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Water-Based Screen Printing


Offbeat Press is an industry leader in screen printing with water-based inks. We opened our doors in 2008 as one of the first screen print shops in the Midwest to actively use water-based inks. We have spent countless hours and late nights studying the nuances of screen printing with water-based inks. In comparison to most shops, who hate working with water-based inks, due to the complexity and technical knowledge required, we actually prefer water-based inks because of the soft print, low-impact work environment and the fine details that come through in the print results.

What are Water-based Inks?

Water-based inks are pigmented inks with a base of water, designed for screen printing. The inks soak into a fabric, leaving a soft and permanent print that actually becomes part of the garment. Originally designed for printing only on light-colored garments, discharge printing allows us to print water-based inks on a huge spectrum of t-shirt colors. Whether you’re looking for a low-impact option, a softer print or the highest level of detail possible, water-based inks are the way to go.

When it comes to trying to be as eco-friendly as possible with your printing and apparel, water-based inks are, hands down, the best option. We use the industry’s best water-based screen printing inks. These inks are solvent free and do not contain PVC or phthalates. In contrast, conventional screen printing inks are plastics-based. They sit on top of a garment creating a thick layer that doesn’t breathe and is prone to crack and peel. Not only does printing with water-based ink result in a softer print, but they also provide a quality and durability that is unsurpassed by any other ink type in the industry. For even greater environmental value, print on organic or recycled garments. Check out our Eco-Friendly Shirts page for more information.

Water-based + Discharge Screen Printing

Water-based + discharge inks combine screen printing and chemistry. This screen printing ink technology has evolved to allow for professional-grade inks to print effectively on both light and dark shirts. Printing water-based ink on dark shirts is trickier, and requires an ink additive known as discharge. When mixed with water-based ink, the discharge agent neutralizes the garment’s dye color and replaces it with the ink pigment. This print method is a heat-activated process, thus the final print color is only visible after the printed inks are heat cured. This allows for a soft print because the inks are literally part of the garment.

Though it works to some extent, it is not recommended that discharge ink be printed on any garment that is less than 100% cotton. The discharge ink will not perform as intended and results can be rather unpredictable.

Water-based Ink Comparison

Conventional plastisol ink and water-based ink systems differ in various ways. The most noticeable is that water-based screen printing has a much softer feel on the printed garment. This is known as a “soft hand” and is due to the way water-based inks soak into the fibers. In contrast, plastisol ink forms a cured print layer atop the garment. Water-based ink is consistently less viscous and cures partially through heat and forced-air induced evaporation, making the ink much more complicated to work with. Both inks have great durability and longevity when properly printed and cured.

Water-Based Screen Printing

Water-based inks work best on 100% cotton fabric and select high-percentage cotton blends. Plastisol ink is much more versatile. With the right ink additives, we can print plastisol on virtually any imaginable garment style. If you have a specialty fabric you would like to see printed, using plastisol or water-based ink systems, we recommend ordering a sample for testing. Printing a sample ensures the garment and ink performance meet both your needs and our quality standards before we move forward with a full print run, thus saving time, money and resources.

Although discharge + water-based screen printing works great 99% of the time, there are a few guidelines you should follow and a few disclaimers you should know about:

Water-Based Screen Printing