Plastisol Ink Screen Printing: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering the Technique

Plastisol ink screen printing is a versatile and widely-used technique for creating stunning designs on fabrics. This comprehensive guide aims to provide you with an in-depth understanding of every aspect of plastisol ink screen printing, from the basics to advanced techniques. Whether you’re a seasoned professional screen printer or a beginner looking to dive into this art form, this article will equip you with the knowledge and skills to excel in plastisol ink screen printing.

Understanding Plastisol Ink

Plastisol ink is a unique type of ink that is widely used in the screen printing industry. Unlike other types of ink, plastisol ink does not dry through evaporation but rather through a process called fusion. This means that the ink remains in a liquid state until it is exposed to high temperatures, which causes it to solidify and adhere to the fabric. The main components of plastisol ink are PVC particles, plasticizers, and pigments.

Composition of Plastisol Ink

Plastisol ink is composed of PVC particles, which give it its characteristic thickness and durability. These particles are suspended in a liquid plasticizer, which provides the ink with its smooth and creamy consistency. Additionally, pigments are added to the ink to give it color. The ratio of PVC particles to plasticizer determines the viscosity of the ink, which affects its printability and opacity.

Advantages of Plastisol Ink

Plastisol ink offers several advantages that make it the preferred choice for screen printing. First and foremost, plastisol inks have excellent opacity, which allows them to produce vibrant and opaque prints on both light and dark fabrics. Additionally, plastisol ink has excellent color retention, meaning that the prints will retain their vibrancy even after multiple washes. Plastisol ink is also incredibly durable and can withstand harsh conditions, making it ideal for printing on garments that will be subjected to frequent wear and washing. Furthermore, plastisol ink has a long shelf life and can be stored for extended periods without drying out.

Selecting the Right Screens

Choosing the right screen is crucial for achieving high-quality prints. There are several factors to consider when selecting screens, including mesh count, frame material, and screen tension.

Mesh Count

The mesh count refers to the number of threads per inch in the screen. A higher mesh count means that the screen has a greater number of threads, resulting in smaller openings and finer detail in the print. However, higher mesh counts also require more pressure to push the ink through the screen, making them more suitable for thinner inks and detailed designs. Conversely, lower mesh counts have larger openings, allowing for thicker inks and larger prints.

Frame Material

The frame material plays a significant role in the stability and durability of the screen. The most commonly used frame materials are aluminum and wood. Aluminum frames are lightweight and resistant to warping, making them a popular choice for professional screen printers. Wood frames, on the other hand, are more affordable but may warp over time, affecting the quality of the prints. When selecting a frame material, consider your budget, the size of the prints, and the longevity of the frame.

Screen Tension

The tension of the screen refers to the tightness of the mesh. Proper screen tension is essential for achieving sharp and crisp prints. Screens with low tension may result in ink bleeding or smudging, while screens with high tension may make it difficult to push the ink through. To ensure optimal screen tension, it is recommended to use a tension meter to measure and adjust the tension as needed.

Exploring Plastisol Ink Additives

Plastisol ink additives can enhance the performance and appearance of your prints. There are various types of additives available, each serving a specific purpose. Understanding the different additives and their uses can help you achieve desired effects and overcome common printing challenges.

Opacity Additives

Opacity additives are used to increase the opacity of the ink, particularly when printing on dark fabrics. These additives contain white pigments that help to block out the color of the fabric and ensure that the print remains vibrant and opaque. Opacity additives can be mixed with the ink to achieve the desired level of opacity, depending on the fabric and design.

Stretch Additives

Stretch additives are used to improve the elasticity and stretchability of the ink. This is particularly useful when printing on fabrics that require flexibility, such as sportswear or activewear. Stretch additives help to prevent cracking and peeling of the print when the fabric is stretched, ensuring that the design remains intact even during movement.

Gloss Additives

Gloss additives are used to add a glossy or shiny finish to the print. These additives contain clear gloss particles that create a reflective surface, enhancing the visual impact of the design. Gloss additives can be mixed with the ink to achieve different levels of glossiness, allowing you to create unique and eye-catching prints.

