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Screen Printing vs Digital Printing

Want to learn the difference between screen printing vs digital printing? Check out this article. We weigh the pros and cons of each to help you make the right choice for your needs.

Drew McCoy
Drew McCoy
Chief of T-Shirt Express, screen printing expert

Screen printing vs digital printing: which of these is the best print method for your project? To help you decide, we’ve written a complete guide on both of these methods, including each one’s pros and cons.

Whether you’re printing T-shirts for uniform purposes or a company event, you need to know the differences between these techniques. Each printing method has its own unique pros and cons, and there is no single method that works best for every type of project.

If you want to determine which type of printing method is best for your project, read until the end. We will highlight the differences between screen printing and digital printing, particularly the costs, quality, and flexibility of each one. You’ll soon know which of these is the right approach for you!

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is, by far, one of the most common garment printing methods. In the past, screen printing was called silk screening. That’s because it was done using silk screens to transfer designs onto garments. But today, the screen printing process involves pressing ink through a mesh screen with a squeegee.

Apart from printing designs onto garments, screen printing has many other applications. The screen printing process is suitable for printing posters, water bottles, mugs, and other items with a flat surface.

How Does Screen Printing Work?

The first step of the screen printing process is creating a stencil of the design. The design is printed onto a transparent acetate film, which is used to create the stencil. Next, the printer will choose an appropriate mesh screen that suits the design’s complexity and the texture of the garment. The mesh screen is coated with a light-reactive emulsion.

The acetate film is then laid on top of the screen and exposed to UV light. The light causes the emulsion to harden, leaving the parts of the garment covered by the design in a liquid state. A separate screen must be used to apply every color of ink if the design has more than one color.

Afterward, the unhardened emulsion is washed away, leaving an imprint of the design on the screen where ink shall pass through. The screen is then dried and is now a stencil.

Next, the screen is placed on the printing press with the garment laid out on the printing board underneath. The screen is lowered onto the garment, and then ink is added to the top part. A squeegee is used to push the ink on the entire screen, which presses the ink on the stencil’s open areas and imprints the design on the garment. This step is repeated for every layer of ink when printing multi-colored products.

The final product is then dried and inspected.

Pros of Screen Printing

  • Screen printing is a very hands-on process, which means there is a higher level of control over the quality of the design.
  • There are many types of inks to choose from, such as water-based ink, discharge ink, metallic ink, and so on.
  • The final result of screen printing is vibrant and high-quality, even on dark-colored garments.
  • Screen printing can be used for many purposes, including fabric, paper, wood, metal, plastic, and even glass.
  • Screen printing is cheaper when you buy custom products in bulk.
  • During the screen printing process, the ink is cured into the fabric–not on top of it. Therefore, it can handle multiple washes with the design remaining intact.
  • Screen printing provides a softer texture than transfers.
  • The designs can be ironed.
  • Screen printing is perfect for logos and texts.

Cons of Screen Printing

  • Screen printing requires a lot of manual work, which means it can be expensive if you are only printing small quantities of products. This is why most screen printers have a minimum number of orders, which can vary from printer to printer.
  • Screen printing is better for simple designs with fewer colors and details. Therefore, it can be hard to print intricate and highly detailed designs via screen printing.
  • Screen printing requires a lot of materials and equipment. It can also be messy. So, if you are planning to start a screen printing business, you must be prepared for the cost and spatial requirements.

What is Digital Printing?

Digital printing is exactly what it sounds like: your design is printed directly onto the garment using a computer and a digital printer. