Water Based Screen Printing Ink: The Comprehensive Guide

Water based screen printing ink is a versatile and eco-friendly option that has gained significant popularity in recent years. This unique type of ink offers a range of benefits, from its vibrant colors to its ability to create intricate designs. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the world of water based screen printing ink, exploring its characteristics, advantages, and applications.

The Advantages of Water Based Screen Printing Ink

Water based screen printing ink offers numerous advantages that make it a preferred choice for many textile printers. Let’s explore these benefits in detail:

Vibrant Colors:

One of the standout features of water based inks is their ability to produce vibrant and eye-catching colors. The water-based composition allows for better color saturation, resulting in prints that truly pop. Whether you’re printing on light or dark fabrics, water based inks can deliver vivid and striking hues.

Soft and Breathable Prints:

Unlike some other types of inks, water based inks are known for their soft hand feel. When printed on fabric, they create a thin layer that does not compromise the fabric’s breathability. This makes water based prints comfortable to wear, even on garments that come into direct contact with the skin.

Excellent Washability and Durability:

Water based inks offer exceptional washability, ensuring that your prints maintain their vibrancy even after multiple washes. These inks bond well with fabric fibers and resist fading, cracking, or peeling over time. This durability makes water based screen printing ideal for garments that will undergo frequent laundering.

Environmentally Friendly:

One of the most significant advantages of water based screen printing ink is its eco-friendliness. Unlike oil-based inks, water based inks do not contain harmful solvents or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They are water-soluble and have a lower impact on the environment, making them a sustainable choice for printers who prioritize eco-conscious practices.

Choosing the Right Fabric for Water Based Printing

Not all fabrics are created equal when it comes to water based screen printing ink. Here are some key factors to consider when selecting fabrics for water based printing:

Fabric Composition:

The composition of the fabric plays a crucial role in determining how well it will interact with water based inks. Natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo, and hemp tend to work best with these inks, as they readily absorb and retain the ink’s pigments. Synthetic fibers like polyester can also be used but may require additional pre-treatments to improve ink adhesion.

Weave and Texture:

The weave and texture of the fabric can impact the overall print quality. Fabrics with a tight weave, such as twill or poplin, provide a smooth surface for the ink to adhere to, resulting in crisp and precise prints. On the other hand, fabrics with a looser weave or texture, like jersey or fleece, may require additional precautions to prevent ink bleed or smudging.

Pre-Treatment Requirements:

Some fabrics may require pre-treatment before printing with water based inks. Pre-treatments, such as using a water-based adhesive or a pre-treatment solution, can enhance the fabric’s ability to absorb the ink and improve color vibrancy. It’s essential to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and conduct test prints to ensure optimal results.

Preparing the Artwork for Water Based Printing

Preparing artwork for water based screen printing requires attention to detail and careful considerations. Here’s a step-by-step guide to optimizing your designs for water based ink:

Color Separation:

When working with multi-colored designs, it’s crucial to separate the colors effectively. Use graphic design software to create separate layers for each color in your design. This allows you to control the ink deposition and ensure accurate color reproduction during printing.

Halftones and Gradients:

Water based inks can reproduce halftones and gradients with precision. Utilize halftone patterns or gradients in your design to achieve smooth transitions between colors. Experiment with different dot sizes or angles to achieve the desired effect.


Underbases are an essential component of water based printing, especially when working with dark fabrics. Apply a white or light-colored underbase layer before printing the final colors to enhance their visibility and prevent the fabric color from interfering with the ink’s vibrancy.

Test Prints:

Before printing a large batch, it’s crucial to conduct test prints to ensure that your artwork translates well onto the fabric. This allows you to make adjustments to colors, halftones, or underbases as needed, ensuring that the final prints meet your desired standards.

Screen Preparation and Printing Techniques

Proper screen preparation is vital for achieving optimal results with water based inks. Here’s a step-by-step guide to screen preparation and an exploration of various printing techniques:

Coating the Screen:

Start by coating your screen with a water-resistant emulsion. Apply a thin, even layer of emulsion on both sides of the screen using a scoop coater. Ensure that the emulsion coats the mesh evenly, leaving no open or blocked areas that could affect the print quality.

Exposure and Image Transfer:

Once the emulsion is dry, place a positive film or transparency with your design onto the coated screen. Expose the screen to UV light, ensuring that the design is transferred onto the emulsion. Use a light box or exposure unit to achieve accurate exposure times, and make sure to wash out the screen promptly after exposure.

Registration and Alignment:

Proper registration is crucial for aligning your design accurately on the fabric. Use registration marks or a registration system to ensure consistent placement of the screen on each print. Take the time to align the screen properly before printing to avoid misprints or off-centered designs.

