Screen Printing Ink | Types of Ink, Who Makes Ink, and Where to Buy Ink

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“What is the best screen printing ink?”

This is one of the most common questions I get when I’m talking to screen printers.

It’s also one of the most loaded questions I get!

The truth about screen printing ink is this: most inks that you can buy from a major supplier are good screen printing inks. A clever salesman can make any ink work during a demo – or make it fail. So trust your ink salespeople...but verify that they're being truthful.

So here’s what it comes down to. Don’t ask “what’s the best ink for screen printing?” Instead, ask these questions:

  • What do I actually need from my screen printing inks?
    • Which garments do you print on?
    • What special effects do your customers want?
    • Do you need dozens of custom colors or a handful of stock shop colors?
  • What inks are available locally?
    • How often do you need to rush order ink?
    • How long will it take to get a small (or large) amount of ink to your shop when you really need it?
  • Which ink distributor is going to help me the most when I need it?
    • Are they local, or across the country?
    • Do you have a long-term relationship with them?
    • Are they respected in the industry?

So let’s get into the weeds and remember: caveat emptor (buyer beware). Never blindly trust any salesman!

What type of screen printing inks are there?

I’m a former screen printing supplies salesman. I've had skin in the game. But I’m always honest with shops about the inks that are out there. Some are better for certain applications, and not so great for others. 

You should know about the major types of screen printing inks, understand their applications, and know whether they’re something you could work with in your shop. There's not a single brand or type of ink that will work perfectly every time – you've got to know your stuff!

Not every print shop needs to be like Denver Print House, churning out complex art printed with scientific precision in a tightly controlled environment. Plenty of businesses crank out one and two-color prints all day and absolutely make a killing.

But if you want to know what’s possible, you need to understand the tools of the trade.

Plastisol ink

This is the most widely used ink in the industry. Durable, versatile, opaque, and able to lay down a crisp and detailed print, plastisol is still the go-to ink for screen printers. It’s made out of unpolymerized (read: viscous) PVC (polyvinyl chloride) via chemical process through a combination of ethylene (an oil-based product) and chlorine suspended in a liquid plastic. Plastisol is essentially a liquid plastic combined with unpolymerized PVC.

Plastisol has an almost indefinite shelf life, can be left on screens without damaging them, and is extremely long-lasting on garments when cured correctly. When plastisol is “cured,” it is exposed to high heat (290 to 320 degress Fahrenheit). The plastic mixture hardens as the liquid suspension is dissolved by the heat, creating a durable and flexible 

Water based inks

Printing on cotton and blends? Looking for a super soft print?

Water based ink is the way to go.

Water based inks are something I’ve pushed every print shop to invest in. You can really accomplish something interesting things with water based inks – and they’re going to be the future of the industry one way or another.

There are some pros and cons to water based inks – which you should explore further in our article about water based inks – but there are two primary things to know:

  • Water based inks are less opaque (read: more transparent) than plastisol inks
  • Water based ink is a very broad umbrella with many different inks

Discharge ink

Discharge inks are a subcategory of water based inks. Discharge inks work via chemical reaction. They actually “bleach off” the dye on the cotton t-shirt, leaving behind the natural color of the fibers (or the color you choose to leave behind). This chemical reaction is due to the active ingredient ZFS (zinc formaldehyde sulfate).

Discharge inks are remarkably versatile. The most impressive discharge prints have zero hand feel – a magical thing for customers. It’s like discharge prints are just part of the shirt.

You can also use discharge inks as an underbase. This is a super effective technique that leverages discharge ink’s unique chemistry. Since discharge removes the dye in the garment, you can print super vivid prints on dark shirts – even though water based inks are less opaque than plastisol inks.

Discharge inks emit formaldehyde gas during curing. It’s important that you adequately ventilate your workspace if you’re planning to work with discharge inks. Another reason to make fast friends with your local sales rep: if you’re unsure whether your airflow is adequate, they can advise you.

Question: do I need a gas dryer to print discharge inks? 

