How I Actually Started My T-shirt Business.
I started my company on the carport of a rented house in Sarasota, Florida just after graduating college. I was dead broke, and a lot of my friends were either flipping burgers or making popcorn in the movie theaters. Instead of following that route, I decided to strike out on my own. One advantage I had over them was that I had already been screen printing for a few years. Before going to college, I had run a silkscreen shop for a small sporting goods company in Ft. Lauderdale. Even when I was in college I founded a screen printing club and taught many of my fellow students how to do it, so they could make T-shirts for their parties, art projects, and other activities.
When I graduated and took a look at the job market, it seemed pretty clear to me that my best option was to work for myself. I was able to use my previous contacts in the screen printing industry to get equipment for next to nothing. What I couldn't get for cheap, I was able to find alternative ways to do. My brother and I closed in the carport of the house I was renting with gardening latticework, and I set up shop with little more than a dryer, a 4-color press, and a computer. Luckily for me, the years I had spent screen printing before college gave me enough experience to know best practices for making t-shirts, and also what inks, techniques, and equipment to avoid. For the next few years I ate beans and rice and attended the school of Hard Knocks in Business.
It's Even Easier and Cheaper to Start a T-shirt Company Today.
Back when I started my company, getting into the screen printing was very cheap, as far as business startups were concerned. For less than ten thousand dollars, you could be up and running. Luckily for me, I was very frugal, and had already figured out a bunch of guerilla screen printing tricks that saved me a lot of money and headaches. Considering I had a lot to learn about business, I honestly don't think I would have survived had I had to learn screen printing along with business in the beginning. Many screen printers play their cards pretty close to their chests, so not a lot of people were giving good advice on the subject. Another interesting thing about advice is that sometimes it's hard to evaluate it if you don't already know the information you're seeking.
The good news is that as cheap as it was to start up when I did, nothing like the Yudu (or my build your on screen printing press system) was available. Sure, if you knew what I know now, you could have started for less than a thousand dollars, but if you didn't know how to burn your screens in the sun, or you couldn't burn your screens at the college screen printing club, you'd have had to spend a minimum of fifteen hundred dollars on a cheap burning unit alone. If you didn't know how to dry your inks with a heat gun or a flash unit, then a conveyor dryer ran you a minimum of five thousand dollars. Also, waterbased inks and plastisol too, for that matter, were absolutely horrible back then. When I started, I wheeled and dealed for my dryer and my press, and I had to drive to the school and play the "ex-president of the screen printing club" card to make my screens.
What do you get with the Yudu?
Basically, the Yudu is a little startup screen printing kit for hobbyists. While the commercials and advertisements tout it to be a whole lot of things it is not, you do actually get a lot for the money. For one thing, it is a little mini burning unit at a tiny cost. It also can get you printing your own T-shirts in a very small amount of space with a very low startup expense. That said, let me dispel a few things for you before I continue. I'd like to start on an even keel.
Unlike the claims of the ads, the Yudu is not good for printing anything that isn't flat and fairly small. Baseball caps and tents are out of the question. Also, the Yudu commercial makes it seem like the Yudu is faster, cheaper, and easier than traditional screen printing. That is simply not true. The Yudu system is screen printing, plain and simple. Nothing has been simplified or sped up, and the only thing cheaper is the burning unit. Actually, the cheap burning unit is what makes it a good option for your startup, though. That alone is kind of the secret value of the Yudu.
The Yudu is a Jack of All Trades and a Master of None.
Even though the Yudu has it's secret value, for the most part, it is barely competent at just about everything else it does. I don't say that to scare you away from it. I say that so you can understand why I make the recommendations that I do. If you are to understand the path I layout to owning a full scale screen printing shop, we have to be honest about the Yudu. The Yudu will get you started, and if you avoid some big headaches, as I did when I started my business, you can make enough money to buy better equipment that is more expensive, but mops the floor up with the Yudu. To be candid, my build your own screen printing press is a far better screen printing press than the Yudu, but without the Yudu, you still have to burn your screens in the sun.
What Comes with the Yudu is Really Not Enough.
The Yudu starter package (the same one that sells in Michaels and Joannes for $299.00, and the one we sell on this site for $199) comes with the Yudu machine, a platen, a 110 mesh screen, one inkjet transparency, two emulsion sheets (also known as capillary films), a squeegee, a disk, a user manual, and a 2 ounce bottle of black ink. To be frank, if the basic set is all you get, you'll probably be buying more stuff before you get T-shirt number one printed. While it is possible to get everything right the very first time you try, most people I have spoken with don't. Some don't get the transparency right; some don't burn their screen correctly; but the most common problem is that people have a hard time just getting the emulsion sheets to stick to the screen. It's a big source of frustration, and that is one of the reasons we developed the Hack the Yudu Screen Kit. Not only does it save you massive frustration, it also saves you a ton of money.
On that note, I'd like to mention that the Yudu supplies are pricey. We sell them at a discount, but wherever we can, we offer third party alternatives that keep the costs in check. For example, the Yudu brand inkjet transparencies tend to be about $11 for a pack of 5. We have our generic brand for the same price, but you get 10 units. That's half off. The same is true for the inks. We carry some Matsui brand waterbased inks which are higher quality than the Yudu brand, and you get more with a huge savings. If you wanted to just get everything we recommend for starting with the Yudu, we have a package we created called the Great Deal on the Yudu.
About the Yudu Squeegee
I'm just going to say it. The Yudu squeegee is junk. It's pretty much a long spatula, and even though I have been screen printing for most of my life, I still have a hard time using it. Even I can't get the ink to flow right with it, and it's unwieldiness creates unnecessary messes. That's why we offer the 11" professional grade squeegee. We sell it cheaper than the Yudu upgraded squeegee, and if you buy it, you'll be very glad you did. It's $13.25 and worth every penny.
About the Yudu Inks
If you are making T-shirts, for the most part, if you use the Yudu the way Provocraft recommends, you are stuck with waterbased inks. Actually, Provocraft says you can only use the Yudu inks with the Yudu system. Do you believe you can only use Betty Crocker icing on Betty Crocker cakes? Seriously, any "screen printing" ink will work with the Yudu as long as you clean your screens properly. Third party screen printing inks work fine without ruining the Yudu screens or destroying your prints. For the most part, Provocraft would just appreciate it if you bought their brand. We sell a Matsui brand ink here on diyTeeshirts because it is actually better than Yudu ink, and it is less expensive.
Why Can You Only Use Waterbased Inks on the Yudu?
If you want to get technical, you can use plastisol inks on the Yudu. In case you don't know, most professional screen printers use plastisol inks for a variety of reasons. We have an ink report that comes with some of our products that discusses plastisol and waterbased inks in detail. Even though you actually can use plastisol with the Yudu, you have to hack the Yudu to do it. The problem is that plastisol inks don't dry to the touch (gel) without using heat. The amount of heat you need is more than the plastic platen that comes with the Yudu can take. When you expose the platen to the more than 200 degrees it takes to gel plastisol, it starts to bow, and won't last long if you do it much. So basically, you either have to make your own more heat resistant platen, or load your shirts differently than they recommend --in other words, you can't load the shirt with the "T" of the platen through the neck of the shirt. When you solve that, you can use plastisol with the Yudu.
A Word to the Wise About the Yudu, Screen Printing, and Business
Print a few tee shirts before you start selling jobs to all the local businesses. It really is a good idea to learn what your capabilities are and how the screens and inks act before you commit to making T-shirts for your first customer. You should also do some wash tests to be sure your techniques are working. In the section below, I outline some of the danger zones for you, but I still recommend you test, test, test. Also, despite the Yudu commercials that make it seem almost magical, screen printing takes time and attention to detail, and the Yudu is not designed for mass production. If you don't want to wind up working for slave wages (or losing money), you should consider your time as part of your price model. If you come in too much cheaper than your competition, you might be forgetting or unaware of some key factor.
What Kinds of Tee Shirt Prints Can You Do with the Yudu?
So supposing that you have the starting materials, I'm going to fill you in on what headaches to avoid with the Yudu. There are four basic limitations to the Yudu that effect what kinds of jobs you can do with it and not pull out your hair. If you were printing shirts for yourself as a hobby, you'd be able to get away with more, but when you charge people good money for custom imprinted products, they expect a level of quality above what you might do for your own personal use. I recommend you treat your customers like very good friends, and try to give them the very best you can offer. The four limitations of the Yudu are 1) you are mostly stuck using waterbased inks, 2) it's tough to do mass production on the Yudu, 3) The Yudu does not hold good registration, and 4) Your print size is limited to roughly 10" wide by 12" tall. What that all amounts to is that you'll want to stick to one color designs on light colored garments, and no over-sized prints. There are exceptions to that rule, but that's your starting safety zone.
In case you didn't catch it, re-read the last paragraph again, because what I just told you may save you a huge headache. The safety zone I just outlined for you may be worth thousands of dollars in lost profits to you. As I grow more and more in my understanding of business, one key point that keeps getting clearer to me is that good information is hugely valuable.
Upgrading From the Yudu
Now that you know your capabilities, the next thing to do is learn to expand them. If you are doing the Yudu as a hobby, you may never need to upgrade. If you want to be able to increase your production speed, do multi-color, and use plastisol inks (as a business), then you are going to have to move away from using the Yudu as a printing press. But remember the secret of the Yudu: it is not great at anything, but it is a great deal on a low-end burning unit.
While the Yudu is actually better than most hobby store presses, it still isn't all that good. To move up, you either have to buy a professional screen printing press or build your own. We sell plans to build your own 3-color screen printing press and a starter package that includes everything you need but the wood and a few pieces from the hardware store. Our Starter Package 3 includes screens (you can't use Yudu screens) and plastisol inks as well. If you want to get technical, you could start completely without the Yudu, and just burn your screens in the sun, as the starter package does include a tutorial that tells you how to do that. Sooner or later, though, you'll want to get a burning unit, and depending on where you are in your business building venture, the Yudu may or may not be right for you at that point.
What Comes After the 3-color Press?
When your business is production-oriented, as screen printing tends to be, you tend to start thinking of things in terms of bottlenecks. A bottleneck is anything that restricts the flow and keeps you from getting maximum speed. The very next thing you need after the 3-color press is a conveyor dryer. Improving how you dry your inks is going to be the very best next move you make. The reason for that is three-fold: 1) a conveyor dryer will rocket your production, 2) it will ensure a correct and even cure, and 3) it will increase your capability. We sell a very reasonably-priced starter conveyor dryer on diyTeeShirts that even plugs into a standard wall outlet. It's compact too, so if space is an issue, it's a great way to go.
Beyond the Dryer
Once you get the dryer, you are almost completely set-up for production. The next upgrade you'll need is to buy a commercial screen printing press and a flash-cure unit. I don't recommend getting the flash unit in place of the conveyor dryer because in many ways that can hobble you. I know a lot of guys who have done that, and it killed their businesses. Truth be told, if you are going to last, you need the conveyor dryer first. That's because getting a handle on your ink curing is absolutely essential.
The capabilities you'll need from your screen printing press are at a minimum, 4 colors and 2 stations. If you have the money, you'd be better off with a 6-color, 4 station, but this article assumes you don't have a lot of money and you are boot-strapping from the ground up. You'll want the press to have two stations so that you can do light colored inks on dark garments quicker. The reason is that light colored inks on dark garments require a flash-cure (drying the first layer and then printing a second layer on top). Flash-curing goes much quicker if you can print one shirt while the other is drying under the flash unit.
From there, there are a lot of places you can go. For example, you might want to build a pressure washing booth to reclaim your screens, and a screen rack and a dark room wouldn't hurt either.
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