Water Based Screen Printing: A Comprehensive Guide to Eco-Friendly Printing

Water based screen printing is a revolutionary technique that has gained significant popularity in recent years due to its eco-friendly nature and high-quality results. This printing method uses water-based inks instead of traditional plastisol inks, making it a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly option for businesses and individuals alike. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the details of water based screen printing, exploring its benefits, process, and its applications in various industries.

The Benefits of Water Based Screen Printing

Water based screen printing offers a multitude of benefits over traditional printing methods. By using water-based inks, businesses can significantly reduce their environmental impact. These inks are non-toxic and free from harmful chemicals, making them safer for the environment and the people working with them. Additionally, water based inks do not require the use of harsh solvents for cleanup, further reducing the release of harmful substances into the environment.

Furthermore, water based screen printing produces prints that are soft to the touch and breathable, unlike plastisol prints that can feel thick and heavy on the fabric. The ink is absorbed into the fabric, resulting in vibrant and long-lasting prints that do not crack or peel easily. This durability makes water based screen printing an ideal choice for apparel and products that undergo frequent washing or heavy use.

Another advantage of water based screen printing is its ability to produce fine details and intricate designs with ease. The thin consistency of water-based inks allows for precise printing, capturing even the smallest details of a design. This makes it a preferred choice for artists and designers who want to bring their creations to life with clarity and precision.


One of the key advantages of water based screen printing is its eco-friendly nature. Traditional plastisol inks contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates and PVC, which are known to have adverse effects on human health and the environment. Water based inks, on the other hand, are free from these toxic substances, making them a safer and greener alternative.

In addition to being free from harmful chemicals, water based inks also require less energy and water to produce. The production process of water based inks is generally more energy-efficient compared to the production of plastisol inks. Moreover, since water is the primary component of these inks, they require less water for cleanup and waste management.

By opting for water based screen printing, businesses can reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to a more sustainable future. This eco-friendly aspect not only appeals to environmentally-conscious consumers but also aligns with corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Superior Print Quality

Water based screen printing is known for its exceptional print quality. The ink is absorbed into the fabric fibers, resulting in a soft and breathable print that blends seamlessly with the fabric. This creates a natural, almost “unprinted” look, making water based screen printing an excellent choice for designs that require a subtle and understated appearance.

Unlike plastisol prints that can feel heavy and plasticky, water based prints have a soft hand feel. The ink does not sit on top of the fabric, allowing it to retain its natural texture and drape. This aspect becomes particularly important when printing on garments that are meant to be worn directly against the skin, such as t-shirts or athletic apparel.

Water based screen printing also offers excellent color vibrancy. The inks are highly pigmented, resulting in prints that are vibrant and eye-catching. Whether printing on light or dark fabrics, water based inks can produce vivid and saturated colors that remain true to the original design.

Versatility and Compatibility

Water based screen printing can be used on a wide range of fabrics, making it a versatile printing technique. It is compatible with natural fibers such as cotton, linen, and bamboo, as well as synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. This flexibility allows businesses to cater to different markets and customer preferences, expanding their product offerings.

In addition to fabric compatibility, water based screen printing can also be used on various types of products beyond apparel. It can be applied to promotional items, such as tote bags and hats, as well as home decor products like pillows and curtains. The versatility of water based screen printing opens up endless possibilities for businesses to showcase their creativity and reach a broader audience.

The Water Based Screen Printing Process

The water based screen printing process involves several steps, each crucial to achieving high-quality prints. Understanding and following these steps is essential for successful water based screen printing. Let’s take a closer look at each stage of the process:

Design Preparation

The first step in water based screen printing is preparing the design. This involves creating or obtaining a high-resolution digital or hand-drawn design that will be transferred onto the fabric. The design should be converted into a vector format if it contains any text or shapes to ensure sharp and precise printing.

Once the design is ready, it is then separated into individual color layers. Each color layer represents a separate screen that will be used during the printing process. This separation is necessary to achieve accurate registration and prevent color bleeding.

