Understanding Discharge Printing & Waterbase Printing

Customers frequently ask us about discharge printing or waterbase printing and why it works on some garments but not others. There’s a lot of information floating around promising that discharge will or will not work, but oftentimes the information lacks insight about the effectiveness or limitations of the ink. When working with discharge ink, there’s a difference between “Will this work?” and “Will this look good?”. We wanted to take a moment to discuss discharge, equipping you to make the distinction between these two questions and enabling you to determine what is best for your project.

The first thing to look at is the ink itself. Let’s start with an important point: all discharge ink is waterbase (water based) but not all waterbase ink is discharge. (You may need to re-read that last one a few times). The distinguishing factor between discharge and waterbase is that discharge contains an additive called ZFS (Zinc Formaldehyde Sulfoxylate for the super technical). ZFS creates a chemical reaction that essentially removes the dyed color of the material, allowing the waterbase ink to re-dye the material at the same time. For this reason, waterbase ink works best on light colored garments and discharge ink works best on dark colored garments.

When considering waterbase or discharge ink, you might try thinking of them as “dyes”. When waterbase ink is applied, the shirt color will affect the ink color, as the waterbase “dye” interacts with the material “dye”. For example, a white waterbase print on a red shirt will appear somewhat pink. Or a yellow waterbase print on a blue shirt will appear green. These results are not bad in and of themselves; in fact, they may act in your favor depending on the vision you have for your project. Some customers are intentional about these results to achieve a faded/vintage effect. Take a look at the following image for reference:

Understanding Discharge Printing & Waterbase Printing

You may already know that discharge ink is primarily used on 100% cotton garments. The ZFS interacts only with Cotton. It does not interact with Polyester or any other materials. To achieve an even color across your print, 100% cotton will create the best results for discharge prints. However, this does not mean that 100% cotton is the only material that you can use with discharge inks.

Threadbird Discharge Printing

In the photo above, the 100% cotton shirt in the middle has a very even and consistent white color, while the tri-blend (50% Cotton, 25% Polyester, 25% Rayon) on the left shows the heathering of the garment through the ink and the 50% Cotton/50% Polyester on the right has a very muted mid-range grey print. Results can be somewhat inconsistent and aren’t guaranteed to have an even texture depending on how the knit in the shirt is blended. If the knit is inconsistent (patches of cotton or poly and not an even heather) the print will look inconsistent. This is not something that printers can account for, nor does it really qualify as a misprint, it’s just the nature of the beast when using these inks.

Discharge Printing on a 50/50 Heather

Now that you’ve committed all of these things to memory, let’s throw another wrench in the system when using discharge and heathered 50/50 material. Some manufacturers blend their garments so that the white “heathering” of the shirt is polyester and the colored portion of the garment is cotton, garnering a better discharge effect. This is a great chance to do something out of the ordinary that usually cannot be accomplished. However, not all heathered 50/50’s discharge well, and it’s largely a case-by-case scenario. If you have a project that you think would be a suitable option for using discharge on a 50/50, just ask us and we’ll be happy to look into it for you. Below is a picture of a print using 4 colors, the white is discharge, the grey, black, and red are waterbase.

Discharge Printing on a 50/50 Heather Shirt

The Question: “When is it ok to use discharge on a tri-blend or a 50/50?”.

The Answer: “Only when you’ve done your research and you know what is best for your project or brand.”

We hope you have learned something after reading this post. If you have any questions please reach out to us. We would love to answer any questions you may have to make sure that you get the best results possible.

printing@threadbird.com / (407) 545-6506


Your Order Has Been Placed… Now What?

At Threadbird, our two biggest goals are to provide you as the customer with amazing items and the highest level of customer service possible. A lot of our customers have said they’re unsure of what happens after their order is placed, so here’s a quick crash course from A to Z!

Threadbird Press & Ink Wall

After you place an order and pay for it, we transfer it from our invoicing system (Freshbooks) to our order management system. We have different staff for each process (tees, stickers, buttons, offset/digital printing, etc.) so each item has a different process, but our most common and lengthy process is for custom printed garments. The following information will walk you through the steps.

Order placed | Stock ordered

1. The order is submitted to our shop staff. We have a stock supervisor who orders materials, a production manager who schedules all printing, and an art department to translate your order from an art file to the working product.

2. We order stock as soon as your mock is approved. We do not keep any stock on hand at the production facility to ensure that you get the freshest materials possible. Stock arrives in 1-5 days, depending on the supplier, so it is important to consider stock choices when placing rush orders to ensure we can obtain the stock in time.

Shirts Waiting to be Printed

Art & Film: One of the most important parts of the process

There are lots of screen printing shops out in the world, the one thing that sets us apart from all of them is quality. That all starts in the art department. At Threadbird, it is mandatory that every order for printed garments is mocked up. Our mock approval shows you the artwork off of the shirt, the artwork as it will be placed on the shirt, the ink colors (with PMS assignments), as well as the detailed information about what stock it will be printed on. We will also note warnings on the mock if the print will go over the seams.

