T-shirts can sport funny memes, spout cute sayings, or declare your allegiance to a band or sports team. Everyone owns tons of tees, but it’s even more fun to design your own! Whether you want to print a few shirts for yourself or start a printing business, you probably find yourself wondering what you need to print t-shirts at home.
One of the most important tools needed to print t-shirts at home is a heat press, which will set and seal designs on the fabric. Other key tools include design software, printers or stands, electronic cutters, and various inks. Every t-shirt printing process requires specific tools, printers, and types of ink.
In this article, you will learn what tools you need for all of the most popular methods of t-shirt printing. You will find out how to print t-shirts on a budget. Finally, you will discover tips for using a design software you like.
- How To Make Your Own Custom T-Shirts
- What Do I Need to Print T-Shirts at Home?
- Do You Need a Special Printer to Print on T-shirts?
- What Equipment Do I Need to Start My Own T-Shirt Printing Business?
- How to Start a T-Shirt Business at Home with No Money
- T-Shirt Printing Machine Starter Kit
- What is the Best T-Shirt Material for Printing?
- Design Software for T-Shirt Printing
- How Much Does it Cost to Make a Shirt?
How To Make Your Own Custom T-Shirts
You can make your own custom t-shirts using several different methods, including using a heat press and print transfers, a heat press and vinyl, a screen printer, a sublimation printer, or a commercial DTG printer.
Out of these methods, the easiest technique for a beginner is to use a Cricut to cut out heat-transfer vinyl and then apply a heat press to attach the vinyl shapes to your shirt. You can also easily learn how to use a sublimation printer to create durable, high-quality designs. Though it takes more practice, you can quickly master screen printing or create your own print transfers.
Learning how to create DTG designs on shirts requires costly equipment and a steep learning curve, so you may want to save that process for later unless you want to start an at-home printing business.
Every method for creating a custom design on a shirt requires its own list of equipment and materials, as you will see in the next section. Plus, some printing techniques work best on specific types of cloth. This means that you will also need to make sure you get the right kind of blank t-shirt for your printing process.
What Do I Need to Print T-Shirts at Home?
Depending on the printing method you use, you may need special equipment or a heat press to print t-shirts at home. Every t-shirt printing method needs particular supplies or technology, such as specialized printers, heat elements, or unique kinds of ink.
1. With Heat Press
One of the easiest ways to print t-shirts at home is to design your own heat transfer sheets and use a heat press to attach the design to your shirts. This beginner-friendly method does not cost much money but doesn’t create the most durable or professional-looking results.
The big advantage of using transfer sheets and a heat press is that you can use full-color designs or even print photos. The disadvantage is that the part of the transfer sheet that remains on the shirt can feel stiff and may also crack or peel over time.
Even though using a heat press and transfers is one of the simpler methods, you will still need some basic equipment to get started.
- As with any printing method, you start with a computer and a software or design program of your choice. This allows you to edit or create the image you want to print. Make sure you “mirror” the design before printing because you have to place the transfer sheet face-down during the heating process.
- An inkjet printer like this allows you to print your designs or photos onto transfer sheets. The good thing about this is that inkjet printers typically cost under $100, but the bad side is that this type of ink will rest on the fabric’s surface and not remain as durable as other types of t-shirt printing methods.
- Transfer sheets let you print out an image using a basic inkjet printer. The paper can easily slide through a regular printer, unlike a t-shirt! The flexible sheet will bond to the fabric of the shirt when you use a heat press.
- The most expensive item you need is a heat press. You can buy small at-home models like this one or big clamshell-style heat presses that cost significantly more. The heat press will essentially melt the ink and adhere a portion of the transfer paper onto the surface of the shirt.
2. With Screen Printer
You will need materials like a press, screens, emulsions, and exposure lights to get started with screen printing shirts at home. Screen printing is one of the oldest and most valued printing methods onto fabric. It creates a thick, raised design on the surface of the shirt.
To screen print a design, you create a stencil on a mesh screen and then squeegee thick ink across the screen. The stencil blocks out the negative space, only allowing the ink through to fill in your design.
The big advantage of screen printing is that it creates luxurious-looking raised designs with excellent durability. The downside is that you can only use one ink color at a time, meaning that one, two, or three-color images work best with this printing process.
