Screen printing and heat transfer designs both make really cool decorated t-shirts. But which design method creates more professional-looking shirts? If you want your own personalized tees or want to launch an Etsy business selling t-shirts, you probably want to compare screen printing vs heat press transfer: what’s better?
While heat-transfer designs have a higher resolution and look better when first made, screen printing soaks into the fabric and lasts much longer over time. Screen printing transfers layers of ink from a fine mesh screen onto the fabric. Heat transfer uses heat to seal a vinyl design onto a shirt.
In this article, you will learn how screen printing works and how a heat press transfer works. You will find out what supplies you need for each method. Finally, you will get tips on how to decide which process will work best for you!
What is Screen Printing?
Screen printing creates a raised design on fabric by spreading thick ink on a mesh screen and then laying that over a stencil. This pushes the ink through the stencil and creates the desired pattern on the garment. You will also find this method called silk screening.
This type of printing uses a very different process than DTG, or direct to garment printing. DTG printing prints multiple colors directly onto the fabric, just like a laser printer prints onto paper. This method creates detailed and multi-colored designs quite easily but does not have a classy, raised ink that lasts a long time like screen-printed designs.
You can create this type of print at home with a few basic arts and crafts supplies and special Plastisol ink. Professional printing companies use large machines with multiple arms, each holding screens to create multi-colored designs.
A finished screenprint design on a t-shirt has a thick, raised look. These designs often include only a few colors, or sometimes just a single color, because of the difficulty of layering one stencil on top of another. However, you can create photos or images using screen printing if you have the right equipment.
What is Heat Press Transfer?
A heat press transfer uses a product called heat transfer vinyl, or HTV, to create a raised design on fabric. Heat Transfer Vinyl comes in many different colors and textures, but it always has an adhesive coating on the back. This adhesive activates when exposed to heat and permanently attaches the vinyl to the fabric.
Most artists use computer programs to create vinyl transfer cutouts, such as Cricut’s Design Space. Then an electronic cutting machine slices out the desired shape, such as a lettered logo, an image, or a funny saying. With the HTV cut out, the artist arranges it on the garment and then uses a heat press to activate the adhesive on the back of the vinyl.
A heat press works like a flat waffle iron or panini press, sealing the vinyl and fabric between two heated plates. You can find small heat presses for the home crafter or giant commercial heat presses with enormous heated plates.
Home crafters often use a Cricut and Cricut’s Easy Press when creating t-shirt designs out of HTV. Other popular brands include the Silhouette and Brother’s ScanNCut.
Professionals use much more complex heat transfer methods, including multi-colored vinyl arranged on a transfer for precise placement on the garment, and even digital or screen printed designs heat pressed onto the fabric.
A finished HTV design on a shirt has a slightly raised, slightly plastic look and feel. It has sharp edges and looks nice, but usually only incorporates one color. Layering different colors of vinyl can create bumps and ridges that do not look appealing, though in some cases, a talented artist can arrange multiple colors side by side to great effect.
Screen Printing vs Heat Press Transfer: Key Points
Before diving into the nuts and bolts of screen printing vs heat press transfer, check out this quick overview to give you an idea of the pros and cons of each method.
|Screen Printing||Heat Press|
|Durability||Lasts longer because ink soaks into the fabric.||Lasts for up to 50 washes, but will eventually crack and fade.|
|Difficulty||Requires much more setup and many more supplies.||Needs few supplies and minimal setup.|
|Cost Efficiency||More cost-efficient for bulk orders, but less cost-efficient for small orders.||More cost-efficient for small or customizable orders, but not cost-efficient for large orders.|
|Quality||More vivid colors and more complex designs make higher quality prints||Good quality for one or two color designs, but less vivid colors|
|Multi-Colored Designs||With advanced equipment, can create photographs and complex images||Best suited to one or two color designs and cannot layer colors|
|Speed||After setup can print more than 100 of the same design in an hour||Very slow process, one shirt at a time|
|Size of Printings||As many as wanted, after the set up||Small printings work better|
|Photographs and Images||Can create complex images using complicated stenciling methods and layered colors||Best suited to simpler designs or logos|
|Suitable for||More than 100 units||Less than 100 units|
|Best for||T-shirts or any items with a flat expanse of fabric such as tablecloths or skirts||T-shirts caps, bags, or anything that can fit in the heat press|
|Supplies||Many supplies needed, including ink, emulsions, meshes, and a press.||Few supplies needed, primarily HTV and a heat press.|
|Average Cost per Shirt||$5-$10||$10-$25|
What’s the Difference Between Screen Printing and Heat Press Transfer?
