgia is always in style. People want to remember their glory days and the times when they didn’t have a worry in the world. They want to emulate that old photo of their dad with a mustache, short shorts, and a ringer tee...well, part of it anyway.  

There are a lot of ways to print a vintage design. Here are the four most common ways we do it. 

1. No underbase

When printing on dark shirts, a standard design would have an underbase, white ink printed under a color. This helps us print that ink truest to its original color and prevents interference from the shirt fabric and dye. The nice thing about printing an underbase is that you get a bright, solid color. However, it can also make the print have a thicker, heavier hand feel. It’s a feeling not everyone likes on a shirt - especially a thinner shirt. 

university of toledo blue and gold shirt

I’m simplifying things a bit, but think about coloring with markers on a white piece of paper and a dark piece of paper. The color on the dark paper is going to be slightly dull relative to the color on the white paper. It’s a similar concept for screen printing. 

By eliminating the underbase, you get a softer hand feel on the shirt. Oftentimes, the shirt shows through the ink giving it a faded look. When using this technique, the shirt dye can bleed or show in the ink so you can’t guarantee specific colors. But the look and feel are generally worth it. 

2. Reduced ink

If you like a vintage print, you probably like two things - a faded design and a soft hand feel. Eliminating the underbase on a print will get you the former, but it doesn’t always go far enough with the latter. In order to achieve a soft hand feel, which results in very little ink that you can feel on the shirt, we commonly add a reducer to our ink which softens it. 

toledo zoo shirt

Reducing the ink can drastically reduce the opacity of the ink and can fade slightly after washing. In this scenario we can’t ensure color matching, but what you miss there you’ll make up for in a really cool, soft print. 

3. Halftones

Halftones are a good trick to produce a super soft and subtle look. Halftones are tiny dots. When we output your art to screen, instead of the art being solid, we reduce the opacity so it prints dots rather than solid. By doing this, we reduce the amount of ink that passes through the screen onto your garment resulting in a softer hand feel and faded print.

cedar creek shirt

4. Distress textures

Distress textures are pretty straight forward. We take your art and place a distress texture or grunge filter over it. This gives it a cracked look. It can be used with or without an underbase. 

vintage lion store shirt

This is a technique that you have seen on shirts before. It’s the most common feature of vintage shirts, whether they are original shirts printed years ago or replica vintage shirts. 

While there are plenty of other ways to print vintage shirts or achieve a soft hand feel (waterbased and discharge inks), these are the most common ways that we do it. These techniques are typically accompanied with other print techniques - high mesh counts, fewer print strokes, fast squeegee speeds, etc. At the end of the day, the key is that the printer understands the customer expectations and does what is necessary to meet those expectations. 

We use these techniques to great effect with a lot of our customers. Here are a few examples from our Instagram:

Inside the Five
Red Bird Arts District
Owens Community College
The Flying Joe

If you’d like to see samples of any of these print techniques, let us know. We have printed samples in our shop.

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