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 removes the base from the print leaving it ultra soft. With water based ink, you won’t even be able to feel it on the garment!

  •  Vibrancy of Prints: Super bright or neon prints are not possible with water based and discharge inks. Once washed, the fibers fluff up making the print look a little duller or vintage.

  • No Exact Pantone Matching: While we use Pantone colors to custom mix the inks, exact Pantone matches cannot be guaranteed due to the varying differences in how fabrics are originally dyed.

  • Consistency between brands and garment colors: Each clothing brand discharges slightly different and so results can be mixed between brands or even fabrics colors in the same brand.

  • Limitations on Colors of Garments: Some colors do not discharge as well as others. Poor discharging examples are: Kelly, Red, Royal Blue, & Purple.

    Ex: Printing white ink on a red shirt can make the print look slightly pink. White on Kelly green can sometimes look like a light sage color.

  • Garment Types: Only natural fibers (cotton) can be discharged. Synthetically made fibers such as polyester, rayon and spandex cannot be discharged. Discharge printing works best on 100% cotton. We do however print on blends. Note that since the synthetic fibers can’t be discharged, your prints may be a bit more faded. This can be cool if you’re going for a vintage look!

  • Higher Garment Loss Potential: If there are any imperfections in the print or a screen starts to break out on longer print runs, we are not able to fix the prints. This is because the fabric has now been dyed. With plastisol inks, we are many times able to remove small imperfections with a blast out gun. Our spoilage policy for water based & discharge is 4% on light garments and 8% on darks. If you need an exact amount, you may want to order a couple extras. For wholesale contract accounts, we recommend ordering extra blanks for us to test on before starting your print run.

Quick reference guide

Plastisol Water-based Discharge
Light Colored T-Shirts Excellent Excellent Excellent
Dark Colored T-Shirts Good Poor Good
Towels Poor Excellent Good
Nylon Jackets Good Fair Poor

Special Notes:

Water based inks are a good solution where ink penetration is needed. A good example of this is screen printing towels. Water based inks will soak down into the fibers of the towel whereas standard plastisol inks will set on top. Plastisol inks will also easily crack or flake off the towel. Plastisol inks can be scratchy to the skin so a soft water-based print is much more desirable on custom screen printed towels.

Halftones/Fine Details/Distress Patterns: Since the ink has a very thin viscosity, it’s good to keep in mind that the ink slightly bleeds once absorbed into the shirt fibers. We like to overemphasize our distress patterns or make our halftone dots larger so they don’t fill in and bleed together as much.

Discharge prints tend to show really good detail because they don’t need an under base layer of ink like traditional plastisol inks.

Foil does not adhere to water based or discharge inks. This makes them our preferred printing method when printing multiple ink colors in addition to foil. See our Foil Printing page for more information.

Add 1 business day to standard turn time for this process.

Water-Based Print Examples:

Need help? Talk to a water based printing expert!

Contact us