Screen Printing VS Digital Printing: The Ultimate & Definitive Guide
So you have decided you want to order custom tees, upon your first Google search you likely were taken to CustomInk, RushOrderTees or Vistaprint where you were able to choose your garment and get started designing the t-shirt.
If you would like to skip right to the meat and potatoes, scroll down a bit and see the table of contents of this article. There you will find everything handily organized with links to the sections.
Depending on where you landed for your search you might have already been asked to choose the method to which your tees were going to be decorated. If you already had an option in mind like Embroidery or screen printing then the choice may have been easy. However for those of you who are new to the world of custom tees and custom apparel choosing which method you want to have your tees decorated can be the make or break to your custom tees or apparel.
In this article we will be breaking down the pros and cons of both screen printing and digital printing. Through our experience we lay out for you a number of different scenarios that you may come across and which print method would lend itself best to each scenario.
Over the past nine weeks we have been collecting data, scouring the internet for other sources and their opinions, watching endless videos and collecting what we believe is the most definitive, thoroughly put together source for which printing method to choose.
The modern new underdog poised to take over traditional printing methods, digital printing, vs. the tried and true heavyweight, screenprinting.
- History of Screen Printing
- History of Digital Printing
- Pros of Screen Printing
- Cons of Screen Printing
- Pros of Digital Printing
To start, let's take things back to the beginning.
Screen printing is an art nearly as old as time itself. First thought to originally be used in early 1000 AD by the song dynasty in China, one color screen printing has stood the test of time to say the least. Popularized in mainstream culture in 1960s by such works of art as Campbell’s Chicken’n Dumplings Soup and Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol.
What really made screenprint what it is today was the invention of the rotating multi color press.
This allowed the artist to quickly and easily craft multi color works of art and prints with ease quickly and easily.
Digital printing, while not as storied and tried as the long art of screen printing, has seen it’s fair share of innovation, revolutions and improvements since it’s inception just a short two decades ago.
Digital printing on garments was first invented in the late 1980s along with most other standard desktop printers. Digital textile printing started with the development of dye based polyester sublimation which transcended printing into the 1990s. With this innovation it became possible to print and decorate on garments using minimal energy dye based sublimation.
The first commercially available Direct to garment printer however took several years to come to fruition.
The Revolution, developed by DIS in Bradenton Florida, a couple miles south of Tampa, Florida. A patent was later granted and issued for the product in 2000, becoming the first Direct to garment patent issued in the United States.
It wasn’t until 2005 however that momentum really began to take shape for digital printing and direct to garment.
Kornit, Mimaki and Brother were at the ISS show in Chicago debuting their offerings for their Direct to garment and digital printers.
Brother’s offering was particularly impressive. Claiming to offer the first “ground up” printer complete with in house print heads, ink, and electronics designed and built specifically for the direct to garment process and industry.
While the space was heating up the problems began to arise print heads were clogging, print’s were washing right off or not holding up in the washer as well a multitude of other ailments.
Enter 2013 Chicago ISS, Epson is showing their F2000 DTG printer, with the release of this printer Epson came out swinging with one big promise, a 2 year ink shelf life and a price tag of $14,500. Revolutionizing direct garment printing for years to come.
- Long Lasting Vibrancy
- Screen printing can hold up to extreme abrasion, heat and detergents making the print and design look and feel great for a long time.
- Bright Colors
- Due to the process of screen printing, there is at least one opaque layer of ink being deposited onto the garment. This guarantees you bright and vivid colors and prints that at the time of writing are unparalleled by digital printing
- Textured Options
- Another aspect that at the time of writing cannot be kept up with by digital printing. Using a variety of specialty and skilled processes a screen printer can get some super awesome, high density, rough or silky smooth finish on the print.
- Speciality Inks
- An ace in the hole for screen printing specialty inks has been a trick used by screen printers to differentiate their garments for decades
- Glow in the dark
- Affordable for small to medium runs
- The go to for medium to large size runs
- Can be a toss up for orders under 24 which method is cheaper so make sure to look into both if all the same to you
- Scalable to any # of garments
- With screen printing no matter if you are printing 12 or 12,000 garments it is all possible if you have the right tools
- Oversized & print anywhere on garment
- You are not limited to what kind of platen you have for your direct to garment printer.
- Wherever you can get the shirt onto, you can print it
- Versatility to print on nearly anything
- The main limiting aspect to what you can and cannot screen print is if the material can get hot enough for the ink to cure ( usually at least 280 ) but lower temps can be achieved with rapid cure additives.
- With that said there are solvent and water based inks that air dry, not requiring any heat so you truly can, screen print nearly anything
- Super soft hand achievable
- Fast & easy to crank out 100s or 1000s
- If you are looking to get anywhere over 24 and definitely over 50, screen printing is just the way to go. It will be worth it to alter your design to make it compatible to be screen printed
- Possible to be eco friendly
- Color matching
- With DTG and digital printing you are dependent on your RIP ( Raster Image Processor ) and or the program you are printing from to manage the colors accurately according to the image. This will not always happen and you can end up with some pretty wacky colors. ( especially is a head is clogged )
- Can print on 100% Poly
- The bees knees. Where DTG can’t even come close. Screen printing can handle 100% poly blends without issue. ( Even though our waterways can’t. Please limit use of polyester to save our planet )
- Not suitable for jobs under 12 garments
- Due to the set up, tear down and clean up costs, printing jobs under 12 garments are not economical, efficient or logical in most cases
- Not ideal for gradient heavy designs
- Screen printing can do many things but gradients can be called on of its few achilles heels. Depending on the printer, graphic designer and set up of the printer, gradients can be and are a reality and even a dream! However in most cases
- Not ideal for photographs
- Due to the number of colors typically involved in photographs printing photorealistic images is not ideal for screen printing
- Though possible with techniques such as a simulated process, most shops typically will try to sell you on the DTG option rather than setting up the artwork for a process job. Again though, if over 50 garments it is typically always going to be worth it to recreate your artwork for screen printing
- More artwork preparation
- Even printing a one color text based design will still require some sort of artwork preparation to ensure prints are as clean and nice as possible. This typically takes the form of vectorization though multi color designs also need to be color separated.
