Comparing T Shirt Printing Methods
It’s never been easier to start your own tee shirt brand and the technology to produce your own designs has become readily available. There are a lot of different t shirt print methods available to produce a good quality print and in this article I’ll cover the most popular.
Each has their benefits and flaws. While some swear by silk printing, you would be surprised at the amount of people using sublimation printing and transfer paper processing.
Have a question not answered here? Our t-shirt design experts offer custom answers here.
Screen Printing for T-Shirts
Screen printing or silkscreen printing is the tried and true method of printing a graphic on a tee shirt. It provides a high quality finish, vibrant colors, and a variety of different placements for t-shirts, hoodies, sweaters, bags, and more.
You have probably heard of this method before or even tried it in your garage. Silk screen printing is the number one way to transfer beautiful designs onto almost any fabric, and it is specifically popular for t-shirt printing. Professional quality screen printing machines are pretty affordable but even a DIY setup can make really high quality products.
With screen printing, you get high quality transfers that keep your design vibrant, soft, and intact for many years. However, there are some cons, keep reading for our full review.
What is the screen printing process?
The process seems a little complicated at first, but once you get past the learning curve, you can easily produce a quality graphic that’s just as good as anything you can buy.
The silk screen printing process involves pulling ink through a mesh screen which has an imprint of your design. A light sensitive chemical is placed on the screen and a transparency of your image positioned against the screen. The screen is then exposed with UV light. The transparency blocks light to the screen so everywhere on the light exposes becomes hardened except where covered by the transparency. You can then wash the transparency to remove any unexposed emulsion.
Here is a step-by-step breakdown of the silk printing process:
1. Use an inkjet printer and transparency of your design
You’ll need a high quality printing of your design on a piece of transparency paper. You’ll use this when you develop your screen. Need a high quality inkjet printer? We reviewed 5 of the best printers for screen printing transparencies.
*Pro Tip: If you are not getting a good exposure on your screen then light might be passing through your image. You can print a second transparency and place it over the first if your image isn’t totally opaque.
2. Apply photo emulsion to your screen
You’ll need to spread an even layer of photo emulsion chemical on your screen and smooth it on both sides with your squeegee. The screen then needs to dry completely before you can expose it. Pick a dark place with good ventilation.
3. Use a UV light (or the sun) to expose the screen
Position your image over the screen in the desired position. You can attach it to the screen with clear tape if necessary. Exposure time depends on your light source. The stronger the light the less time required to expose the screen. After exposure wash the screen to remove any unexposed photo emulsion. Your screen then needs to dry completely before you can use it to print a design.
4. Set Up the Press
You can use a screen printing press to hold the screen in place over your blank (tee shirt, hoodie etc.). You can also clamp the screen onto a table or board if you don’t have a press.
5. Apply Ink to the screen
Place a liberal amount of your ink to the screen, as long as the screen is not in contact with the t shirt you can move it around the screen. With the screen in full contact with the blank pull the ink across the design. You want to use a quick stroke with even pressure. You can then raise the screen off the shirt and look at the print.
6. Set the ink with a heat gun, press or iron.
Setting the ink is the last step in the process. Heat cures the ink and creates a long lasting and durable print.
7. Clean your screens
Return the remaining ink to your ink bottle, Clean your screens and leave them in a dry, well ventilated place so they’re ready for the next time you need to use them to print a design.
Some Tips from Expert Screen Printers
- Always pick the right mesh for the job. With a higher mesh count, you get better results for multi-color designs. Mesh is a lot like resolution, you get a smoother and more refined design with higher mesh count meshes.
- Screens need to be tensioned properly before starting the squeegee.
- Use a shim on the press in order to print off-contact.
- Reduce ink usage to make it flow and penetrate the screen better.
- Use only one stroke at first to get a good, clean result with minimal ink waste.
- Flash-cure a t-shirt design only if it’s necessary.
- Use a soft print that can be done with great detail and in high production.
When is Silk Printing the Best Option?
Designers should think about using silk printing when they have a few designs that they want to sell in bulk. The designs should be versatile enough to be optimally placed, such as in the center with no seams overlapping.
In addition, silk printing is best when there are only six colors or less. If you have designs that require multiple colors, you won’t like the outcome. In this case, you may want to try sublimation or direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.
- Best quality results
- Much faster when you have a single screen and need to create multiple t-shirts
- Simple designs work best
- Best use for mass production
- Creates a softer finish
- Not the best idea for unique, one-off designs (lots of setup)
- Has a higher learning curve
- Expensive to print one-off designs
- Messy work area and clean-up
- Large upfront investment – top printing machines are over $500
Want to know more? Here are some helpful resources:
Sublimation Printing for T-Shirts
Sublimation dye printing is a process used specifically in seam-to-seam printing. This is for those watercolor t-shirt designs or a pattern that splays across every inch of the t-shirt.
