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It's NOT paint! - What type of ink is best for your project?

Plastisol, Waterbase, or Discharge?

If you ever want to watch a screen printer cringe and squirm, walk in to a print shop and start referring to their colorful buckets of various inks and pigments as "paint". It seems to be a common pet peeve within the screen printing industry. Paint is what you use on a canvas or a wall, ink is what we use to make your products pretty.

With that being said, ink does have a lot in common with paint--there are different types of paint for different types of projects, right? You wouldn't want to use a deck paint on your bedroom walls. You probably wouldn't want to use watercolor paint on your moldings either. These different types of paint yield different results with respect to finish, durability, weather resistance, opacity, etc.. With screen printing inks, you typically have three different types to choose from. What are they? Why would you use one over another? How is it relevant to me as a consumer?

Plasitsol Example

Plastisol ink has long been the preference for screen printers all over the globe for a few reasons. First, it's the most economic on many different fronts. Plastisol ink does not air dry which makes it very cooperative for the actual process of screen printing--no worries of clogging, no time constraints, no shelf life. The ease of use alone may be the most attractive part of plastisol ink but there are a few other positive aspects.

Since plastisol is such a time saver, it's more budget friendly and everybody loves that of course! Plastisol ink is also the ink of choice when you're looking for high opacity or high visibility due to the ink's thicker viscosity. The strength of plastisol ink also yields the most consistent or predictable results allowing the ink to be versatile on nearly any garment or fabric type. This consistency also allows the ink to be color matched with very high precision. Numerous additives also breathe new life to plastisol ink with the possibility to thicken and thin the ink as you please, add crackling texture, suede finish, puff, and many more. Plasitsol's cooperativeness also makes it the best choice for large-scale production runs.

While there are many pros to working with plastisol, there are also drawbacks. One of the biggest critiques of plastisol ink is it's "hand" or the way that it feels on a garment. Plastisol has a "high film strength" which means that it does have a noticeable presence once printed and it's not very flexible. "Bulletproof" is a screen printing term that has been coined to describe the effect that plastisol ink has when printed in large areas. Is it truly bulletproof? Of course not but it can make a garment much more rigid and uncomfortable if you're not careful. Because of this high profile, the possibility of a plastisol print cracking or fading does exist again, if you're not careful. Since the base of plastisol ink is oil and plastic, chemicals and solvents are frequently needed for clean-up which makes plastisol less environmentally friendly in the long run as well.

Plastisol may be the most common ink type but there are other options at your disposal if you may be in the market for something a little different.

Waterbase Example

Waterbase ink is another great option for screen printing that most people aren't even aware of. For years, and even to this day, waterbase ink has been fighting a stigma in the screen printing world as an uncooperative and temperamental. Waterbase ink certainly doesn't measure up to plastisol in terms of ease of use but it has come a long, long way since the old days. Modern waterbase ink still has a shelf life, it can still dry in screens, it can still struggle with a chalky finish but all of these negatives can be managed and even overcome with experience and education.

The most stark difference between waterbase inks and plastisol inks is the feel of the print on the garment. Waterbase separates itself with an incredibly soft and breathable print which makes it ideal for fashion-forward projects or projects that need to remain breathable/flexible. Waterbase inks are disposed of much more easily which also earns it the title of the most environmentally friendly ink selection. Like plastisol, waterbase inks also have various additives that can adjust the ink more specifically to fit a project's individual needs. Unlike plastisol however, waterbase is resistant to cracking/fading and can withstand the dry cleaning process.

We already mentioned that waterbase ink has a lot to be desired as far as ease of use is concerned--it is unlikely that waterbase will ever surpass plastisol in this way. The additional cost of waterbase alone, no matter how minor it may or may not be, is enough to scare a lot of consumers away from the process but don't be afraid to explore the option if it is available to you! In all honesty, the only thing to fear about waterbase printing is inexperienced hands. A lot of the bad reputation that follows this ink type comes from a lack of knowledge or experience on the printer's part in most cases--make sure you trust who you're working with (ahem.. you should be working with us at South Shore Customs).

Discharge Example

The last of the three major ink types is more of a hybrid and has a reputation for being every printer's favorite "magic trick". Discharge ink is waterbase in nature but uses a chemical agent to physically remove the pigment of the printed product in a controlled area when coupled with heat--that's where the magic happens. It sounds confusing. At first glance, a print may look muddy, transparent, or just flat out non-existent but as soon as the garment is exposed to heat through the drying process, it exits bright and vibrant--completely different than it started.

Discharge works best with 100% cotton garments and gets more and more mixed/unpredictable as more synthetic materials are mixed in but we have even seen some 50% Cotton/50% Polyester and Tri-Blend garments work well with the discharge process. Once the pigment of the garment is removed, you are left with the original, natural color of the material which is typically khaki in color. From there you may either let the khaki color stand on it's own as for your print or you can add your own waterbase/plastisol pigments on top. To print the discharge agent through a clear ink base, you'll be left with a no-feel result (especially after washing) as their is hardly any material on the garment to feel. Using waterbase pigments to color your clear discharge can also yield very little to no feel depending on which pigments are used. Plastisol pigments will of course yield a heavier hand than waterbase but can also be significantly reduced in weight. This is why discharge is considered a hybrid ink type.

If you ever walk in to a shop printing discharge pigments frequently, you'll know it. Why? Discharge agent produces a strong, sulfur-like smell. While some agents are less pungent, it's usually enough to turn your nose up either way and if you didn't know any better, you might be looking for a dog to blame. Sometimes this smell does make it's way through the process and on to the garments making a post-wash something you may have to consider. As referenced earlier, discharge does have an element of unpredictability so it is best to communicate with your printer to use products that are tried and tested or do some testing of your own prior to making commitments. There are certain fabric dyes that simply will not discharge no matter how bad you want it to; greens, purples, lighter blues are all troublemakers. When printing on darker pigments however, discharge can usually come in handy.

If you want to impress clients with a comfortable, breathable, no-feel type of print, definitely discuss the capabilities of discharge with your printer especially coupled with waterbase pigments. If you ever have a chance to see the process work first hand, you'll never forget every printer's favorite magic trick.

South Shore Customs Logo

When it comes to bringing your project to life, the importance of who you choose to work with can not be overstated. The team at South Shore Customs is not only committed to providing a fast and affordable service, we also stand by our craft as artists who are invested heavily in creating the highest quality products for our clients. Have questions about process or pricing? Want to get started on a project? Speak with one of our knowledgeable team members today.

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