Now that you have a general idea of how each design method works, what is the difference between screen printing and heat press transfer designs? For instance, does it take more effort to make a heat press design or a screen printed design? In this section, you will find out how each design method measures up in key categories like durability, cost efficiency, and quality.
Which lasts longer, screen printing or vinyl? Screen printing almost always lasts longer than vinyl. VInyl has a decently long life and will look nice much longer than a DTG print, but it will crack and fade eventually.
The big difference between these two types of designs in terms of durability is that a screen print will soak ink into the fabric, while the HTV design will remain on the surface of the fabric, where it can more easily crack and fade.
When applied correctly, screen printing with properly heat-set plastisol ink should never crack, peel, or fade, even after many years of wear. Some companies state that a screen print should only last 50 washes in the washing machine, but others insist that with proper care, your screen print should last just as long as the fabric of the shirt!
HTV will eventually begin to thin, crack, and fade, though it should have a solid run of at least a few years before any damage occurs. The quality of the vinyl used can also impact the durability of a heat-transfer design. Most good HTV designs should last through about fifty cycles in the washing machine.
You should always wash a screen printed or HTV t-shirt inside out. This will protect the design from the rough and tumble inside the washing machine and give it a longer life.
Applying an HTV design to a t-shirt using a heat press is much easier than creating a screen print for a t-shirt. This does vary a lot depending on the kind of transfer design and the complexity of the print, of course! But in general, using vinyl offers the easier option, and screen printing creates a slightly higher quality design.
Most of this comes down to the amount of setup each method requires.
Heat press designs require minimal setup. Once you have the digital design, you just send it over to your electronic cutter and then use transfer paper to arrange the vinyl on your garment. Then all you have to do is seal the design inside your heat press for the correct amount of time.
You can reuse your digital design over and over to keep cutting out vinyl shapes if you want to create multiples of the same design, too.
On the other hand, screen printing requires a lot of materials, elaborate equipment if you want to work at a professional level, and quite a lot of time to set up. The trade-off is that you can print in bulk and keep using your screens once you go through all the setup. But screen printing requires much more effort than using HTV.
Is heat press or screen printing cheaper? This depends on many factors, but in general, screen printing is more cost-effective because you can reuse your screens multiple times to make a larger number of shirts at a lower cost than heat transfer designs.
On the other hand, basic heat transfer supplies like vinyl cost much less than buying plastisol ink and other chemicals for screen printing. If you want to create just one or two shirts, you will find that heat transfer designs cost much less. Screen printing becomes much more cost-effective if you want to run a business and make t-shirts in bulk, though!
Not everyone agrees on this, but you will find a stronger argument for the quality of screen prints over heat transfer designs. Partly this is because it’s easier to layer colors in screen printing than in HTV. Also, screenprinting often creates more vivid colors than a heat transfer.
On top of this, heat transfer designs show up best on light-colored shirts. You can successfully screen print on both light and dark shirts, depending on the color of ink you choose.
Screen printing allows for more complex designs involving layered colors. It can create realistic photo images, especially if you do a black and white photo. It uses vivid, bright colors and can look good on light or dark-colored garments.
Single-color HTV designs look excellent, but overall these designs lack the complexity and vivid hue of a screen print design.
Multi-Colored and Complex Designs
You can create multi-colored or complex designs more easily using screen printing than heat transfer. That said, you can use a form of printing and then heat transfer it onto the fabric instead of using vinyl. In this case, you can also use a heat transferred design for more complex images.
The risk of using this type of heat transfer design is that the ink lies on top of the fabric and does not soak in the way a screen print does. It has less durability and will quickly become damaged during washing.
Using more than one to three inks for a screen print gets challenging. You can use a process similar to developing photographs to create complicated stencils on the screens, though, and this will allow you to layer colors and create intricate designs.
In terms of speed, you can quickly create just one or two HTV designs, much faster than you can set up a screen print. On the other hand, once you have done all the setup, you can easily print in bulk using screen printing and whip out many shirts at a time much more quickly than you could create bulk products using the heat transfer method!
