How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

SAYREVILLE, NJ — After a back injury forced former mechanic Chris Moulds to retire, he embarked on a career in digital graphic media design, and has become an expert in high-density screen printing.

In 2018, he and his wife started AshCo Design, selling vinyl and wood signs featuring inspirational sayings. As the business grew, Moulds purchased a 4-color/2-station manual screen printing press to mass-produce signs and expand into screen-printed shirts.

"The press never really registered, and it almost defeated me from the start," Moulds admits. "I used my mechanical background to weld steel piping onto the frame so it wouldn't flex and bend so much."

When he could afford an upgrade, Moulds purchased a Vastex V-2000HD 6-color/6-station press from Discovery Lancer, a national screen printing distributor. He continued saving until he could buy a Vastex LittleRed® X2-30 infrared conveyor dryer. A year later, Moulds started dabbling in specialty printing.

"I was interested in high-density and lifted prints, so I started working with heat-transfer vinyl that was about 600 microns thick," he says, "but after six months of repeated washings, the vinyl would start cracking so I knew I had to find another way."

Press raises stakes—and stacks—on high-density prints

Moulds prides himself on being a self-taught screen printer and spent the next year learning about high-density printing through social media groups and YouTube videos. After much trial and error, he perfected his technique using the V-2000HD press.

To prep the press for high-density prints, he lowers the print heads by turning the off-contact knobs as far as they will go. Once the screens are registered on press, he fine-tunes the micro-registration and turns the off-contact knobs to gradually raise the screens as he builds his high-density layers. Some of his highest stacks have consisted of as many as 12 layers—and he still has room to raise his screens higher.

In addition to tight registration, precise vertical travel of the press's off-contact adjustment is critical for the vertical build-up of high-density layers in alignment with crisp, clean edges. This ensures that the printhead and screen remain parallel to—and vertically aligned with—the pallet, from the lowest to the highest off-contact setting.

Anti-backlash knobs enable Moulds to accurately predetermine the degree of knob rotation-and corresponding off-contact adjustment-required to prevent the ink from mashing the previous layer when applied.

"Being able to lift the print heads as I'm printing has helped tremendously, because it gives me a lot of room to stack prints," he says, adding, "Micro registration ensures that the high-density ink doesn't run down the side of an existing high-density layer or squirt out—similar to what happens when you put too much peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich and push the bread together. When this happens, the ink puckers and creates stiff peaks, which makes your print look unattractive."

The process is time-consuming and requires patience; he has spent up to six hours working on one shirt with printed stacks that are 1,800 microns thick.

One of Moulds' most ambitious projects to date is a series of hoodies for his children featuring a 9 x 7 in. (23 x 18 cm) high-density LEGO base plate.

"I used a specialty high-density ink that hardens like plastic, so it allowed me to make a wearable LEGO," he says. "Then we built a house out of LEGO, attached it to the shirt, and my son ran around while he was wearing it. When people saw it on social media my inbox blew up overnight."

Rubber pallets, versatile dryer yield high-temperature cures

According to Moulds, quality high-density prints begin with a smooth, flat base layer. "If you have irregularities in your base layer, you'll get peaks in the ink, and they'll show up all the way through your high-density stack," he explains. "By the time you get to the top of the stack, the whole print will be ruined."

To maintain a flat, glass-like base layer, he uses a small handheld heat press to cure the ink while the shirt is on press. The rubber pallets on the V-2000 press facilitate this process.

"The thick rubber on top of the steel pallets allows me to heat-press the shirt and achieve that smooth finish without weakening the shirt's fibers," he says. "In contrast, standard metal pallets can destroy the fibers because you're pinching the fabric between two metal plates and applying high heat."

After curing the base layer, he cures subsequent high-density layers on press using a flash dryer between stations. Next, he runs finished shirts through the LittleRed X2 dryer that has a 30 in. (76 cm) wide x 66 in. (168 cm) long conveyor belt. For standard prints, Moulds raises the heater height 2.5 in. (6.35 cm). For high-density prints he raises it 4 to 5 in. (10 to 13 cm) to prevent the ink from boiling and forming bubbles on the print's surface.

"I raise the temperature from a usual 515° F (268°C) for shirts and hoodies to 600°F (316°C) for a high-density print and turn the belt speed down as low as it will go," he says. "Dwell time is crucial to cure high-density prints, so I run it through the dryer two or three times, depending on how thick the ink is."

DIYer pushes the boundaries of high-density printing

Moulds plans to invest in a larger Vastex dryer and flash cure unit, and a 10-color/10-station Vastex press. He also contemplates purchasing a Vastex exposure unit to achieve fine lines and halftones, and a Vastex drying cabinet to counteract the effects of humidity in his basement.

Moulds is also interested in adding an automatic press to see how far he can take high-density printing. "I have a feeling I won't be able to do what I can do on a manual press," he says. "There's something special about a hand-printed textile. When it comes down to it, what I do is wearable art."

Today, more than 50% of his business is high-density work, with a variety of clients including automobile dealerships, parks, and construction and roofing companies. His biggest high-density order to date consisted of 160 tone-on-tone hoodies for a regional park. The hoodies were printed with six layers of high-density ink measuring 600 microns and took four days to print.

Additionally, Moulds' work has captured the interest of Discovery Lancer where he purchased more specialty ink than any of the store's customers in Canada last year. To help promote these inks, the company invited Moulds to print samples of his work for its trade show catalog. In the process, Moulds figured out a way to create a silicone high-density transfer that releases from the carrier paper. The transfers are printed on the V-2000 press.

"Silicone direct-to-garment ink sticks to the paper and never releases, so I created a high-density patch that does not collapse under heat and pressure," he says. "No one else has been able to accomplish this yet. It's a new product, and they're floored with it."

Moulds' high-density prints continually garner attention-particularly when he wears one in public.

"It never fails," he says. "People walk up to me all the time and say 'that's the coolest shirt I've ever seen. How do you do that?'"


AshCo Design


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

In curing raised designs, Moulds pays close attention to dwell time in the 30 in. (76 cm) wide LittleRed X2 infrared conveyor dryer.

How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

Close-up of a LEGO® baseboard printed on the V-2000HD press using a specialty high-density ink that hardens like plastic.

How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

AshCo Design builds multiple high-density raised layers having crisp, clean edges.

How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

This roofing company's shirt is built of four layers of bright orange, clear black, silver grey and slate grey with flash curing between layers.

How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

AshCo's raised designs may have as many as 12 high-density layers.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

Chris Moulds, owner of AshCo Design, prints raised designs with his V-2000HD 6-color/ 6-station press.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

Chris Moulds lays a smooth, flat base layer of ink in building a high-density raised print.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

Moulds levels the screen onto the pallet before applying the first layer of ink.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

To maintain a flat, glass-like base layer of a raised print, Moulds cures the ink with a small handheld heat press while the garment is still on press.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

Screens are cleaned for reuse in AshCo Design's washout booth.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

The press' ability to hold registration and to make off-contact adjustments between screens and pallets, allows Moulds to build high-density layers with crisp, clean edges.


How Clever Ex-Mechanic Screen Prints In 3D

The highest stacks Moulds has built consist of 12 layers of high-density ink using a 900 micron stencil.