a rambling word (or 2,958) on screen-printing

Since we are about to finally cease treading water in the Sea of Inertia, I may as well expound and expand upon the topic of screen-printing, seeing as it's a trumpet I perennially blow like a blue-in-the-face Israelite attempting to bring down the gates of Jericho. Exactly how I am supposed to gracefully transition from that Old Testament left field I have no fucking clue, but I guess what really piqued today's preachy ponderosity was a now not-so-recent Instagram post by my first employer, Powell-Peralta, where they pulled back the manufacturing curtain to reveal an assembly line of heat transfer sheets being screened in spot-color fashion. Technically speaking, yes, this is indeed a screen-printing process—no need to get all semantical on my nit-picky ass—but I still couldn't help myself from piping up to correct a commenter who exclaimed via his keyboard, "So that's how they're made! I used to look at my Hawk claw board as a kid and wonder how TF they did this," because that's not how they were made. But it's no surprise that hardly anyone understood the process of applying graphics to a skateboard back then, because WHAT THEY DID WAS SECRET—"they" being the big-time board manufacturers. I know, it sounds like a joke, but once upon a time in the ’80s trade secrets were a very, very big deal amongst the Big Three, aka Powell Corp., NHS Inc., and Vision Sports, a fact I never would have known had I not been hired by one of these titans.

That said, let's go back in time.

When I first started at Powell in January of 1989*, things were still relatively basic in the screen-printing sense with most everything graphically happening in the middle of the board with only one or two passes** going spoon-nose to kick-tail on a very mild concave. To do so, Powell had developed "bent metal frames," allowing the screeners to do a single pull down the entire length of the board. Then, unknowingly or ignorantly, I started to routinely add more detailed nose-to-tail passes to my graphics, prompting my fellow "Design Group" co-worker and resident screen-printing guru Dave Schad and his trusty sidekick Seth to troubleshoot the problems I was creating—all of which quickly became compounded by the sorely late introduction of the company's first mellow kick-nose concave, aka K1, and then the ill-timed follow-up of a steeper kick/concave, aka K2, right when most every street skater was gravitating toward the mellow Prime mold of the World Industries camp. So, between the steeper concave, increasingly complex graphic demands, and Powell's stern but fair quality control, the frames and screeners had to evolve with the bumpy ride as well. Needless to say, I wasn't the most welcome person to be seen sauntering into that particular department, but damn did they do a great job!

For a decent measure of what I'm woefully trying to describe and not doing adequate justice, let's just skip a bunch of tedious bullshit and go straight to the introduction of Bucky Lasek's "Stadium" pro model in 1990, where the graphic was not only full-board but full-color as well. Soon after its release Schad took the deck to a screen-printing industry trade show, where he proceeded to amaze and confound the "professionals" with what had been achieved. Not a one of them could believe that a single screen had been used to cover such an extremely unconventional surface. So yes, this was indeed an art form all unto itself that had been advanced from within the niche world of skateboarding.

On that innovative tee-up, each major manufacturer was slinging ink via their own "proprietary" methods back in the '80s, but a proper amount of due credit should be heaped upon one of skateboarding's earliest screen-printing pioneers, Bernie Tostenson (RIP), who, if I'm not mistaken, invented the "tilt-jig" and pushed the envelope of separations, split-fountains, and other squeegee derring-do with Sims and then his own Brand-X garage operation (note the "Weirdo" shown above at far right, where Bernie was already blazing the "transparent black" trail). I can't say for certain what was happening up at NHS in Santa Cruz, but Powell was definitely paranoid and secretive about their bent metal frame formations in Santa Barbara. That cat finally got out of the bag in 1992, though, when a screener by the name of Doug Winbury quit Powell and defected to the vertically-integrating World Industries, where he and a fellow cohort*** set up Steve Rocco's "Pushmepullyou" screen shop in El Segundo (prior to this all World brands were run through Screaming Squeegees, a company founded in 1988 by ex-Vision employees, Barrett "Chicken" Deck and Kelly Bellmar, in Orange County). Rumor has it that Rocco then turned around and allegedly tried to sell this screen tech to Deluxe up yonder in NorCal. Ha!

So, up until the dawn of the new millennium, all graphics—excluding the gas-sublimated slicks and woods—were screened directly onto the surface of a board. Then, slowly but surely in the early 2000s, companies started to abandon the craft in favor of blasting open Pandora's Chinese Box with the more cost- and inventory-effective heat transfer process, where graphics could be printed flat onto a cellophane-ish sheet that was then applied to a board via a heated rubber roller sandwiching machine. Skateboarding entertained a significant boom in popularity during this transition, so many of those that picked up their first boards then never even knew the joys of skating an actual hand-screened deck—and yes, Virginia, there is a difference in how it feels (or not, depending how cracked-out on wax you may be).

