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

by John Amato

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. And when they see all of the cool, vintage shirts that we have in our stores, they want us to screen print custom vintage shirts for their brand.

vintage lake michigan t-shirt

In addition to the information below on what makes a shirt vintage and how we print vintage looking t-shirts, here are additional resources on we've put together for you on vintage tees:

Why Make a Shirt Look Vintage?

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.  

We believe that it's the intangibles of a vintage shirt that make it so appealing. A great vintage shirt can transport you back to a time and place that makes you feel good or connect you with someone you love.

What Makes a T-Shirt Vintage?

Technically, vintage is defined by something that is at least 20 years old.

So that high school shirt that you're still wearing even though it has holes in it, that may not qualify as vintage. See if you can find your junior high shirt!

But beyond just age, there is one thing that defines a shirt as vintage: the feel. 

Vintage shirts become softer with each wear and wash. It's one of the most identifiable traits of a vintage shirt. 

It's the old faded logo that is distressed and cracked. It's the soft material that has become threadbare over time. 

Both of these need to soft. If the ink is still thick and heavy, you might need to wear it and wash it a few more times to make it a true vintage shirt.

Want to know the best shirts to use for a cool vintage print? Here's our breakdown of our favorite blank vintage shirts.

How We Screen Print a Vintage Looking T-Shirt

When creating a new vintage inspired shirt, we keep the softness of the shirt in mind. We care not only about how soft the shirt is, but how soft the print is, as well.

And it's printing a softer shirt that is the hard part. After all, we aren't making the shirt, we're just printing on it. 

And it's not as simple as just finding a vintage t-shirt blank and printing on it. You need to know the techniques that will match the print to the shirt.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of ways to print a vintage design. Not all screen printers do it the same. 

Below you will find the four most common ways we do this for our customers and examples of each. 

1. No Underbase

When printing on dark shirts, a standard design would have an underbase. An underbase is white ink printed under a color.

This helps print that ink truest to its original color and prevents interference from the shirt fabric and dye from changing the ink color printed on top.

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 soft, thin, vintage shirt. 

You can see in the video example above that our printer is printing the white ink on the shirt only once on a heather black shirt. This will allow some of the shirt to show through the print and give the ink a softer feel on the 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 definitely 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 cut 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, similar to gradients. When we output your art to screen, instead of the art being solid, we reduce the opacity of the art 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

When done correctly, it's difficult to notice that that art is actually made up of halftones. The print looks solid but definitely feels better than a thick, heavy screen print.

Oftentimes, when achieving a vintage print with halftones, we also reduce our inks. It adds to the vintage feel of the shirt and gives it a super soft hand feel. 

4. Distress Textures in the Art

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 in our shop.

Our 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. 

More Examples of Our Vintage Style Shirts

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.

Shoot your rep an email to learn more or fill out our contact form to get your order started today!

You can check out some of our other behind the scenes how to blogs and videos at the links below:

How we burn screens for screen printing t-shirts
How we screen print rainbows on t-shirts
Top 4 ways we screen print a vintage t-shirt
ow we embroider our Ohioan sweatshirts
How we embroider custom hats on our 6 head embroidery machine


  • Comment Author: Teresa Draper

    Good morning. I have the blank vintage 70’s shirts that I wish to print the vintage design on to. In other words, I would like the original vintage t shirt text put on more actual vintage tees. Is this possible for the printing to look vintage too?
    Thanks for listening, Teresa

  • Comment Author: JOHN MCCARTHY

    I am a lifelong friend of the Darby – the church also known as Immaculate Conception church at 434 Western Ave in Toledo – as Chris Amato about that church. I would bet that if you came up with a Darby themed T-shirt – in GREEN – with a message about the Darby – you would sell out – especially if you were to throw in a shamrock and hit the St. Patrick’s Day push -

    Darby has a huge email mailing list – let them make a few bucks per shirt – and EVERONE would be happy –

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