Testing the Waters

Plastisol’s reign is threatened by the rising popularity of waterbase.

There is nothing permanent about screen-printing inks right now. The one constant for decades – plain, dependable plastisol ink – has had its era of dominance upended by an explosion of ink varieties and a pointed challenge from what once was a lightly-regarded rival. “I do believe that waterbase is the future of ink,” says Bobby Panico, president of inkmaker Green Galaxy Companies. He’s not the only one. PolyOne Corporation, maker of Wilflex inks, currently sells 90% plastisol inks to 10% waterbase. The company predicts that by 2017, waterbase inks will make up 40% of its sales.

That would be a remarkable shift. After all, while the rest of the world uses waterbase primarily, plastisol has remained the monarch of American screen printing. Its ease of use is legendary. “With plastisol, you can do a bad job of making a screen and get away with it,” says Charlie Taublier, owner of Taublieb Consulting and a five-decade veteran of the industry. “You can walk away from your press, come back a day later and start printing again. You don’t have to clean or do anything.”

By contrast, with waterbase, “there’s a lot more work involved,” Taublieb says. “It’s a lot more procedural. You can’t just stop and take a phone call. If you do, your screens will dry out or you will clog your screens.” Screen printers who offered both not only had to juggle two different sets of supplies, but had to basically be proficient in two whole different methods of printing.

“I do believe that waterbase is the future of ink.”

Bobby Panico, Green Galaxy Companies

So why has the tide turned? Advances in discharge printing ushered in a whole new print aesthetic. Retail and fashion brands championed a light print with little to no hand – a development that lent itself to waterbase. “Soft-hand printing changed the market here where buyers have learned to look for that softer feel,” says Walt Wright, marketing director for Murakami Screen.

In the wake of that demand, serious innovations are being made with waterbase. For example, Panico says Green Galaxy’s waterbase inks achieve longer open times and are more workable due to their ability to rewet.

Equally promising is the development of a new type of waterbase known as high solids acrylics, which use an acrylic resin in the waterbase. The opacity is robust (long a quibble with traditional waterbase) and the results are promising. “The latest opaque waterbase inks function more like a traditional plastisol,” says Dan Corcoran, owner of Forward Printing, which specializes in waterbase discharge prints. “We’ve found that they typically bridge the fabric less than a high-opacity plastisol but still yield a bright print that washes up softer than a plastisol print.”

Waterbase will make gains, but it’s unlikely to overtake plastisol anytime soon. The development of soft-hand bases and innovations like Plasticharge has allowed plastisol to tap into the soft trend. “I think there will always be a market for plastisol here,” says Rob Coleman, segment marketing manager of textile screen inks for Nazdar SourceOne. “Your average everyday printer … until there’s a compelling reason to move away from it, there’s no reason for them to. It’s too easy, it’s too inexpensive, relatively speaking, and it works too well.”

Still, it’s a new reality for inks. The waterline in the screen-printing industry is rising.