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Don’t Overkill Your Prints — Keep It Simple

Use the right techniques to optimize your print quality and processes with emulsions, underbases, and inks. 




HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED how some customers are not just being difficult with you, but seem to create difficulty and chaos in most everything they do? I’ve been around the screen world for longer than I’d care to admit, and I see patterns. These same customers like to make it difficult for everyone around them, including things like withholding proper tools for their employees to get the job done.  

I saw a video clip last week of a popular “influencer” printer coating a screen with emulsion. Everything went well and I thought he was doing an excellent job…until the end. He had coated the screen two times on each side with the coating of the squeegee/ink side last. But then he turned the screen around to the shirt side and scraped off all that great built-up emulsion.  

I further cringed when I saw that he dried the screens by leaning them against the wall, standing up vertically. So basically, the emulsion welled or pooled to the bottom of the frame and the rest of the screen barely had any emulsion coverage! 

I worked for someone 30 years ago who insisted on removing “excess” emulsion to save money. But it’s funny now in hindsight that many of our on-press problems start at the screen-making level. He was saving pennies trying to save on emulsions but was losing hundreds of dollars every hour due to poor-performing screens and thin emulsions. Not to mention the inferior prints that resulted from this technique.

Take it Easy

Case in point and back to my critique: In the goal of trying to achieve the brightest colors and softest feel on a dark garment, it amazes me to what distances people will go to try and find a better mouse trap. 


What started this “rant” is a recent incident where an enormously proud and difficult customer called me in to critique a print that he was having curing issues with. The inks were cracking and seemed to not adhere to each other. When I arrived at the shop, I was shown the print he was having issues curing with. Let me describe it: First, it had a discharge base, followed by a layer of a high-solids waterbase color on top of the discharge. Many printers attempt to combine these to obtain a soft hand and color vibrancy.  

So far so good. However, a regular plastisol specialty ink was then printed on top of the two waterbase layers. Why? To me, this is like driving a Ferrari to an old VW Bug fest. Way overkill! 
Why did he not just use a water-based special effects ink? I think the answer lies in that he had that special effect available only in the plastisol version and did not want to spend more money on purchasing the water-based version. Or, quite possibly, that special-effect ink simply isn’t available in a WB ink system. 

In all the years I have been slathering ink onto T-shirts, it still amazes me how some people try to outsmart an artform that has been around for thousands of years. During all the millennia, the basics still hold true: “You get what you pay for,” and “Sometimes the easiest, most obvious way, is the cheapest and easiest.”  

Don’t fight it! Forcing oil and water to fuse is a recipe for disaster. It can be done but should only be attempted by the best. The difficult, cheap printer who is not up for the challenge will either fail at making it work or making money trying. There simply are too many ingredients and techniques. 

Most printers fail to test “new” techniques or methods prior to starting mass production. So, when the print fails a wash test or cracks upon being stretched, the blame game and finger pointing starts in earnest. It always will be the ink company that will be the first to get a finger pointed at. The printer certainly won’t take responsibility for what came out of his dryer.

Don’t get me wrong, every ink system has its high points and its lows. I’ve used them all, so I’m not against any of them. They all have a place in this crazy world. But consider this: If it’s too difficult to print the sample, it may be a job you want to avoid. There are enough variables to worry about without adding or combining additional ones, especially if it’s not adding something that can be done much more simply. 


The result of the print? It was not softer than a standard, well-applied plastisol print, nor was it completely cured. “Well-applied” is the key. I’m not talking 330 mesh; I’m talking a well-applied quality white plastisol underbase printed through a 160 mesh, with a decent EOM (emulsion of mesh). It needs at least enough emulsion to separate the image from the mesh.  

The Secret

A trick to creating a soft feel with a plastisol ink is to keep in mind that if there is not enough white ink laid down, the ink gets hard quickly when flashed and it won’t do the “trick” to create a softer hand. The trick is to be able to flash the “surface” layer of the ink, so it avoids sticking to the next screen. The inside of the ink film still should be soft and moldable, not yet fully cured and hard. It will require tighter meshes and additional off contact to get this to print well during production. 