Threadbird Mock Approval Sample

One of the most important things to remember in the mockup process is that not every computer screen is calibrated the same way. A color can show up on your screen different from how it will appear on our screen. This can create an issue on a rare occasion when the two colors aren’t close, which is why we provide the PMS number. We always recommend, if you’re getting serious about your brand, to purchase a Pantone Plus Series Solid Coated Formula Guide. The cost $99 from Amazon. The cost is well worth it to ensure that you always get the color you want on your shirts.

Pantone Book

The only occasion where we do not guarantee PMS color matching is with waterbase inks, discharge inks or on tri-blend garments. See our Specialty Inks PDF to reference that.

The mockup is usually sent out within a week of paying for your order at Threadbird. The mockup must be approved before we can print your order, which is important to remember when you are under a time crunch. A delayed approval will mean a delayed order. It’s ok if you have changes, just try to give them to us all at once so we can make them in one fell swoop.

One the mockup is approved, we will print the films. This step is absolutely crucial. Without good films, you will not get good screens. We use a very high end machine for this. The standard screen print shop uses a printer that can run films for $0.50 a sheet, but they won’t hold registration and are susceptible to pinholes. Our films are about sixteen times as expensive, but will hold registration top to bottom regardless of how large the print is and pinholes become a rarity. Another example of the old phrase we were taught as kids, “you get what you pay for”.

Films Being Printed

Screens: Don’t settle for sub par. They’re important.

One of the most awful misconceptions in the screen printing world is that a screen is a screen is a screen. That’s simply not true. There are so many factors that go into making a good screen.

Smaller print shops only have one set of screens they reuse for multiple projects. Threadbird believes that your order is too important to cut corners by using the same screens for everything. Each different style of printing requires a different type of screen. Waterbased and discharge prints require particular types of emulsion and setting processes, more detailed prints require a higher mesh count screen so that the flow of ink doesn’t blow out the details. These are just a few of the details that are often overlooked when people order t-shirts.

Threadbird Screens

Another commonly misunderstood idea is that screens can be saved. While we appreciate each and every one of our customers, we cannot hold onto your screens. We don’t do it for any of our customers. The reason is that we only have a limited amount of screens, and our high quality screen frames cost upwards of $150 per frame. If you’ve got a 5 color print job, that means there are $750 in screens tied up with just one job that may not be reprinted for 2-3 months. We do save the films created by our art department and can quickly remake screens if you need to reorder.

  • Placing Screens to be Burned
  • Threadbird Making Screens
  • Screens Waiting to be Reclaimed

Burning screens can take up to 4 hours for an order from the start of the process to the end. Much like a mosquito, our screens live a very short life. All our screens are constantly rotating, once the job is printed, the screen is reclaimed within two hours. We don’t usually have screens sitting unused, which is why it can be difficult to shift due dates once an order has been placed. We need to set our screen schedule at least 2 days in advance.

Inks, Setup & Production: The meat and potatoes of screen printing

Our printers rank among some of the most skilled in the U.S. Printing of the shirts is a two part process: setup and printing. The setup process takes the longest. During this time, the printers have to mix the inks and register the screens within our machines. Our inks are unique and you won’t find them at any other shop in the world. We custom mix all of our inks in house, and they’re made of several different components that are ordered from different ink suppliers so that no one else knows exactly what goes into it.

  • Threadbird Ink Wall
  • Threadbird Inks Close Up
  • Threadbird Mixing Inks
  • Pouring Ink on Screens

It is this special blended ink that makes our shirts super soft while still remaining bright! Mixing inks is a very specific, time consuming process, but it’s one that is extremely important. Each color is mixed to match the colors on the mockup.

Up next in the process is registration. This is extremely important. You have to make sure that each screen is lined up correctly, if they are not, you will see a gap between the colors or an overlap where one color prints on top of the other.

We have highly skilled printers and we do our best to avoid errors. If you ever have any print defects in your order (we are all human, mistakes do happen, even though our error rate is less than 2%) simply email us and we’ll address it.

Once the printers have the job registered and the inks mixed, a garment is printed and taken to our art department for approval before the order can be printed. Our art department will often ask the printers to tweak a color slightly, or even have them reburn a screen if something isn’t correct. Once the printer and the artist are happy with the product, it will be printed in full. The printers are trained to spot any defects and address them, like lint in screens, that can cause unacceptable prints. At the end of the dryer, our catchers are the final quality assurance cache, filtering out any items they find with holes or rips. After that, the garments are boxed up and shipped out for you to enjoy!

  • Threadbird Shirts on Dryer
  • Threadbird Shipping Boxes