Volume 43, Issue 8 - August 2008

Special Effects
Silkscreening Can Bring A Unique Yet
Functional Style to Any Glass Project

by Ellen Rogers
Ellen Rogers is the editor of Decorative Glass (DG) magazine, a sister publication to USGlass magazine.

What’s hot in architectural glass? The answer is anything that makes a unique first impression. How can this be achieved? One way is the use of decorative architectural glass. From patterned, textured and colored to sandblasted, etched and printed, these products encompass an estimated 250 million square feet in North America. That number is continuing to grow, and industry experts say it’s showing no sign of slowing.

The market for decorative glass products is expansive, offering something for every project and every budget—from the ultra lavish hotel to a conservative office building. One technique that can fit the bill for any budget is silkscreening. This technique can provide a distinctive look to any application. With the ability to create a range of images and designs from simple to complex, silkscreening can be a low-cost alternative to some of the other products on the market.

How Do They Do It?
The silkscreening process is quite simple. It begins with a polyester fabric consisting of a specific mesh count (i.e. 156 threads per linear inch) that’s tightly stretched and glued to a frame, which forms the “screen.” The mesh is then coated with a light-sensitive emulsion.

Next, an image printed on clear plastic is placed on the emulsioncoated fabric. Light is then shone at the screen through the image. The screen is washed with water and any area of the emulsion not exposed to the light (the dark areas of the image) dissolves and washes away leaving a copy of the image on the screen.

The screen is then placed in the screenprinting machine where the medium (such as ceramic frit) is poured onto one end of the screen and a squeegee is dragged across the screen. This forces the medium to pass through the mesh, leaving a layer of ceramic frit on the glass surface in an exact duplicate of the image on the screen.

Looking Good
With architects and designers vying to make their projects stand out, the primary reason for turning to silkscreened glass is aesthetics. “It can help give the application a voice and uniqueness that makes it stand out,” says Roland Rossman, project leader with Garibaldi Glass, a fabricator based in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Greg Saroka, president of glass fabricator Goldray Industries in Calgary, Alberta, agrees.

“It also helps to harmonize the glass with other elements of the building to create a seamless appearance,” he says.

Silkscreened applications can feature most any type of design, but the most common requests are for something simple: lines and dots.

“Both vertical and horizontal lines and dotted patterns provide an interesting look,” says Chris Grilliot, interior segment project manager with glass manufacturer Guardian Industries. “The industry is about four or five years behind Europe. Dots and lines have been popular there for a while. Architects
and designers are looking to create a modern, contemporary look and dot and line patterns can offer that.”

In addition, the trend toward imagery on glass is also growing. This can be done through traditional silkscreening as well as with other techniques such as DecoTherm, a similar technology from IIMAK in Amherst, N.Y. The DecoTherm process likewise uses ceramic frit, but the difference is in the way by which it is applied to the glass.

“You print the image onto a decal paper, which transfers the image onto the glass,” says Scott Surma, DecoTherm general manager. “Heat and pressure let go of the decal and then the glass is tempered to permanently fuse the image onto it.”

Regardless of the method, Surma says he’s seen a huge uptake in the desire for imaged glass.

“With an increasing number of companies entering the decorative glass market we’ve seen tremendous growth in the demand for custom imaged glass,” Surma says.

Silkscreened glass may be attractive and add visual interest to both exterior and interior applications, but aside from aesthetics, there are other reasons for using it.

“Dot and line patterns typically are used for solar control applications, especially on skylights or overhead glazing,” says Rossman. “The patterns can help meet the HVAC system’s mechanical and engineering requirements.”

Saroka points out that it also can help a project earn LEED® points.

“It allows daylight views (when used in interior partitions) and helps in optimizing the energy performance by increasing solar control and decreasing the need for air conditioning.”

In addition, silkscreened glass can offer privacy to interior applications. Walls, floors and partitions are just some areas where it’s commonly used for privacy, but at the same time allows natural light in.

Competitive Edge
Even though silkscreened glass offers the benefits of aesthetics, solar control and privacy, it’s still in a market where new decorative glass technologies are evolving and growing at an accelerated rate. Fortunately, silkscreening comes with benefits that can help maintain a competitive edge.

“Some decorative options are pricey and others are more cost-effective,” says Grilliot. “One particular product type might be specified, but once the architect/designer sees the cost they may decide they want to use something else that’s still attractive, but less expensive. With silkscreening you have the ability to customize easily and it’s often less costly.”

Saroka agrees.

“You can produce a lot of glass in a short amount of time; other processes can be slower and more expensive because of all the labor that’s involved,” he says. “The price and the speed to produce will keep silkscreening as a necessary process.”

Silkscreening, however, is most cost effective when it’s used for repetitive imagery; multiple designs on multiple lites of glass will require additional screens, which can become pricey.

“The more complex the imagery the more costly it is to carry the design over more than one lite of glass,” says Rossman. “Silkscreening can become very expensive when multiple lites of glass are involved; but the options are endless.”

Aside from the cost factor, providing continual education is another way companies can keep silkscreening a viable option.

“The biggest thing is bringing awareness and staying in front of the architectural and design communities to offer education,” says Grilliot.

Rossman agrees.

“If we in the glass industry continue to encourage the use of silkscreening as something exciting, it will trigger others to use it as well, so it’s really a chain reaction,” he says.

It’s also important to bring more than just a product to the table.

“If you’re just selling a product that’s a simple pattern of dots and lines, that’s something that could be brought in from China,” says Surma. “We have to be able to provide custom, just-in-time delivery and be there early on in the process to help architects and designers make the right decisions about the products to use.”

Working Together
Many hands go into creating a successful decorative glass installation, including those of the architects and designers, glass fabricators and contract glaziers. And, just like with any project, communication is essential to ensure a job well-done.

“We work closely with the architects and designers to meet their requirements for the mechanical performance of the glass as well as the design intent,” says Saroka, who adds that the product often evolves through those discussions.

Rossman says it’s important to have a common denominator among everyone involved on the job.

“As a glass supplier we’re sometimes like the mediator between the architect and the installer,” Rossman says. “We, as the glass company, want to achieve the architect’s vision, but we have to work with the glazier to create something that’s still practical.”

One of the challenges Grilliot sees is that while architects, designers and installers want to use decorative products, they simply don’t always know where to go for resources and guidance.

“So we walk them through their options and what’s available and help them understand the fabricator’s ability,” says Grilliot. “They want the information that will help them make their projects more value-added.”

Surma agrees.

“When working with contract glaziers we need to help them know where their source points are so that they know where to turn for help with specifications, for example,” he says. “The specifications don’t always have those specific details, and contract glaziers need to know where to turn in order to create a competitive bid.”

The most important consideration, however, is to know your limitations.

“Don’t over-promise and under deliver,” says Saroka. “It’s easy to put an image on a 12 by 12 sample that looks good. But once you enlarge that image, the glass size is increasing, too, and sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Moving Forward
As the demand for decorative glass continues to grow, so, too, will the number of companies getting involved in the market.

“There is tremendous opportunity right now for anyone with a silkscreen line,” says Saroka. “There is so much work out there we’ve actually brought competitors into our plant to educate them about the process. The more companies that are doing silkscreening the more it will help to increase business for everyone.”


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