Screen Preparation

The next step is preparing the screens. Screens are made of a fine mesh stretched over a frame, and they act as a stencil through which the ink is transferred onto the fabric. To create the stencil, a light-sensitive emulsion is applied to the screen and dried in a darkroom or under controlled conditions.

After the emulsion is dry, the design’s color layers are transferred onto the screens using a UV light exposure unit. The areas of the design that allow ink to pass through are hardened by the UV light, while the rest of the emulsion is washed away, leaving behind the stencil for each color layer.

Printing Setup

Once the screens are prepared, they are mounted onto a printing press or a manual screen printing station. The fabric to be printed is carefully placed on the printing surface, ensuring that it is secured in place and in proper alignment with the screens.

For multi-color designs, each screen is positioned above the fabric, and the ink is applied through the mesh using a squeegee. The squeegee is pulled across the screen, forcing the ink through the open areas of the stencil and onto the fabric below.

Ink Application

The choice of ink plays a crucial role in water based screen printing. Water based inks have a thinner consistency compared to plastisol inks, allowing for better absorption into the fabric. This results in prints that are soft to the touch and have a natural appearance.

Before applying the ink, it is essential to mix it thoroughly to ensure an even distribution of pigments. Once mixed, the ink is poured onto the screen above the fabric. The squeegee is then used to pull the ink across the screen, pushing it through the stencil and onto the fabric. This process is repeated for each color layer, allowing the colors to build and overlap, if necessary.

Drying and Curing

After the ink is applied, the printed fabric needs to dry and cure to ensure that the print becomes permanent and durable. Drying can be done by air-drying the fabric or using a heat source such as a conveyor dryer or a heat press. The drying time may vary depending on the ink and fabric used.

Curing is the final step in the water based screen printing process. It involves applying heat to the printed fabric to ensure that the ink fully adheres to the fibers and becomes wash-fast. Curing can be achieved using a heat press or a conveyor dryer, following the recommended temperature and time guidelines provided by the ink manufacturer.

Choosing the Right Fabrics for Water Based Screen Printing

Not all fabrics are suitable for water based screen printing. Different fabrics have different characteristics that can affect the outcome of the print. Here are some factors to consider when selecting fabrics for water based screen printing:

Fabric Composition

Water based screen printing works best on fabrics with high levels of absorbency, such as natural fibers like cotton, linen, and rayon. These fabrics allow the water-based inks to be fully absorbed and bind with the fibers, resulting in vibrant and long-lasting prints.

Synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon have a lower level of absorbency and may require pre-treatment or the use of special inks designed for synthetic fabrics. Pre-treatment helps improve the ink’s adhesion to the fabric, ensuring a durable print. Some water based inks are specifically formulated for synthetic fabrics, offering better adhesion and wash-fastness.

Fabric Color

The color of the fabric can also impact the appearance of the print. Water based inks are translucent, meaning that the color of the fabric will show through the ink. Light-colored fabrics work best for water based screen printing as they allow the ink colors to appear vibrant and true to the original design.

Printing on dark-colored fabrics requires additional steps to ensure the colors stand out. A white underbase may be needed to create a solid foundation for the colors to be printed on top. This underbase acts as a barrier, preventing the fabric color from showing through the ink and altering the final result.

Fabric Texture

The texture of the fabric can affect how the ink adheres and appears on the surface. Fabrics with a smooth and flat texture, such as jersey knit, providea smooth and consistent surface for printing, resulting in sharp and detailed prints. On the other hand, fabrics with a more textured surface, like fleece or canvas, may require adjustments in the printing technique to ensure the ink is evenly distributed and adheres properly to the fabric.

It is important to test different fabrics before committing to a large production run. Conducting print tests on various fabric samples allows you to assess how the water based inks interact with each fabric type and make any necessary adjustments to achieve the desired results. It is also advisable to consult with your ink supplier or printing expert to ensure you are using the most suitable ink and techniques for your chosen fabrics.

