Custom Puff Screen Printing

Ben Buzzard
December 29, 2023
Puff Screen Printing Design

Have you ever seen graphic t-shirts in which the design seemed to pop right off the fabric creating a striking impression? If so, you may have encountered a Puff screen print, sometimes called a 3D screen printing.

To achieve this look screen printing companies use a specialty ink additive to give standard plastisol ink a third dimension. This additive expands when heat is applied to the ink, giving it that distinctive appearance.

This style of screen-printed apparel decoration has been gaining in popularity over the past couple of years, particularly in streetwear. Picking up momentum again in 2022 more brands are adding puff t-shirt prints  into their portfolio, and it's no wonder why.

Puff screen printing  can transform your simple flat screen print design into a raised textural work of art. This raised print calls attention to itself and adds textural and visual appeal.

In this post, we will look at the history behind puff screen printing. We will look into how artists now incorporate puff printing into their designs, pushing the boundaries of creativity and redefining the visual language of fashion.

Understanding Puff Screen Printing

Puff additive is the magic behind puff screen printing. It operates on a simple principle. When heat is applied to the ink it undergoes a reaction that forms minuscule pockets of air within the ink, causing it to foam and rise. This process results in the distinctive raised and textured effect that characterizes puff prints.

The trend of puff screen printing experienced its heyday in the varied fashion landscape of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. During this period, early puff T-shirt designs predominantly featured a single solid color being puffed, while the rest of the design remained flat. However, as fashion trends shifted towards statement T-shirts and oversized screen prints in the late 90s, puff screen printing gradually waned in popularity.

With the current fashion scene embracing nostalgic trends, in 2022 puff prints finally had their comeback in the streetwear scene. Though with all nostalgic comebacks, this one has a modern take to it; higher-quality puff additives, improved printing techniques, and artists working with puff inks in new and interesting ways have all increased the popularity of puff inks.

Printing with puff isn't too hard, but it requires specific materials for optimal results. A low mesh screen, ideally with a mesh count of 110 or less is recommended. To achieve a thicker stencil, high solids emulsion or a thick capillary film is essential. If using emulsion, opt for one with solids greater than 40%, and double (or triple) coating the screen. When it comes to the squeegee blade, a soft blade with a durometer of 60 or less is the preferred choice. A low durometer blade pushes substantially more ink through the screen, ensuring a thick application for maximum puffiness.

With 3D puff screen prints, artists wield a powerful tool for creating designs that captivate the eye. Notable examples of puff printing's artistic versatility include emulating the raised texture of wood/bark or detailing the scales on animals. While these examples showcase the potential for intricate detailing, the most prevalent use of puff printing remains on bold words or entire designs, where the pronounced puff effect adds an extra layer of visual and tactile intrigue.

With the resurgence of puff screen printing, fueled by advancements in materials and techniques, the possibilities for creating eye-catching, textured designs are more expansive than ever. This renewed interest promises an exciting future for the intersection of fashion, art, and innovative printing technologies.

How to Design for Puff Screen Printing

When you are designing for puff screen prints, it is important to look at what does and does not work well with puff. Learning about the correlation between print surface area, and apparent puffiness of the print will help in getting the puff effect you are looking for.

In puff screen printing the general rule is that the bolder the surface area, the higher the puff effect will appear. Thicker, bold prints will puff up more prominently, and thinner lines and print areas conversely will show less height after puffing up due to the ink not being able to warp the shirt as much to get the raised effect. So it is important to consider the balance between your desired puff height and the thickness of the lines in your design/print. Getting a good balance between the two helps the puff stand out more.

Though the thicker the line the higher the puff will appear, it’s important to note that if a print has too much surface area that is puffed, the effect will appear less dramatic. Striking a balance between puff, non-puff, and surface print area is also important in getting the desired results.

Now that you have a general idea of the correlation between print area and puff effect, let’s talk about some of the popular design choices currently going on in the puff trend. One of the more popular puff trends is bold words using a tone-on-tone look, where the color of the ink used in the print is close to the same color of the garment the print is going on. This design choice is great for creating a subtle yet eye-catching design. One downside is, that if printing on multiple different garment colors, you will need an ink color change for each garment.

Another popular option is using the puff to emphasize certain words or elements of a print. The contrast between the flat and puffed ink adds more depth to the design and makes the effect stand out even more than normal, especially if the two ink styles are touching one another. Using this technique can be used to add more value to an otherwise already great design.

A Green and Red puff screen print that shows contrast between puff and standard plastisol ink.
A Puff Screen Print design that uses one puff color, and one standard color to make the puff ink stand out more.

In summary, when designing for puff screen prints you must keep several elements in mind. Looking at the line thickness, total surface area, and contrasting ink types will help you create an outstanding design for your brand. Remember to experiment with a single-element puff, tone-on-tone printing, or even using puff ink to add texture to a print as talked about earlier in the article.

Getting Your Screens Ready

Now that we have our design picked out, it is time to start getting everything prepped for the actual printing process. The first step that we will be working on is getting the screen coated and ready for imaging. We are going to want to use a screen that has a lower mesh count, and an emulsion that has a high solids percentage. At Extreme Screen Prints, we use a mesh of 135 or lower and SAATI’s PHU2 emulsion which has a solids percentage of 47%. 

