The Surprising History of Water Based and Plastisol Ink  |

Plastisol inks have dominated the United States market for the last few decades. So it’s easy to forget that the history of water based inks were actually the first inks used in screen printing.

The History of Water Based Ink

While the art and industry of screen printing was forming in the early to mid-1900’s, screen printing legends including Andy Warhol, used only water based inks. It was a vibrant time for artist screen printers, but t-shirt printers were few and far between. The craft remained a mystery to most. A trade secret. Something that you could only learn through apprenticeship to a master screen printer. The challenges of early water based inks didn’t help either. These inks were thin, with transparent qualities, and often dried quickly in the screen. Making them harder to print and limiting their functionality, especially on dark garments.

So screen printing remained a niche. Until the mid to late 1900’s, when another technology took the budding craft from hobby to a full-blown industry: Plastisol.

When plastisol came around, it was glorious. A thick ink that could be quickly flashed and stacked on top of itself, that didn’t dry on the screen! The invention of plastisol ink enabled screen printers to run more complex designs, print on any type of garment, and run mass production effectively. It was the discovery of this new technology that allowed the screen printing industry to grow as big as it is today and opened the art form up to the wide variety of applications it now encompasses.

Times are a Changin’ (Again)

Nothing lasts forever, however, and in recent years we’ve seen a change in focus from the once universal popularity of plastisol ink toward new user-friendly, technologically advanced water based inks. The influence of regulations, such as the Consumer Product Safety Information Act (CPSIA), that came into effect in the mid-2000’s caused major shifts in manufacturing requirements and, more recently, a move entirely away from phthalates. Changes which have irreversibly altered the construction, price and printability of plastisol ink. What once made plastisol great is now the focus in development of these new water based inks.

The move away from a plastisol-dominant market has been gradual, but decisive. With incentives and pressure coming predominantly from outside the world of print production. The same regulations that changed the construction of plastisol inks, have motivated many industry-leading apparel companies, such as Nike and Adidas, to look for alternatives from plastisol altogether. Resulting in the transitioning of most mass production for these major brands to PVC inks. Not far away, European fashion brands were latching onto the superior feeling and breathability of water based prints. Moving primary print production away from plastisol to a decidedly water based dominant market. Now, approximately 90 percent of the production and goods sold in Europe are water based prints.

The Future of Water Based Printing is Here

As active viewers of these trends, we believe this is indicative of a global shift in the industry. Europe has taken the leading edge on adopting new water based inks, and it won’t be long until the United States and Canada domestic printing markets follow suit.

If this is an indicator of the future of printing, shouldn’t your shop embrace water based ink?

Just dipping your toes into the realm of water based printing? Perhaps you’re looking for more information on its pros and cons? Unique benefits and limitations? Requirements and rewards?….Or maybe simply, how to print with water based ink?

Download our FREE eBook: A Beginner’s Guide To Water Based Printing

How To Print With Water Based Ink


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