Water Based Discharge Screen Printing

Many of our screen printing clients come to us looking for super soft prints and inks that aren’t thick and chunky. We also receive requests for environmentally friendly inks, especially when screen printing on organic cotton t-shirts. Water based & discharge Inks are the perfect fit.

It’s best to first know what water based and discharge inks are and what their best application is. They are not always the best solution for every garment or project.

The video to the left shows a 6 color water based discharge print for a local cannabis clothing line. This was our very first ever water-based discharge order back in early 2011. We have changed processes and inks over the last 8 years since we first started doing the water-based printing. However, we still think this is a great visual example of how the water-based discharge process works.

What is the difference between water based, discharge, & plastisol ink?

What is Water Based Ink?

Water-based ink uses either dyes or pigments in a suspension with water as a solvent. It has a much thinner viscosity than standard plastisol ink. This enables the ink to absorb into the fibers of the fabric and essentially re-dye them. Standard plastisol ink lays on top of the fabric in layers and that is why the prints often feel thick and scratchy.  Plastisol inks are made of a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic which is what gives it that thick feel to it. After several washes and wear and tear on a shirt, the plastisol ink is known to crack or distress. Water based prints are super soft, you virtually can’t even feel it! They will also never crack, peel or fade because they are now a part of the fabric, not layered up on top.

Water based inks have the lowest environmental impact of any screen printing ink. If you’re looking to “go green”, water based inks will give the perfect natural screen printing solution for you.

The shirt to the right for The Great PNW is a 2 color water based red and navy print.

What is Discharge Ink?

Discharge ink is also a water based ink but it has an activator added to it to release the dye in the shirt. This activator, or discharging agent, brings the shirt back to its natural bone color.

Pigments can then be added to the ink to essentially re-dye the fabric to a new color. Without this discharging agent, water based inks would soak into the already dyed fibers and not be able to be seen.

To put it into perspective, when printing on paper you’re printing on a white substrate. With fabric that is already dyed, you have to bring it back to a white state so that you can lay colors on it.

In the picture to the right for The Great PNW, we used straight discharge ink with no dye colors. This removed the black dye from the fabric and is a great example of what the natural fibers of a shirt look like once discharged. We love this vintage looking shirt! Once washed, you cannot even feel the print.

Water based screen printing helpful tips

Advantages of Water Based & Discharge Inks:

  • Super Soft Prints: The ink penetrates into the fibers of the shirt instead of laying on top.

  • Eco-Friendly: PVC free and no harmful or toxic substances. They are safe to work with and wear.

  • Print over Seams & Zippers: The thin viscosity of the ink allows it to seep into the seams of the fabric rather than bunching up and looking chunky or flaking off.

  • Vintage Prints: Great for soft vintage prints since the print is down into the fibers and not sitting on top.

  • Great for Retail Brands: Get that super soft high quality retail look!

Disadvantages of Water Based & Discharge Inks:

  • Should wash before wearing: When first printed, you’ll feel a slight hand to the shirt. Washing the shirt re