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Saturday, June 15, 2024

A Drop of Ink

From Miami to California, organizations across the country are wearing custom shirts, pants, hoodies, and more printed right here in the River City by Splash of Color Screen Printing and Embroidery. Founded by Paul and Barb Dayton in 2012, the rapidly growing business operates out of an inconspicuous building that once was the site for one of Evansville’s most popular family attractions.

Midget Links miniature golf course opened its doors in 1947 off North Highway 41 just past the Lloyd Expressway on Evansville’s East Side. The original owners lived in a modest house, which would later become Splash of Color’s workshop, until 1972.

In 1998, Barb and Paul were in the middle of their teaching careers, which they continue as the respective biology and physical science and Spanish teachers at Castle High School in Newburgh, Indiana. But even with two teacher’s salaries, the income wasn’t sustainable for a growing family.

“We basically weren’t financially getting to where we wanted to be, so we were looking for our side hustle, and we had come (to Midget Links) to play miniature golf when the kids were little,” says Paul. “It was for sale, so we pursued it, and we ended up buying it.”

In 2000, Paul left teaching and explored several other entrepreneurial paths. He flipped houses for a few years before going to work at Herff Jones, an educational recognition and achievement products company.

The Posey County native worked at Herff Jones for five years before he quit, quickly searching for his next big project.

“I was looking for something and (a manual screen printer) came up for sale at a very good price,” he says. “We got set up, and I told my wife if we just do 50 shirts this first month, I’ll be happy. We had three kids going to college, and it was a way to help them pay for college.”

In 2012, the same year Paul returned to teaching, Splash of Color opened its doors, with its first order for 350 shirts, but the company now takes bulk orders that can consist of thousands of items.

“The first shirt took over three hours to print because I had no idea what I was doing,” says Paul. “But once we got it set up, the other 349 only took four hours. It’s grown ever since.”

Splash of Color ran on a steady schedule, with Paul operating the manual print machine for almost 40 hours a week in addition to his full-time teaching job. In 2014, the company won the bid for the Evansville Half-Marathon and produced 3,500 shirts for the final event in one week. In order to meet the order’s demand, Paul bought a new automatic pneumatic (run by air) printer at a trade show in Indianapolis.

“We switched to (automatic), cut my hours back to about 20 hours a week, and now you fast forward and I’m putting in about 50 hours a week in addition to teaching,” says Paul. “It’s grown every year, and we’ve had good growth.”

To keep up with the high volume of orders of T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, and bags Splash of Color offers from Chicago-based textile company S&S Activewear and Cincinnati-based SanMar, Paul says the automatic machine has been crucial. It runs on an 80-gallon air compressor that creates 110 pounds of pressure. This presses the automatic arms, called platens, and brushes ink through the screens.

But first, Paul creates each screen. Splash of Color accepts completed digital designs and images or can create custom designs and then coverts them to a transparent base with a black design.

The negative is placed on the screen, coated with a light-sensitive chemical called emulsion, and then exposed to 500 watts of light for one minute. After being hosed off, every part of the screen not covered with the black design won’t wash out, leaving holes for ink to pass through.

Then the screen is ready for printing. Paul sprays light adhesive on the platens and lays the T-shirt flat. The machine quickly rotates, and another platen lowers the screen to the shirt, making several passes with ink to fill in the design.

Finally, a flash dryer glides across the shirt. At 475 degrees, it dries the ink to the touch in about seven seconds. Splash of Color uses Plastisol inks, which stay wet until they reach 320 degrees.

“It’s not dried all the way through and would wash out, so that’s why it goes through the dryer after,” says Paul. “It’s dry enough that I could do another layer of ink.”

The dryer, a large oven with a conveyor belt, is the last step in the printing process and bakes in the ink at 320 degrees, which locks it into the material.

Paul knows dozens of tips and tricks to make both machines more efficient. Still, more advanced machinery has made a big difference.

“If we’re running a one-color shirt with a couple of us in here on the manual, we can do maybe 80 to 100 shirts an hour,” he says. “If we’re in there (on the automatic), we can do about 240.”

The Daytons also added a direct-to-garment machine to their arsenal. It’s a digital printer that can take any full color picture and put it directly onto material using 16 ink jet heads and all of the official Pantone colors.

“Cost of printing on (the automatic) is a guess, but on the (digital) one it tells me to the penny what it costs so I can price the shirt,” says Paul.

Splash of Color has had to adjust throughout the years to accommodate changes in the local textile market, and it has survived, and even thrived, in the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Midget Links wasn’t so lucky.

The couple put the course up for sale in 2018, but after two years on the market, they made the decision to close and tear down the nostalgic attraction.

Looking to the future, Paul says his daughter Julia and her boyfriend Matthew Huttenlocher may take on a bigger role in the company. For now, Paul isn’t slowing down.

“If I’m not under a tight budget or a tight schedule, I find this very relaxing,” says Paul. “It’s been fun; we did it to make some extra money and we’re happy with it. This little building right here ships nationwide.”


Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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