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My Journey from Manual to Auto: A Screen Printer’s Tale

A year after making a transformative business decision, Sam Lapcevic has no regrets.

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THE TWO THINGS I’ve loved since childhood are clothing and reading/writing. I graduated college in 2015, majoring in English (check one). So, the next logical thing was to get involved in clothing (check two). The day after graduation, I flew from Pennsylvania to California to begin an internship selling clothing at motocross races for the Racer X brand. Every week, I would be home for three days and out of state for the races for four days. I began to learn the world of marketing, inventory, and ordering T-shirts. I started to really notice how different shirts and prints felt, how they fit, etc.

Fast forward four months to the beginning of my career at an award and engraving business. We slowly began to bring embroidery in-house. Screen printing was something I was always interested in, and we were lacking in those services. So, in 2017, while still working for this company, I started a clothing brand, Be The Wondering, where I donated 50 percent of the profit to mental health research. During this time, I attended YouTube University on how to screen print. [Editor’s note: Don’t tell Andy. See page 58.] Shoutout to Ryan Moor, Cam Earven, and Catspit Screen Print Supply. I bought my first press, a Shocker 4 x 1 tabletop press online from Anthem Screen Printing. Shoutout to that crew, too. I would call them and be on the phone for 45 minutes every other day asking five million questions. They were so helpful and patient with me. I began printing with water-based ink in my childhood bedroom using a heat gun to dry it to the touch, and then running it through the dryer cycle twice until it was cured. So wild to look back at!

My Journey from Manual to Auto: A Screen Printer’s Tale

From there, I began to print more and more for my brand. Fortunately, the brand was a success right out of the gate. I would go to my 9-to-5 and spend every other second learning about screen printing while experimenting with lots and lots of trial and error. I finally attended an in-person screen printing class. I had $10,000 in my bank account and spent $8000 of it on screen printing equipment the very next day. I bought a Riley Hopkins press, Vastex dryer, Workhorse exposure unit, BBC flash unit, a washout booth, an Epson film printer, a RIP software, my first plastisol ink, and a ton of other supplies, like adhesive, tape, and squeegees. I started approaching businesses to offer my services, basically begging for a chance to prove I could do this. Word of mouth began to take fire. I would take all the money I made and reinvest over and over again. I’ve owned four different manual presses in that time: 4 x 1, 4 x 1, 6 x 4, and 6 x 6. I opened my screen printing business, Branded Threads, in January of 2019, went full time with it in March of 2020 (yay, COVID) in a garage, bought land in July, began building a brand-new shop in August of 2021, moved into the new shop in February of 2022, and began auto printing in May.

Currently, I do mostly B2B printing, so I typically work with other business owners. Unlike sports boosters, where the person in charge is only there for a few years at most, we build lasting relationships, which leads to easy reordering. However, I do a fair amount of sport teams: youth, intermediate, high school, and college. I wrestled in college and began coaching right after graduation I still do), so I have a lot of customers in that area. Of course, I still work with the random customer for a random event, but mostly B2B.

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My Journey from Manual to Auto: A Screen Printer’s Tale

The Move from
Manual to Auto

I ran a manual press from 2017 until I began auto printing in April of 2022. I still print manually when I absolutely have to, but that’s just about never. I’ve ran most of the major brands – Riley Hopkins, Vastex, Workhorse, Anatol, BBC – but now I run that beautiful blue: M&R, baby! I have an M&R Diamondback S auto and I’m currently helping M&R with the development of the Copperhead Charge dryer. It’s the newest piece of equipment in my shop. I sold my manual equipment to a local screen printing supply company and via DigitSmith, Facebook Marketplace, and good ole Craigslist.

I knew moving to auto was the next evolution in my business growth. I was working every bit of 17 hours a day with no slowing down in sight. I needed to be able to produce faster. This is my passion, but also the way I make a living. I want to continue to grow and to be the best printer I possibly can, and an auto makes that a reality. The work was there and I was tired of manual printing white ink on 500 black shirts. Now, every morning when I wake up, my wrists go, “Thank you!”

