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Choosing the Best Ink to Print on Vinyl

Some digital print shops stick to the ink their printer manufacturer offers. But that might not always be the best choice for your vinyl print job. Your overarching goal is to match your ink to your media. Find out what you need to know.

By Jennifer LeClaire

There are enough ink options on the market to make your head spin. Take the confusion out of choosing the best ink for vinyl media with these tips from the pros.

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  • You've got the best printer on the market. You've chosen the right media for the job. Now if you only knew which ink to use, you could get to work.

    OK, maybe thatís overdramatic, but the fact remains that you need to decide which ink to use for which application. When it comes to vinyl, that decision isn't always an easy one. Making the matter worse, not any ink will work with any printer. So if you didnít consider ink before you bought your printer you might be stuck with limited options now.

    For example, some printers demand solvent inks. Others demand eco-solvent inks. Some printers will allow you to use ultraviolet inks. Some wonít. Can you use spot colors or process colors? What about metallic inks, magnetic inks, fluorescent inks and varnish? Don't forget white ink. Does your printer accommodate?

    Once you decide what type of ink your printer will take, you have another set of decisions to make. Do you choose the manufacturers inks or some third-party provider?

    With so many options, your head just might start spinning. That's why some digital print shops stick to the ink their printer manufacturer offers. But that might not always be the best choice for your vinyl print job. Your overarching goal is to match your ink to your media.

    Examining the angles
    There are plenty of angles to choosing the right ink for the type of work you are trying to do. So itís best to take a look at your service line before you buy your printer. One of the first ink considerations is aqueous versus eco-solvent versus solvent. All inks are made up of a base carrier water or solvent, a dye or pigment, and some chemical additives.

    Many of todayís entry-level wide-format inkjet printers use water-based inks. While water-based inks are well known for their broad color gamut, their downfall is in their durability. They tend to fade quickly. The second generation of water-based inks (pigmented) is more fade-resistant, but trades some of the vividness of its dye-based predecessors.

    Solvent-based inks allow you to print on uncoated media. This significantly lowers the cost of production. The solvents eat into the vinyl and therefore offer long-term durability and fade resistance that large scale printing jobs demand. Solvents also tend to dry faster than water-based inks. The drawback to solvent inks is environmental and health issues.

    A word about eco-solvents
    Eco-solvents are typically low-odor and do not require special ventilation or environmental equipment, either. Currently, eco-solvents are typically available in six colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, black, light cyan and light magenta.

    Eco-solvent inks are ultraviolet durable, an important distinction in todayís market, and offer the widest color gamut in their ink class. Printing with eco-solvent inks also offers outdoor water resistance for up to three years, but lamination is recommended for applications that require abrasion resistance.

    Eco-solvent inks are far less aggressive than their full solvent counterparts, yet these inks are very popular today. Major printer manufacturers are catering to the demand with new machines. If you are planning to do plenty of outdoor work, then eco-solvent printers and inks are a solid option.

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    Making your decision
    ďThe decision on which type of ink to use depends a lot on your customer base,Ē according to Xerox digital imaging spokesperson, Sandra Mauceli. If most of your work is for indoor applications or if you are just getting into the sign market with an entry level printer, you may want to stick with an aqueous-based printer and ink, she explains, because they tend to be simpler, less messy and need less maintenance.

    "Aqueous-based printers can fill the bill all the way from heavy indoor capability to very light outdoor capability," Mauceli says. "As you make your way into wider types of customer jobs, you are going to want to transition to the eco-solvent or solvent market so you can get more durability.

    "Signs really take a beating outside," she continues. "With eco-solvents you can handle banners and displays while bus wraps and billboards are more likely to be printed with solvent-based inks."

    High performance products
    In the past five years, there have been major breakthroughs in ink technology, according to Jared Smith, founder and president of bluemedia, an environmental and vehicle graphic company based in Phoenix, Ariz. Smith remembers the day when there were only a couple of inks that would perform for the long haul. Now, he says, there are a large variety of inks that do the job. His choice, though, is 3M.

    "We sell a lot of high performance products, meaning it needs to last in the Arizona sun for three years," Smith says. "We go straight to 3M for those applications."

    Of course, that doesn't mean bluemedia uses 3M inks for anything and everything. If you are producing 100 cheap sale banners, he doesn't recommend 3M because you'll never get the job. Cheap sale banners are low performance products, he explains and using high performance materials will price you right out of the market.

    "There's a very clear line right down the middle of the road," Smith says. While you can use just about any ink that works with your machine, if you have to put a warranty on the product and you don't want to have to do it twice, then you need to use the best ink money can buy.

    One final consideration
    At the end of the day, there is yet one more consideration in your quest to choose the right ink. Maria Bragg, marketing development manager of 3M Commercial Graphics, stresses that inks and their associated features are only part of the equation.

    "Ink and printer selection should be driven by the shopís large format printing business plan. The business plan must focus on known end-user customer requirements," Braggs says.

    "There are costs versus performance considerations which can be a mitigating influence on the printer selection," she concludes. "Different printers have different capabilities, including ink handling, so there no one-size-fits-all answer."

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