Puff Additives

Puff additives are used to create a raised or textured effect on the print. When heated, these additives cause the ink to expand, resulting in a raised and three-dimensional appearance. Puff additives can be used to add depth and dimension to your designs, making them stand out from the fabric.

Mastering Screen Preparation

Proper screen preparation is essential for achieving clean and sharp prints. This section will guide you through the step-by-step process of preparing your screens for printing, ensuring that you have a solid foundation for successful screen printing.


The first step in screen preparation is degreasing. Screens often have residual oils, dust, or other contaminants that can affect the adhesion of the emulsion and the quality of the print. Degreasing the screen involves thoroughly cleaning it with a degreasing solution to remove any contaminants. This can be done using a soft brush or sponge, ensuring that all areas of the screen are cleaned.

Emulsion Coating

Once the screen is degreased and dried, the next step is emulsion coating. Emulsion is a light-sensitive liquid that is applied to the screen to create a stencil. To coat the screen with emulsion, pour a sufficient amount onto the screen and use a scoop coater to spread it evenly. Make sure to coat both sides of the screen, ensuring that the emulsion covers the entire mesh area. Allow the emulsion to dry in a light-safe environment, away from direct sunlight.

Exposure Techniques

Exposure is the process of transferring the design onto the screen by exposing it to light. This is done by placing a film positive with the desired design onto the coated screen and exposing it to UV light. The light hardens the emulsion, except where the design on the film positive blocks the light. After exposure, the screen is washed with water, which removes the unexposed emulsion, leaving behind a stencil of the design.

Stencil Reclamation

After printing, the screen needs to be cleaned and reclaimed for future use. Stencil reclamation involves removing the ink residue and emulsion from the screen. This can be done using a screen cleaning solution and a soft brush or pressure washer. It is important to thoroughly clean the screen to ensure that no ink or emulsion residue remains, as this can affect the quality of future prints.

Ink Mixing and Color Matching

Creating custom colors and achieving accurate color matching are essential skills for any screen printer. This section will provide you with practical tips and techniques for ink mixing and color matching, allowing you to unleash your creativity and achieve consistent and visually appealing prints.

Mixing Custom Colors

One of the advantages of plastisol ink is that it can be easily mixed to create custom colors. To mix custom colors, start with a base color and add small amounts of other colors to achieve the desired shade. It is recommended to mix a small amount of ink first and test it on a scrap fabric to ensure that the color is accurate. Keep track of the color ratios used to achieve the desired result, as this will help you recreate the color in future prints.

Color Matching

Color matching involves reproducing a specific color accurately. This can be challenging as colors can appear differently under different lighting conditions and on different fabrics. To achieve accurate color matching, it is recommended to use a Pantone color guide, which provides standardized color codes. Match the desired color to the closest Pantone color and mix the ink accordingly. Test the ink on the fabric and make adjustments as necessary until the desired color is achieved.

Consistency in Ink Mixing

Consistency in ink mixing is crucial for achieving consistent prints. When mixing a large batch of ink, it is important to ensure that all the colors are mixed thoroughly to avoid any variations in color. It is recommended to use a mixer or a spatula to mix the ink thoroughly, making sure that there are no streaks or lumps. Additionally, it is important to mix enough ink to complete the print run, as it can be challenging to achieve the exact same color when mixing a new batch of ink.

Understanding Screen Printing Equipment

Having the right equipment is essential for successful plastisol ink screen printing.

Understanding Screen Printing Equipment

Having the right equipment is essential for successful plastisol ink screen printing. From screen printing presses to curing units, understanding the different types of equipment and their functions will help you achieve optimal results in your prints.

Screen Printing Press

A screen printing press is a machine that holds the screen in place and allows for precise registration and consistent pressure during printing. There are various types of screen printing presses available, including manual, semi-automatic, and automatic presses. Manual presses require the printer to manually move the screen and apply pressure, while automatic presses automate the process, increasing efficiency and reducing labor. The choice of press depends on the volume of prints, budget, and level of automation desired.