Overcoming Challenges in Water Based Screen Printing

While water based screen printing offers numerous benefits, it does come with its own set of challenges. Being aware of these challenges and knowing how to overcome them is crucial for achieving successful prints. Here are some common challenges in water based screen printing and solutions to overcome them:

Ink Bleeding

One challenge in water based screen printing is ink bleeding, where the colors spread or bleed into each other, resulting in a blurred or muddy appearance. To prevent ink bleeding, it is important to ensure proper screen registration, where each color layer is aligned accurately. This can be achieved by using registration marks on the screens and fabric and adjusting the screens as needed during the printing process.

Additionally, using a print paste or thickener can help control the ink’s viscosity and reduce bleeding. A print paste increases the ink’s thickness, preventing it from spreading too much on the fabric. It is important to follow the recommended guidelines provided by the ink manufacturer when using print pastes or thickeners to avoid any negative effects on the print quality.

Drying Time

Water based inks generally have a longer drying time compared to plastisol inks. This can be a challenge, especially in high production settings where quick turnaround times are required. To expedite the drying process, using a forced-air drying system or a conveyor dryer can significantly reduce drying time. These drying methods provide consistent heat and airflow, ensuring the prints dry evenly and quickly.

It is important to note that rushing the drying process can lead to improper curing and affect the durability of the prints. Proper curing is essential to ensure the ink fully adheres to the fabric and becomes wash-fast. Following the recommended curing temperature and time guidelines provided by the ink manufacturer is crucial for achieving long-lasting prints.

Ink Color Matching

Matching colors accurately in water based screen printing can be challenging due to the translucency of the inks and the influence of the fabric color. To achieve consistent color matching, it is important to establish a controlled printing environment with consistent lighting conditions. This allows for better color evaluation and ensures that the colors appear as intended.

Regularly calibrating your screens, using color matching tools such as Pantone guides, and conducting print tests with different fabric colors are effective strategies for achieving accurate color matching. Adjustments to the ink formulation, such as increasing the pigment load, may also be necessary to achieve the desired color intensity on different fabric colors.

Eco-Friendly Practices in Water Based Screen Printing

Water based screen printing is inherently an eco-friendly printing method, but there are additional practices and techniques that can be adopted to further reduce the environmental impact. By incorporating these eco-friendly practices into your printing workflow, you can enhance the sustainability of your water based screen printing operations:

Recycling and Waste Management

Implementing a comprehensive recycling and waste management system is crucial for reducing the environmental impact of water based screen printing. This includes properly disposing of waste ink, cleaning solvents, and other printing-related chemicals. Recycling options should be explored for materials such as screens, frames, and packaging materials, whenever possible.

Additionally, consider using recycled or eco-friendly packaging materials for shipping your printed products. This helps minimize waste and showcases your commitment to sustainable practices throughout the entire production and distribution process.

Reducing Water Consumption

While water based screen printing already uses less water compared to other printing methods, there are ways to further reduce water consumption. Consider implementing water-saving measures such as installing low-flow faucets and using water recycling systems to capture and reuse water used for cleaning screens and equipment.

Regular maintenance of equipment, such as inspecting and repairing leaks, can also help minimize water wastage. Educating and training employees on water conservation practices will contribute to a culture of sustainability within your printing facility.

Using Sustainable Fabrics

Choosing sustainable and organic fabrics for water based screen printing can further enhance the eco-friendliness of your prints. Look for fabrics that are certified organic, Fair Trade, or made from recycled materials. These fabrics have a lower environmental impact compared to conventionally produced fabrics.

By offering sustainable fabric options to your customers, you can further align your business with eco-conscious values and cater to the growing demand for sustainable products. Educate your customers about the benefits of choosing eco-friendly fabrics and highlight the environmental advantages of water based screen printing in your marketing materials.

