Screen Printing Beyond T-Shirts

Last week, the Maker’s Row team sat down at a coffee shop with Tony Estevez, a co-founder of Tiny Fishing Printing, versatile screen printers in Rochester, NY. We learned about Tony’s alinear path towards his current job and the ABCs of screen printing. If you are interested, he leads printing workshops in Rochester!

At a glance

  • Specialty: Screen printing on any substrate (flat or cylindrical) – T-shirts, tote bags, hats, bottles, beakers, growlers etc.
  • Location: Rochester, NY
  • Ideal client: Businesses of any size seeking branded products
  • Maker’s Row profile: https://makersrow.com/tiny-fish-printing
  • Fun fact: Tony and his co-founder were college roommates

Flat and Cylindrical Printing

Tiny Fish Printing is a screen printing facility that can print on any substrate. Beyond inking T-shirts and bags, they are capable of printing on bottles, glassware, and other cylindrical objects. In fact, they are one of the only printers with flat and cylindrical capabilities. They also print with various materials such as metal on metal, and silicone on mats. Tony, a co-founder of Tiny Fish, considers screen printing the “original 3D printing.” The company strives to implement eco-forward production practices by collecting rainwater from the roof to wash screens and separating out chemical substances through charcoal filters on the presses.

When the company started off, they specialized in T-shirts. But soon they realized “just how versatile screen printing is.” They invested in new processes and machinery to print on various shaped objects. Some interesting orders they’ve worked on include enamel coffee mugs, cold brew growlers, fancy thermoses, and laboratory beakers. They’ve done elaborate T-shirts involving artwork with 16 colors for a horror movie licensee. Says Tony, “some of the coolest stuff I’m not even allowed to talk about.”

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The company has realized that certain objects are easier to print on before they are constructed, and so they have started to produce some consumer items in-house. For example, they make custom canvas travel bags, growlers bags, and tote bags that are printed on flat material such as canvas and then constructed into shaped bags afterwards. Traditionally, the customer specifies a particular blanks brand or style that Tiny Fish sources readymade to print on.

For the Love of Music

Tony and his business partner Jon met in college. Tony was sporting a shirt of Boy Sets Fire, a hardcore punk band from Delaware that he liked. The two hit it off from there and became roommates for over eight years – in college, at Tony’s parents’ house, and in Tarrytown.

The two have embarked on many evolving business ventures together. In 2002, They started off as concert promoters, traveling with touring punk rock bands. Soon they were designing apparel for bands – “we would wander around music festivals selling shirts.” Eventually they were printing the shirts themselves. They learned in a bootstrapped way – by “buying some equipment on eBay and watching a lot of YouTube videos.” As their printing services rose to prominence, and they set up a shop in Rochester for its lower cost of living. Looking back, Tony recognizes that the hardest part was starting off. “Just start something and it’ll work out.”

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Now, there are 18 employees at the facility. Tony handles “frontend dabbling,” or a mix of R&D, human resources, and sales. Jon oversees backend bookkeeping, payroll, and rent. 

Pizzerias and Fashion Brands

The company caters to businesses ranging from mom-and-pop pizzerias to large fashion brands and trademark licensees. The best customers are “the ones who know what they want and are using screen printing as a tool to reach a defined goal.” Tony loves to experiment with different materials and substrates but hates to print on polyester and other synthetic materials.

In the past few years, they’ve “discovered hidden gems in Rochester” and developed relationships with many local businesses. One of their clients was previously manufacturing in Chicago and shipping the goods to India for screen printing before realizing there were screen printing capabilities right in the neighborhood.

Self-Described Gearhead

At minimum, screen printing requires two clamps, a pivot point, and a screen. The screen is coated with a photosensitive emulsion. A positive image from a computer is laid on the screen. The areas hit by light exposure will harden, after which the screen is dipped into a tank of water and the softer parts fall out. The remaining stencil is taken to a press, lined with colors, and used to test print. The beauty of screen printing is that screens can be reused hundreds of times. After a stencil is used, it’s stripped off the screen and the ink washed off so that the screen can be reused for a different project.

Tiny Fish Printing is “pretty heavily invested in machinery.” They have four flat printing presses , three of which are automatic (electric motor-driven) and can churn out 30,000 apparel pieces per week. A few weeks ago, they bought a cylinder press that prints onto bottles. Tiny Fish excels “because [they] really know the process.” They run the entire process of screen printing, from stretching the frames to printing on a T-shirt.

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Automatic machinery is unsurprisingly much more efficient than the manual process they started out with. Given a single-color print, a qualified operator can produce 100 shirts per hour manually. An automatic press with that same setup can produce upwards of 1200 shirts per hour. The effects are even more staggering when printing in multiple colors. Nonetheless, the manual process is handy for more unique projects, where a human hand can facilitate difficult stencil placements.

It takes at least two years of training until employees can run a press themselves. They are hired as interns for pre-production and cleaning work. Gradually, they learn the trade through an apprenticeship-like model. With experience, they intuit, for example, that red ink shouldn’t be applied after yellow because the yellow will pick up from the red. They build a knowledge base of the particular qualities of different garment materials.

Tony is a self-described “gearhead, who wants all the cool technology.” He scopes out the newest machinery through various sources such as tradeshows (where graphic artists, digital printers, screen printers, and so forth, convene) and, of course, the Internet. The challenge is knowing when to invest in further machinery from a business standpoint.

 

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Making it Digestible

As the company is in the middle of rebranding itself, one of its goals is to “make screen printing super digestible.” In other words, to take the complexity of screen printing and simplify it for consumers so they can take advantage of the service to print what they want. For example, they might explain the properties of the four inks that Tiny Fish works with at a high level and promote the top five products in each product category.

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The company can do much more than “print wacky sayings on T-shirts – [they] can do things like blend colors to create nuanced shades and gradients for intricate designs.” They want consumers to know that. From a designer’s standpoint, knowledge about the screen printing process – its capabilities and limitations – can be very empowering. Tony advises, “when you’re making anything, learn as much as you can about the process.”

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Designers can leverage the process to cut costs. For example, they might place an additional design detail on a side corner rather than the back of a T-shirt, if that detail can fit on the same screen as the frontal design. Tony encourages designers to reach out and ask questions – “if you partner with us, we are happy to strategize on ways to save money – quotes can fluctuate a lot based on various factors.”

In the pipeline, Tiny Fish is adding new features to the website to streamline the ordering process. Customers can place orders directly online. For certain basic items, they can checkout on one page rather than converse back and forth with the company. Customers can also reorder items with a single click. Stay tuned.

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Feeling Inspired?

Contact Tiny Fish Printing here, or search through a wealth of other small batch factories on Maker’s Row – they are eager to work closely with their customers!

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