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Mastering Water-Based Inks

(September 2015) posted on Tue Sep 01, 2015

The time is ripe for printers to learn how to use these products properly.

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By Rob Coleman

Prior to the 1960s, water- and solvent-based inks were the first choice – the only choice, really – for apparel printers. In those days, the garment decoration business was certainly not what it is today in terms of sheer numbers. However, screen printers that did image T-shirts then struggled with a number of production issues: ink transparency, drying in the screen, emissions, stencil breakdown, curing, washfastness, storage, and more.

Then, in 1959, a gentleman named Don Pettry who worked for Flexible Products Company developed plastisol inks, changing garment printing forever. Plastisols used a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) resin and plasticizer to produce what is, in essence, liquid plastic. The inks were easy to cure, didn’t dry in the screen or attack the stencils, presented no shelf-life considerations, produced a durable ink film, and had a good level of opacity to boot. They also enabled small entrepreneurs to get into the business by greatly reducing the cost of drying equipment. The forced-air units with long tunnels required for water-based inks weren’t necessary; small electric dryers could cure this ink just fine. The development of plastisol ink was truly a game changer for our industry and a key factor in the rapid growth of printed apparel in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Plastisol has been the king for a long time, but its fortunes have been reversing in recent years. Why is the industry moving back toward water-based inks? In my view, the two key reasons are brand requirements and fashion trends.

Brand/Retailer Initiatives
A number of major brands list PVC on their Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs), and more are following suit. Nike, by most accounts the top global apparel brand, began phasing out PVC as far back as 1998. Most of the other top apparel brands have some type of PVC restriction as well, including fast-fashion retailers Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo (brands that those of you with teenage daughters surely know). These merchants are rapidly gaining a much larger presence in the US with the downslide of the “Big A’s” – Abercrombie & Fitch, Aéropostale, and American Eagle – brands that teenage consumers have abandoned in recent years.


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