Flash Cure Unit

A flash cure unit is used to partially cure the ink between colors or layers. This allows for multiple colors or layers to be printed without smudging or bleeding. The flash cure unit consists of a heating element that quickly raises the temperature of the ink to a level where it becomes tacky but not fully cured. This allows for subsequent layers to be printed on top without blending or mixing the colors.

Curing Unit

A curing unit is used to fully cure the ink and permanently bond it to the fabric. The curing process involves exposing the printed garment to high temperatures for a specific period, allowing the ink to fuse with the fabric fibers. Curing units can be gas or electric-powered and come in various sizes and configurations. It is important to ensure that the curing unit reaches and maintains the recommended curing temperature to achieve durable and long-lasting prints.


A squeegee is a tool used to push the ink through the screen and onto the fabric. It consists of a rubber blade attached to a handle. The choice of squeegee depends on the type of ink, mesh count, and desired print result. Different squeegee durometers (hardness) and shapes (square or rounded) can affect ink deposition and print quality. It is important to choose the right squeegee for the specific printing job to achieve optimal ink coverage and sharp prints.

Palette Knife

A palette knife is a flat, flexible tool used for ink mixing and color manipulation. It is particularly useful when mixing custom colors or adding additives to the ink. The palette knife allows for precise control and thorough mixing of the ink, ensuring consistency and accurate color results. It is recommended to use a clean palette knife for each color or additive to avoid cross-contamination and maintain the integrity of the ink.

Exposure Unit

An exposure unit is used to expose the emulsion-coated screen to UV light during the stencil-making process. It consists of a light source, a vacuum frame, and a timer. The vacuum frame holds the screen and film positive tightly together to ensure proper contact and prevent light leakage. The exposure unit should have consistent and even distribution of UV light to ensure accurate and sharp stencil creation. It is important to follow the recommended exposure times based on emulsion type and screen characteristics for optimal results.

Screen Cleaning Station

A screen cleaning station is used to remove ink residue and emulsion from the screen after printing. It typically consists of a sink or basin, a pressure washer or hose, and screen cleaning chemicals. The screen cleaning station should provide adequate water pressure to effectively remove ink and emulsion without damaging the screen. It is important to properly clean and reclaim screens to maintain their longevity and achieve consistent print results.

Printing Techniques: Spot Color Printing

Spot color printing is the most common technique used in screen printing. It involves printing solid colors without any gradients or halftones. Mastering spot color printing is essential for achieving crisp and vibrant prints.

Preparing Artwork

Before starting spot color printing, it is important to ensure that the artwork is prepared correctly. The artwork should be in vector format or high-resolution raster format to maintain sharpness and clarity. Each color in the design should be separated into individual layers or channels, representing the different screens that will be used. Properly preparing the artwork will make the printing process more efficient and accurate.

Screen Set-Up

To print using spot colors, each color in the design requires a separate screen. The screens should be prepared by coating them with emulsion, exposing them with the respective color separations, and ensuring proper registration. Each screen should be set up on the printing press, aligned according to the artwork, and secured tightly to prevent any movement during printing.

Ink Mixing

For spot color printing, it is important to mix the ink to achieve the desired color accurately. Follow the color separations in the artwork and mix the ink accordingly. Use a palette knife or ink mixer to ensure thorough mixing and consistency. Test the ink on a scrap fabric to verify the color accuracy before proceeding with printing.

Printing Technique

When printing spot colors, apply a sufficient amount of ink to the screen above the design area. Position the screen on top of the fabric, ensuring proper registration. Using a squeegee, firmly and evenly pass the ink over the screen, applying pressure to transfer the ink onto the fabric. Repeat the process for each color, ensuring proper drying or flash curing between colors to avoid smudging or blending.

Cleanup and Reclaiming

After spot color printing, clean the screens and tools thoroughly to remove any ink residue. Use screen cleaning chemicals and a pressure washer or hose to ensure proper cleaning. Reclaim the screens by removing the emulsion, exposing them to light to remove any ghost images, and degreasing them for future use. Proper cleanup and screen reclamation will prolong the lifespan of the screens and maintain print quality.