The auto got to my shop in March. This was still peak COVID, so things were super backed up. I scheduled my tech (shoutout to Wally) to set the press up in April. I began printing that night with a design for the shop, which eventually ended up as rags, haha! I ran my first job on tri-blends (huge regret), which I ultimately had to reorder and print on my manual. I was so afraid of it after that moment. I just didn’t quite understand the whole one flash point, revolver mode, and printing wet on wet thing. I tried to run it like I did my manual, naturally, and that led to some heartbreak at first. It’s a whole different world. The ability to fudge a print a little bit like you’re able to with a manual is nonexistent. At first it was scary, but now it’s what I cherish. Consistent prints that hold the tightest of registration? *Chef’s kiss.*

My Journey from Manual to Auto: A Screen Printer’s Tale I was tired of manual printing white ink on 500 black shirts. Now, every morning when I wake up, my wrists go, “Thank you!”

Customer Response

My clients can’t believe my turnaround time. My full-day production rate is literally what I’m able to do in an hour on an auto. We can run multiple orders in the 100 to 300 range in a day where customers are expecting two-plus-week turnarounds. I had a decent order size pre-auto, but now the universe is conspiring to help me. I keep getting bigger and bigger orders. When I hear 2000 shirts, I get excited instead of crying a little inside for my wrists. Also, my quality has gotten better. I completely undermined the beauty of a pneumatic machine. You have consistent pressure, meaning your inks (provided your flash is dialed in) lay the same from one print to the next, unlike manual printing where fatigue sets in throughout the day, leading to some inconsistencies. I’m a better printer because of my auto.

Staffing

When I went auto is when I hired full time. I consistently utilized part-time work, but then needed full-time help. There was no way I could keep up with the reclaim and burning of screens alone. As I’m writing this, I am printing 15 films to be burned tomorrow morning. Last year, I would burn 15 to 20 films in a week. Typically, those screens are reclaimed the following morning, provided nothing goes wrong. *Knocks on desk.* They’re then measured for tension and coated. We keep things moving along. Coat, burn, print, reclaim, measure tension, coat, all over again multiple times a week. I am on pace to hire more. The business continues to grow as well as individual order size. It’s difficult for me to hand over responsibilities as I know no one will ever care about this business as much as I do, but that’s where hiring the right employee(s) and being a good manager comes into place. It’s all a cycle and I couldn’t love it more!

The Perks

Off contact is consistent and much easier to maintain. The press spins based on an index you set, so no more over flashing if you simply forget about it for a second, which ultimately means no more burned pallets – yahoo! You can have more confidence in your artwork, so you can lower your trap or stroke as it will truly hold tight, tight registration, which ultimately leads to better prints. You can print higher color jobs at the same margin with way less time involved, which means more profit. You can also print wider images confidently. I remember pulling white ink on a 12-inch design and not having good coverage on the edges. I’d have to add so much manual pressure. Now a 12-inch print is just another day.

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My shop is filled with fun murals, like our Flavortown chicken. My shop is filled with fun murals, like our Flavortown chicken.

Things to
Look Out For

Beware of added costs from the auto. Techs are expensive. Your electric bill will increase. You need all new screens (31 x 23). Your squeegees are four to five times more expensive. Pallets are more expensive. Flood bars are not cheap (buy winged). You need to use 205 or 230 way more often for top colors opposed to 160 for everything, so you likely won’t buy the right mesh counts for your shop if it’s your first time printing auto. You will fly through screens, which means way more emulsion, as well as more emulsion coverage per screen. There will be way more films and way more reclaiming. You will begin to use underbase for nearly everything other than white garments. But you don’t have to worry about wasting a spin like you did on the manual. Once you set the job up, it prints at the same speed if you’re using one screen or five screens. You will accumulate more rags as some of your printing will be really bad at first, but I promise it does get better and this is the way to print. There were so many times I had to jump into the abyss, as scary as it was, and force myself to use the auto when I wasn’t fully confident, but that’s how you ultimately learn. You will never get better if you don’t push yourself!

Getting Started

If you want to move from manual to auto, here’s my one piece of advice: Do it! As soon as it makes sense financially and you have the production to support it, do it. It’s a learning curve for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s still screen printing; you’re just not the one actually pulling the squeegee. The manual is completely hands on. The auto is hands off. Let the robot work, dang it! If you’re a good printer, you will catch on quickly.

PHOTO GALLERY (20 IMAGES)
My clients are mostly in B2B, sports, and events spaces.

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