Do you want to order custom tees online or print your own t-shirt art? If so, you may wonder which t-shirt printing method works best. For example, when you compare DTG printing vs screen printing, what is the difference?
The biggest difference between DTG and screen printing is that DTG prints directly onto cloth and screen printing prints through stenciled screens. Screen printing produces more saturated and vivid colors and has greater durability. Direct-to-Garment printing costs less to produce and can craft multi-colored images.
In this article, you will learn how DTG and screen printing work. You will discover the key differences between these two popular printing methods. Finally, you will see how these methods compare to embroidery and heat transfer.
What is DTG Printing?
DTG stands for direct-to-garment printing, meaning a method of printing that applies ink directly onto the surface of the fabric. DTG printers work a lot like your home office printer–the computer translates a digital image into code that the printer reads as it readies its CMYK colors and prints the design onto the shirt.
This process requires large specialized printers that can fit either whole T-shirts or even entire lengths of fabric. For this reason, DTG printing has remained primarily the purview of professional t-shirt printers. A few brands sell smaller DTG printers for home use, but most printers agree that the drop in quality makes the smaller printers a poor investment.
That said, DTG remains one of the most popular professional methods for printing shirts. The cool thing about this printing technique is that it can create super complex designs using as many different colors as you want. Anything you could print onto paper can easily print onto a t-shirt when using this method!
The downside, though, is that DTG printers use water-soluble ink that soaks into the surface fibers of the fabric. This kind of ink does not create the richness and depth of color you can find using other printing methods. It also does not stay good-quality for as long because the designs remain on the fabric’s surface and will eventually crack or fade.
What is Screen Printing?
Screen printing uses a modernized version of an ancient art form to apply inked designs onto fabric through a stencil screen. This method produces a thick, raised design on the fabric’s surface. While screen printing creates gorgeously vivid and durable designs, it does work best with a design using just a few colors at a time because every color of ink requires its own stenciled screen.
To make a screen print, a printer creates a digital image in a design program. They then print the image onto a transparency, with one sheet for each color in the design. They layer the transparency over a mesh screen prepared with a special chemical emulsion and expose it to bright light.
This hardens the emulsion except in the blacked-out areas on the transparency. Rinsing the screen washes away the negative space of the design and creates a stencil on the mesh screen.
Finally, after allowing the prepared screen to fully dry, the printer can set up the screen and the t-shirt in a screen print frame and use a squeegee to apply ink to the shirt through the stenciled mesh.
This somewhat complex process does take quite a bit of time, as you can imagine! But it creates lovely, durable designs with a soft, raised texture and high-quality look and feel.
DTG Printing vs Screen printing: Key Points
If you need a quick overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each printing method, check out this handy chart!
|Prints last a couple dozen washes
|Prints last the lifetime of the shirt
|Cost efficient for small or custom orders
|Cost efficient for large orders
|Prints will fade over time, especially if done on polyester fabric
|Prints will not fade over time when cured correctly
|Easily handles multi-color of full-color photo designs
|Works best with one, two, or three-color designs
|Can use half-tones and color gradients to create unique shades
|Must apply colors one layer at a time
|Set-Up Time and Cost
|Very little setup time required, but large up-front investment to purchase printer
|Very little start-up cost, but at least several hours of set-up time required for each design
|Works best for small or custom orders, as it takes the same amount of time to print each shirt
|Works best for large-scale orders, as it takes a lot of time to set up one design but then less than a minute to duplicate the design for each repeating shirt
|No special effects
|Many special effects possible, including metallic or neon ink and distressing
|Complex multi-colored designs for small orders
|Simple, high-quality designs for bulk orders
|Average Cost Per Shirt
|The cost of the printer ranges form as less than $1 to $4, but the average cost to buy a DTG shirt ranges from $6 to $25 depending on the complexity of the design
|The cost of the printer usually falls at around $5, though this can go down with bulk orders. The average cost to buy a screen print shirt is $20-$30
What is the Difference Between DTG and Screen Printing?