So what makes it better or worse than silk printing?
In screen printing we apply an ink to the shirt in the shape of our design. We use high quality fabric ink that’s meant to last a long time. With sublimation we are actually dying the fabric, the design is printed on special sublimation paper with sublimation ink. The ink is then heated until it evaporates into the t-shirt, which actually dyes the fabric with your design. You won’t have to deal with a design peeling off or cracking because it’s been washed one too many times. However, that means that it’s really only possible to use sublimation on light colored shirts.
What You Need for Proper Sublimation Printing
You’ll first need to print your design using a specially configured inkjet printer onto sublimation paper. The Epson 1430 and Sawgrass SG400 are two types most commonly used with sublimation designs. These printers are specifically designed for sublimation and can be pretty pricey. It’s also possible to modify an off the shelf printer for use with sublimation ink.
Also, once you’ll have to dedicate a printer to sublimation ink, once you make the conversion there’s no going back to regular ink. Sublimation dyes can be purchased in cartridge form, containers, or as refillable cartridges.
Transfer paper for sublimation is the best purchase you can make. You don’t want to purchase any cheap paper because it will cheapen the results of the image once complete. Remember, sublimation is about details and colors.
*Pro Tip: Heat tape can be used to hold artwork in place without any residue on your t-shirt after heating in your heat press.
Finally, you’ll need a heat press machine to transfer the image to the t-shirt. You can use an iron, but if you are looking for professional results, then you’ll need a professional heat press machine.
Pros of Sublimation
- Best used for seam-to-seam designs that require a lot of detail and ink
- Almost unlimited colors available
- Maximizes detail in your designs
- Suitable for small quantities
- Lots of sublimation blanks are available in tons of different products
- Doesn’t work on all fabrics, generally need 100% synthetic material
- Only works on light colored items
- Not the best for large orders
Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in sublimation dye printing:
Heat Press Vinyl for T-Shirt Printing
Heat press vinyl printing or CAD cut vinyl printing uses sheets of heat transfer vinyl that are cut precisely and then applied to a shirt. A heat press machine is then used to transfer the design to the t-shirt and permanently affix the vinyl.
The equipment required to make a custom t shirt with heat press vinyl includes:
- Computer to create your design and run your printer
- Vinyl Cutter
- Heat press
You can start with a pretty basic heat press for a couple hundred dollars. However, professional heating press machines are better for mass orders and have a larger platen that gives you more working area. These also have different temperature and timer settings.
The heating press vinyl method allows you to create beautiful one-off designs and some mass orders for your favorite designs. You can also layer the vinyl, which makes it possible to print in a variety of colors. If you are a vibrant designer, you may really enjoy this method.
Most designers use vinyl for smaller graphics, words, and slogans because it’s more precises. However, it won’t feel the best as it causes fabrics to stick and grow stiff.
Heat press might be a good production method for you if you think that you might also like to create vinyl decals or signs because the same vinyl cutter can be used on different types of vinyl.
Is Heating Press Vinyl Printing Better than Silk Printing?
Some would argue that the vibrant colors and intricate designs work better with digitally cut CAD vinyl shirt printing. However, it’s really up to the designer because the fabric will change under the application of a vinyl to a soft fabric.
Heat press vinyl can be thicker on the shirt than other printing methods. Vinyl can also be subject to cracking or peeling, especially if not applied at the correct heat or for the correct amount of time.
Vinyl shirt printing is often best used for customized jerseys and not a traditional custom t shirt, which is why jerseys are often washed separately and air dried as opposed to going in the dryer.
While you may get a high-quality print from a vinyl press, it requires more effort and doesn’t create the best results for t-shirt designs with a lot of complicated details or multiple colors.
- Ideal for all types of t-shirt orders, unique to bulk orders
- Produces vibrant colors and intricate designs
- No fading/cracking of original design
- Efficient for smaller and large workshops
- Ink is not as versatile as silk printing inks
- Designers will need to learn CAD software
- Initial investment includes heating press machine, CAD software, and machine software
Here are some additional resources for heating press vinyl transfers:
DTG Printing for T-Shirts
Direct-to-Garment or DTG printing is another popular method for creating bulk t-shirt designs, and it’s a relatively new process for the t-shirt printing industry.
Part of the reason that it isn’t as popular as silk printing or sublimation is because of the price. DTG t-shirt printing requires a special printer. This is because designs are printed directly onto the fabrics. Not sure what this looks like?
If you placed your t-shirt on a conveyor belt, it would move under the flatbed printer with ink precisely transferred according to the design that you select. This creates fast, accurate, and beautiful designs in less than 60 seconds depending on the design.
