Screen Printing Ink Types for T-Shirts Guide

Screen Printing Ink Types.

Choosing the right ink for your design is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when embarking on a print run. Here at Fifth Column we’ve been printing shirts in London since the 1970s. As you can imagine, during that time we’ve seen just about everything there is to see with screen printing clothes and merchandise. And the choice of ink makes a big difference to the finished product. So, below we’ll examine screen printing ink types and how they work with your custom tees.

Choosing your ink type for screen printing t shirts.

Okay, what kind of ink is screen printing ink for fabric? Well, there are three basic components to it. Namely, a liquid medium (this is the biggest part). Plus pigment for colour. And an agent which binds to the base material (often referred to substrate). Naturally, there are different substances that can be used in this mix. As well as additives which alter the final result.

The details of your project will determine which is best suited when choosing an ink type for screen printing t shirts. By which we mean the style and fabric of garment. And how that combines with your artwork. In effect, the ink which brings those aspects together in the most effective way and best conveys your idea. Let’s start with the main two types of screen printing ink.

Screen printing ink types for t-shirts.

Screen printing ink types for t-shirts

Plastisol Screen Printing Ink Types for T-Shirts.

With plastisol as the industry standard

Plastisol ink types.

Many people regard plastisol as the best ink for screen printing t-shirts. That’s to say, the most often used and the most versatile. Without doubt, it has to be high on the list when you’re considering screen printing ink types for t shirts. Its has a number of attractive qualities.

  • Bright, vibrant colours.
  • Good detail.
  • Long lasting print.
  • Washes well.
  • Suitable for a variety of clothing.

These inks are plastic-based as you might expect from the name. In appearance, they sit on the surface of the fabric instead of ‘soaking’ in. It’s fair to say that plastisol inks are the industry standard in screen printing. Not least because they’re relatively affordable and results are generally dependable. And, from a screen printers standpoint, they are easier to handle. Plus, cure quickly and therefore require less energy and expense in terms of drying. Read our piece on Plastisol Ink Printing for more information.

Water based ink types.

Water based ink types

With their eco appeal

Water based ink types.

In contrast to plastisol, the main component of this type of ink is obviously water. For many, that in itself is appealing on an environmental level. However, it’s not universally adored. For one thing, the printed design can be less vibrant than with other types of ink. And matching colours is not as reliable. But plenty of folk choose it because of its attributes.

  • Regarded as an eco-friendly technique.
  • Produces soft prints.
  • Feels light, as if part of the shirt fabric.
  • Good detail.

Beyond that, these inks may not always be as eco-environmental as they at first appear. For example, curing is slower and consequently takes considerably more energy. And, from our perspective, shelf life is only a fraction of plastic-based inks. You can find more info in this post: Water Based Ink Printing.

Get superb printed shirts by using the appropriate ink types.

Get superb printed shirts

By using discharge inks

Discharge inks.

Plastisol and water-based are the two main types of screen printing ink but we ought to mention discharge ink. If for no other reason than it’s popular and produces some outstanding prints. Put simply, the discharge process reduces colour in the shirt dye and replaces it with ink. It’s favoured by many for a number of reasons.

  • Soft prints.
  • An excellent choice for cotton.
  • Brings a ‘retro’ feel to t-shirt designs.
  • Good level of print detail.

There are some drawbacks despite these positives. It can fade more quickly for instance. Although this can add to the ‘vintage’ vibe. Our short piece on this sort of ink provides further general detail: What is Discharge Printing.

Specialised screen printing ink types.

Whilst the above are all frequently used there are of course many others. That’s to say, somewhat more specialist screen printing ink types with quite specific qualities. Below, we’ve picked out some which have notable characteristics.

Metallic ink.

Now, whilst metallic won’t work for everyone, it can create some superb tees when used to showcase a suitable graphic. Especially something where you want a spot of glitter and glitz.

  • Eye-catching.
  • Prints with a high quality feel.
  • A favourite for fashion.

Needless to say, there are limitations with metallics. In practice, the choice is between silver and gold. Albeit with several different options in each. That’s to say, different shades of gold and so on. Plus, artwork needs to be comparatively simple because these inks tend to be quite thick in consistency. You can read more here: Metallic Ink Printing.

Thermochromic ink.

Okay, we’re definitely getting into slightly niche territory now. But, thermochromics deserve a mention because they have a unique appeal. You’ve probably seen them, those t-shirt designs that change colour when you touch them. Well, that’s all due to heat sensitive properties within the ink.

  • Brings a sense of fun to shirts.
  • Popular for promotional items.

Admittedly, they can be costlier. But they’re worth thinking about if a certain novelty value fits your brand or design concept. You can find additional info on this page: Thermochromic Ink Printing.

Puff printing ink.

How about adding an extra dimension to your printed tees? That’s more or less what this type of screen printing ink will do. An agent in the ink actually raises the print to give it a 3D effect.

  • A unique effect.
  • Durable provided care is taken with the garment.
  • Versatile insofar as it works with a number of fabrics.

Again, this is a rather striking form of garment decoration. One that can quite literally lift your artwork to another level. We go into more detail and have examples here: Puff Print Inks.

Reflective ink.

Last but by no means least we have reflective ink types. To the eye, reflective ink can be very similar to our silvered inks. And the latter will be an excellent option if your requirements are purely aesthetic. That said, something like a 3M transfer is best dealt with by those who focus on this area.

And there we go, a quick run through screen printing ink types. There’s no doubt that picking an appropriate ink is a box you want ticked on the printing project check list. And as with any aspect of clothing customisation, your print and embroidery professionals will be able to provide an answer if you’re unsure about anything.

Stay up to date