- You will want to start your printing process by creating a digital design using the software you like best, such as Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape. Make sure you pick a program that allows you to separate the colors into individual layers, though–this is important for screen printing.
- You can buy premade screens like this model from Speedball or make your own using mesh. Depending on the thread count and the diameter of the threads used in your screen, you can create different finishes in your printed image.
- Screen printing requires thick ink, either a plastisol variety or a water-based type. You can buy easy starter kits or get larger quantities of primary colors to mix your shades.
- You will need a squeegee that fits your screen to push the ink through your stenciled design. These come in various sizes, but a basic set will work for most common screen sizes.
- You can work manually with just one screen at a time. But if you want to work faster or create more shirts at once, you may want to invest in a frame to hold your screens, like this one.
- To create the stencil on your screen, you also need a few items like an emulsion, an exposure light, and transparency sheets to print onto. This process works like developing a photograph: you paint an emulsion onto the screen, let it dry, and then place the clear transparency sheet with your design on it on top of the dried emulsion. After exposing the screen to a strong light, only the negative space of the design will remain to create a detailed stencil on your screen.
- Alternatively, you can create a less complex type of stencil for your screen by using a Cricut to cut out the stencil from vinyl. You then place the vinyl sticky side down on your screen and squeegee the ink over it. Professionals use the emulsion method to create stencils because it allows them to translate a digital image into a screen-printed image with separate color layers and lots of complexity, but beginner screen printers may prefer the simple, basic Cricut method.
- Finally, you also need a heat press or a flash gun to cure and set your screen-printed design.
3. With Cricut
Using a Cricut to cut out heat transfer vinyl shapes is one of the easiest ways to customize t-shirts. You need a few special tools, but you can set up a workstation at home with little training! Plus, most of the materials you need for this method don’t cost much.
A Cricut is an electronic cutting machine that translates a digital file to a cut-out shape of paper, wood, or vinyl. If you cut lettering, shapes, or images out of heat transfer vinyl, you can use a strong heat source to attach the vinyl to a shirt.
You do not need fancy inks, long drying, or set times if you use vinyl on your shirts! But the downside is that you can only work with one or two colors of vinyl, so you will need fairly simple designs. Some people also do not like the somewhat stiff feel of HTV on top of the shirt fabric.
You will need a few tools to get started making t-shirts with a Cricut, though:
- First, you need an electronic cutting machine such as a Cricut or a Silhouette. Besides doing all the work of cutting out the vinyl shapes or letters for you, these cool cutting machines have access to an online design program. You can use that program to create your own images to cut or edit an image you downloaded into the program.
- Most cutting machines use a sticky mat to hold the vinyl in place as the blade cuts out the shapes. You will need a mat that fits the opening in your machine, so check your manual to get the precise size! Standard mats like these fit many cutting machines.
- Depending on the complexity of your design, you may also need special plastic tools to “weed” away the negative space vinyl from your design.
- Since you use heat to adhere the vinyl shapes onto the t-shirt, you probably expected that you will also need a heat press for this process! Small heat presses for home use come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny 4-inch presses that seal designs like logos onto a shirt, or much larger models that may span 12 or even 16 inches of space on the shirt.
4. With Sublimation Printer
One of the newest methods for printing t-shirts at home uses a special process that allows you to place complex, colorful designs onto polyester fabric. Many other types of t-shirt printing work best on more expensive cotton, so this newer method has rapidly gained popularity with home printing operations.
Sublimation printing uses a special kind of ink that turns into gas when exposed to extreme heat. In its gaseous form, the ink particles bond with the fibers of the polyester fabric and then re-solidify as they cool. This process creates a vivid and extremely durable design on a shirt or on other blanks that have a polymer coating, such as mugs, hats, or signs.
You start by printing an image onto a special transfer paper using a printer stocked with sublimation dyes. After this dries, you apply the image to your shirt using a heat press. This launches the sublimation process and transfers the dye permanently into the shirt!
The big advantage of sublimation printing is that it works on polyester, not just on cotton. It also works well for small-batch printing, making it an excellent choice for home use! Of course, as with all printing methods, it does have a disadvantage: this type of ink works best on a light-colored background, as it will not show up well on black fabric.