Despite the successful heat transfer coup d'etat the hand-screened method didn't disappear entirely, but it did go underground and become very niche and "for the love," so to speak. For the sake of one random instance, Al Boglio hit me up around 2008-ish with the proposition to do a rare screened graphic for Cliché (RIP), which was very out of step for the Dwindle brands at the time. Al had, of course, grown up skating on hand-screened boards, and wanted to start reintroducing them to the marketplace and continued to do so on special projects over the coming years****. The amount of time and labor that goes into a screened board is reflected by a more "premium" price tag, however, which undoubtedly fans the flames of a cockamamie belief that if a board is screened then surely it must be a "collector" thing and not meant to actually be skated (not surprising, really, since the usage more often than not coincided with the noisome "limited edition" marketing spin).

Anyway, people are now so used to seeing heat transfer graphics with perfect, spot-on printing that the inherent imperfections and imprecisions of the hand-screening process are all the more jarring. To me and my Jurassic eyes, however, that is precisely what makes heat transfer boards appear too slick and importy, like they'd just rolled fresh off the boat from China and are ready to rock the shelves of Big 5, Toys 'R' Us, and Champs Sports. I know, as an artist you'd think I'd be all about the most accurate printing and reproduction of my crap, but no: I still much prefer the unpredictable gamble of direct-to-board printing. If anything, I'm the real problem in the process, because I often ask (read: demand) way the fuck too much of the method by doing these silly full board, multi-pass monstrosities that really stretch the bounds of an already severely stretched mesh medium. I'll be damned if Screaming Squeegees hasn't always risen to the occasion, though, and our flagship "Naturist" model that is set to drop this Saturday, September 8, at 9am PST/noon EST is further testament to this fact. I could easily end on that hard sell note, but I'd much prefer to send off on a salute to those who are still bucking the status quo from their basements, garages, and screen shops around the world (although everyone I'm listing here is from the US of A): Sleeping Skull, Pragmatic Prints, The Cat Palace, Platipus, Carpet Company, Splitt Lipp, Screaming, Watson, and whoever else I may be oblivious to that is screening the good fight. Cheers! —Sean Cliver 

••••••••••••••••••

* Bonus historical trivia! When I arrived in Santa Barbara, Powell was already in the process of experimenting with heat transfer applications for the board graphics. I can't quite remember why it was ultimately abandoned, nor can I recall the guy's name who was chasing this dragon, but I do recall seeing samples of a Mike McGill "Skull & Snake" floating around the art room.

** Hold on, Brian Flynn, hold on. Yes, the first version of Tommy Guerrero's "Flaming Dagger" in 1986 was three full passes, but by '87 it was soon altered to just two full passes after they dropped the black outline on the flames. And then of course there's Lance Mountain's "Future Primitive" that had three, but how could you not when the registration was so glyph loose and fancy free?

*** Hello, Ron! I'm sure you'll happily correct or add onto anything I may have missed, fucked-up, or misconstrued here...

**** Let the record state that Al was responsible for kickstarting the Dwindle Heritage program and making sure that the ensuing reissues were to be done true-to-hand-screened-form as they'd originally been printed.


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  • Carl Kent-Smith on

    Great article. I never considered how tricky it must be to screen print on a non-flat surface. In fact I still dont see how it’s done with any level of consistency when applying multiple layers – but that one of the reasons why I am not a printing pro and languish behind a desk earning money to buy cool stuff like this. Cheers.

  • Kevin on

    Interesting to read the evolution of skateboard deck graphics…I thought they look and “feel” a little weird/ different than I remembered as well.
    The process to do a wacky shape like a double-kick, concave board vs a t- shirt must’ve been a huge pain in the ass to conquer…never really thought about that!
    Thanks for taking the time for the history lesson and doing the Naturist graphics- good reading and good art- wartchin’! 😂

  • Mark Houston on

    I will never forget the smell of my local skate shop in the late 80’s. Can’t wait to get my hands on some Strangelove and give my sense of smell any early xmas 🤘

  • Paul Cote on

    Stoked on the history lesson…and fully appreciative of the screen print process on these pieces of art. Skateboard art is quickly becoming is own art form and you have always been at the forefront Sean! Cheers…excited for the naturist deck but pretty sure ill miss out on purchasing it…

  • Greg E. Boy on

    You’ve inspired the next generation Sean:
    https://www.labooshskate.com/

    Ps. Nice Germs reference


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