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Understanding Your Wide Format Printing Ink Options (Aqueous, Latex, Solvent, and UV-Curable Inks): A Large Format Printer Buying Guide

When choosing any piece of equipment, you need to consider the full cost (including operation) as well as how it will or will not meet your needs.

With a wide format printer, the different types of ink play a large role in determining how well the machine works for your particular brand of printing. Some inks print better on smooth surfaces, some on rough, and some are better for outdoor versus indoor exposure. There are also differences in coloration (whether through dye or pigment) and whether the ink requires a substrate or adheres directly to your chosen material.

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Aqueous Inks

These inks have a liquid base, usually water but not always, that holds particles of dye or pigment. You may see these inks referred to as dye and UV, but that does not mean UV curable, only that the pigment holds up better to UV exposure than its dye-colorant counterpart does.

Dye-based aqueous inks produce the most vibrant colors of all of the inks. However, the price paid for that beautiful color is faster fading (even under indoor fluorescent lighting). In addition, they aren't waterproof and do not resist abrasion the way solvent-based inks do. Pigment-based aqueous inks, though, are waterproof, as well as being more resistant to fading.

Print media must include an inkjet-receptive coating to ensure it holds the ink, which limits your options. Use aqueous inks to create posters, POS and POP displays, and graphics for trade shows (assuming you laminate them).

Solvent Inks

These are oil-based inks and incredibly resilient and long lasting. They resist fading and abrasion, even in the sun, and are waterproof. Part of their strength is in the fact that they don't typically require a substrate, meaning you can print directly onto the material, such as uncoated vinyl. The pigment bonds to the material while the solvent disappears either through heat curing or evaporation.

Drawbacks to solvent inks include the necessity for decent ventilation. In addition, the print heads become clogged if you fail to properly maintain the printer. This includes cleaning the print heads every one to two days, as even a few days leads to clogging, corrosion, and the need for a new print head.

Eco-Solvent Inks

The name eco-solvent does not indicate "green" but rather the fact that the solvent is a mineral oil derivative called ether. You may also see this ink called low-solvent or light-solvent. Like solvent inks, uncoated materials take the color well. It doesn't last as long as solvent inks, two to three years versus five to seven, but eco-solvent ink is still waterproof and resists fading and abrasion better than aqueous-based inks.

The curing time for eco-solvent inks is longer than for solvents, lasting up to 24 hours, meaning you must wait longer to finish your projects. However, maintenance on these machines is easier, and you only need to clean the print head once per week.

Latex Inks

These are water-based inks that require no venting or curing; the print is ready for finishing immediately upon leaving the printer. This leads to increased production speed. In addition, these units require less maintenance, since the water-based inks are non-corrosive.

Look closely at each manufacturer's print heads when deciding which unit to purchase, as they vary. For example, one offers an even, consistent heat source by using ceramic radiated plates (to aid in quick curing of the ink) while another uses replaceable print heads and radiant heaters and airflow within the unit to accomplish the same task.

Latex inks work well on a variety of mediums and even fabrics, including those with untreated surfaces. Test the printer on any new materials to understand how the printer's heat may affect them.

UV-Curable Inks

Wide format printers using UV-curable inks include a built-in light source that exposes the ink to UV radiation, hardening and drying it. The two light source options are:

  • LED, which produces low heat and has a long life
  • Mercury arc lamp, which produces higher heat and a shorter life

These inks do not bond with the material the same way the solvent- and latex-based inks do, though they do adhere well to a variety of surfaces, especially vinyl. They also work well for printing directly onto rigid substrates, such glass, wood, metal, and boards. However, their heat makes them a bad choice for materials that stretch, such as vehicle wraparounds.

These printers require less ink, so it's a more economical choice as far as operating costs. At the same time, they have a shorter shelf life, as exposure to UV radiation makes them begin the curing process. Pay attention to expiration dates, store them in a stable environment, and rotate your stock. They also require similar maintenance to solvent ink printer heads (i.e., cleaning them daily or every other day).

Solvent UV Inks

These inks are fairly new on the market and combine the best features of solvent-based and UV-curable inks. They use fluorescent lighting for curing, which takes slightly longer than traditional UV inks, but they have the durability and fade-resistance of solvent inks. Prints come off the printer completely cured and ready for finishing. Use solvent UV inks for banners, some fabrics, POS and POP displays, and vinyl.

Dye Sublimation Inks

When printing on textiles, choose dye sublimation inks according to the fabric type.

  • Acid dyes: Use on nylon, silk, and wool
  • Reactive dyes: Use on cotton, linen, rayon, and silk (pre-treat fabric before printing)
  • Disperse dyes: Use on polyester
    • Low-energy disperse: print onto paper and transfer via heat to the fabric
    • High-energy disperse: Print directly onto the fabric and then cure with heat

The ink bonds with the fabric through steaming, with reactive dyes taking about half the time as acid dyes. After printing, the fabric must be washed to remove excess ink.

You can use dye sublimation inks on any fabric, as well as printing onto paper for transfer to rigid media.

Finally, if you're considering using non-OEM inks in your wide format printer, talk to the vendor that services the machine before making a change.

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