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Screen Printing Inks: Who Makes Ink, Which Inks to Use, and What You Need to Know

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Screen printing ink is the tool that you will use to make your customers’ ideas become reality. While screen printing presses are typically thought of as the biggest investment in screen printing, your investment in knowledge about your inks and garments is where you can impress your clients and differentiate yourself. Understanding the different products and applications will help you outlast competitors and reach your goals.

Keep reading to learn more about the different types of ink that screen printers use, who makes them, the type of t-shirts and garments that work best with each ink, and the knowledge that you need to choose the best inks for your customers.

What types of screen printing ink are there?

Plastisol Ink

The most common screen printing ink is Plastisol ink, the industry’s standard in screen printing. Plastisol is and oil-based ink that’s deposited directly on top of the fabric like a cover. It’s then cured at approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 to 90 seconds.

Since the ink sits on top of the fabric, it has to be hardened (cured) to be permanent. Poorly cured plastisol prints tend to crack and peel over time. However, a properly cured plastisol print has a very long lifespan and can typically survive many wash/dry cycles.

Fortunately, plastisol inks retain their vivid brightness during the curing and printing process. This means that the color that you see while printing is (typically) the color that will remain once it’s cured.

Plastisol is known for a thick and solid hand-feel. It can be rough, or slightly “raised” compared to the fabric its on. 

Pros of plastisol ink

  • It’s everywhere. This is the most common screen printing ink, so it’s easy to find compatible systems and supplies.
  • Long shelf-life. Plastisol doesn’t dry out (even when left uncovered) and has a very long shelf life. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
  • Easy to work with. Plastisol is generally friendly to your screens, squeegees, and equipment. It’s stable and predictable on press.
  • Affordable. From vendors and distributors, we’ve found that plastisol inks range from $30 to $50 per quart. Buy in bulk and save.
  • Great for polyesters and athletic fabrics. Plastisol is fantastic for printing on athletic wear (like for a marathon).

Cons of plastisol ink

  • Not drain safe. You cannot wash plastisol down the drain. Instead, cure unused ink and dispose of it properly.
  • Concerns about health hazards. Plastisol is made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), known for detrimental health effects. Carefully follow the manufacturer’s suggestions and warnings to safely handle plastisol – particularly in its uncured form.
  • Strong hand-feel. Plastisol inks will (typically) have a robust hand feel (read: a different, plastic-like texture compared to fabric). Depending on the customer, this may or may not be okay.

Water Based Ink

Water based inks are becoming more popular for screen printing. Primarily comprise of water instead an oil-based product, water based inks are offered with a wide variety of qualities.

Instead of sitting on top of a fabric, water based inks actually dyes the threads of the fabric. Therefore, correctly printed water based inks are extremely durable. They typically last the life of the t-shirt, with no cracking or peeling. Since the inks are deposited into the fabric, there’s a very soft hand feel.

The brightness of the final product will depend on the original color of the fabric. Darker colored fabrics will alter the ink. The fabric blend also plays a role in distorting water-based colors while printing on cotton-polyester or tri-blend fabrics.

Extra training may be needed in order to execute great prints with water based inks. Handling the inks, printing with them, and developing the proper emulsion techniques can take some time to dial in – particularly if you’ve learned to print with plastisol. It’s crucial to have a working knowledge of colors and fabric types that work well with water based inks to minimize mistakes during production.

Water based inks are typically considered more eco-friendly than plastisol ink. There are several reasons for this:

  • Strong solvents are not required to clean screens with water based inks
  • No toxic unpolymerized vinyl chlorides (the primary ingredient of plastisol)
  • More durable prints mean garments are used for longer (reduces the overall footprint)
  • Not based on a petroleum product

Water based inks aren’t necessarily harmless. But they are where many in the industry are headed – particularly eco-conscious brands and print shops.

Pros of water based inks

  • Incredibly soft hand feel.
  • The print is totally breathable (unlike plastisol).
  • Extremely popular internationally, particularly in Asia.
  • Very long-lasting prints.
  • More eco-friendly.

Cons of water based inks

  • Technique matters, particularly how you manage the ink on press.
  • Requires hydration (the ink can dry up while you’re printing, ink containers can’t be left open).
  • Water based inks break down emulsion. Some argue it’s harder on screens than other inks.
  • They are more expensive than plastisol inks (though this is changing).
  • Long-term storage is not advised.

Water based inks, like plastisols, are cured at a medium-high temperature (300-350 degrees Fahrenheit) with a 60 to 90 second dwell time. The curing process evaporates the water and leaves the ink behind.

Other Inks: Discharge Inks and Acrylic Inks

Discharge inks are a subcategory of water based inks. They work by bleaching the garment’s fibers, then replacing the bleached fibers with the ink’s dye. This yields a tremendously soft print that typically has very little hand-feel – but is still extremely vibrant and sharp.

Discharge inks are great for screen printing on dark garments and t-shirts that need a bright print. You can achieve desirable zero-hand prints on dark garments – typical water based inks won’t be able to do that!

Major Brands

  • Green Galaxy
    • Features water-based ink that is ready to use on fabrics as well as boosters and mixtures to create your own color. This brand is created by Ryonet, a popular screen printing manufacturer.
  • Wilflex
    • A plastisol paint that comes in a variety of colors and can be used during wet-on-wet printing. Specialized colors that are reflective, shimmer, or with different textures.
  • R20
    • This water-based color mixing system is used to create custom colors on site. R20 CMS must be combined with other products for the correct application. For use on 100% cotton fabrics.
  • Allure Galaxy
    • This HSA water-based ink comes in either glow or reflective form. Both styles of ink mix with light to create a reflective or glowing quality. Prints well on cotton or cotton blends and can be combined with other products for synthetic applications. Soft texture and durable for long-lasting final products. It is manufactured in Los Angeles and was known as the first water-based reflective and glow ink in the industry.
  • Speedball
    • This water-based ink is popular for textile and paper applications. It can also be used for fabrics like t-shirts. It is easy to clean up and is well priced for beginner screen printers.
  • Jacquard
    • This professional quality ink is a water-based ink that contains less volume of water. It covers great and is a high-end ink option that works well on multiple applications. Many screen printers use this ink for paper, fabrics, and vinyl as well as unusual applications like leather, wood, and metal
  • Virus
  • Nazdar Inks

Where To Buy Them

About Printavo

Printavo is simple shop management software. We help you streamline your business, keep jobs moving forward and your team on the same page.

Scheduling, quoting, approvals, payments, customer communication, automation and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.


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