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Test the Waters

(April/May 2019) posted on Thu May 09, 2019

There’s never been a better time to hop aboard the water-based inks train.

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By Lon Winters

Printers who were raised on plastisols have always found water-based inks challenging to work with. Ray Smith, senior business development manager, specialty inks and polymer systems for PolyOne Corporation, says, “The reason printers seem to fail or succeed with different ink types is because when they learn how to print, the ink they were trained on is the type they most embrace. They learn the traits and behavior of that ink.”

Now that water-based printing is finally growing quickly in the US, many shops are adjusting to the learning curve. One of the biggest challenges for a printer is controlling heat and evaporation. The goal is to cure the ink and evaporate the water in the dryer, not on press. Though water-based products have improved vastly, one reason plastisol printers avoid them is because of the care they require to prevent the ink from drying in the screen. However, the techniques for controlling this potential problem are easy to learn. Controlling the platen heat and using the correct dryer temperature, belt speed, and chamber time are very important. 

The final aesthetics of a water-based print – the hand, surface, and drape – are very pleasing after cure. Apparel brands are beginning to realize the inks aren’t just more ecologically friendly; they also produce prints with a superior feel and breathability. Further, water-based technology can be used on nearly any fabric if the correct ink and techniques are employed. 

Water-based ink typically uses dyes or pigments in a suspension with water as the solvent. The solvent is designed to evaporate, leaving just the pigment or dye behind. Newer inks have a look and feel comparable to plastisol on press, with improved open screen time, but the print processes are very different. The details reflect how ink formulation, prepress processes, and print parameters all play into successfully working with these inks. I am always preaching process! Selecting the right tool for the right function is critical.


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