- You want to find a design program you like to create your images on the computer. You can print simple lettering or full-color photos using sublimation printing, so the sky is the limit!
- One of the key tools you need for this t-shirt printing process is a specialized printer called a dye sublimation printer. This big purchase you have to make to start with sublimation printing usually only sets you back about $300-$600. You can also learn how to alter an inkjet printer into a dye-sub printer if you like tinkering with things!
- You will need to stock up on sublimation transfer paper. Keep in mind that regular transfer paper, like the type listed earlier to use with an inkjet printer, will not work for this process.
- Your printer may come pre-loaded with sublimation ink. If not, you can get starter sets like this one. The printer uses the CMYK colors and will mix shades to match the digital file you design on your computer.
- As with many t-shirt printing methods, you also need a heat press for sublimation printing! The heat causes the sublimation process to occur.
5. With DTG Printer
DTG or direct-to-garment printing, lets you print inked designs straight onto the fabric of the t-shirt. This method does require some large-scale tools, which makes it best suited to people running t-shirt printing businesses. It has a very high start-up cost because of the expensive tools, but then a very low cost per shirt once you start.
DTG printers use a special inkjet method to squirt colors straight onto the shirt’s fabric. Of course, this means that you need a printer large enough to fit a t-shirt inside it!
This method does have many advantages. It works quickly and can easily run off a batch of the same shirts in just a few minutes. It can do full-color designs like color photos without complex layering of one color at a time. Once you have paid off the investment of the equipment, it costs very little to make each shirt.
But it also does not have great quality compared to other types of screen printing. The design tends to fade quickly and can appear slightly grainy initially. It is often seen as the quick and cheap way to print t-shirts.
- As always, you need to start with design software to create or edit the image you want to print. Some DTG printers come with free access to a program like this.
- To start DTG printing, you need a special printer designed to hold fabric or garments. DTG printers range in size from giant machines with rollers for printing on bolts of fabric to smaller models like one that can print on garments and will conveniently fit on a worktable in your home.
- You will also need a machine to apply chemical pretreatment to the surface of the shirt. This adds a white under-base and makes the inkjet colors stand out more. Most professionals use a pricey machine like this one to apply the pretreatment.
- You will also need a heat press to dry the pretreated shirt and also to set the ink after the printer finishes printing the design.
Do You Need a Special Printer to Print on T-shirts?
You need a special printer for some methods of printing on t-shirts, but not all. Check out this break-down to see which t-shirt design methods require special printers:
- The heat press and heat transfer sheets method requires a standard inkjet printer. You do not need special inks for this process.
- You can screen print manually, but for large-scale projects, you will want a screen print machine that can hold multiple screens and frames at one time. You may also want a laser printer to print your design onto transparencies if you use the emulsion method to create your stenciled screens.
- You do not need a printer to create custom t-shirts using a Cricut and HTV. Of course, you need a Cricut (or another brand of electronic cutting machine).
- Sublimation printing on t-shirts does require a special printer that can use sublimation dyes. These printers will fit on a desk and do not cost too much.
- DTG or direct-to-garment printing, requires a pricey special printer to apply ink directly onto the fabric of the shirt. These printers often take up a lot of space and cost a lot.
What Equipment Do I Need to Start My Own T-Shirt Printing Business?The equipment you need to start your own t-shirt printing business depends on the kind of printing you choose. Every printing method requires its own type of printer, ink, and specialty equipment.
That said, almost every type of t-shirt printing does require design software and a heat press.
In many ways, the true quality of a printed t-shirt starts way before you get to the printer and the ink. It begins with your ability to design a carefully crafted image using a graphic design program of your choice. A few of the most popular options include Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop, Inkscape, and free programs that come with printers or Cricuts like Design Space.
You can use this program to create an image from scratch, prep a photo for printing, or craft lettering or logos.
Another key item you will need for any kind of t-shirt printing is a heat press. For small-scale home printing, you can find many brands of hand-held heat presses. If you plan to start a home business printing shirts, you probably want to invest in a bigger heat press like this 15” model or a really big heat press like this 31” model.
How to Start a T-Shirt Business at Home with No Money
The easiest way to start a t-shirt business at home with no money is to go digital and work with a print-on-demand service. The way this works is that you upload an original, untrademarked design to the service and pay a royalty fee to the service every time someone buys one of your designs. The service handles the physical printing and distribution of the shirt.
