How to screen print

screen printing t-shirts

Last week we told you about DTG printing. No big deal, it just allows us to act like super ninjas who can print any design you desire on a t-shirt in under an hour. What’s that? You think we’re wizards? Well maybe we are. Maybe we are. Because that’s not all we do. You’re thinking to yourself right now, “that’s impossible, t-shirts in an hour are already extremely admirable, what else can they do?” How about a little thing called screen printing? Hell yeah, we do that too.

What is DTG printing?

Direct to garment (DTG) printing involves the use of a digital printer to apply ink directly onto the fabric of the apparel you’re customizing.

This is a newer t-shirt printing method that’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years thanks to technological improvements in DTG printers. DTG printing creates a precisely printed design with a high level of detail.

Direct to garment or DTG printing creates very precise results on custom t-shirts.How does direct to garment printing work?

DTG printing works like the inkjet printer in your home office. The printer translates the digital image or graphic file onto your blank tee!

DTG printers are large and capable of handling all kinds of designs in many colors. Water-based ink is applied in a single layer that quickly absorbs into the shirt’s fibers. The DTG printing method is precise and produces high-quality results, but the ink is not as deeply soaked into the fabric as with other methods like screen printing.

Direct to garment printing is great for:

  • Particularly elaborate t-shirt designs
  • Designs with tons of different colors
  • Smaller batches of custom shirts (10 shirts and under)

This makes DTG printed shirts excellent for individual creative projects, small-scale event uniforms, or individualized thank you gifts.

What is t-shirt screen printing?

Screen printing is a classic, tried-and-true method of creating custom t-shirts and transferring designs to textiles.

It’s a craft that skilled printers have perfected over the years to produce great-looking, durable clothing. As a more labor-intensive process, screen printing produces beautiful, saturated colors and a distinctive, authentic appearance.

Screen printed t-shirts are a classic and cost effective option.How does screen printing work?

The screen printing process is a little more complicated than DTG printing.

Each color used in the design is printed separately with its own screen. This means your design must first be broken down into different layers by color. This is typically done using design software like Photoshop or Illustrator.

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Next, a woven screen stencil is used to apply a single color of ink at a time — one stencil per color used in the shirt’s design.

The ink is pulled across the stencil using a blade or foam tool, producing a single layer of the design with full, saturated color.

This process means that screen printing is better suited to certain kinds of t-shirt designs. However, it produces high-quality results that have remained extremely popular with consumers for decades.

Custom screens are made for each color when screen printing t-shirts.Screen printing is great for:

  • Bold graphics or typographic t-shirts designs
  • Designs with just a few different colors
  • Larger batches of custom shirts (more than 10 shirts)

This makes screen printed custom shirts a smarter choice for larger fundraising or event purposes, like for 5K running teams or a mission trip fundraising campaign.

How do DTG and screen printing compare?

Since these t-shirt printing methods are so different, there are naturally a few pros and cons to each. 

Depending on the specifics of your custom printing project, one will likely be a better choice than the other. The biggest differences that you should consider when choosing a method fall into two general categories — impacts on design and cost.

Screen printing vs. digital printing: impact on design

When produced by a professional using the right equipment, either printing process will result in a high-quality t-shirt, but a few important differences still come into play depending on your design.

DTG printing leaves a single layer of ink to create your final design, while screen printing produces several layers. This has a few important effects, particularly on how you use color in your design:

  • Screen printing will produce a vibrant, durable design with more saturated colors than the DTG process. However, the labor-intensive process of turning your design into multiple stencils limits the number of colors you can use.
  • DTG printing produces a slightly more faded design with a single layer of ink, but with no limits on the number of colors you can use. There are some limitations that make certain color combinations difficult, though. For example, it can be tricky for digital printers to create designs with light-colored ink on dark fabrics.

This means that certain types of t-shirt designs are better suited to each method. Simpler, stylized designs with graphics or text in a handful of colors are great for screen printing, while DTG printing can handle more elaborate designs in more colors, usually on light-colored fabric.

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Screen printing vs. digital printing: impact on cost

The fundamental differences between each process also translate to differences in final costs. Again, both can be great choices, but it depends entirely on the specifics of your project. Here’s how they stack up:

Cost for screen printing:

Screen printing is most cost-effective for larger batches of shirts. The stencil process means that set-up costs are a little higher, but it also makes screen printing more efficient for large orders of one design.

Using more than the recommended number of colors slows down the process, though, resulting in higher final prices, since each color used needs its own screen stencil created.

But with screen printing, there are typically cost savings built in as you print more t-shirts! Having master stencils for each layer streamlines the process as more shirts are printed.

Screen printing requires custom stencils for each color, making it more cost effective for larger orders of custom t-shirts.Cost for DTG printing:

DTG printing is most cost-effective for small batches of custom printed t-shirts. The number of colors used won’t seriously affect the final price.

However, large batches will use more ink and time — the printer can only handle one shirt at a time — resulting in higher prices. DTG printing typically does not offer bulk savings the way that screen printing does.

The scope of your custom t-shirt printing project should be a consideration as you choose a printing service to handle it. Some custom apparel services offer just one or the other, while some offer both DTG and screen printing options depending on the size of your project.

If you choose a DTG only service, your cost per shirt does not drop as you purchase more, whereas you typically will pay less per shirt as quantities increase when screen printing.

Finding a custom t-shirt printing service that can offer the best of both techniques — DTG and more traditional screen printing — will get you the best value in the long run. Understanding the differences between the two methods will help you to better determine exactly what you need from a partner as you get started with your custom t-shirt project!

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Bonfire makes use of modern DTG printing techniques and classic screen printing methods!Here at Bonfire, we use both DTG and screen printing methods. That’s why we’re able to offer you custom t-shirts for any project at cost and with no order minimums. No matter how many shirts you need or what your design looks like, we’ve got the tools to offer you the best quality and price for your custom apparel!

For more information, context, and ideas on working with custom apparel, be sure to explore some additional resources:

Are you ready to create a custom t-shirt?

Check out our design platform!

Start designing your custom shirt today.

Step 2

Prepare your screen and photo emulsion. Follow mixing directions for emulsion liquid. Pour a line of emulsion at the edge of the screen and, using your squeegee, distribute a thin, even layer of liquid to completely cover the screen. Repeat on the other side so both sides of screen are evenly covered.

Note: photo emulsion is light sensitive, so you want to work fairly quickly or in an environment that does not include direct light.

Set your screen in a completely dark room with a fan on it to speed drying. Allow to dry, approximately 3 to 4 hours.

Colored silk screen

Step 6

Heat set the ink to your shirt either by putting it in the dryer for a few minutes or placing a paper towel over your design and running an iron over it for a couple passes.

And that’s it! Your shirt is done and ready to wear or sell.

Screens can be reused by cleaning them with some photo emulsion remover and rinsing with water.

You can also see this whole process broken down in a helpful, step-by-step video here.

Screen printing t shirts is a really simple operation. Once you have the tools, the only problem is deciding what designs you’ll print next. There are also lots of online tutorials that will show you how to build your own printing press so you can streamline your process and expand into quicker multiple color or design printing.

Do you have questions or tips about screen printing? Share them in the Wunderlabel comments section!

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