Understanding the Types of Screen Printing Inks Available

Screen Printing Ink Variations for Apparel Printing

Screen printing is a popular method for creating custom apparel designs. When it comes to achieving the desired look and feel of your design, the type of ink you choose is crucial. With so many options out there, it can be overwhelming to know which ink to select. In this blog post, we will cover the different types of inks that are commonly used in the apparel printing industry, and what factors to consider when choosing an ink for your design.

Types of Inks and Their Characteristics

Soft-Hand Plastisol Multi-color Print
Soft-Hand Plastisol Print

1. Plastisol Ink

Plastisol ink is an oil-based ink that is opaque with a subtle glossy sheen. This ink sits on top of the fabric, which gives it opaque qualities and a textured feel. Plastisol ink is the most commonly used ink in the industry, given its very opaque nature, color saturation, durability, ability to print in high detail, and its affordability. Traditional plastisol can be color matched for color accuracy, and it works on almost any garment type.

  • Can be color matched for accurate color representation
  • Very opaque, color saturation is high
  • Durable and can withstand multiple washes
  • Able to print high-detail designs
  • Can feel heavy and thick on the garment if printed area is large.
  • Requires heat curing which can damage heat-sensitive materials like nylon.
  • Does not print well over seams, pleats, folds, pockets, etc.

Graphic Screen Printed with Water-Based Ink
Water-based Ink

2. Water-Based Ink

Water-based ink is similar to the inks that were used before the popularization of screen printing. This ink is not favored by most screen printers, mainly due to the quick-drying properties of the ink in the screen, screen breakdown problems, regulating humidity and temperature controls while printing, and the level of difficulty in getting a solid-looking print. However, the end result is usually much nicer and softer, giving it a vibrant, super-soft final print. This ink is also sometimes more eco-friendly than other types of ink and usually water-soluble. Water-based inks on dark garments are slightly more difficult and require somewhat different inks, but remain soft, vibrant, and very friendly to our environment.

  • Environmentally friendly, as it is made with water and natural pigments
  • Softer and more breathable, resulting in a more comfortable feel on the garment
  • Vibrant and gives a softer final print
  • Quick-drying properties make it difficult to work with
  • Requires more maintenance and temperature control while printing which may incur additional costs
  • Not as opaque on darker garments.

Discharge Printing Before and After being cured
Discharge Ink Before and After Being Cured

3. Discharge Ink

Discharge ink is a water-based ink made with an activator that is added to the inks that creates a process where the dyes from the garment are removed, allowing the natural fiber colors to show through. This creates an off-white or bleached out natural canvas-like color, unless a color pigment is added. These pigments can be slightly color matched to meet the color needed in your design (no exact color matching). Bright white colored discharge is very difficult to achieve. Discharge inks work primarily with 100% cotton garments.

  • Provides a soft, vintage look to the print
  • Able to print on dark-colored garments
  • Can be used to create a tone-on-tone effect
  • Easier to print over seams, folds, pockets, etc.
  • Limited to use on 100% cotton garments
  • Inconsistent results due to differences in fabric dye and color

Screen Printed Logo with Metallic Ink
Metallic Plastisol Ink

4. Metallic Plastisol Ink

Metallic inks are a plastisol-based ink with metallic flakes suspended within the ink to give a shiny metallic look to the print. This makes the ink very thick but also very shiny in nature. Due to the makeup of the ink, we recommend using art with minimal fine details since it's extremely difficult to achieve fine detail in the print by using a very low mesh screen, which is required to print metallic inks. The printing process involves using a screen made with a lower mesh count than other inks, which is needed to apply the ink thick enough to achieve the desired metallic finish.

  • Metallic inks can create a unique, eye-catching effect that can add an extra level of visual interest to a design.
  • The metallic finish is also quite durable and long-lasting, making it suitable for garments that will see frequent use.
  • Achieving fine detail with metallic inks is challenging due to the thickness of the ink, making it less suitable for designs with intricate elements.
  • Metallic inks also tend to be more expensive than other types of ink, which can be a consideration for cost-conscious customers.
  • Color selections are limited since the metallic ink cannot be mixed without diluting the metallic flake.

5. Foil Transfers

Foil transfers are not an actual ink but an application process where clear adhesive ink is printed onto the garment, then a foil sheet is applied to the fabric, heat pressing it to the adhesive. Printing foil on a shirt really makes the design pop, but also requires a very special set of care instructions to preserve the life of the print. Sometimes foil on a shirt is better suited as a distressed look or as an accent. Foil transfers are done as a 2-step screen printing process and set colors are available for this, but color matching is not possible. While this process is eco-friendly and can be safe for children’s clothing, it's better done as accents or distressed looks rather than large areas of foil.

  • Foil transfers can add a unique, eye-catching effect to a design and create a luxurious, high-end look.
  • A large variety of foils and effects are available.
  • Foil transfers can be expensive and require a multi-step printing process, which can add to the overall cost of the garment.
  • Achieving a perfect foil transfer can also be challenging, requiring a high level of skill and experience from the printer.
  • Can be less suitable for designs with fine details or large areas of foil since they can crack or peel over time.
  • Foil will degrade or tarnish quickly if not properly cared for.
Gold Foil Transfer being peeled

6. Glow in the Dark

Glow in the dark ink is a unique type of ink that creates an illuminating effect in the dark. It is a transparent oil-based ink that requires a white or light-colored base to enhance the glowing effect. The ink carries a slight green hue, which makes color matching unavailable when using glow in the dark (GID) inks. These inks are created with phosphorescent properties, which require careful handling to preserve their longevity.

GID ink is safe for children's clothing and environmentally friendly as it is a plastisol-based pigment ink. Proper care and maintenance are required to extend the life of the glow effect. It is essential to ensure that the ink is stored away from light and is not exposed to extreme heat or cold temperatures. The better the ink is cared for, the longer the glow effect will last.

  • Provides an exciting and unique effect that can add an extra dimension to designs.
  • Safe for children's clothing and eco-friendly.
  • Can be used as an overprint on white or light colors to enhance the glow effect.
  • Color matching is unavailable when using GID inks.
  • The ink has a slight green cast to its color, which can affect the final result of the design.
  • Requires careful handling and storage to preserve the glow effect.

Puff Ink Print on Fleece
Puff Ink Print on Fleece

7. Special Effects Printing

We offer a wide range of special effects printing options that allow you to personalize your project. We can create unique effects such as glitter printing, puff ink, super gels, high density inks, and various styles of vintage, retro, and natural effects. Each of these styles requires a different set of requirements, but with our expertise in special effects printing, we can accommodate them all.

Our special effects inks come in both plastisol and water-based varieties. Most of our SpFx inks have a distinct feel to them and require proper care to ensure the longevity of the print. While color matching may not always be available, our inks are generally safe for use in children's clothing and are eco-friendly.

Overall, understanding the different types of screen printing ink variations available is crucial in achieving the desired look and feel for your design. Each ink has its unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, making it important to choose the right ink for your specific project. By considering factors like print detail, opacity, texture, and durability, you can make an informed decision and achieve a successful outcome. Additionally, exploring sustainable and eco-friendly options like water-based and discharge inks can be a great choice for customers looking to reduce their environmental impact.

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