Water Based T Shirt Printing | Soft Custom Shirts

Water Based Ink Screen Printing

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The Skinny

Water based inks are a type of screen printing ink that has little to no touch or feel when printed on the shirt. Paired with a soft tee, this print method makes for some super comfortable shirts.

The Deets

Minimum: 72 pieces.

Once water based ink have been "activiated" and are ready for use on the press, it only has a 24 hour shelf life. Therefore the minimums are a bit higher with water based printing, so we can minimize waste. 

Garment Recommendations: Water based inks are best used on 100% cotton garments. 

Washing Instructions: Shirts can be washed like normal. Water based prints aren't quite as vibrant as a plastisol print so achieving super bright colors can be difficult. However, the print will be ultra soft and will last a very long time.

Price: Add 15% to order total. Order must be placed with an associate and cannot be placed online through our website. Please contact us for assistance.

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A deep dive into water based inks

What are Water Based Inks?

Let's try to answer the most obvious question first - what exactly are water based inks? The two main inks used for printing on t shirts are plastisol ink and water based inks. Plastisol is considered the standard, most common ink due to it's vibrancy and ease of use. Water based is a little more specialized and reserved for the more experienced printers. If you want to learn a little bit more about the pros and cons of water based inks vs plastisol inks click here.

Water based ink uses water as a solvent base that is used to carry the color pigment. The water based ink is then printed on a t shirt during the screen printing proccess. After the shirt is printed, it is put through a conveyor dryer where the water evaporates and the pigment stays in the shirt.

What are the advantages?

The biggest advantage to using water based ink are that they are super soft. Unlike when using plastisol inks, these inks will not leave a "hand" or a feel to the design area of the shirt. You can run your hand through the design and you will not be able to tell the difference between the t shirt and where the design starts and ends. This allows for maximum comfort, especially when printing on ring spun soft cotton shirts. That is one super soft and comfortable combination!

What are the Disadvantages?

The most notable disadvantage to using this type of ink is vibrancy. It is difficult to get extremely bright colors, especially flourescents. We can still achieve a wide spectrum of color, but they will be slightly muted compared to its plastisol ink counterpart.

Water based inks are also limited on the type of shirts they can print on. This method is usually printed on 100% cotton garments but best used on 100% cotton combed ring spun garments.

Other disadvantages occur mainly on the production side, so our customers need not to worry. Printing water based is much more difficult and requires more skill and experience than the standard plastisol. This is due to the ink drying quickly which can cause production stalls if the printer is not fully prepared or efficient during production. While the process overall is very similar to using a different ink, there are a lot of subtle differences that can make a big impact on whether or not one can achieve a good print.

Printing on light Garments

Water based inks can be printed on both white/light colored garments and colored/dark garments, however, the method of printing on each is slightly different. 

When printing on white, or light garments, the inks act as normal. The ink and pigement are applied to the shirt during the screen printing process. We have to be careful because printing on light colored shirts or apparel might slightly change the appearance of the final color. For example, printing a light blue ink on a white shirt will give you an accurate color. However, take that same ink and print on a heather gray shirt and your light blue will appear a few shades darker because it iis printed on a darker surface. This is much like painting on a wall in a house over a pre existing color versus painting on a blank wall that has been primed with white. You will hear that same analogy often when talking about screen printing on colored shirts, regardless of the ink type.

Discharge Water Based Printing on Dark Colored Garments

Printing on a dark garment gets much trickier.

Water based printing on dark shirts is done through discharge water based inks. Discharge printing uses a discharge agent that is mixed into the ink. When the ink is applied to the shirt, the discharge agent removes the dye from the t shirt bringing it back to its natural cotton color. The new colored pigment then replaces the old dye, essentially re-dying the shirt in the print area with the desired colors.


As discussed, light and dark garments are printed with a slightly different process, but for the most part can be done just fine on 100% cotton shirts. Printing on garments other than cotton is a different story. The discharge agent only removes dye from cotton, so water based inks are rarely used on polyester, 50/50 blends, or tri-blend shirts, but there are some exceptions.

Since a 50/50 blend will have 50% cotton and 50% polyester, a discharge will only remove and replace dye from the cotton threading. So when printing on a 50/50 blend, essentially only half of the print will show up properly since half the material is cotton. Some people like this affect - when used properly, with the right color shirt and design, it can create a very worn in or vintage look. Also, with a charcoal gray 50/50 blended shirt for example, if the polyester threading is a light color, and the dark threading is cotton, then a discharge water based ink will discharge the dark cotton, and the pigment can print nicely on a light/white polyester thread, therefore mitigating the problems of a polyester garment not discharging properly. 

The same goes for a tri-blend t shirt. Some tri-blends can be printed on to achieve a vintage or worn in look. When done correctly it can result in an extremely comfortable shirt - a super soft tee coupled with a super soft ink equals super comfort!

Lastly, for 100% polyester, discharge printing will not work. However, there are still some options for water based inks. There are inks called blockers that can be printed on the shirt, then water based inks on top. A super soft hand like printing on a cotton shirt can't be achieved but it might still be a better option than plastisol. Another solution is to used a water based silicone ink. This stretchy and soft ink is perfect for polyester but it is quite pricey. Most of the time people prefer a regular plastisol ink on polyester garments in order to save on costs. 



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