At screen-printing shop Night Owls, the crew only uses water-based inks. “We chose to move to an ‘ink solution’ that offers a higher-quality print for us,” says Eric Solomon, owner of the Houston-based shop. 

 “We love the way water-based ink works, we love the way it elevates our printing quality and the way it’s helped us elevate our craft.” 

Eric Solomon, owner of the Night Owls

Although design quality is always a huge factor in the printing process, another growing factor for some is how to print in a more environment friendly way. To be more “green,” do you need to move away from the traditional plastisols and toward water-based inks

Colette Wilhelm, owner of Contract Impressions in Cape Coral, FL, says that while water-based inks are touted as being better for the environment, they’re in fact, acrylic based. “However, they can give customers the great designs they crave, with a better ‘feel’ to the shirt,” she says. “We also recommend water-based inks for clients when it helps enforce their brands’ eco-friendly messaging.”

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of water-based screen-printing inks, along with some things to consider.

The Joys of Water-Based Inks

The screen printers who learn how to use water-based inks for vibrant, full-color and long-lasting designs love the versatility of the ink and its results. Here are seven reasons why they choose water-based over plastisols.

1. Enjoy easier clean up:

One of the biggest criticisms of the printing industry is that the byproducts of the screen-printing process result in chemical-laden waste that you need to dispose of properly. By making the switch to water-based inks, you can reduce the impact of this waste because the inks themselves are made of more naturally occurring substances. 

Plastic-based inks, by contrast, use fossil fuels, such as petroleum, to manufacture, which adds to their initial less-than-ideal environmental impact. However, water-based inks, as the name implies, are water-soluble. This means that you don’t need harsh chemicals to clean them up. 

Tip: If you don’t use water-based inks correctly, they can actually be damaging to the environment, so talk to your manufacturer about how to print with them and clean up in a more sustainable way.

2. Get a softer hand:

A huge, enduring trend in apparel is the” vintage” or “retro” look and feel in garments and decoration. That translates into a worn-in vibe, with a “soft hand”—where you run your hand over the print on a shirt and won’t feel the ink. You can achieve this with water-based inks more easily than with plastisol.

“My favorite reasons for using water-based ink are that it creates a softer, smoother and all-around more comfortable print,” Solomon says. 

Even better, for many designs, after one wash, you can’t even feel the water-based inks at all. “When I print with water-based inks on white garments, you’re essentially re-dyeing the fabric, so there’s no hand,” Wilhelm says. “And remember, on dark garments, you’ll need to use multiple layers of underbase to achieve an opaque color.” 

Yet, even with multiple layers of underbase, water-based inks still have less of a hand on the shirt than plastisol does. “This can be very beneficial to certain markets, such as for athletic and team wear clients,” Wilhelm says.

3. They’re easier to mix: 

One great benefit of water-based inks is that they’re easier to mix. Your mixing systems can make just about any color you need, while also letting you control the color’s opacity.

“Water-based inks use liquid pigments, making them easier to measure and mix for color-matching purposes,”Wilhelm says. “They’re also easier to clean out of the screen, as you can just rinse them with water.”

4. Sell bright-colored prints:

 “Water-based give you vibrant, full-color designs in high detail on apparel,” Wilhelm says. And that’s great because your customers expect a sharp, bright-colored print that doesn’t bleed or look faded around the edges. When they see a virtual mockup, they expect to have the final print look as close to what they originally saw on-screen, as possible. 

5. Sell longer-lasting prints:

Since water-based inks soak into the fabric instead of being printed on top of it, they tend to last longer. Screen printers report that plastisol-inked designs tend to crack and fade over time, as washing and wearing chips away at the ink. 

6. You’ve got access to lots of water-based ink products:

This includes low-solids, high solids, discharge, reflective, polyurethane and more. “I also love the versatility water-based inks offer, since there are so many different things you can do to your ink, to elevate your print,” Solomon says.

Tip: If you’re new to water-based inks, you can reach out to a vendor like Ryonet or Atlas Screen Supply for a crash course in the different types of inks available.

7. Sends a “more eco-friendly” message:

Many customers today are interested in supporting environmentally conscious companies. By making the switch over to water-based inks and more eco-friendly apparel, a decorator can promote the environmental benefits of these inks and increase more brand loyalty from “green” customers.

“There’s a market perception that these inks are better for the environment, which is beneficial to certain shops and certain clients,” Wilhelm says. “This can be a major sales point.”

7 Considerations for Water-Based Inks 

Solomon points out that to print water-based inks correctly, you first need to understand the science and physics of screen printing. “When you’re just learning, having the ink evaporate or dry on the press is a tricky hump to get over,” he says. “But all of these considerations lead to positives once you master them.”

1. Post exposure can make your screens harder to reclaim: 

Basically, if you’re using water-based ink, then you’ll have to specially coat your screens so they can be used with this type of ink. This means they’ll need to be post-exposed, or you’ll have to use a special cleaner for water-based inks. (These cleaners are harder to reclaim and will take longer to work.)

“The emulsion remover uses water as a carrier to help it permeate the emulsion layer, making the screen resistant to water ensures that the emulsion remover will take longer to work,” Wilhelm says.