The biggest difference between DTG and screen printing is that a DTG printer applies ink directly onto a shirt, while screen printing applies ink through a mesh screen and a stencil. The two printing processes have other significant differences as well, such as the fact that DTG printing uses less-durable water-soluble ink while screen printing uses super-durable plastisol ink.
Screen printing has much better durability than DTG printing. DTG prints often last through a couple of dozen washes, especially if the consumer uses proper laundering methods and follows the instructions on the care tag. But over time, this water-based ink will fade and bits of the image may also crack away.
How long does screen printing last on shirts? Properly cured and heat-set screen prints will last as long as the shirt’s fabric. Many printers market the lifespan as 50 washes, but this depends on how often you wear and wash the shirt and if you remember to turn the tee inside out before laundering.
The longevity of screen printing is largely due to the kind of ink used in this process. This kind of ink, called plastisol ink, actually looks more like thick, gloopy paint. It is a kind of liquid plasticizer with PVC particles suspended in it.
In terms of vivid hues, the richness of color, and appealing texture, screen printing has much better quality than DTG printing. On the other hand, DTG allows for more interesting images, so you may also consider that a factor in the quality of the print.
You may also find that screen printing forms more artistic designs. Even today, when some portions of the process use computers, much of the method requires hands-on application, such as setting up the screens and applying the ink.
DTG printing can create complex images much more easily than screen printing can. With a DTG printer, you can print any image, even a full-color photo, directly onto the fabric. With screen printing, you have to separate the colors in your digital image and then craft a stenciled screen for every individual color of ink you want to apply.
DTG printers can also handle small details in an image, depending on the quality of the design software and printer you use. Screen printing does not do well with tiny details, as creating a sharply defined stencil for small shapes gets tricky.
Overall, DTG allows for better consistency than screen printing. This is because there is so little room for error in this process; you can print the same design repeatedly with just a click of a button, and the computer and printer will always apply the ink the same way.
You can create consistent screen prints as you reapply the same stencil to make multiple copies of the same design, but you have to mix the ink exactly right, apply it in the same manner, and cure it for exactly this same amount of time to achieve that consistency. Screen printing allows too much space for human error to always make consistent repeats of the same design.
The cost efficiency of DTG and screen printing depends on the size of a print run. Screen printing becomes exponentially more cost-efficient the larger the order is. This is because once you have made all the stenciled screens and prepared your ink, you can quickly make duplicates of the same design.
Aside from preparing the digital image for printing, DTG does not require extensive setup, meaning that you can print just one shirt as cheaply as you can print ten. But this also means that you do not see cost-savings for bulk orders made using DTG printing because every shirt still requires the same amount of time to print. This makes DTG better for small print runs.
DTG printing is your best choice if you want to make multi-color prints. Screen printing does not work well with a multi-color print.
With DTG printing, you can print color photos, intricate designs, or any image you can think of. The only qualifier here is that you cannot easily show a transparent section of an image and that DTG prints show up best on white fabric as the color of the shirt might otherwise mess up the color of the design.
You can certainly create screen print designs using more than one color. The catch is that you have to use a computer program to split the colors and then make a stenciled screen for each color. You then apply the layers of color one at a time onto the shirt.
Because layering the colors takes more time and effort, multi-color screen print designs often cost more. Plus, you still typically want to limit yourself to just two or three colors.
While you can’t exactly color blend using either DTG or screen printing, you can get pretty close using special techniques. DTG printing can use a feature called color gradients. This means that instead of printing black, you can print gradients of lighter grey, and so on. These color gradients show up best on a background of white fabric.
With screen printing, you can mix your inks ahead of time to whatever shade you want. Some professionals use a computerized paint mixing programs like the ones you see at Home Depot to make sure they can replicate the color later. But you can’t typically blend colors during the printing process, as you need to apply the colors one layer at a time.
Screen printing will last longer without fading than DTG printing. This does depend on a variety of factors, though, including what kind of material you use for the shirt.