Printing Techniques:

Water based inks can be applied using various printing techniques, depending on the desired effect. Wet-on-wet printing involves applying multiple colors without allowing them to dry in between, resulting in smooth transitions and blending. Discharge printing utilizes water-based discharge inks that react with the fabric’s dye, effectively removing the existing color and replacing it with the desired ink color.

Curing and Drying Water Based Prints

Curing is a crucial step to ensure the longevity and washability of water based prints. Here’s an exploration of different curing methods and the importance of proper testing and quality control:

Heat Curing:

The most common method of curing water based prints is through heat. Using a heat press or conveyor dryer, apply heat to the printed fabric for a specific duration, allowing the ink to bond with the fibers. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding temperature and curing time to achieve optimal results.

Infrared Curing:

Infrared (IR) curing offers an alternative to heat curing, especially for larger production runs. IR curing systems emit a specific wavelength of infrared radiation, which heats the ink and fabric without heating the surrounding air. This method can significantly reduce curing time and energy consumption.

Air Drying:

In certain cases, such as low-production runs or specific ink formulations, air drying may be an option. After printing, allow the fabric to air dry naturally, ensuring proper ventilation to aid in the evaporation of the water content. Keep in mind that air drying may result in longer curing times and may not be suitable for all types of water based inks.

Testing and Quality Control:

Regardless of the curing method employed, it’s crucial to conduct thorough testing and quality control to ensure that the prints have fully cured. Perform wash tests to evaluate color fastness and durability. Evaluate the prints for any signs of cracking or peeling, indicating insufficient curing. Adjust your curing parameters as needed to achieve optimal results.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Like any printing process, water based screen printing can encounter challenges. Here are some common issues and practical solutions to overcome them:

Bleeding and Smudging:

Bleeding occurs when the ink spreads beyond the intended print area, resulting in a blurry or distorted image. To prevent bleeding, ensure that the fabric is properly pre-treated and consider using higher mesh counts to control ink flow. Experiment with reducing ink viscosity or using a smaller squeegee angle to minimize ink migration.

Dye Migration:

Dye migration occurs when the fabric’s dye interacts with the water based ink, resulting in color shifts or bleeding. To combat dye migration, use low-bleed or bleed-resistant inks specifically formulated to prevent dye migration. Proper curing and testing are essential to ensure that the print is fully bonded and that the ink resists any potential migration.

Ink Drying on the Screen:

If the ink dries on the screen during printing, it can clog the mesh and affect print quality. To prevent this, keep the ink container covered when not in use, and periodically stir the ink to maintain its consistency. If the ink starts to dry on the screen, use a spray bottle with water to keep the inkfrom drying. Additionally, consider using a higher mesh count screen to control ink flow and reduce the risk of clogging.

Poor Ink Adhesion:

If you’re experiencing poor ink adhesion, where the ink does not bond well with the fabric, it can result in flaking or peeling prints. Ensure that the fabric is properly pre-treated and that you’re using the appropriate ink for the fabric type. Conduct thorough testing to determine if any additional additives or pre-treatments are required to improve ink adhesion.

Inconsistent Print Quality:

Inconsistent print quality can be the result of various factors, including improper screen tension, uneven ink application, or inconsistent squeegee pressure. Regularly check and maintain proper screen tension, ensure that the ink is mixed thoroughly and applied evenly, and maintain consistent squeegee pressure throughout the printing process. Conduct regular quality control checks to identify and address any issues affecting print consistency.

Stencil Blockage:

Stencil blockage can occur when the mesh openings become clogged with dried ink or debris, resulting in distorted or incomplete prints. Regularly clean and maintain your screens to prevent stencil blockage. Use a screen cleaner or emulsion remover to dissolve and remove any ink buildup. Properly store and handle your screens to minimize the risk of contamination or blockage.

Special Effects and Additives

Water based inks offer endless possibilities for creating unique and eye-catching effects. Here are some special effects and additives you can experiment with:

Foaming Agents:

Foaming agents can be added to water based inks to create a raised or textured effect. These additives cause the ink to expand and create a foam-like appearance when printed. Foaming agents can be used to add dimension and visual interest to your designs, making them stand out from traditional flat prints.

Puff Additives:

Puff additives are used to create a raised, three-dimensional effect on water based prints. When heat is applied during the curing process, the puff additive expands and gives the print a textured or puffed appearance. This effect adds depth and tactile interest to your designs, making them visually appealing and unique.

Metallic Powders:

Metallic powders can be mixed with water based inks to achieve a metallic or shimmering effect. These powders contain fine metallic particles that reflect light, creating a lustrous or sparkling appearance on the print. Metallic inks add a touch of glamour and sophistication to your designs, making them particularly popular for creating eye-catching graphics or text.