You can find many of these print-on-demand services online. A few of the most popular include:
- Shirthub offers Gildan products, which prints with a file you submit in PNG format. This print-on-demand service can use DTG or sublimation printing.
- Amazon has a somewhat complex print-on-demand service you can work for if you get approved through this online form. Amazon is huge and may not have the quick response time of some other services, but it offers an easy way to reach potential customers!
- Printful reaches customers primarily through Shopify and has a pretty easy way to upload your own shirt designs for sale. This company offers all kinds of printed items besides t-shirts and also has a sideline in embroidered products.
You can also find cheaper ways to produce your own shirts at home, such as using an iron instead of a heat press to attach heat-transfer vinyl to a shirt. These shortcuts never work quite as well as using the proper tools, but they may give you a budget-friendly way to launch your business!
T-Shirt Printing Machine Starter KitOne of the simplest ways to dive into t-shirt printing at home is to buy a t-shirt printing machine starter kit. Of course, the kind of kit you buy depends on the type of printing you want to try!
This sublimation starter kit comes with a popular Sawgrass printer, a set of sublimation ink, and 100 pieces of sublimation transfer paper. It also includes fun blanks to sublimate designs onto, such as holiday ornaments and stickers.
If you want to get into screen printing, you may want to invest in this starter set that comes with a screen print frame, exposure unit, and everything you need for four-color designs. Or you may want to start small with a manual screen print kit that features two hand-held screens and a squeegee, plus a small selection of ink.
What is the Best T-Shirt Material for Printing?
The best t-shirt material for printing depends on the printing method you use. This quick guide gives you a rundown of each popular type of t-shirt printing and the type of shirt to use with it.
- Heat transfer designs work best on 100% cotton shirts.
- Screen printing works best on 100% cotton. You can get away with using a polycotton blend if the shirt still contains more cotton than polyester, but the design will look somewhat muted or faded because the screen print ink will not stick to the polyester very well.
- Cricut designs made out of HTV can work on cotton or polyester. You will find it easier to work with 100% cotton shirts because polyester is sensitive to heat, but you can safely use a heat press on polyester. You just have to take some precautions.
- Sublimation printing only works on polyester t-shirts. The chemical sublimation process requires the gaseous particles to bond with the polymers inside polyester. This means you cannot sublimation print onto cotton.
- Finally, DTG printing also works best on 100% cotton shirts. This is because its inkjet setup uses water-soluble dyes that don’t interact well with plastic-based polyester.
Design Software for T-Shirt Printing
Design software for t-shirt printing lets you select, create, or edit the image you want to print onto a shirt. Many of these programs require basic graphic design skills. Adobe Illustrator, for example, remains extremely popular with t-shirt designers for all types of t-shirt printing.
You can also work with software created specifically for printing t-shirts. A few of these include the Snaptee app and PlaceIt.
How Much Does it Cost to Make a Shirt?
The average cost to make or print a t-shirt is about $8-$10, but this depends on factors like how many shirts you print at once, the printing method you use, and the fabric content in the shirt itself.
Every printing method requires a certain amount of setup time. This can impact the cost of producing a shirt.
For example, screen printing takes many hours to set up, but you can then quickly print a hundred shirts using the same design. This makes it more cost-efficient for large-scale print runs.DTG printing does not require much setup time and works well for small or large-scale printing.
Cotton shirts cost slightly more than polyester shirts. This means that if you choose a printing method that only works on polyester, like sublimation printing, your shirts will cost less to produce.
Of course, as a seller, you may have to consider additional costs like packaging and shipping the shirts after you finish making them.
The average price of a custom-printed t-shirt is about $25, so you can see a large profit margin if you play the numbers game right!
The best way to start printing t-shirts at home is to decide which printing method you want to try, such as heat transfers, screen printing, a Cricut and HTV, sublimation printing, or DTG printing. Every method requires its own list of equipment. This includes special printers, a heat press, certain types of inks, or heat transfer vinyl.
No matter what printing method you use, you will need to begin the printing process by creating a design in graphic design software. You will also need a heat press for all t-shirt printing methods.