T-Shirt Printing Secrets – Underbase

There’s something going on between your t-shirt and the vibrant screen printed ink colors that make it look so good. It’s a layer of white ink hidden beneath the surface of your t-shirt design called an “underbase.”

Your Ministry Gear designer is an expert who knows screen printing inside and out. Behind the scenes, she understands all the tricks and hacks needed to make your t-shirts look their best. And one of her favorite tools of the trade is the underbase.

What is Screen Printing Underbase?

In case you’re new to Ministry Gear, we utilize a screen printing process to get that cool graphic tee look. Screen printing is layers of ink spread across flat surfaces one color at a time. In some situations, the only way to make those ink colors pop is by first applying an underbase. Underbase is a bottom layer of ink like the primer you use when painting your bedroom. Usually bright white in color, it helps your color choices look their best.

We start by applying the underbase first. It’s applied in the shape of your full design and only in places where color will be laid down. It’s also “choked” which means the shape of the underbase is constricted by a tiny amount, usually perceivably, so that there’s no way for the white to peek out from beneath the covering color layers.  This becomes the foundation layer that all the other colors will sit on. Using a high-heat dryer, we flash cure the underbase so that it’s perfectly dry and ready for the first colors to be applied.

Straight forward, right? Not so fast. Underbase isn’t used all the time. There are times when underbase is crucial to the process and times when it’s not necessary at all. Sometimes using underbase creates such vastly different results that the same design can have an entirely contrasting look and feel without it that it becomes a design choice that people prefer.

This shirt was printed using an underbase. The underbase is “choked” to be the tiniest bit smaller than the design so that all the colored ink will cover it completely. Notice how bright the yellows and oranges are, like they are sitting on top of the shirt.

When to Use Underbase on T-Shirts?

Underbase is most commonly used when applying bright colors to darker colored shirts. In order to make the colored inks look like they should, an underbase is necessary.

Think back to Kindergarten. Do you remember trying to draw on black paper with crayons? No matter how hard you scribbled, you could never get the colors to look like they did on the Crayola box. And many times, the lighter colors would become on another color altogether. A yellowish color applied to black paper always looked greenish. Orange appeared brown, blue became grey, and white seemed to just make the black shiny. That’s because the medium in crayons (wax) isn’t completely opaque. It’s transparent enough that the black shows through.

For this reason, it’s necessary to create a bright, white foundation to make your t-shirt colors look nice and bright. Reds look rosie. Blues look cool. And yellows look banana bright. Many of our customers comment that the colors on their shirts “pop!” That’s the power of the underbase.

So in most cases where your t-shirt design uses bright colors on a dark shirt, we’re going to apply a nice, even underbase to make your colors pop!


This shirt was printed without an underbase using the exact same colors as the example above. Notice how the colors seem to fade into the shirt. Without an underbase, the black shows through creating a more retro or well-worn look.

When Not to Underbase Your T-Shirts?

But using an underbase isn’t always the best way to go. On white shirts (or lighter colors like yellow or sky blue) with colored designs, an underbase is simply not necessary. Back to Kindergarten for a moment. There’s a reason coloring books were always white paper with black outlined illustrations. White makes colors stand out as they were meant to stand out. A red squiggle looks like the red of the crayon whether you stayed inside the lines or not.

Another reason we might not choose to use an underbase is for a softer print texture. While an underbase helps the image pop, it is one more layer of ink. Some customers would rather their printed shirts feel as natural as possible so they opt out of the colorbase. The trade off, especially on dark shirts, is what we’ve said before – the colors won’t pop.

Which leads us to the most intriguing reason not to include an underbase, even on a dark shirt – creative preference. Many of our customers see the lack of color brightness as a feature, not a defect. To those customers, the darker, more filtered color adds an authenticity they like. And it’s quite popular these days. Spend some time in the graphic tees section of your local Target store and you’ll see that many of the super hero and rock t-shirts look faded or worn out. Some of that effect is due to the choice to not include an under coat.

So will your next t-shirt design include an underbase? Well that depends. Do you want your bright colors to pop on a dark colored shirt? Or will your light colored shirt look just fine with colored inks as they are? Or are you looking for a color combination that will be truly unique and all your own?

No matter what you’re looking for, your Ministry Gear designer will guide you expertly toward the best design choices to fit your t-shirt needs.


A great new design is in your future! Fill out the form below and your Ministry Gear designer will get back to you in the next 2 business days.

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