Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Nerds in Berlin (again)

We've been here in Berlin for a few days - in the salubrious district of Kreuzberg - and slowly getting to understand (some) of the appeal. It has many similarities to Brighton: only a grubby, dirtier, graffiti-strewn version - and no seaside. The last time I came, I hated it. This time, the weather is better, there are more people about, and we've met some really cool characters. Kreuzberg is still a dirty, rotten area of Berlin, but - as with so many places - it's the people that make the city, and we've met some pretty cool ones!

One of the more exciting things about our short visit was visiting the drop-in print making workshop. There are places like this all over Berlin: places that hackerspaces should be aspiring to. It's basically a shop where you turn up, explain what you need to do and they supply the parts, materials, equipment and (where it's needed) expertise to help you get the job done.

The shop is open an manned by staff five days a week; there's a massive indie/punk subculture in Berlin where people make their own t-shirts, fliers and cd/album covers, mostly using screen printing. Everyone seems to know someone who knows screen-printing! So we took ourselves along to see how it all works.

Andrea made up a simple screen by hand-stretching some medium-grade silk over an A4 sized picture frame and stapled it along each edge. Although you can get machine-stretched frames, this hand-made one seemed pretty taught, so we thought we'd just give it a go. At the print-shop they provided the photo-sensitive emulsion. It's ready mixed, so you just need to put a thin film on your screen and leave it to dry.

the photo-emulsion is a bright lime-green colour. When it's "baked" it goes a dark, leafy-green colour.

A thin film of paint is dropped into a trough (it's expensive stuff and is difficult to re-use, so only the smallest amount needed is taken out of the pot) and the trough is swiped quickly up both sides of the silk - working vertically, from bottom to top

The aim is not to place a film on the surface of the screen (although this may happen) - it should be as thin as possible and we're just trying to get the emulsion to fill the gaps in the silk. Sometimes the paint doesn't get quite into the corners, which is why the screen needs to be oversized: our frame is for an A4 picture so is actually a little larger than A4, all the way around

While the screen was drying, in a dark, warm room, we set about preparing the artwork. Some PCB circuits were laser-printed onto 100gsm paper (not acetate as we were expecting). The paper was then coated with cooking oil (rapeseed I think) and it magically turned translucent: a handy tip to remember for future screen printing - much cheaper than expensive acetate sheets!

we weren't sure, so coated both sides of our sheet with oil

About half an hour later (or however long it takes to drink a coffee in the sunshine, at the cafe opposite) and the screen was ready for exposing. We placed the image onto the exposure bed, then the screen on top and turned on the vacuum to help remove any air bubbles trapped between the image, screen and glass bed. It took a good ten minutes - but only because the exposure box was absolutely massive!

Matt at BuildBrighton always wanted to make a large exposure bed - but this one may be outside even what he was dreaming of!

A4 on medium-guage silk takes about ten minutes to expose, apparently. So after ten minutes, we took the screen out and blasted it with a high-pressure hose. The screen wasn't as dark as we'd expected (but apparently the emulsion continues reacting in sunlight, so is yet to get a bit darker) but after a minute or so of washing, the magic started to happen. All the "unbaked" emulsion washed away and we were left with a perfect copy of our PCB design on the silk:

(our pcb design was only eurocard sized, so we put a solder mask on the bottom half of the screen)

All in all, an amazing success.
The whole thing cost less than five euros and we got help and learned a lot about the how and why of screen printing. Why the screens need to be larger than the image, why different meshes are needed for printing onto different surfaces and so on.

It was a really interesting few hours and has given us a lot of confidence with our own homebrew screen printing rig. Of course, you can use professionally manufactured screens (there were some machine-stretched screens at the workshop which were tighter than a snare drum skin!) and spend a lot of money getting everything "just so". But you can also fudge it with some cobbled-together gear and a bit of know-how. And that's what got us excited.

All we need to do now is go back and see if we can actually print an image with the screen!