Can You Screen Print On Beach Towels?

It’s pretty weird what runs through your head when lying on the beach under a hot sun. You hover between dozing and full sleep, and your mind takes over, going down alleys you would never bother with under normal circumstances. One of mine was inspired by the garish towel of a nearby sunbather: How do beach towels get their designs?

You can screen-print on beach towels. Darker towels might require a technique known as discharge printing, which should only be done in a well-ventilated area. Water-based inks are generally used to screen print beach towels, but plastisol ink can be applied if the towel’s pile is not high.

As we all know, the surface of a beach towel is anything but flat, and the higher the pile, the more difficult the printing process can be. The idea is to get the print onto the towel, leaving it feeling as if the print was there all along, with no raised area.

How To Screen Print On Beach Towels?

Screen printing involves transferring a stenciled design onto a level surface using a mesh screen, ink, and a squeegee. The surfaces most commonly used for screen-printed art are fabric and paper, but specialized inks allow you to also print onto glass, wood, plastic, and metal.

The printer would create a stencil on a fine mesh screen and then force ink (or paint, if screening artwork or posters) through to create an imprint of the required design on the fabric beneath (In this case, a beach towel).

Still called silk-screening in much of the world (or even silk-screen printing), the stencil method may vary depending on the materials used, although the actual printing is always the same.

Various Stenciling Techniques Include:

  • Use glue or lacquer as screen blockers when painting the stencil onto the mesh.
  • Use tape or vinyl to mask certain areas of the screen.
  • Creating a stencil via a light-sensitive emulsion. This is developed similarly to a print photograph.

Designs created in this way use one or more shades of ink. The colors are applied individually for multi-colored items, using a separate stencil for each color run.

Step By Step Guide To Screen Printing

Step One – Create The Design

Print your chosen design out onto a transparent acetate film, which is then used to create the stencil.

Step Two – Prepare The Screen

Choose a mesh screen that suits the design’s complexity and the texture of the fabric (in this case, a towel) being printed. Then coat the mesh screen with a layer of light-reactive emulsion.

Step Three – Expose The Emulsion Layer

Lay the acetate sheet with the design onto the emulsion-coated mesh screen and expose it to a very bright light source. The emulsion hardens while the part under the screen stays liquid. A second screen must be used for second and subsequent colors.

Step Four – Remove The Emulsion

Once exposed for a set time, the emulsion has hardened and remains in place during the rinsing process, which removes only the unhardened emulsion, leaving a stencil for the next step.

Step Five – Preparing For Print

The beach towel (or other) is laid on the heat press, and the screen is placed on top. Bigger printing houses use an automatic rotary carousel printer, but single units also work fine, though much more effort is involved.

Step Six – Press The Ink Through The Screen

Lower the screen to the towel. Once done, pour the ink onto the screen and wipe it back and forth across the surface for maximum penetration using a squeegee. This forces the ink through the screen and onto the beach towel below.

Heat is applied until the print has cured and the towel is ready for the beach.

Since some beach towels have a thick nap, there is always the concern that the ink will sit high on the towel, which will make for an unattractive print. (The nap is the fuzzy, raised area we see on velour and other materials)

Some experts use ‘Discharge Printing’ technique to combat this, particularly where dark colors are employed.

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What is Discharge Printing?

Discharge printing is the screen printing process using the same techniques and equipment and discharge inks instead of normal inks. These inks remove the fabric’s dye rather than add color to the towel’s surface. Zinc-Formaldehyde-Sulfoxylate is the active ingredient.

This process is similar to bleaching in a design but doesn’t damage the fibers like bleaching would. The result is an extremely soft print, showing the towel’s weave. Discharge Printing can be used on its own as a base for other colors that will be added later or with color pigments added to it.

Discharge works mainly on 100% natural fabric like hemp and cotton. You can discharge print on towels that contain synthetic fibers like 50/50 or tri-blends, but many synthetic fibers will not discharge their color. NB Discharge printing removes the color from the area to be printed onto only – not from the entire towel.

I’ve never discharge-printed, so I have no first-hand experience in this technique, but my research into the subject suggests caution should be applied. Towels not heated at a high enough temperature will have their colors run in the first wash. Also, since formaldehyde exists in the ingredient list, I recommend researching the technique thoroughly before proceeding.

What Inks Should I Use For Screen Printing A Beach Towel?

Water-based ink is smoother than the solvent-based plastisol, which can even be slippery depending on what additives you use. Because Plastisol ink is thicker than its water-based counterpart, it will sit higher on the towel than water-based ink will, creating more dimension to the print.

Towels, in particular, are best served with water-based inks, and most printers I consulted agreed that colored beach towels require water-based inks (WBI) used in conjunction with discharge printing.

Is Screen Printing Washable?

Screen printing is fully washable if cured correctly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the ink pot label to the letter.


You can screen print on a beach towel, but use paler, single towel colors if possible. Darker colors may seat better if used via discharge printing.