DTG fades badly on polyester because the water-soluble dyes don’t interact well with the plastic polymers inside that type of fabric. DTG prints will last longer on 100% cotton shirts.
Screen printing has a more durable kind of ink that holds up longer overall. That said, an improperly cured screen print could fade over time. Good-quality screen prints go through a final session in a heat press to cure the inks, which helps prevent fading.
Set-up Time and Cost
Screen printing requires much more set-up time but can cost less per shirt than DTG, depending on how many copies of a shirt you need.
It requires little setup to prepare a DTG print. On the other hand, you do need pricey ink to run a DTG printer. Because of this, the cost of a DTG print per shirt can range as high as $4, though typically, it falls closer to just about $2 to produce a DTG shirt.
This does not account for the start-up cost of purchasing a DTG printer, though. These printers take up a lot of space and cost a lot of money, as you can only buy high-quality DTG printers in commercial size, at least to date. A high-end DTG printer can easily cost as much as $70,000!
Plus, it takes a while to print a shirt using a DTG printer, usually just under five minutes per shirt.
In contrast, it takes several hours or even days to prep a single-screen print design. But once the screens are ready, you can print a second shirt in 30 seconds! For this reason, screen printing takes less and less time per shirt and costs less and less per shirt, depending on how many copies of the same design you can print.
For a bulk order of about 50 shirts, it would cost the printer about $5-$6 to produce each screen print shirt. On the other hand, many custom t-shirt sellers mark their shirts at about $20-$30, so you can see a large profit margin there!
Another cost factor with screen printing is that you do not need to invest in a pricey printer or tons of equipment to get started, so you could potentially start seeing profits much more quickly.
Screen printing does better in large-scale quantities, and DTG does better with small custom orders. This is because screen printing grows progressively cheaper with every additional copy of the same print you make, as you can cheaply reuse the same screens without wasting time on set-up. DTG can print out a single design or a custom order more cost-effectively.
Both screen printing and DTG printing work best on 100% cotton fabric. DTG printing, in particular, will quickly grow faded if printed onto polyester, as the ink will not soak into the fabric properly during the printing process. Screen printing does sometimes work on a cheaper 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton fibers, but for best results, stick to 100% cotton!
Another thing to keep in mind is that DTG works best on white fabric. Its inks will soak into black or dark-colored material and not show up well unless the printer applies a special undercoat which requires more cost and effort.
Screen printing can work on any fabric color, though you need to match your ink colors and shirt colors effectively.
You can add special effects more easily with screen printing than with DTG.
DTG printing can form complicated multi-color designs, but its printers can’t do things like print with metallic inks or add 3D elements to a shirt design. (Though you can mix your media and add heat transfer vinyl details on top of a DTG print if you want to make it fancy!).
With screen printing, you can use many different special effects, such as mixing additives into the plastisol ink to create a more 3D, puff-paint texture to the design. You can also screen print with metallic, glitter, or high-sheen ink additives. You can also use all kinds of insider tricks, like roughing up a mesh screen to create a distressed look in the final print.
DTG printing is best for full-color or complicated images. It can also handle small or custom orders in a cost-effective way. But it does not have the same level of quality you will find in a screen print tee.
Screen printing works best for large-scale orders, as it is not cost-effective for small batches. It also works best with one, two, or three-color designs. But it does produce some of the best quality, longest-lasting printed t-shirts you can find!
Pros and Cons of DTG Printing
DTG printing has some big advantages, like its ability to print photos, but it also comes with a few downsides.
Pros of DTG printing:
- Can handle complex, multi-color designs. DTG printing remains the best choice for printing color photos onto fabric out of all other types of printing.
- Works great for small print runs or custom orders, as it has no setup costs or setup time aside from prepping the digital image.
- Costs very little per shirt to produce.
Cons of DTG printing:
- Lower overall quality as its water-based ink only soaks into the surface of ht shirt’s fabric and may fade over time.
- Works best on white fabric and needs a special undercoat when printed onto darker-colored fabric.
- Requires an expensive commercial printer as part of the start-up costs.
