Difference Between Screen Printing Inks

Written by heather bieber
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Difference Between Screen Printing Inks
Screen printing graphic tees is popular with urban artists. (Goodshoot RF/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Screen-printing is becoming more accessible to crafters and artists with the manufacturing of home-based units. Plastisol and water-based inks are the two main types for textile printing, while solvent-based inks produce excellent posters and signs. Speciality inks add flare to any project. An additive applied to an ink base also creates different effects for screen-printing. Each has advantages and disadvantages. In addition, each has its own environmental implications, which call for consideration and adherence to local guidelines for clean up and disposal.

Plastisol Ink

Plastisol ink is thermoplastic, meaning it is necessary to heat the printed ink to a high temperature (149 degrees Celsius to 166 degrees Celsius) to dry or cure. On the downside, it will melt if heated with a clothes iron. Plastisol, when dried, has a heavier, smooth-printed image. Considered the favoured ink because of its manageability, plastisol does not clog the mesh screen when left for extended periods. For increased production, plastisol ink prints wet-on-wet. It is ready for application right out of the container and reused for waste reduction. Clean-up is simple with a biodegradable citrus- or soy-based cleaner.

Water-Based Inks

Contrary to the name, water-based ink is an industrial chemical, with water as the main solvent. Anyone using these inks is required to follow regulations of disposal and ventilation as with other textile inks. Water or white spirit wash away ink for easy clean-up. Water-based inks print on fabric, as well as on paper, signboard and even leather. Water-based ink is thinner than plastisol or solvent-based ink. Evaporation cures the pigment in the ink to the fabric and is either air-dried or heated to speed up production. This also has a disadvantage in that the ink dries in the screen mesh more quickly. The final print is softer and more penetrable, such as printing on towels.

Solvent-Based Inks

Solvent-based inks print well on compact discs, vinyl, metal, nylon, glass, plastic and wood products. It does not need curing and air dries in a matter of minutes, speeding production. Like water-based ink, screens need washing off after each printing session. Solvent-based inks require thinners and chemical cleaners. They reproduce graphics well on stickers, posters and signs.

Difference Between Screen Printing Inks
Compact discs or "CDs" are printed with solvent-based inks. (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Speciality Inks

Process inks have the least amount of pigment, therefore utilised in photographic printing on lighter coloured garments, whereas medium pigmented inks have a slightly thicker opacity. Heavily pigmented inks work for dark garments and special applications. Other speciality inks available are high-sparkle glitter, reflective-silver mirror, puff ink and fluorescent. Magnetic ink produces a thin, magnetic surface on coasted card stock, plastic or other rigid material. Chalkboard screen printing ink creates an erasable, matt surface for writing with chalk.


Retarder added to thicker, opaque inks, make ink workable for longer periods, but also increase the drying time. There is a wide variety of additives for plastisol ink for desired effect. With an additive, the ink is a converted speciality ink, such as a 3-D, puffed or metallic ink. Stretch additive increases elasticity up to 20 per cent for printing on stretch fabric, such as Lycra.

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