Screen Printing Ink - Which Type is Best for Your Project?

Posted by Jeffrey Gononsky on

shirts with nice screen inks used for images

In this high-tech era, the art of printing has witnessed a noteworthy change. The invention of various printing techniques and fabric inks, together with the ever-changing preferences of customers have set the new course for the printing industry. 

Screenprinting is a highly popular printing technique used by companies to print on fabrics and other surfaces. This particular printing process utilizes mesh screen to transfer the fabric screenprint ink onto the surface of the substrate. The fabric sheet is then sent to the conveyor dryers to cure and dry the ink. 

Screen printing is relatively easy to undertake, efficient at producing large quantity prints, and gives long-lasting prints. As compared to standard inks, screenprinting inks are more viscous and can print on a wide range of fabrics.


Types of Screen Printing Inks

Discharge inks, plastisol inks, and water-based inks are some of the most commonly used screenprinting inks. 

These inks have different properties suitable for different materials and print patterns. Working with these inks also require distinct skill sets and expertise. 

In recent years, the demand for soft-hand screenprints in apparel and accessories has significantly gone up. 

Customers are inclining towards prints that are soft, subtle, and at the same time not anything plastic-like when touched. To catch-up with the ongoing demand for such soft prints, screen printers and brands are steadily adopting water-based inks for printing. 


What is Water-based Screen Printing Ink? 

As the name suggests, water-based inks are those which can be dissolved in water. Such inks use water as the main component to carry the color pigment. 

Water-based ink completely soaks into the fabric instead of sitting on it like plastisol ink. This is the reason why water-based inks give a soft, clean, and a long-lasting print. Moreover, one with no or little screen printing experience can work efficiently with water-based ink. Since the ink gets soaked up into the fibers of the material, it takes time and proper heat to completely dry. 

There are various types of water-based inks to choose from. One can pick between ready to use inks (RFU) inks or high solid acrylic inks (HSA). 

Ready to use water-based inks are easier to work with and offer a great finish. RFU inks are pre-mixed colors that come in a wide range of vibrant color choices. These colors can be used directly on lighter fabrics as desired. To use RFU on dark fabrics, use a white under base for proper pigmentation, higher coverage, and sleek finish. 

High Solid Acrylic inks are a recent ink formulation developed to counter some of the problems with traditional water-based inks. 

Traditional water-based inks are often too thin, runny, and too transparent. Moreover, it’s common for the ink to dry out on the screen itself. However, high solid acrylic inks offer a perfect solution to all such concerns. These inks have a thickening binder added to it which gives it plastisol ink like properties. HSA inks dry slowly and can stretch and print on top of each other. 

Further, HSA inks are suitable for creating complex prints like halftones and simulated prints. It works much like a plastisol ink and produces results that feel soft and clean.  

Advantage of Using Water-based Inks

In the screen printing industry, many companies prefer plastisol inks over water-based inks. Plastisol inks are easier to work with and don’t require much of the pre-press preparations - even entry-level printers can handle it with ease. The ink is thick and apt for clean graphic prints. 

However, despite such benefits of printing plastisol inks, the use of water-based ink has significantly increased in the past few years. Water-based inks bring along a different set of advantages, some of them are-

  • They are Environment-Friendly 

Water-based inks are an eco-friendly alternative to PVC based inks like Plastisol. 

Even when plastisol inks are made without using phthalate and PVC, they are not completely environment-friendly. However, water-based non-toxic inks use water as a solvent and thus do not impact the environment. 

  • They Deliver Soft-Hand Prints

Today, many customers look for soft-hand prints. 

Soft hand means that the ink film output on the surface of the fabric feels soft when touched. 

In the case of water-based inks, the fabric is completely soaked in the ink which leads to fine and soft-hand prints. While on the other hand, plastisol inks remain on the surface of the fabric, resulting in a hard and coarse print surface.  

  • It Gives Sharper Details

The water-based inks work by dyeing the fibers of the fabric, hence, one can get more detailed prints than plastisol inks. The finish of the print is also very sharp and refined.  

  • Longer-lasting Prints

Although all high-quality screen printing inks can produce long-lasting prints, nothing compares the longevity that can be achieved by using water-based inks. 

In water-based ink printing, the color permeates with fine threads, making it a part of the fabric. Prints from water-based inks last as long as the fabric. 

Tips To Use Water-based Inks

It’s important to mention that working with water-based ink requires precision and some level of expertise. This is one of the biggest reasons why most printers prefer sticking with other types of fabric screenprinting ink for silk screening

However, there are various tips and tricks to achieve softer, smoother, and cleaner prints with water-based inks. Here are the best tips to create impressive print results -

#1 Choose a Suitable Screen Mesh

Water-based ink is thinner in consistency than plastisol inks. The low viscosity of the ink makes it easier for the fabric to soak the ink effectively. Thus, when working with water-based ink, choose finer mesh for printing. 

Some printers go for mesh sizes between 150 and 160. Those of you who wish to use emulsion, make sure you use the one that goes with water-based ink. Doing otherwise may ruin your print run from emulsion melting.

#2 Use an Underbase

When properly used on lighter colored fabrics, water-based inks deliver some of the most vivid and vibrant colors. Since water-based inks are too transparent, one should remember to use an underbase when silk screening on darker fabrics

#3 Flood the Screen Mesh with Ink

Water based ink tends to dry out quickly, which often results in clogged screens. To avoid this from happening, keep flooding the screen with the ink. To prevent the ink from drying up in the ink tubs, remember to secure them tightly. 

#4 Keep the Screen Hydrated  

To keep the screen damp before printing, simply spray water on it. Once the ink starts to dry on the screen, run a test print to remove the excess ink. Wipe both sides with a damp cloth and then with a dry one. Keep reaping the steps until there is no ink left.

#5 Heat Properly

Heat setting treatment is essential to cure the water-based ink and give the print a long-lasting and close to matt finish. When working with water-based inks, fire up the heat press or drying tunnel. For those who are printing at home can use hand iron to dry the print or bake the fabric to allow the pigments to set.

When it comes to selecting amongst all the screenprinting/silk screening inks available in the market, a lot of factors come into play. What ink you pick should depend upon the material you want to print on, the design you want to get printed, the size of the workspace, budget, print finish you desire, and environmental concerns. Always make it a point to choose top-quality and professional quality screen printing ink to achieve perfect and sharp film output.

Interested to know more? Wanting to place an order for screen printing ink or other materials? Feel free to contact Holden’s Screen Supply today! We’ve been in the business for over 75 years and we’re based in the US! Let’s get you started 🔥🔥🔥