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Tips on Using Water-Based Screen Printing Inks

Tips on Using Water-Based Screen Printing Inks - Threadsy

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As a screen printer, you’ve got lots of ink options. Many printers love water-based inks for their vibrancy, crisp details, durability and soft hand, but say they do come with a little more of a learning curve than plastisol inks. If you want to master water-based inks even faster, you’ll love this collection of tips we’ve gathered from screen-printing veterans.

Water-based inks are made from naturally occurring materials, rather than plastic, and don’t use environmentally hazardous petroleum or fossil fuels as they’re being manufactured. Screen printers who love these inks say they’re better for their shop, the person wearing the t-shirt and Mother Earth.

Your Water-Based Screen Printing Checklist

For perfect water-based prints, there are things you need to know to be able to use them to your advantage. 

Pro tip: If you’re new to water-based inks, different vendors can offer you a crash course in the different types of inks you can use—like low solids, high solids, discharge, reflective and more.

✔ Water-Based Inks are Easier to Clean Up.

Since these inks are water-soluble, they’re less harmful to the environment than plastisol inks, which are made using fossil fuels like petroleum. (They’re also easier to clean out of your screens by simply using water). Water-based inks are made of more naturally occurring substances, so you don’t need harsh chemicals to clean them up. However, if you don’t dispose of them properly, you can impact the environment negatively. Ask your manufacturer for sustainable cleanup tips.

✔ Water-Based Inks Result in a Softer Feel.

You know how when you run your hand over a print on a t-shirt and can’t feel the ink? That’s the effect you can achieve with water-based inks, a soft, smooth look and feel. In addition, these inks can help you create popular vintage or retro looks. Finally, because the print almost becomes part of the fabric, they’re comfortable to wear for athletic teams.

✔ Water-Based Inks are Easy to Mix.

Screen printers who use these inks say that they’re easier to mix, since they use liquid pigments, so you can create almost any color you need and control the opacity.

✔ Water-based Inks are Vibrant and Long-Lasting.

These inks have a great reputation for producing bright, full-color designs with lots of precise and crisp details (so no bleeding around the edges). Plus, since these inks sink into the t-shirt fabric, no matter how many times you wash your shirt, these designs last longer. Sometimes printers report that plastisol inks crack and fade as the t-shirt gets worn, washed and dried.

✔ Water-Based Inks Send a More Mother Earth-Friendly Message.

Whether you’re printing t-shirts for your own use or selling them, most of us want to support companies that are committed to safeguarding the environment. Since these inks are less toxic for the environment, try to pair them with an eco-friendly t-shirt for an even “greener” message.

 ✔ Water-Based Inks Require a Finer Screen Mesh Count.

These inks have a lower viscosity to allow them to soak into your t-shirt fabric. That means you’ll want to use a finer mesh count, say 160 to 230, to stop too much ink from bleeding through.

✔ Water-Based Inks Require a Specific Emulsion.

Your inks manufacturer can give you the best suggestion for the emulsion to use with the water-based inks you buy. You need to coat your stencils or screens with an emulsion for these inks so they don’t deteriorate and ruin your print. You’ll also need to use a specific cleaner to remove the emulsion.

✔ Water-Based Inks Require “Additional Chemicals.”

As we mentioned, water-based inks result in wonderfully vivid screen-printed design. However, if you’re using a bright ink on a darker t-shirt, you’ll need to add a white underbase or choose an ink that doesn’t require an underbase.

We’ve also mentioned that water-based inks don’t air-dry naturally. That means, you’ll need to add more chemicals, like fixer, retarder and reducer, to speed up the drying process. (That also means that you need to use the remaining ink within 12 hours or lose it.) Printers who have experience with these inks say there’s some trial and error with the additives, so record what percentages you’re using to determine what works in your screen-printing environment.

✔ Water-Based Inks Dry Quickly, So You Need to Be On Alert.

Basically, you don’t want your inks to dry too quickly in the stencil or screen, which can result in a ruined screen or printed design. (If your screen gets clogged with ink, you won’t be able to use it again until you reclaim it.) Some printers keep a spray bottle with water handy, to keep the screen damp between prints. 

You can also flood the screen between prints—this means pulling the ink across the t-shirt print area while you’re setting up or printing your next color. Finally, always make sure that your ink containers are closed tightly to protect your water-based inks.

✔ Water-Based Inks Cure with Heat, So They Look Their Best—and Last.

In a shop, you’d send your printed t-shirt through a conveyor dryer or put it in your heat press. However, if you’re printing at home, you can put your t-shirt into your dryer, use a hand iron or even dry it in the sun.

Best T-Shirts for Water-Based Screen Printing

If you’re interested in water-based inks for screen printing, chances are you also want to consider garments that are manufactured with eco-conscious practices such as using recycled materials, low-water or no-water dye techniques, or organic cotton. As with other screen printing methods, natural fibers like cotton will yield a superior result when using water-based screen printing inks. Look for 100% cotton or high-cotton fabric blends when selecting t-shirts.

Here at Threadsy, we are proud to support t-shirt brands like American Apparel, Econscious and Next Level that use sustainable practices without sacrificing quality. Our huge selection and deep inventory also mean that you can reduce your costs and the environmental impact of product delivery by placing a single order for your bulk t-shirts. Here are some of our customers’ favorite eco-conscious cotton tees.

Don't Go It Alone

Remember, there’s a little bit of a learning curve with water-based inks. That’s why you should aim to understand the ink system you’re using. Your inks vendor can give you helpful tips and point you in the direction of tutorials they’ve created to get the best results. Start with easy projects, and document all of your processes so you can figure out what’s best for you. Finally, if you’re running a commercial shop, master the process before you start offering water-based screen prints for sale.