The quality of DTG products is also incredible compared to other methods. You can basically print any design you could print with a high quality inkjet printer onto paper directly onto a fabric. However, it still isn’t as good as a well done silk screen.
One common complaint is that the ink is applied too lightly by the printer and the fabric color can be seen through the design when inspected closely. It is possible to apply a light colored undercoat when printing on dark colors to prevent this but you’ll have to work with your printer to get the best results
There’s not really much reason for a small business or DIY operator to own a DTG printer. They’re very expensive and if you don’t print regularly the ink can clog print heads causing you to have to clean the printer and potentially waste a lot of ink.
However, there are a ton of services that offer DTG printing at really reasonable prices. Just pick a partner, upload your designs and order your shirts one-off whenever you make a sale.
- Full color, fast printing
- Multiple designs are no problem, simply load in and print
- Low cost per item printing
- Soft, professional results
- High initial investment for DTG printer
- Not as quality of print as with screen printing process
- Bit slower than screen printing machines
- Takes up a lot of space in your workshop
Here are some additional resources for DTG printing:
Transfer Paper Printing (Or Heat Transfer Printing)
You may have seen iron-on designs before. These stick to your garments and backpacks with gusto after extreme heat is applied, but will these t-shirts measure up after the first wash?
Heat transfer is comprised of two steps. The design must first be transferred from the paper to the fabric. This done through the application of heat and pressure.
First, the art must be printed with special ink onto wax paper. Secondly, the design must be transferred on to the fabric by way of a heating press, such as an iron. However, heat transfer machines are much hotter than this.
The heat will trigger the special ink on the wax to transfer onto the fabric. Once the design is on the fabric, you can peel away the paper to see the final design. Heat transfer vinyl t-shirt printing has always been a popular way to create complex designs simply, especially for small quantity printing.
You can typically print full color images on garments in less than five minutes using this technique. While the designs may be very original and vibrant at first, fabrics and washes can crack and remove the design over time.
Pros of Heat Transfer Printing
- Works better for small quantity batches and unique designs
- Photo prints can be transferred in full color fairly quickly
- Uses a number of different colors and placements on most fabrics
- Software can help create all types of graphics that can be directly printed onto wax paper
Cons of Heat Transfer Printing
- Not suitable for bulk orders as it would be time-consuming for designer
- Designs tend to fade after the first few washes
- Prints are stiff, cheapening the t-shirt
- Prints don’t work best on all other t-shirt colors
- Ironing a heated transfer shirt could ruin the tee forever
- Can’t be used for fabrics with synthetics or other garments that might melt
Still interested in heat transfer paper printing? This could be the simple way to start your t-shirt business:
Airbrush Printing for T-Shirts
You probably have spotted an airbrush t-shirt shop before at a flea market, festival, carnival, or other outdoor event. You can get any design airbrushed onto a t-shirt, but does it look the best or as precise as you want it to be ?
To create airbrush t-shirts, you’ll need a siphon feed airbrush, airbrush holder, airbrush compressor, and textile paint. You fill the airbrush with the textile paint and draw out the design on the t-shirt. The shirt then uses heat to set the design once the airbrush has settled into the fabric.
Textile paint ensures that the design won’t wash out so easily. A clear coat like Goldens GAC 900 is also applied over the design to keep it in place. You will apply a few coats of GAC 900 typically to allow for a super smooth surface.
Most of the time, airbrush designs use stencils to create intricate yet beautiful work. This process does require a few pieces of equipment, including a heating press machine for best results, so it can get messy. You will also need several stencils for lettering, characters, slogans, or custom designs.
Pros of Airbrush Printing
- Perfect for creating one-off designs
- Fast printing options
- Long-lasting designs
- Vibrant colors, endless options
Cons of Airbrush Printing
- Multiple pieces of equipment
- Quality depends on designers ability to airbrush precisely
- Large quantity of stencils and designs necessary
May not be the most modern method unless you have unique designs perfect for the airbrush style.
Here are some additional resources if you plan to use airbrush with your t-shirt designs:
How to Pick the Right Custom T Shirt Printing Method for a Shirt Business?
Before you pick the right method, do you know what type of t-shirts you want to make? This is a common step that designers skip out on. While screen style printing may seem like the best option, you may be losing out on customers who want something with more colors or who are looking for a seam-to-seam finish.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you after a softer look? If yes, then try DTG t-shirt printing.
- Do you want to print lettering? Intricate details and letters are best with CAD cut vinyl or screen style printing if minimal colors.
- Are you trying to print in bulk? Screen style printing is the fastest option for bulk orders.
Doug has been an entrepreneur for years, starting several businesses. Doug is a web developer, father of 2 great kids and husband to the best wife ever. I’ve been working on building my custom tee shirt business for 3 years.