Answer: While it’s definitely preferable to have a properly ventilated gas dryer for curing discharge inks, you don’t actually need a gas dryer to print discharge. There are low-formaldehyde discharge inks available – or you can simply utilize large fans and an effective cross-breeze.

Acrylic inks

Acrylic inks are a new and emerging variety of screen printing ink. They’re becoming more prevalent alongside their water based counterparts.

What sets acrylic screen printing inks apart is their ability to air dry. This can help when printing on polyester fabric, which is famous for having issues (dye migration, discoloration and more) during the curing process. High-quality air-drying inks have long been desired by screen printers.

Acrylic inks are typically water based. Others may be based on oil or plastic. There’s a huge variety of printing methods and special effects possible with acrylic inks. However, the learning curve is steep and acrylic inks are notorious for drying in the screen.

Silicone inks

Utilized for high-end retail applications, silicone screen printing inks are the most expensive on the market.

High-performanice wear on nylon and poly-blend fabrics come with a high price point. Brands like Nike will print sily-smooth silicone designs with reflective inks and other special effects. They’ll also use silicone to print on their newest and strangest blends of multiple synthetic fabrics.

Not only are silicone screen printing inks expensive, the ink mixing systems typically aren’t as robust. Silicone inks are largely novel applications done in large shops with nearly scientific printing capabilities. The catalysts needed to actually print silicone inks only work during a brief duration, so your production time and ink supply is limited by what you can mix. Silicone inks are challenging, but there’s a potential reward for shops that have meticulous ink management skills.

How much does screen printing ink cost?

Ink prices vary from state to state and supplier to supplier – and, of course, different types of ink cost different amounts.

But here's a good estimate for the range of prices you'll encounter when you buy screen printing ink:

  • 1 gallon of screen printing ink costs $45 to $90
  • 5 gallons of screen printing ink costs $250 to $400

Who makes screen printing ink?

There are dozens of ink manufacturers, but these brands pop up again and again throughout the United States.

Rutland

Owned by PolyOne, Rutland is headquartered in North Carolina. They developed one of the earliest color matching software systems, which let them conquer a huge swath of the custom apparel industry’s largest providers. Rutland’s expertise in software has let them develop a leading mixing calculator. Because of their prowess with screen printing inks, Rutland remains a globally leading ink distributor.

Where should you buy screen printing ink?

Picking where to buy screen printing supplies is a more important choice than you might think. You can't just pick the cheapest distributor and get on with it. There's more to it than that.

First, a dose of reality.

Reality #1: Screen printing shops don’t take daily inventories of their ink supplies.
Reality #2: Because of #1, shops run out of ink when they need it badly.
Reality #3: That means the best distributor is often the closest distributor.

When I’m ordering a new ink for my shop Sound and Fury, the number one thing I consider is whether I can get the ink tomorrow if I order it today.

There are very, very, very few shops that take a daily inventory of their ink. That level of detail (and staffing) is typically out of reach for the tight ship that most print shops keep.

This means that when you run out of ink, you run out while you’re printing a job or mixing colors. You run out of ink with the job on press. You run out of ink when there’s a rush order due. This happens again and again – shops call each other and need to “borrow” a quart of ink.

I’ve seen really amazing salesmen work their butts off to get a shop to take on a new ink system...only to find out that they can’t ship that ink to their shop without a rush charge. That won’t work in an understaffed, overworked, razor-thin-margin business.

However, a huge number of distributors and print supply companies across the US carry most or all of these brands. If someone from Florida asks where to buy ink, I’m probably going to steer them toward a local company like Roeder Industries. 1-day shipping is that important for screen printers.

There’s another benefit to a closer distributor. They can easily come by your shop and offer feedback, advice, or guidance. They can get a hands-on experience with your technique and process – and typically, they can help you print better.

So, to recap choosing where you buy ink:

  • Look locally first
  • Avoid rush charges at all costs
  • Find a sales consultant that can come to your shop

Next Post: How To Screen Print With White Ink

About Printavo

Printavo is simple shop management software. We help you streamline your business, keep jobs moving forward and your team on the same page.

Scheduling, quoting, approvals, payments, customer communication, automation and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.

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