If you want to make just a couple of shirts, you will find it much quicker to use HTV. If you want a lot of shirts, you will save time using screen printing.
Size of Printings
You can easily print bulk orders using screen printing, but every HTV design takes the same amount of work, making it difficult to create large orders.
The thing about using vinyl is that you have to cut out a new piece of vinyl for every new shirt. Yes, you can have the digital design ready to reuse at the press of a button, but you have to do the cutting, the transferring, and the heat pressing individually for every shirt.
With screen printing, once you do the time-intensive setup, you can print over and over again and create as many as 100 shirts in an hour!
You can fill large orders of 100 or even 1,000 shirts using screen printing if you have professional equipment. But vinyl heat transfer works best on small-scale orders of under 100.
Photographs and Images
You can easily screen print black and white photos or images, but you can typically only use HTV for simple images rather than complex photos. Heat transfer designs do not layer easily, at least not without creating a bulky lump on the fabric and making it feel stiff and uncomfortable!
Screen printing can create photographs and images on fabric, though it works best with black and white photos. You can use a process similar to old-fashioned photographers developing negatives to create intricate screenprint stencils on the mesh screens. This allows complex, multi-layered screen print designs!
Most screen printers prefer to print at least 12 to 24 units at a time for cost efficiency but can print close to 200 units in an hour with professional equipment. Heat transfer designs are more suitable for small orders than bulk orders. You can easily make just one or two HTV designs at a time, while making multiples of the same designs requires a lot of time and effort.
Screen printers save a lot of time and money by printing in bulk, so 500 shirts will often cost less per shirt than 100 shirts. Every heat transfer shirt requires the same amount of time, so these do not get cheaper in bulk.
As you have seen, both vinyl heat transfer and screen printing have pros and cons. So which process will work best for you?
Screen printing is best for:
- One to three color designs, though you can use up to six colors and create photographic designs
- Shirts that will withstand long use
- Large orders
- Any color garment or fabric
Vinyl heat transfer is best for:
- One or two color designs
- Small orders
- Items that won’t need washing as often, such as caps or bags
- Dark-colored garments or fabrics
Whether you want to screen print at home or launch a vinyl t-shirt business, you will need a pretty significant array of supplies to get started. That said, the supplies you need can vary a lot depending on whether you plan to make just one or two shirts for personal use or hundreds of shirts at a time to sell.
You will notice right away that you need much, much more in the way of supplies for screen printing than for heat transfer designs!
Basic supplies for heat transfer designs include:
- A heat press machine. You can buy a big industrial press or tiny four-inch-square presses for personal use. Professional-grade heat presses come in a clamshell model or a swing-away model. Cost varies, obviously, based on the kind of press you want.
- A vinyl cutter. You can use an at-home type cutter such as a Cricut, or a giant cutter that slices industrial-sized rolls of vinyl at a time.
- Heat transfer vinyl (HTV). To make a heat transfer design, you need the HTV! For small quantities, you can find HTV at craft stores like Hobby Lobby or Michaels. For professional use, you may want to buy your HTV in bulk online.
- T-shirts, bags, or hats to print on. You can’t make a product if you have no fabric to put your design onto!
Basic supplies for screen printing:
- A printing press. OK, in all honesty, if you plan to screenprint for your own enjoyment, you don’t really need this. But if you want to screen print professionally, you can buy anything from a small one-screen press to complex contraptions that allow you to layer multiple screens onto a design.
- A flash dryer. You need this to cure the design and create multi-colored designs. If you want to screen print for yourself, you can probably get away with using a heat gun instead.
- Printing positives to make screens. You can find a wide array of different materials depending on what kind of screen printing you want to do. For advanced photo-realistic screen prints, you need more complex equipment to make screens.
- Software. Unless you plan to make rustic hand-cut stencils for your screens, you will need software to design your prints. You can use everything from Adobe Illustrator to specialized screenprint programs.
- Screens. Today, most screens use polyester mesh that you can buy with different mesh counts. This means the number of threads per square inch. You will want a lower or higher mesh count, depending on the type of print you want.
- Tools to apply ink. You need a variety of scrapers and tape to apply the stencils, screens, and inks to your press.