There are a couple of different methods that can be used for getting a thick enough stencil on your screen. One is to coat the screen multiple times on the squeegee side while having a light airflow on the substrate side of the screen to start to form a skin on the emulsion to help with an even emulsion layer, another is to coat the screen multiple times on the substrate side, waiting for the emulsion to dry between each layer. The last way is the use of a capillary film on your screens. Capillary films are the best way to get a consistently even layer of emulsion between different screens, resulting in a consistent puff between screens.

When using a screen with extra thick emulsion on it, it is important to let the screen fully dry. If you have a screen drying box this will substantially help speed up the process. If not, we recommend letting the screens dry for at least 24 hours after the last coat of emulsion. This will help ensure that all the water is out of the screen so the emulsion can fully crosslink.

Preparing Your Ink

When we are printing with Puff inks, there are two options that we have: premade puff plastisol inks, or puff additives. The premade puff inks are often only available in black or white, which depending on your use, may be all you need. If you are not wanting to have to stock up on an indefinite number of puff inks, it is highly recommended to purchase a puff additive. Using the additive you can make any plastisol ink into a puff ink.

When preparing to use a puff additive, it is important to follow the instructions from the manufacturer. Most manufacturers call for adding up to 20% puff additive by weight to your plastisol base color. The more puff additive you incorporate the higher the ink will puff, but don’t add too much as it can cause the ink to cure or adhere to the shirt correctly.

Due to the nature of puff additive foaming up the base ink being used, the ink color will lighten up a little bit. If you need to hit an exact Pantone color you may need to do a little testing to find the right ink color to get to your end goal. Although some colors may be hard, or impossible to hit exactly, one notable example is black; black ink after puffed will look more gray.

If you are wondering how to prevent puff ink color from shifting you can do two layers of ink. The first ink layer should be your ink color with the full 20% additive, and the second layer will be your ink color with <10% additive. Having less puff additive in the second layer will help retain the ink color, and still give you a good level of puff.

How to Run a Puff Screen Print Design

Now that you have your screens imaged and your ink mixed it is time to start setting up your job to print. If using two layers of puff ink for your job, in the first print head you will put the screen and puff ink that has the higher percentage of puff additive, leaving space for a flash cure, and if possible a cooldown space then your second screen and ink with the lower amount of puff additive. In both screens, we will use a lower durometer squeegee with a steep angle to push as much ink through the screen as possible.

When flashing puff screen printing ink you want a lower even heat over the ink. To do this, you can increase the distance between the flash unit and the shirt. We do not want the ink to start to puff up, as this could cause the ink to over-cure in the dryer. Over-cured puff ink will end up deflating and not being as prominent as it should be. If you are printing regular and puff ink together it is best to print the puff inks last, so your flashes do not prematurely cure the puff ink.

After your design has been printed, we are ready to send it down the dryer. It is important to check the technical data sheet of the ink and additive you are using for the curing instructions. You want to keep the highest temperature the ink reaches within 10-20 degrees of the cure temperature to make sure that the ink doesn’t start to deflate. If you can see the shirt going down the dryer, watch the puff rise and make sure it doesn’t deflate as it goes through the dryer for the first few shirts of the run.

Once the shirt is out of the dryer, the ink will still be a bit malleable. We want to make sure to not put a lot of pressure on the ink until it has had a chance to cool down, or else we may create a depression in the puff ink. After the shirt has cooled down you can do the normal stress tests on the ink. Making sure it doesn’t crack and checking the durability of the ink.

Puff screen printing of yellow text with white border. Both ink colors are puffed.
A properly cured puff screen print showing the height possible with puff screen printing.

Caring for Puff Printed Apparel

If you are to print your own tags or include washing instructions for your garments, there are a few notes you will want to make clear. Puff ink is more fragile than regular plastisol ink. Because of the air bubbles that cause the puffiness the ink is more apt to flaking off the shirt. For washing instructions it is best to wash inside out, in warm water, on the gentle cycle. This combination of settings will help ensure that the ink doesn’t get damaged in the washing process. You will want to dry inside out too on medium heat.

Puff prints should not be used for printing shirts that will be in rough environments like construction, or high intensity sports such as soccer, rugby or football. The constant stretching and rubbing on the print area will cause the ink to fail and flake off faster than usual.

Conclusion

With the resurgence of puff screen printing starting in the 2020s, the fashion landscape has brought back nostalgic trends of the ‘80s and early ‘90s into the modern apparel world. With the advancements in screen printing techniques and puff ink formulations puff screen printing is proving to be a powerful tool in the modern fashion designers toolbox. 

Designing for puff screen printing calls for a balance between contrasting ink types, line thickness and design surface area. As artists find new and unique ways to use puff in their creations the versatility of the ink will be sure to shine through for many years to come.

After reading this article we hope that it has shown you the versatility of puff, what to keep your eye on when designing, how to ensure the print doesn’t deflate on you during the printing process, or how to let your customer know how to take care of the shirts.

We are excited to see where the puff screen printing trend will go in the years to come.

Ben Buzzard
Updated:
December 29, 2023