Printing Techniques: Halftones and Gradients

Halftones and gradients allow you to create intricate and realistic designs with varying shades and tones. Mastering these techniques will enable you to achieve smooth transitions and subtle details in your screen prints.

Understanding Halftones

Halftones are a way of creating the illusion of shades and tones by using a series of small dots. These dots vary in size and spacing, creating the perception of different levels of ink coverage. The size and spacing of the dots determine the visual effect, with smaller and closer dots creating a darker tone and larger and further apart dots creating a lighter tone.

Preparing Artwork for Halftones

Before creating halftones, it is important to prepare the artwork appropriately. The artwork should be high-resolution and in grayscale, representing the different shades and tones. Using image editing software, apply a halftone effect to the artwork, adjusting the dot size and spacing to achieve the desired effect. Convert the artwork to bitmap mode to ensure that it consists of only black and white pixels.

Creating Halftone Screens

To print halftones, special screens called halftone screens are required. These screens have a higher mesh count to accommodate the small dots in the artwork. The dot size and spacing in the halftone screens should match the dot size and spacing in the artwork. Proper exposure is crucial to ensure that the dots are accurately reproduced on the screen.

Printing Halftones

When printing halftones, it is important to achieve proper ink deposition and control. Use a squeegee with the appropriate durometer and angle to ensure consistent ink coverage. Adjust the pressure and speed of the squeegee to achieve the desired level of ink transfer. Proper registration and alignment of the screens are essential to maintain the integrity of the halftone design.

Creating Gradients

Gradients involve smoothly transitioning from one color or tone to another. This effect can be achieved by blending different colors or using halftones to create the illusion of a gradual change. To create gradients, it is important to properly mix and transition the colors, ensuring a seamless and smooth transition from one color to another.

Specialty Effects and Finishes

Specialty effects and finishes can add an extra dimension to your screen prints, making them unique and eye-catching. From metallic finishes to glow-in-the-dark effects, these techniques allow you to create visually striking designs.

Foil Printing

Foil printing involves using a special adhesive and metallic foil to create a shiny and reflective finish on the print. The adhesive is applied to the fabric, and the foil is placed on top. Heat and pressure are applied, causing the foil to adhere to the adhesive, leaving a metallic finish on the design.

Puff Ink

Puff ink creates a raised or three-dimensional effect on the print. The ink contains additives that expand when heated, creating a puffy texture. The ink is applied to the fabric and then heated, causing it to expand and create a raised appearance. Puff ink adds depth and dimension to the design, making it stand out from the fabric.

Glow-in-the-Dark Ink

Glow-in-the-dark ink contains phosphorescent pigments that absorb and store light energy. When exposed to darkness, the ink emits a soft glow, creating a captivating effect. This ink is particularly popular for designs that require visibility in low-light conditions or for creating visually appealing elements in the design.

High-Density Ink

High-density ink creates araised and textured effect on the print, similar to puff ink but with a denser and more pronounced appearance. The ink is applied to the fabric in multiple layers, creating a thick and textured surface. High-density ink adds a tactile element to the design, making it visually and physically appealing.

Glossy or Matte Finishes

In addition to specialty effects, you can also choose between glossy or matte finishes for your screen prints. A glossy finish adds shine and reflection to the design, creating a vibrant and eye-catching appearance. On the other hand, a matte finish provides a non-reflective and subtle look, giving the design a more understated and sophisticated appeal. The choice between glossy and matte finishes depends on the desired aesthetic and overall design concept.

Glitter or Metallic Inks

Glitter or metallic inks are a popular choice for adding sparkle and shine to your screen prints. These inks contain fine glitters or metallic particles that create a dazzling effect when applied to the fabric. Glitter inks add a touch of glamour and playfulness to the design, while metallic inks create a luxurious and elegant appearance. These specialty inks are ideal for designs that require a touch of shimmer and glamour.