- Screenprint ink and emulsions. In most cases, you will use plastisol ink for screen printing. You will also need a special chemical to coat your screen, called an emulsion.
Average Cost per Shirt
The average cost per shirt for a heat transfer design is about $10-$25, while the average cost per shirt for a screen print shirt ranges from $5 to $10. The complexity of the design and the number of colors in the design both impact the cost of the shirt.
While these are the average prices for a customer buying a shirt, you also have to consider start-up costs if you want to make shirts to sell. Buying all the supplies listed in the previous section could set back a good bit.
Once you have your business up and running and have paid off the startup cost, you can often buy shirts in bulk for as little as $1.50. After that, you have to pay for printing supplies such as ink or HTV. These costs are fairly minimal, meaning that you only have to consider your time as a cost for every shirt you make.
That said, adding colors for either screen printing or HTV will up your costs because you need more supplies and more time for every color added.
Also, you can make or buy screen print shirts much more cheaply in bulk. Once you do all the complex setup for screen printing, you can churn out many shirts with the same design. This makes bulk orders more efficient for screen printing.
You could reasonably expect to make a profit of at least $4 per shirt, given enough time to get your business up and running!
Pros and Cons of Screen Printing
The pros and cons of screen printing boil down to the cost of setting up for each print vs the excellent quality of this type of design.
- Screen printing creates rich, crisp, high-quality designs.
- Screenprints wear well and do not fade or crack over time.
- This kind of print allows the fabric to feel soft rather than stiff.
- This method allows for cheaper bulk processing and large orders.
- Screen printing requires a lot of supplies and equipment, leading to a high startup cost.
- This method does not work well for small batches of shirts.
- In general, it’s easier to screenprint in just one or two colors. To create photo-like images, you have to use very advanced methods and lots of equipment like a flash dryer.
Heat Transfer Printing Advantages and Disadvantages
Using HTV to create designs on your t-shirts also has advantages and disadvantages.
- Vinyl heat transfers require very few materials, meaning this process has a low startup cost.
- HTV makes a nice sharp, crisp design.
- You can easily make small orders or even just one shirt using this method.
- HTV lends itself to customized designs because you have to make every shirt individually anyway.
- Heat transfer vinyl works best in one or two color designs. You cannot layer colors when using this method.
- It is not cost-effective to make large-scale or bulk orders using this method.
- HTV has a stiffer feel on fabric than a screen-printed design.
What is the Best Type of T-Shirt for Printing?
The best type of t-shirt for printing is usually a 50/50 blend of cotton and polyester. This blend contains enough polyester to prevent shrinking and enough cotton to preserve a soft, comfortable feel to the shirt.
That said, screen printing on 100% polyester requires special types of ink, as the basic plastisol ink does not work as well on synthetics as it does on cotton. Some screen printers prefer to use 100% cotton tees for this reason.
Triblend shirts that contain three different types of fabric fibers have also gained popularity in recent years. This kind of shirt often has a super soft feel and a thinner fabric that can present some difficulties for heat transfer designs. To use a heat transfer design on this type of material, you have to apply very low heat.
Silkscreen vs Screen Printing
Silkscreening and screen printing are two different names for the same process. Silk screen printing originated in China hundreds or even thousands of years ago and has a long history as an ancient art form!
No matter which name you use, this process involves spreading ink onto a screen and then pushing the ink through ad ensign on the screen or through a stencil.
Today, modern printers typically use polyester screens instead of traditional silk screens. But the fundamentals of the process remain the same as they were in Ancient China!
Vinyl Heat Press vs Screen Printing: Which is Better?
To answer the question of whether vinyl heat press or screen printing is better, you have to decide which method gels best with your particular project.
For the brightest colors and longest-lasting designs, go with screen printing. HTV designs last plenty long, but they don’t hold up as long as screen printing. Plus, you can use multiple screens to layer colors and create fancier images using screen printing.
For simple, cheaper designs or customizable orders, use a vinyl heat press. You have hardly any setup or material costs with this method, so you can easily sell small quantities without losing money.
Finally, for bulk orders or large-scale project, you will want to use screen printing. The more shirts you make, the cheaper they get with this method!
Hopefully, you have a better idea of whether the heat press or screen print method will work for you! Have you ever tried a heat press or screen printing before? Which method did you like better? Leave a comment below to let us know!