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