Soft hand prints are best achieved with water-based ink but can be done with plastisol ink as well. Between the inks you choose to use, the garments you're printing on, to the available ink additives, achieving soft plastisol prints is possible. Let's take a look at three ways to create soft hand prints with plastisol ink.
METHOD #1: CHOOSE A SOFT PLASTISOL INK
The easiest way to get soft plastisol is to print with a plastisol that’s inherently softer. Various types of resins exist, and each has a different property. For the purpose of this blog, let’s focus on inks that contain softer resins.
An ink with a soft resin means it’ll feel softer on the garment. Inks like FN-INK have pliable resins, making them soft when printed. But before you grab the softest ink on your shelf, look at what you're printing. Not all prints work best with soft inks.
Are you printing on shirts for sports, where it'll have abrasive contact? You’ll want a more durable ink. Athletic inks are perfect for these types of garments because they have less pliable resins and will hold up to abrasion. For shirts whose wearers won’t be getting tackled, a soft ink like FN-INK is perfect.
METHOD #2: HIGHER MESH COUNT
Higher mesh counts lay down a thinner ink deposit. Less ink on the shirt creates a softer feel to the print. A screen with a mesh count between 200-305 and a hard squeegee will do the trick. The drawback to this method is that the print doesn't typically produce a durable ink layer that mattes the shirt's fibers. When printing a thin ink deposit, you're laying just enough ink down to cover the top of the shirt's fibers, but not enough to bridge the weave of the shirt and lock in the loose fibers in the threads.
For example, say you're printing black text on a white shirt. After a few washes, you may notice that the ink is starting to appear gray, and the edges of the print are starting to look fuzzy. Nothing is wrong with the ink or the print. Unwoven fibers from the shirt are coming loose and beginning to appear through the print due to the washing, exhibiting the fuzzy gray look.
In the end, it'll come down to what the customer wants. Is it okay for the print to be vintage, looking a little faded? If so, printing plastisol ink for a soft hand print will be a great route to pursue. If the customer wants bright, solid colors on mid to dark garments, you will have to work a little harder to get vibrant colors with a soft feel.
Another factor to take into consideration is the number of colors in a print. For multicolor designs, you'll want to print wet-on-wet to maintain the ink's thinness. During the printing process, the ink will wrap into and around the shirt's fibers, which will allow the shirt to move freely with the body.
CREATE A THINNER INK DEPOSIT
When you're printing, you may notice that the shirt fibers do not stay down well. When the ink hits the shirt, the screen can stick to the shirt a little. As the screen comes up, it tends to bring up some of the fibers, making the print look fuzzy. There are a few ways to get rid of the fuzzies.
If you're using an auto, smoothing prints is easy since you have lots of tools to choose from like an iron. After you flash the print, the iron will run forward and back over the shirt and the ink. The heat from the iron will press the fibers back into the shirt and the ink. The finished print will be smooth like butter and super soft. If you have a heat press in your shop, that will work well too. Top-of-the-line equipment like the Stampinator will do the job for you as well.
Another way to push the fibers back down into the shirt is by using a smoothing screen. To make a smoothing screen, pick a screen with a mesh count of 230 or more. Coat it with emulsion and expose it without any imagery. Once it's exposed, put the screen on your press and use it right after you flash the ink. On the screen, you'll want to put a lubricant on it. That lubricant could be a curable reducer or mineral oil. For the smoothing screen, you'll want a more rigid squeegee to ensure all fibers are pressed back into the shirt.
The squeegee pressure you use also affects the feel of the print. Similar to the higher mesh count route, you're trying to lay down just enough ink to cover the top of the shirt's fibers. Apply just enough pressure to get the ink to clear the screen.
Maintaining consistent squeegee pressure on a manual press is difficult. On an automatic, printers can dial in the pressure and produce hundreds of shirts that look exactly the same. If you're printing on a manual, you may want to set parameters for your customers like the number of shirts and/or amount of colors. The more you need to print, the greater the likelihood that inconsistencies will appear.
METHOD #3: INK ADDITIVES
Many ink additives exist to create a soft hand feel. These types of additives make plastisol ink feel super smooth and soft, like the feel water-based ink creates. Think of ink resins like a squeegee durometer. The durometer of the squeegee will dictate how flexible it is. A 70 durometer squeegee would be like regular plastisol ink. FN-INK, on the other hand, would be more like a 65 durometer squeegee: it’s more pliable and can flex farther. A soft hand base is like a 60 durometer squeegee. It’s supposed to give a ton of flexibility. The ink will be super soft.
Can you use a curable reducer to make an ink softer? You can! Adding a curable reducer to ink will make the hand feel softer, and is great for creating vintage prints. Though this is not a dedicated soft hand additive, it’s, as Bob Ross would say, a “happy accident.” The soft feel when using a curable reducer in the ink is an unintended byproduct of reducing the ink’s thickness.
USE DISCHARGE BASE
There’s another option to create soft prints. Print the discharge base as an underbase and print plastisol ink on top of it. The discharge base will create a softer feel. If you find that the garment does not discharge well and some of the shirt colors are impacting the print, you could make a base that's 80% discharge base and 20% discharge white ink. It'll make a milky color that will cover the shirt's color.
Pro Tip: Interested in printing discharge ink? Discharge should only be printed if your shop has a conveyor dryer. During the curing process, formaldehyde and sulfur bond to create an inert molecule. That molecule is released in the air, so having an enclosed space (a conveyor dryer) is important because it'll let the molecule do its job while not harming you.
HOW GARMENT TYPE AFFECTS HAND FEEL
It’s no secret that not all shirts are made equally soft. Two popular cotton shirts are carded open-end and ringspun. A carded open end is more economical, but has a bulkier feel and isn’t as soft. Ringspun cotton is much softer because it’s made of softer threads.
When choosing garments, make sure the garment has the soft feel you want. You can take every precaution to make a print buttery soft, but if the garment is rough, it won’t have the desired effect.
There are many ways to create soft plastisol prints. When trying anything new, always test before going into production. One method you thought was going to work may turn out to be not the best option. Or maybe you just need to practice to perfect the process. Try some of these options out and go with what works best for you.