BY DAN STRICKLAND
Who Should Set Up An Ink Kitchen?
For many screen printers who are getting started, it’s common to buy a manual press and go with ready-to-use inks for the typical one-to-three spot-color jobs you will do early on. If you have a client who really needs a custom color, you can get it mixed by your supplier. There are exceptions, but for most start-up shops, the cost of an ink-mixing system and setting up a kitchen is not enough to justify the investment.
In my case, I had worked for various screen printing shops for 15 years before I opened Garment Gear in Panama City, Florida. I started with an automatic press and immediately purchased the software and supplies for a full-service ink kitchen.
There are numerous advantages to mixing your own inks and a primary one is it gives you a competitive advantage. You can become a color consultant to clients and not have to wait on a supplier to custom mix shades.
It helps you get larger clients who have specific PMS color requirements. Oftentimes, for retail brands they might say, “This is close. Can we add a little of this?” And we can respond “No problem, we can work with you." It gives you the ability to get a client’s ink just right.
When it’s a large-volume order and you are near the end of a run and you need only one more quart, you can create it without waiting on a supplier to deliver. And you do not have the expense of ordering a special ink color.
Mixing in-house also takes the guesswork out of gauging exactly how many custom-mixed gallons you need to buy. In most cases, you might tend to order extra to make sure you are covered and then store leftover ink on a shelf. So it helps cut down on storage space.
An unintended side benefit of our ink kitchen during COVID happened due to supply shortages. There were certain colors our supplier ran out of that we bought in bulk. When they didn't have the bases to mix it, we could mix it ourselves.
Ink Kitchen Location and Layout
Where you locate your ink kitchen matters because you want to avoid lint and other contaminants from getting into the ink and at the same time, you don’t want to risk getting ink on finished garments ready to ship. We have it set off to the side in one corner of the production floor. That's also where all the screens are staged.
Screen printing is a dirty business. What we call “the dirty end” is where the presses are. That is where the inks are stored along with our ink mixing stations. As you walk into the building, you will see the dryers and all the clean, finished shirts coming out. There's no ink stored near the dryers and shipping area that might get ink on any product or boxes. Ideally, you keep these two areas as separate as possible.
At our ink stations, there is a bit of link and dust, which we are always scooping out of the ink. Those buckets remain open because of how often we use them. For our static custom mixes, we put a lid on to keep contaminants out. It pays to be mindful of how you lay out and maintain your print area.
In terms of layout, to maximize efficiency, we custom built tables in a big U shape. If I had to guess, I’d estimate that area takes up about 300 square feet.
Our custom tables are built out of four-by-four plywood. We covered them with a material that was easy to wipe down. We buy our bases in 5-gallon containers and to accommodate these, we cut holes in the table top that allow us to drop the bucket into the hole.
This is easier to use and more ergonomic, because the person can work at a comfortable table height and not have to constantly be reaching up to scoop out ink. It also helps keep the ink area cleaner.
In my next blog in this series, I will discuss ink mixing systems, lighting and pricing for these services.
Ink Kitchen Supply Checklist
If you’re going to set up your own ink kitchen, here’s a list of things you need to get started.
Ink Mixing System. This is software used to provide the recipe needed for specific Pantone colors.
Work tables. .A wipeable surface is ideal for faster, easier cleanup. Possible materials are glass and metal among others.
Mixers. You can use wooden sticks to do it by hand. There also are automatic ink mixers. These will usually handle sizes from a quart to a 5-gallon bucket. For small quantities, a mixing stick or spatula works well. For larger quantities, you may want to invest in a drill with a mixing blade bit. This can be purchased at any hardware store.
Spatulas. These are used to mix, scrape, scoop, etc. They come in a wide array of blade sizes.
Ink Scoop. This is designed to make it easy to put ink into other containers or on screens. Most also have a handle hook so it can rest on the edge of the bucket.
Ink Cards. These are made of a disposable material and assist in scooping and cleaning up ink. They also can be used to do swatches for evaluation. They come in packages of 300 pieces and up.
Unlined mixing and storage containers. Have a mix of sizes on hand to meet all of your needs. Lids are also handy for long-term storage.
Digital Weight Scale. When following a recipe, the scale is used to measure how much base and pigment to add together.
Pantone Formula Guide. This lists the colors you can achieve by number and that number is plugged into the ink mixing system to provide the necessary recipe.
Cleaning rags. Ink is messy. You will need lots of rags to wipe up drips and messes.