Water-Based Inks

Water-based inks are an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastisol inks. These inks are made from water as the main solvent, making them more environmentally friendly and easier to clean up. Water-based inks are also known for their soft and breathable feel on the fabric, making them a popular choice for designs that require a more natural and comfortable finish. These inks can be used for a wide range of fabrics and offer excellent color vibrancy.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Screen printing is not without its challenges, and various issues may arise during the plastisol ink screen printing process. However, with proper troubleshooting techniques, you can overcome these issues and achieve high-quality prints. Here are some common issues you may encounter during the printing process and their possible solutions:

Issue: Ink Bleeding or Smudging

Solution: Ink bleeding or smudging can occur when too much ink is applied or when the screen is not properly secured to the fabric. Use a squeegee with the appropriate pressure and angle to ensure even ink distribution. Additionally, make sure the screen is securely fastened to the fabric to prevent any movement during printing.

Issue: Uneven Ink Coverage

Solution: Uneven ink coverage can result from various factors, such as incorrect squeegee pressure, improper screen tension, or inconsistent ink viscosity. Adjust the squeegee pressure to ensure even and consistent ink application. Check the screen tension and tighten or loosen it as needed. Finally, monitor the ink viscosity and add any necessary additives to achieve the desired consistency.

Issue: Stencil Breakdown or Ghosting

Solution: Stencil breakdown or ghosting can occur when the emulsion is not properly exposed or cured. Ensure that the exposure time is appropriate for the emulsion and the screen. Use a proper exposure unit and follow the recommended exposure times. If ghosting occurs, try degreasing and reapplying the emulsion to the screen or consider using a higher quality emulsion.

Issue: Inconsistent Registration

Solution: Inconsistent registration can result in misaligned prints. Pay close attention to the registration marks on the screens and ensure that they align accurately. Use registration guides or pins to secure the screens in place and maintain proper alignment throughout the printing process.

Issue: Ink Drying or Curing Issues

Solution: If the ink is not drying or curing properly, check the curing temperature and time. Ensure that the curing unit reaches and maintains the recommended temperature for the specified duration. If the ink is not drying, it may be due to excessive ink application or inadequate flash curing. Adjust the ink volume and flash cure time as needed.

Issue: Color Inconsistencies

Solution: Color inconsistencies can occur due to variations in ink mixing, screen tension, or curing conditions. Maintain accurate and consistent ink mixing ratios to ensure color consistency. Regularly check the screen tension and adjust it as needed. Monitor the curing temperature to ensure that it remains consistent throughout the printing process.

Issue: Streaks or Lines in Prints

Solution: Streaks or lines in prints can be caused by various factors, such as debris on the screen or uneven pressure during printing. Clean the screen thoroughly to remove any debris or ink residue that may cause streaks. Ensure that the squeegee pressure is distributed evenly across the screen to avoid lines or streaks in the print.

Issue: Fabric Bleeding or Shrinkage

Solution: Fabric bleeding or shrinkage can occur when printing on certain fabrics, particularly those with low-quality dyes or high shrinkage rates. Test the fabric for bleeding or shrinkage before proceeding with a full print run. Pre-treat the fabric if necessary or consider using a different fabric that is more suitable for screen printing.

Issue: Poor Washability or Durability

Solution: Poor washability or durability can be a result of using low-quality inks or improper curing. Ensure that you are using high-quality plastisol inks that are specifically designed for screen printing. Follow the recommended curing temperature and time to ensure proper fusion of the ink with the fabric fibers. Additionally, consider using additives or specialty inks that enhance washability and durability.

In conclusion, plastisol ink screen printing offers endless possibilities for creating vibrant and durable prints on fabrics. By understanding the basics of plastisol ink, selecting the right screens and additives, mastering screen preparation, ink mixing, and color matching, and exploring various printing techniques and specialty effects, you can achieve remarkable results in your screen prints. Additionally, being aware of common troubleshooting techniques will help you overcome any challenges that may arise during the printing process. With practice, experimentation, and a commitment to continuous learning, you can elevate your screen printing skills and create stunning designs that leave a lasting impression.

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