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Solutions for Designs that Pop: Specialty Inks for Screen Printing

Posted by on in T-Shirt Printing Community


On occasions where artfully rendered plastisol prints just aren’t enough to get your message across, consider the exciting specialty ink options on the market. Specialty inks set your shirt design apart from the crowd and widen the design possibilities for shirts.

Puff Ink

Puff InkSome of us recall the 80’s and a little thing called puff ink. In fact, it’s hard to forget because, let’s face it: puff ink got a little out of hand there for a few years. In the 80’s, puff ink was used indiscriminately by pro screen printers and amateur shirt decorators to make striking, three dimensional designs of varying taste and quality.

Puff inks make a design really pop out from a shirt, literally: puff ink has some height to it, giving it a third dimension and distinguishing it from normal plastisol.

Even if the 80’s left an unmistakable stigma to puff ink, tasteful use of puff ink is a powerful tool to make a statement with your design. Puff ink used as an accent and not the primary ink creates a striking effect that stays well away from the overblown hubris of 80’s puff ink designs.

Reflective Ink

Is visibility an issue for you? A good dose of reflective or glow in the dark ink should fix that. A specialty ink unto itself, reflective ink is not an artistic choice, as much as it is a critical choice for safety.

Workers in perilous trades like highway construction are perfect candidates for reflective ink prints. For reflective ink, use a simple print that employs basic geometric shapes. Under bright lights, reflective ink creates a flash effect that makes any intricate design unintelligible.


Glow in the Dark


Glow-in-the-Dark Inks

Glow-in-the-dark inks provide a unique experience, but you have to turn off the lights to appreciate it.

These inks start with the basic white glow-in-the-dark that is familiar to most folks, and continue through a broad range of colors that dazzle and impress, even when the lights are on.

You can do your entire print in glow-in-the-dark, or try augmenting a design by printing only portions of it in glow-in-the-dark to create a dual personality to your design.


b2ap3_thumbnail_metallic.jpgA little dash of glittering metal makes metallic inks really stand out. There is no great magic to these inks. Suspended metal flakes in the ink reflect light to draw viewer’s eyes to your design. Like most specialty inks, consider using metallic inks sparingly, unless you want to just blow your audience away.

Foil Applications

Foiling is similar to metallic inks, but taken to a totally different level. Imagine pasting small pieces of foil or gold leaf on a shirt design. The results are certainly striking.

Foiling is accomplished by applying an adhesive to the design, along with any normal print colors. When the shirt is cured, the adhesive remains sticky, and that is when the foil is applied to the adhesive. Any foil that isn’t stuck to the adhesive is torn away.

Clearly, this is a labor intensive process but it’s also a little unpredictable. It’s difficult to get a uniform application of foil, and correcting mistakes is a daunting project.

Gel Ink

Take a standard print to the next level with gel ink. This treatment applies a gel coating on an otherwise normal print to increase vibrancy and depth, as well as a glossy sheen. Gels are either clear to create a watery texture or tinted to create a variety of effects.

High Density and High Density Clear

High density ink looks very similar to puff ink, although your hands can tell the difference. Puff ink is a little squishy, while high density ink feels solid. High density ink looks more like regular plastisol ink, as well.

High density ink is used to create three dimensional prints. By applying different amounts of this ink to different parts of the design, an extraordinary three dimensional effect can be created. Textures are appealing on both a tactile and visual level, making for a very interactive experience.


Glitter Ink


Glitter Inks

There are quite a few folks out there, especially the young and the young at heart, who appreciate the effects of glitter ink. Even more striking than metallic inks, glitter inks contain suspended glitter sprinkles and are applied in the same way as normal inks. For an even more intense glitter effect, an application of Sugar Glitter can be applied to a wet adhesive to enhance the glitter appearance.

Consider glitter inks for situations where designs need to be visible from afar, such as theater or cheerleading.


Discharge InkDischarge ink is a specialty ink that replaces the standard process of printing colors onto dark materials through a chemical process that removes the color from the shirt itself.

Discharge chemicals in the ink are activated in a high heat press after the print is cured to the shirt. These chemicals remove the dye in the shirt, either returning it to it’s natural, un-dyed state, or replacing the color of the shirt with the dye color.

The end result is a very natural feeling shirt that lacks the stiff plastisol print feel. It’s a perfect option for a different look on a dark garment and a print that lasts for years.

There are a few drawbacks to the process. First, the process is confined to 100 percent cotton garments. Discharge ink won’t replicate a complex design, especially small dots, which lose their definition in the process. Discharge inks come in a limited range of colors, limiting the options for your print.





If you want to dazzle people wherever you go, rhinestones are a sure fire bet for making an impression. The process of applying rhinestones to a print is similar to foiling in practice and difficulty. Rhinestones are applied to adhesive areas of a print and then cured to keep them firmly attached. They just don’t stay attached, and the unpredictable nature of the process makes for a very expensive design.


Neon Inks



Lest you thought we would forget, neon is included on this list. Neon inks add excitement to a design, and are great ways to augment a print. As the primary colors for a print, they don’t work quite as well. They’re fairly opaque, and don’t have much impact on dark shirts. Think of neon ink as a highlight, not a primary color.

How Specialty Inks Impact Shirt Cost

Anything out of the ordinary with prints adds to the cost of your order, but exactly how differs from order to order. The number of specialty inks, area they cover and type of ink all influence the final cost of your order. If you’re interested in adding specialty ink to your design, let us work up an estimate for you.

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