Discharge Printing:

Discharge printing is a technique that involves using water-based discharge inks to remove the existing color of the fabric and replace it with the desired ink color. Discharge inks contain an activator that reacts with the fabric’s dye, effectively bleaching it out. This technique allows for vibrant prints on dark or colored fabrics while maintaining a soft hand feel.

Foil Application:

Foil application can add a luxurious and metallic finish to your water based prints. This technique involves applying a layer of adhesive to the fabric, then heat transferring a metallic foil onto the adhesive. The foil adheres to the adhesive, creating a shiny, reflective surface. Foil application can be used to create stunning accents or highlights on your designs, adding a touch of elegance.

Environmental Considerations

An increasing number of print shops are embracing water based inks due to their eco-friendly nature. Here are some environmental advantages of water based screen printing ink:

Reduced Emissions:

Water based inks do not contain harmful solvents or VOCs, which are known to contribute to air pollution. By using water-based inks, you can significantly reduce the emissions typically associated with traditional solvent-based inks. This promotes a healthier and safer working environment for printers and reduces the carbon footprint of your printing operation.

Easy Cleanup:

Water based inks are water-soluble and can be easily cleaned up with water. This eliminates the need for harsh chemicals or solvents typically used in the cleanup process. Simply rinse your screens, tools, and equipment with water to remove any residual ink. This not only simplifies the cleanup process but also reduces the environmental impact of your printing activities.

Sustainability Compliance:

Water based inks align with sustainability standards and regulations. Many water-based inks are formulated to be eco-friendly, meeting specific standards such as Oeko-Tex® Standard 100, which certifies that the ink is free from harmful substances. By using water based inks, you can ensure that your printing practices are in line with sustainable and responsible manufacturing practices.

Comparing Water Based Inks to Other Ink Types

Water based screen printing ink is just one of several ink options available to printers. Here’s a comparison of water based inks to other popular types:

Plastisol Inks:

Plastisol inks are a common alternative to water based inks. Unlike water based inks, plastisol inks are made from PVC particles suspended in a plasticizer. Plastisol inks offer excellent opacity and color vibrancy, making them ideal for vibrant and bold prints. However, they have a thicker hand feel compared to water based inks and may not be as eco-friendly.

Discharge Inks:

Discharge inks, as mentioned earlier, are used to remove the existing color of the fabric and replace it with the desired ink color. Discharge inks can achieve vibrant prints on dark or colored fabrics while maintaining a soft hand feel. However, they require additional steps and precautions compared to water based inks and may not be suitable for all designs or fabric types.

Hybrid Inks:

Hybrid inks combine the properties of water based and plastisol inks. They offer the soft hand feel and eco-friendliness of water based inks, along with the opacity and vibrant colors of plastisol inks. Hybrid inks are a popular choice for printers who want the best of both worlds, providing durability, washability, and excellent color reproduction.

Tips for Success with Water Based Screen Printing Ink

Mastering water based screen printing requires practice, attention to detail, and continuous improvement. Here are some valuable tips and tricks to help you achieve exceptional results:

Proper Ink Storage and Handling:

Store water based inks in a cool and dry environment, away from direct sunlight or extreme temperatures. Properly seal the ink containers to prevent evaporation or drying. When handling the ink, use clean and dry tools to avoid contamination. Stir the ink before printing to ensure consistent color and viscosity.

Effective Cleanup and Maintenance:

Clean your screens, squeegees, and tools promptly after each print run to prevent ink buildup or drying. Use water to rinse away residual ink, and consider using a mild detergent for thorough cleaning. Regularly inspect and maintain your printing equipment, such as screens and squeegees, to ensure optimal performance and print quality.

Experiment and Innovate:

Water based inks offer a wide range of possibilities for creativity and innovation. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different techniques, additives, or fabric combinations to achieve unique effects. Test new ideas on small runs or sample fabrics to assess their feasibility before scaling up to larger productions.

Continuous Learning and Improvement:

Stay updated with the latest advancements, techniques, and industry trends in water based screen printing. Attend workshops, webinars, or trade shows to learn from experienced printers and industry experts. Keep experimenting, learning from your mistakes, and refining your techniques to continually improve your skills and achieve outstanding results.

In conclusion, water based screen printing ink offers a multitude of advantages, from vibrant colors and soft prints to eco-friendliness and durability. By understanding the characteristics of water based inks, selecting the right fabrics, and mastering various printing techniques, you can unlock the full potential of this versatile ink type. Whether you’re a seasoned printer or a beginner, this comprehensive guide equips you with the knowledge and insights needed to excel in water based screen printing and unleash your creativity.

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