Applications of Water Based Screen Printing

Water based screen printing is not limited to just apparel printing. Its versatility allows for a wide range of applications across various industries. Here are some of the key applications of water based screen printing:

Promotional Products

Water based screen printing is a popular choice for printing promotional products such as tote bags, caps, and accessories. The soft and breathable prints achieved through water based inks make these products comfortable to use and visually appealing. Water based screen printing also allows for intricate designs and vibrant colors, making promotional items stand out and leave a lasting impression.

Home Decor

Water based screen printing offers endless possibilities for home decor products such as pillows, curtains, and wall art. The soft and natural appearance of water based prints complements various interior styles and adds a touch of uniqueness to any space. From subtle patterns to bold designs, water based screen printing allows for customization and creativity in home decor applications.

Apparel and Fashion

Apparel printing is one of the primary applications of water based screen printing. Its ability to produce soft and breathable prints makes it a preferred choice for t-shirts, hoodies, and other garments. Water based screen printing offers excellent color vibrancy and durability, ensuring that the prints withstand repeated washings and maintain their quality over time.

Fine Art and Illustration

Water based screen printing has gained popularity among artists and illustrators due to its ability to reproduce intricate details and capture the subtle nuances of their artwork. The thin consistency of water-based inks allows for precise printing, making it an ideal choice for fine art prints, limited edition posters, and art reproduction.

Comparing Water Based Screen Printing to Other Printing Methods

Water based screen printing offers unique advantages over other popular printing methods. Understanding the differences between water based screen printing and other techniques can help you make an informed decision based on your specific printing requirements. Let’s compare water based screen printing to some common printing methods:

Plastisol Screen Printing

Plastisol screen printing is the traditional method that uses PVC-based inks. While plastisol inks offer vibrant and opaque prints, they contain harmful chemicals and have a more significant impact on the environment. Water based screen printing, on the other hand, is more eco-friendly and produces softer, more breathable prints. However, plastisol inks may be preferred for specific applications, such as printing on dark fabrics or when a thicker, more raised print is desired.

Direct-to-Garment Printing

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is a digital printing method that allows for high-resolution prints directly onto the fabric. DTG printing offers excellent color accuracy and allows for complex designs without the need for separate screens. However, water based screen printing generally provides better durability and a softer feel on the fabric. DTG printing may be more suitable for smaller production runs or highly detailed designs, while water based screen printing is favored for larger quantities and applications where durability is paramount.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing involves transferring ink from a solid state to a gas state, which then bonds with the fabric. This process allows for full-color prints with excellent durability. However, sublimation printing is limited to synthetic fabrics and requires specific equipment and materials. Water based screen printing offers more versatility in terms of fabric compatibility and does not require special equipment. Additionally, water based screen printing can achieve softer prints and is more suitable for designs with fine details or complex color gradients.

Tips for Successful Water Based Screen Printing

Achieving successful water based screen prints requires attention to detail and adherence to best practices. Here are some tips to help you achieve professional-quality results:

Proper Screen Preparation

Thoroughly clean and degrease the screens before applying the emulsion to ensure proper adhesion. Use high-quality mesh and tension the screens properly to achieve accurate registration and prevent ink leakage.

Use High-Quality Inks

Invest in high-quality water based inks from reputable suppliers. These inks are formulated specifically for screen printing and offer better color vibrancy, durability, and wash-fastness. Follow the recommended guidelines provided by the ink manufacturer for optimal results.

Test and AdjustPrinting Techniques

Before starting a large production run, it is advisable to conduct print tests on different fabrics and designs. This allows you to fine-tune your printing techniques, such as adjusting squeegee pressure, ink consistency, and speed, to achieve the desired results. Keep a record of successful printing parameters for future reference.

Maintain Proper Ink Consistency

Consistency is key when working with water based inks. Regularly stir or mix the inks to ensure an even distribution of pigments. If needed, add small amounts of water or a recommended additive to adjust the ink’s viscosity. Consistent ink consistency ensures uniform prints and reduces the risk of clogging screens or uneven ink coverage.