- Simply put screen printing requires more work for your designers, their designers and in the pre and post press operations.
- Detail is harder to achieve
- Fine details and small lettering is possible up to about 4pt with screen printing on high mesh screens. Anything smaller is likely to get lost in printing, screen prep or art prep.
- Can feel heavy on the shirt
- Depending on the type of ink, the tee, the design and the amount of ink deposited, the print with screen printing sometimes can feel heavy and stick to your back or chest on those especially large designs.
- Set up costs
- Print from image
- Upload the file to the printer and hit the green button, no need for special artwork preparation, reducing colors, vectorizing, separating. Nothing! Just watch the printer do it’s magic
- Gradients galore!
- Photos of the sky? How about a sunset. There is no better alternative to printing color combinations and gradients than DTG and digital printing
- Any color combination possible
- Best for one off prints
- Testing out to see if a design is a hit, business centered around lots of niche and unique designs? Then DTG and digital printing is for you.
- This also gives you the ability to limit your risk since you don’t have to purchase X amount of sizes in this one design that you aren’t certain will sell through.
- High detail designs
- Unlike screen printing, all of the actual printing processes with DTG and digital printing are automated by machine. Meaning it can crank out the same design over and over again with amazing precision and accuracy.
- Ability to have variable data
- A big benefit that comes with digital printing and embroidery actually is the ability to input variable data into each print. This way say you were doing some custom polo’s with each team member name. With screen printing you would need a separate screen for each garment and name that things would get chaotic and costly quickly. With digital printing it’s as easy as uploading a CSV to the RIP on the printer and watching the tees come out!
- More eco friendly as a whole
- Since nearly all DTG and digital printers use a water based ink and for the most part only use what is needed, the argument can be made that digital printing is more eco friendly as a whole.
- We are not entirely convinced, while you may save some waste water from going to a treatment plant, the excess waste created by the ink cartridges and ink still inside is another problem digital printing has yet to solve.
For those looking to start their brand, clothing brand, shop or boutique there is really no better starting place than a print on demand provider. You will be able to quickly and easily upload your designs. See your garment and design in real time and even get mockups for your own shop. They do this all while allowing you to not take on any risk.
You don’t have to buy equipment, you don’t have to pay a graphic designer to prepare your artwork, pay for blanks or even pay for inventory of your designs!
Use this as an option to test which designs sell well and then transition those designs over to an inventory model through a screen printer that offers fulfillment or 3PL services. This then gives you the best of both worlds, you get the premium garment quality of screen printing while still not having to lift a finger printing, fulfilling or processing customer orders.
Depending on how many members of your family plan on getting their custom tee you may be in the range where it would make sense to get your tees screen printed.
Also considering that most of the designs that we have seen for the type of customer are typically the basic text / glittery font designs that are great for screen printing.
However while some are in the range where it makes sense for screen printing sometimes there are occasions that just don’t have that many guests. In cases below 12 garments again as said previously it is always going to be better to go with DTG or digital printing. Another common design with this customer is photos on the tees, with this it really can depend on your needs which printing method will be cost effective and best for you.
The church or school based on the average demand and designs they typically print would be the perfect candidate for screen printing their garments. The simple 4 color or text based designs that are associated with these orders and the high order quantity lend itself exceptionally well for screen printing.
For organizations looking to fundraise custom apparel for their cause, screen printing can bring your garment cost down based on the quantity ordered, putting more money toward your cause or organization.
As I hope you are beginning to understand from this article by now, choosing which method to print your tees is really dependent on you. The needs that you have whether that be for your business, family event, church, non profit organization or what have you. The answer simply is, it depends.
Same goes for the affordability, but with a few important notes to keep track of.
As mentioned above, if you are going over 50 garments it almost always makes sense to screen print your garment. You are at the point where you will start to get quantity discounts, where it will make sense to change your artwork for screen printing and where you ultimately will get the highest quality garment.
Under 50 but above 24 is really a toss up of which to choose and really up to the person making the decision. If you have a simple 4 color design with left chest and back print screen printing will still be the way to go and be vastly more affordable. If however you are looking to put Aunt Janet’s face on your chest for her 60th, DTG may be the cheaper route.
Unless you are under 2 colors for your design it is likely that under 24 garments you will find cheaper prices for DTG than screen printing just due to the lack of quantity to make screen printing effective.
Obviously at 12 and under DTG gets really attractive and much more affordable. At this quantity unless you want one color, DTG is likely to be $3-4 cheaper per tee than screen printing.
We hope that you have learned something and are armed with the knowledge to make an informed buying decision. If you are a clothing brand looking to get started we hope that we have provided you with valuable insight to make your first drop a success!
In any case if you got value from this article we would appreciate it if you could share this with your interested circle of friends and acquaintances.
If you are looking for screen printing services, embroidery or digital printing in the United States we have been voted Houston’s Premiere Print Shop. Offering 3-7 standard turnaround time, no set up, art, digitization or screen fees of any kind and offer an online designer to create and customize your tees in real time.
Contact us today to get your quote and see how we can help you!