Mix Your Own Ink Colors

Not many T-shirt shops make their living from selling blank merchandise. Something has to go onto the shirt, and that something is ink. Usually, smaller or less experienced shops will concentrate their ink purchasing to pre-made and pre-mixed ink colors. This is often an easier route to take when stocking the company’s ink room, but often it comes with a heftier price tag.

At a certain point, the convenience of using pre-made colors doesn’t equate to the potential cost savings and competitive advantage that building a more advanced, cost-effective ink room can bring to a growing company. Here is a basic overview of why mixing your own colors makes economic and business sense.

In The Mix

Let’s say, for example, that you want to order a gallon of pre-mixed, ready-to-use Bright Orange. This ink is perfect for you, as it can be used for any upcoming job. Retail price might be $70 a gallon on average for this color. You’ve been using pre-made inks since you started your business, and it’s relatively simple and easy to use – all you have to do is open the lid, scoop out some ink and print. After printing the order, you card off the remaining ink from the screen and drop it back into the bucket for future use. You used about a quarter of a gallon for the job in the end. So that was about $17 worth of ink used.

The shop down the street mixes their own ink instead of buying pre-made ink colors. They have invested in the tools, training and an ink system to mix their colors according to an estimate on how much they need. For them, everything is measured in grams, as that’s how they mix the ink using a digital scale. All ink pigments weigh differently, a full gallon of one color might weigh differently than a full gallon of another. A general rule, however, is that a full gallon is about 5,000 grams of ink.

To print a bright orange, this shop selects a Pantone color that matches the hue needed (PMS 172) and brings up the formula on their computer workstation in their ink room. They review the work order and determine that they don’t need a full gallon, so they mix about a half a gallon, or 2,500 grams.

First, they place an empty plastic pail on the digital scale and zero out the scale to ignore the weight of the bucket (Step 1). Then, the different quantities of the ink mixture are placed one at a time into the bucket. Starting with the base (Step 2), the formula is followed carefully, and after the exact weight is reached the scale is zeroed out again (Step 3).

Then the pigments are loaded one at a time, with the scale zeroed out after each one. Zeroing out the scale is crucial to the success as that’s how you can keep track of the weight of each element in the mixture. When all of the ingredients are added (Step 4), the ink is combined by stirring the ink with a palette knife or drill with a paddle extension (Step 5). A competent ink room staffer can mix an ink color in about five minutes or less.

Savings by the Gallon

What’s the difference in price? It’s complicated. Initially, there’s a big expenditure when getting the system set up. You have to buy base and all the pigments in the system to be able to mix colors. You also need a really good digital scale. Once purchased, however, you have the information and ability at your fingertips to mix every Pantone color in the book – instantly.

For discussion’s sake again, let’s say a five-gallon bucket of base costs $190. All the pigments needed to mix colors are individually priced and all cost differently. The pigments needed to mix PMS 172 are Bright Orange ($245/gallon), Bright Yellow ($81/gallon), Extra White ($109/gallon) and Electron Red ($125/gallon).

The cost for a half a gallon (2,500 grams) of PMS 172 could be expressed: Base (2,064 grams = $8.05) + Bright Orange pigment (142 grams = $7.67) + Bright Yellow (120 grams = $2.69) + Extra White (35 grams = $1.52) + Electron Red (37 grams = $0.97) + Labor (.08 hours at $10 per hour = $0.80) for a total of $21.70. The shop only uses half of that for the print so the final cost for the job is $10.85 – about 36% cheaper than what it costs for the pre-made.

One of the big keys here is that this shop can mix only what they need at the time. Mixing the color is relatively easy, and it also allows them to be more competitive with their clients as they can offer PMS color matching.

The real savings come through a recycle feature that most computer ink systems have; it allows them to introduce leftover inks into the formula to make a new color. This only works if the hues are compatible, and it’s also assuming you mixed the original color you want to reuse correctly. In our example, if we reused PMS 165 to mix PMS 172, our same formula for 2,500 grams would look like this: Base (1,376 grams = $5.36) + Bright Orange pigment (117 grams = $6.33) + Bright Yellow (0 grams = $0) + Extra White (124 grams = $1.41) + Electron Red (20 grams = $0.51) + Labor (.08 hours at $10 per hour = $0.80) and our new price would be $14.41. If this mix was used for that same example order, it would only cost $7.20 instead of $17, which is 57% cheaper. Not all inks can be recycled into other colors, as it’s all based on the hues, not your desire to recycle. However, this is a good practice to use if you can.

Consistency Counts

There are some things to look out for when using a color-mixing system. The first and most important is batch-to-batch consistency. Since everything is mixed based on weight, you are extremely dependent on your staff doing their job properly in adding the ingredients exactly every time. One extra plop of a pigment can throw off the entire mixture if it’s the right size. Be careful!

Also, be sure you cross-train multiple people in using the system, as employee turnover can have a huge impact on your company if the person with the training and knowledge decides to quit during your busy season. All of your managers need to learn to use the system, as well as a few other key employees.

Other important notes:

  • The most common mixing systems are PC equalizer colorants, as they have the ability to cure on their own even without the proper amount of base. If other types of pigments are loaded incorrectly, the base may not cure properly. The PC equalizer colorants cost a little more, but for shops that are inexperienced, or don’t have proper ink room discipline or management, this is the way to go.
  • Most ink manufacturers have startup kits available. They come in pint kits for testing or for smaller manual shops, or in gallon kits for larger shops. Pigments are sold in quarts, gallons and five-gallon buckets. Bases are generally sold in gallons, fives and different sizes of drums (typically 30- and 50-gallon drums).
  • Having the correct scale is crucial in color matching, as everything is determined by weight. The smaller the batch being mixed, the tighter the tolerance your scale needs to be. For quart-size batches, the measurement will be going out to a tenth of a gram. Don’t skimp on the scale!
  • For Pantone color matching, the software used to pull up the formula is generally free to use with the ink system, but you are going to need a computer workstation available. For workflow, this should be in the ink room. It doesn’t take much computer space to run, so an older computer can be used if you have one in the shop.
  • You should consult with your ink distributor or supply rep on the system. Training and support will be free, and it’s important that they show you how to use the mixing system and the software. Getting one-on-one training with your staff can go a long way to flatten out the learning curve and make it easier to properly mix colors.