Optimize Drying and Curing Process

Proper drying and curing are essential for achieving durable and wash-fast prints. Ensure that the prints are thoroughly dry before curing, as insufficient drying can result in ink bleeding or poor adhesion. Follow the recommended temperature and time guidelines provided by the ink manufacturer to ensure proper curing and optimal print durability.

Practice Proper Cleanup and Maintenance

After each print run, clean the screens, squeegees, and equipment thoroughly to prevent ink buildup and clogging. Use eco-friendly cleaning solutions and dispose of waste materials responsibly. Regularly inspect and maintain your equipment to ensure optimal performance and longevity.

Water Based Screen Printing Equipment and Supplies

To embark on your water based screen printing journey, you will need the right equipment and supplies. Here are the essential tools and materials required for water based screen printing:

Screens and Frames

Invest in high-quality screens made of fine mesh. Aluminum frames are commonly used due to their durability and stability. The mesh count will depend on the desired level of detail in your prints. Higher mesh counts are suitable for fine details, while lower mesh counts work well for bold designs.

Emulsion and Exposure Unit

Choose a suitable emulsion for water based screen printing. Emulsion selection depends on factors such as exposure time, resolution, and durability. Use an exposure unit or a light source with consistent UV output to properly expose the screens and create accurate stencils.

Squeegees and Floodbars

Select squeegees and floodbars appropriate for your printing setup. The durometer or hardness of the squeegee blade affects ink deposit and print quality. Soft or medium squeegees are commonly used for water based screen printing to achieve proper ink transfer without damaging the screens.

Inks and Additives

Choose high-quality water based inks that are specifically formulated for screen printing. Select inks based on the desired color range, wash-fastness, and environmental considerations. Additives such as retarders or thickeners may be used to modify ink consistency and drying time.

Drying and Curing Equipment

Invest in a reliable drying and curing system to ensure proper ink drying and curing. Conveyor dryers or heat presses with adjustable temperature controls are commonly used for water based screen printing. Consider the size and production volume of your prints when selecting drying and curing equipment.

Cleaning and Reclaiming Supplies

Have appropriate cleaning and reclaiming supplies on hand to maintain your screens and equipment. This includes eco-friendly screen cleaners, emulsion removers, and haze removers. Use soft brushes or scrub pads to gently clean screens and remove excess ink or emulsion.

Exploring Water Based Screen Printing Brands

Several brands specialize in producing high-quality water based inks and related supplies for screen printing. Here are some notable brands that offer water based screen printing products:


Permaset is a renowned brand known for its eco-friendly water based inks. Their inks are vegan, and they prioritize sustainability and environmental responsibility in their manufacturing process. Permaset offers a wide range of colors and formulations suitable for various fabric types and printing applications.


Matsui is another well-established brand recognized for its water based inks. They offer a diverse range of colors, including metallics and special effects inks. Matsui’s inks are known for their vibrant colors, excellent wash-fastness, and ease of use. They also prioritize reducing their environmental impact by using renewable energy and recyclable packaging.


Rutland is a trusted name in the screen printing industry, offering a range of water based inks suitable for different applications. Their inks are known for their opacity, color vibrancy, and durability. Rutland focuses on sustainable practices and offers eco-friendly options, including phthalate-free and PVC-free inks.

Green Galaxy

Green Galaxy is a brand that specializes in eco-friendly water based inks and supplies. Their inks are non-toxic, PVC-free, and phthalate-free, making them a safe and sustainable choice. Green Galaxy offers a wide range of colors and additives, allowing for customization and versatility in water based screen printing.


Speedball is a well-known brand that caters to various printing techniques, including water based screen printing. They offer a range of water based inks suitable for different fabric types and applications. Speedball is committed to environmental sustainability and offers eco-friendly options, including inks made from natural and renewable resources.


Water based screen printing offers a sustainable, high-quality, and versatile printing option for businesses and individuals. By understanding the benefits, process, and best practices of this technique, you can harness its potential to create stunning prints while minimizing your environmental impact. Embrace the world of water based screen printing and unlock a world of possibilities in the realm of eco-friendly printing.

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