Pros and Cons of Screen Printing
Screen printing also comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Pros of screen printing:
- Works best for large orders of 50 or more shirts, allowing the printer to reuse the same stenciled screens.
- Creates soft, textured designs in high-quality plastisol ink.
- Has excellent durability, with prints that often last the full lifetime of a shirt.
Cons of screen printing:
- Long set-up time because every new design requires a lengthy set-up time preparing stenciled screens with a separate stencil for each color in the image.
- Does not work well with multi-color designs.
- It is only cost-effective for bulk orders.
Can You Screen Print on DTG Shirts?
You cannot screen print on top of a DTG print on a shirt, as the plastisol screen print ink works best when it can soak into the cotton fabric of the shirt. DTG printing uses one layer of ink applied all at once through a printer, much like how an inkjet paper printer operates.
Screen printing, in contrast, applies one color at a time through stenciled screens. It uses a different kind of ink that forms a denser, raised design with a unique texture that can last longer than a DG design.
While you would not apply a screen print on top of a DTG print, you can apply a DTG print on top of a special background layer or coating. This lets you print a design onto a dark shirt. Otherwise, the colors of the print would disappear into the dark fabric.
Screen Printing Vs DTG Vs Heat Transfer
The main difference between screen printing, DTG, and heat transfers is that screen printing uses a stencil to apply ink, DTG applies ink directly to fabric, and heat transfer applies ink to a transfer sheet and then uses heat to transfer the design to a shirt.
Heat transfers work like DTG printers but with a middleman between the printer and the shirt. This allows you to use a regular inkjet printer rather than a commercial, large-scale DTG printer that can fit entire shirts inside it.
Instead, the heat transfer method allows you to print a design onto a special sheet of transfer paper. You then use a heat press to transfer the design onto the shirt at a later time.
Like DTG printing, you can print multi-color designs with this method. But also, like DTG printing, it often does not produce the most high-quality results.
DTG Printing vs Embroidery
The biggest difference between DTG printing and embroidery is that DTG creates designs out of ink, and embroidery creates designs out of layered threads in different colors. Embroidery costs much more than DTG but will last a lot longer as well.
If you want to prank your coworkers by giving them a t-shirt with a funny picture of the last staff outing emblazoned on it, you would probably want to use DTG printing. But if you want to buy nice polo shirts with the company logo advertised on the shirt, you should use embroidery that will look super professional and last a long time.
Like DTG printing, starting an embroidery business often requires a large initial investment, as computerized embroidery sewing machines can cost quite a lot. DTG ink refills cost a lot, and so do the spools of thread used by commercial embroidery machines.
But once you get past that initial investment, it takes little time, effort, or cost to pop out a DTG shirt. It takes time and effort to embroider a shirt, which is why custom-embroidered tees typically cost at least $20.
What is Better, DTG Or Screen Printing?
Whether DTG printing or screen printing is better depends on the kind of design you want to print. For a multi-colored design, DTG wins the contest, hands down. But for the best overall quality and longevity, you should go with screen printing.
In terms of cost, DTG printing has a high initial investment in equipment. But it costs hardly anything per shirt to use this method, meaning you can see a large profit margin. A DTG printer does not require much setup time, so you can easily market small batches or custom shirts.
Screen printing has almost the opposite of that cost metric. It does not require an expensive start-up investment for equipment, but it does take a lot of time to set up the stenciled screens for each new design you want to print. This means that its cost-efficiency depends on how many shirts you can make using the same design.
Finally, you may also want to consider your own skill set. Do you love artistic endeavors? If so, you may enjoy the hands-on method o screen printing much more.
But if you like digital graphic design and maintaining complex equipment, you may find it easier to master the DTG printing method.
The main difference between DTG and screen printing is how ink reaches the shirt in each method. Screen printing uses stencils and thick ink to apply designs to a shirt. DTG printing uses large commercial printers to apply the inked design to a shirt.
DTG printing can translate any full-color digital image into a print on a shirt. Screen printing works better with designs using a small number of colors, but it does offer better-quality images overall.