A 5 Minute Guide to Screen Printing Ink — DIY Printmaking Made Easy!
Posted on 15 April 2016 by Jessica Webb
Let’s set up a potential situation. You want to screen print your favorite doodle onto something and you’re a DIY arts and crafts master. Great! You rig up a screen to an old card table in your garage, figure out your awesome design, burn it into your spankin’ new screen, and wash it out. You unpack your squeegee and decide on a color (or a couple). The hard part’s over, right? You just need ink!
Confidently, you head over to your local arts supply store and are confronted by a wall of different bottles, jars, powders, bases, pigments, agents, and price levels. You have no idea which one to choose (or why you can’t just get normal acrylic paint) and, all of a sudden, screen printing goes from a fun garage-DIY project into a potential costly mess. You don’t want to admit that you’re clueless to the surly teenager behind the store’s counter, so you slink out and don’t actually ever get your ink.
Yes, she's judging you. She screen printed before it was cool.
Another DIY failure, right? Don’t let this be you! We’re here to help. This is a very basic guide to the differences between the main types of screen printing ink. First off…what are you screen printing on? Is it a fabric? Wood? Paper? Canvas? That will be the first big thing to figure out. If your printing item is a textile, you have several different options.
Textiles: Plastisol Inks
The most popular option for textile screen printing would be plastisol ink, for its ease of use. Plastisol inks are thermoplastics (compromised of PVC particles suspended in plasticizing emulsion), don’t penetrate fabric very much, and are more opaque on colored fabric than most other ink options. These inks sit on top of the textile material and give a plastic-y feel to the final design. They aren’t very soft but are great for tote bags or small shirt designs (like words).
Plastisol inks also don’t dry until the ink is cured under high heat (320-330°F). This means that it can be left in a screen for a long time without drying and ruining the mesh. The ink can actually be scraped off and returned to a container for re-use, since it doesn’t dry out. It’s very user-friendly; in fact, it’s useable right out of the container in most cases.
The bad part about plastisol inks? Well, they’re thermoplastics like we mentioned before, so they’ll melt if they come into contact with something hot enough (like a clothing iron). This will cause the design to smear and ruin the garment. They will be safe in your typical clothes dryer, though! This ink, once cured onto a garment properly, will stay just fine but will not want to flex as much as some other inks.
Plastisol is also popular due to its ability to stay stable even after adding ink additives. There are a whole bunch of these to mention, but the most popular ones are considered their own inks. Puff ink (or expanding ink) raises the ink off of the garment, giving it a 3D look and feel, once it’s cured. Glitter ink (or shimmer ink) create a “sparkle” effect to the design and are typically made of metallic flakes. Nylobond allows for screen printing onto waterproofed surfaces (like nylon jackets and other garments). Suede ink gives the final design a suede-like feel and is actually a type of puff ink that doesn’t expand quite as much.
Additionally, here's a pro tip about plastisol inks: Do not use wooden sticks to mix them! The wood absorbs the plasticizer out of the ink. A stainless steel paint spatula works just fine.
Textiles: Water-Based Inks
Water-based inks are less popular for textiles, but are ideal for putting darker inks onto lighter-colored garments. This type of ink is also useful for larger designs over larger fabric areas (or seams) where the feel of it is important. This type of ink penetrates fabric more than plastisol ink and thus has a much softer feel to the final product. It cures at 220°F, but can also be air dried (unlike plastisol). For that reason, it’s a great DIY option. But what if you have a darker colored shirt? No worries!
Textiles: Discharge Inks
Discharge inks are also a type of water-based ink that produces a soft garment and sets into the fabric. It’s used only with darker cotton garments. Polyester, for instance, holds dye differently. The difference is that an activating agent is added to the base ink along with a pigment component. This agent actually bleaches the fabric to its natural color. The pigment component then dyes the bleached cotton whatever color the pigment is. It cures at 220°F, but can also be air dried. You can see in the image below discharge ink on a shirt being cured by hand with a heat gun. The right side of the design is already cured, the color popping off of the shirt. The left side of the design hasn't cured yet, so the ink is much more muted since the agent hasn't bleached the darker fabric beneath it yet.
The bad part about discharge ink is that after the ink is mixed, it’s only good for about eight hours so it can be more wasteful than, say, plastisol inks. Discharge inks also must be used in a well ventilated area (not in closed quarters) and if you’re going to touch it at all, you should wear gloves due to the chemicals. Since it’s a bit finicky, it’s less DIY-friendly but can produce a really nice result.
Now, you’re probably thinking that this is all nice…but what if you’re not printing onto a textile or fabric?
Papers: Water-Based Inks
Most people use water-based inks for paper screen printing applications. (We do!) They come in lots of colors straight out of the store, don’t tend to “soak” into the paper, and dry really quickly (1-3 hours on average). They also take less ink to transfer the image onto, since the ink doesn’t absorb. You can use these inks to screen print on things like cardboard, cardstock, coated paper, uncoated paper, boxes, paper board, foam board, rag paper, paper bags, vellum...the list goes on and on!
If you’re using water-based inks in a paper application, we recommend that you let them air dry. You can use a hair dryer to speed things along (low speed from about a foot away would be good), but you don’t want to get it so hot that you singe or discolor the paper! If you’re using a curing or drying unit, set the temperature lower than you would for a plastisol or other type of ink if possible. 220°F should be good for most paper, but run a blank test piece through first so you don’t ruin all your nice lovely prints and your expensive new paper!
Other Stuff: Acrylic Paint (Maybe?)
At this point, you’re probably thinking that this is all a giant headache. Why can’t you just use plain old acrylic or latex paint found at the art supply store? (Granted, this isn't technically an ink type, but still...people use it.) Unfortunately my friends, paint doesn’t work very well on fabric. It can sort of rinse off in the wash, leaving behind an unsightly colored smear mark. If you really want to try it, chatter on the Internet says to throw it in your clothes dryer after the paint is dry but before washing it. Plain old paint can also really destroy and clog up the screen (that you put all that work into) if you don’t clean it out really well. It dries quickly, so that also complicates things...but you could theoretically spritz your screen with some water every few minutes to combat that a bit. However, I’ve read that paint can work pretty well for some paper applications or onto wood (with a clear varnish coat over the design to protect it from wear, I would imagine).
This, my friends, is what we in the industry call a "screen printing fail".
Plain old acrylic or latex paint is definitely a possible DIY application, but not a commercial or semi-professional one for sure! If you plan on doing anything more than one design, investing in some good, appropriate screen printing ink is really your best bet.
Our Method: The "Secret Sauce"
As for what we use…we print on paper almost exclusively, so we use water-based ink. Specifically, we use Speedball Water Soluble Ink. We love the colors and it’s great for screen printing on cardboard or paper. This ink also only needs to air dry for an hour (ish), so there’s no need for a fancy dryer! The finish of Speedball Water Soluble Ink is matte, can be thinned with water, and can be cleaned with just soapy water. In short, it’s a high-quality no-fuss option that works great for us! Similar products are made by brands like Jantexinks and Permaset.
We love this stuff! Seriously, we're addicted.
Do you have a question about screen printing inks that we didn’t answer? If so, ask it in the comments and we'll get back to you! If not, we’ll catch you with another post next week.
Oh and hey, if photography is more your thing, why not check our other DIY guide on how to take stunning product photos. Thanks for reading!