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.
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.
Do you want to sell more fashion tees, but haven’t had much success getting the right printing results when using them? Are you defaulting to selling basic cotton tees as a result? The problem could be that you’re working against your garment, and not with it. Times have changed and the “one style fits all” approach to screen printing just doesn’t cut it anymore. What works on basic 6.0 oz./ 100% cotton tees doesn’t necessarily work on lightweight fashion fabrics like 3.7 oz triblends or 4.2 oz 100% ringspun cotton. So what’s the difference?
Basic T-shirt Printing vs Fashion T-shirt Printing
Think of the 6.0 oz basic shirt as a really thick paper towel. Because of it’s heavier weight and rough surface, it can absorb a thicker layer of ink. On the other end of spectrum, the 3.7 oz triblend shirt is like a thin tissue that can’t absorb the same amount of ink.
When printing on a 6.0 oz shirt, a coarse mesh like 110 is used to lay down a thick opaque layer of ink. If we looked through a loop and magnified the surface of a basic 6.0 oz cotton tee, the cotton fibers have a rough texture that looks like a bale of hay (see the “Carded Open End Cotton” image on the left). Because of this, it’ll require a thicker layer of ink deposited onto it for you to get a fully opaque print. Otherwise, much of the ink will fall in between the fibers, since there isn’t a smooth, tightly knitted surface for it to be evenly distributed on.
Using this same thick stencil technique wouldn’t be as effective on a 30 singlescombed ringspun cotton shirt, though. Why? The tighter weave(see the “100% Combed & Ringspun” image on the right) allows the ink to easily sit on top of the fabric and be evenly distributed across the surface of the shirt. A thick layer of ink on top of a shirt like this will feel heavy and rough. The ink will rise off of it and defeat the whole purpose of using a softer fabric in the first place.
Why pay extra money for a soft fashion tee if you’re going to apply a thick, sandpaper-like design on it, taking away from its softness? It’s like putting cloth seats in an expensive luxury car. It just doesn’t match the product. Offer your clients decoration techniques that best compliment the garment.
The Right Tee For The Right Job
When your customer wants an opaque bold logo on a fashion tee, go with a 100% cotton ringspun tee. If they’re looking for a vintage look, with distressed artwork or logos, use blended heathered or blended solid tees. These work best because the texture of these fabrics can be blended into the artwork, helping to emphasize that vintage style.
Below is a list of inks, along with how and when the best time to use them is:
For Printing On 100% Combed Ringspun Cotton Fashion Tees:
Regular Plastisol Ink – When using this kind of ink, simply use a higher mesh count like 156 or 195 and add reducer to it, so it’ll to thin out a bit. (Keep in mind once you go over 10%, it will start to affect your ink color)
Plastisol Discharge Ink – Great technique for achieving bright whites that have very little hand, but can be a little chalky when it dries, compared to water-based discharge ink.
Water Based Ink – Good for creating a tone-on-tone print, when using light colored tees and it also has the softest hand of any print technique.
Water Based Discharge Ink – The discharge agent bleaches the dye of the cotton and replaces it with the pigment of the ink. This provides a much softer hand then a traditional plastisol under base on dark garments. Discharge agent only works on cotton though, so the garment will need to be 100% cotton for a fully opaque print.
For Printing On Fashion Tees w/ Blended Heathers or Blended Solid Fabric:
Water-Based Ink – Works well on lighter colors for a washed-out tone-on-tone look. The ink blends in with the heathered coloring of the fabric, which makes it feel like part of the shirt.
Fashion Based Ink – Best way to achieve the same super-soft hand as water-based ink does, but still gives you the ability to use plastisol ink and avoid using water based ink, if you’re not comfortable working with it.
Water-Based Discharge Ink – Great for tri–blends that contain cotton/poly/rayon only. The pigment in the cotton will be affected by the discharge, which produces a very vintage “washed out” look.
Jason is an Account Executive at S&S and has over 20 years of experience in the decorated apparel industry. These days he really enjoys using the knowledge he's gained throughout the years to help other industry professionals succeed.
Why would you want to print this way? Sometimes, using discharge ink as a base, allows the plastisol colors on top to pop and look more vibrant, as you’ll see in the video.
If your going for a vintage look, discharging on garment dyed apparel is the perfect option for printing, since the ink will be set into the fabric, rather than be set on the surface of it. This gives you that “worn-in” look that makes the design look aged.