2. You’ll need more chemical additives:

Most water-based inks won’t air dry naturally and those that do aren’t of the best quality for professional printing. In order to dry quickly, you’ll need to add other chemicals to the ink. Unfortunately, this means that the ink will only be good for less than 12 hours. So, once you add the chemicals, you need to either use the rest of the ink, or lose it. 

“There’s a ‘magic trio’ we use when printing with water-based inks,” Wilhelm says. “That trio is fixer, retarder and reducer.” Fixer helps the ink to adhere to the fibers of the fabric, retarder slows the drying of ink in screens, and reducer reduces the viscosity of the ink, so it flows through the screen better. 

“Every shop will need to determine for themselves what percentage of each additive needs to be used in conjunction with water-based inks,” Wilhelm says. “Those percentages will be based on that shop facility’s unique temperature, humidity and production levels.”

3. You’ll need to keep the inks wet: 

Another consideration with water-based inks is that you’ll need to tend to the ink, so it doesn’t dry in the screens. If you fail to do this, you could end up with ruined screens, clogged up with dried ink.

“Water-based inks cure by removing all the water from the ink, leaving behind the colors,” Wilhelm says. “In a dry shop, you may have problems keeping the ink wet in your screens. Remember, if the ink does dry on the screen, you won’t be able to use the blocked screen until you reclaim it.”

Solomon also notes that water-based inks typically require larger equipment to print and cure correctly, which can get expensive. 

4. Water-based inks can require more flashing, screens and revolutions:

Another consideration is that water-based inks tend to be stickier than plastisols. Because of this, they may stick to the back of the next screen and pull up the ink in the process. “Your design won’t look great, as you’ll have a reduction in color and increased opacity,” Wilhelm says.

To fix this, you’ll have to do more flashing to keep the print from peeling. The stickiness may also require more screens or extra revolutions on the press. All of this can increase the production time and is dependent on your shop’s press setup.

“However, it’s important to remember that water-based inks aren’t as tricky as you might think,” Solomon says. “You need to shift your mindset though and think about your projects in a different capacity. Like any other tool in your shop, water-based ink will show where you have flaws in your process. This will make you a better printer, if you put in the time and effort.”

5. You need to take care when color matching:

In general, it’s difficult to exactly color match water-based inks to Pantone (PMS) colors, due to the inks’ opacity. However, using certain additives can make the process easier. Unfortunately, that’ll also make the inks less eco-friendly.

Experienced printers say skilled color matching comes down to experience. “PMS color matches are definitely possible with water-based inks, but you need to test, test, test,” Solomon says.

“Be aware that many of the ‘recipes’ for water-based inks aren’t verified to be a perfect color match, even on white,” Wilhelm. “That’s why a strong understanding of color theory is required to mix water- based inks.”

6. Stock up on specific emulsions or risk breaking your screens down:

You must be mindful of your emulsions when using water-based inks. It’s imperative that you use a water-resistant type as these inks will destroy other emulsions (and ultimately your stencil). 

“Water-based inks destroy standard emulsions with the friction of the squeegee,” Wilhelm says. “Use an emulsion specially designed for water-based inks, or add diazo to your existing emulsion, and post expose to ensure you’re using a stencil strong enough to stand up to the ink.”

None of these are difficult steps, but if you primarily use plastisol, you can easily miss one. “Then, you might ruin an entire order when the screen breaks down mid-production run,” Wilhelm says.

7. Water-based inks aren’t totally eco-friendly:

As we said earlier, water-based inks aren’t just made from water. They also contain solvents and pigments, as well as potentially dangerous chemicals. Because of these additives, you can’t simply pour the inks down your sink to dispose of them. They must be treated as hazardous chemicals. 

“Between the amount of solid acrylics in the ink itself and the addition of the additives to give the best results, these inks are really no better for the environment than plastisol inks are,” Wilhelm says.

Choosing to Use Water-Based Inks

It’s certainly important for all businesses to begin looking at their environmental impact. One way that apparel decorators have been encouraged to help is to make the switch to water-based inks. Although this is certainly a viable option used by many shops, it does come with some considerations you must take into account before making a switch.

“I make sure my clients understand the pros and cons of all of the ink types,” Wilhelm says, “so that as they communicate with their end-user clients, they have the ability to direct them to the best ink for their specific needs.”

One thought on “7 Reasons For and Against Using Water-Based Inks

  1. This is a wonderfully concise set of bullet-points that really highlight why running water-based inks needs a committed shop, and committed clients. Those who have perfected their water-based printing craft are to be admired, for sure. For most plastisol shops, going water-based is something to look at when all the other work is done, which is usually never. We’ve tried it and like it for basic 1-3 colour applications, but commercial customers perceive plastisol as being durable and familiar, so, for us, that’s what they seem to expect in screen-printed work. Of course, what we do in DTG is water-based, but the typical commodity customer, like a landscaping contractor, doesn’t want a vintage look, they want solid colours that pop and hand is secondary. Thanks, S&S for an informative, thought-provoking article!

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