So, after the white ink is applied with enough ink film thickness and flashed, the ink can be smashed (using a flattening screen) to a much smoother finish with far less fibrillation and thus, a softer feel. Because the flash only has thickened (gelled) the ink film, you have increased the opacity of the ink film. The thickened layer, when the ink gets flattened, will stay above the fabric fibers and resist being forced down into the garment. The result? The ink will appear to be more opaque because it is more opaque. 

After you have laid down a smooth white surface with little to no after tack, you now can print colors with less ink on top by using either a 200 up to a 305 mesh and you will see the colors pop. If your design calls for a highlight white, you can actually print the white ink through a 230 or higher mesh count and get that white to be as bright as it was designed to be.  

Even though you are using finer mesh, always keep in mind that when you create multiple layers of ink, you are increasing the thickness of the ink film. Make sure to look at your curing time so the complete ink film is getting to the magic fuse temperature throughout. The thicker the ink film, the longer the dwell time you should expect to achieve a complete cure. 

What is the point I’m trying to make? Don’t overkill your prints — keep it simple. Use the right techniques to optimize your quality and processes. Do your homework, ask questions, and listen to your suppliers. From years of experience, I’ve found that most screen-printing issues are related to prepress prep and planning. The basics still hold true: dark films, clean tight screens, enough emulsion, proper squeegee selection, and sufficient off contact.
You can’t go wrong with a dryer tested for the right cure temperature, slowed to the minimum cure time. Be aware of ink thickness or special effects used. Glitter, for example, may need a longer dwell time in the dryer since the glitter flakes reflect heat. HD ink or gel may require a higher temperature to cure the ink. And don’t forget that whenever possible, a longer dwell time in the dryer always is a better option than a hotter one. Be sure that any printed portion of the garment is flat and exposed to the heat, not folded under. 


I’ve seen some comments on the Internet that discuss dryer over-curing. I don’t think that would even be a possibility. But remember, heat is a necessary evil. It’s needed to cure the ink, but more heat than that is asking for trouble. About 99% percent of curing issues can be solved by setting the correct heat for the type of ink (see the technical data sheet provided by your ink manufacturer) and making sure it is in the dryer tunnel long enough for the entire ink film to reach that cure temperature.

Screen printing simply is not a set-it-and-forget-it industry as much as some may want. It is an art form and it takes an artist to master it. But you don’t need a master’s degree. Follow the simple but tried-and-true methods, test, and test some more. You’ll be surprised at how well everything turns out.

Don’t Overkill Your Prints — Keep It Simple

This is a print using discharge ink as a halo effect that was done “right.” First, International Coatings’ BlowOut™ Base (tinted black) was printed, then a red-tinted discharge was printed over the BlowOut™ Base. The entire print was then sprayed with water (to create the halo effect with the discharge) before being cured fully in the dryer.

Don’t Overkill Your Prints — Keep It Simple

Here’s another example of a very detailed white underbase using halftones, printed with a 250 mesh.

Don’t Overkill Your Prints — Keep It Simple

This is print includes BlowOut Base 3810 tinted green and FX Gel Gloss Clear 3809 printed over the “goggles.”



Let’s Talk About It

Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Screen Printing Industry

LET’S TALK About It: Part 3 discusses how four screen printers have employed people with disabilities, why you should consider doing the same, the resources that are available, and more. Watch the live webinar, held August 16, moderated by Adrienne Palmer, editor-in-chief, Screen Printing magazine, with panelists Ali Banholzer, Amber Massey, Ryan Moor, and Jed Seifert. The multi-part series is hosted exclusively by ROQ.US and U.N.I.T.E Together. Let’s Talk About It: Part 1 focused on Black, female screen printers and can be watched here; Part 2 focused on the LGBTQ+ community and can be watched here.

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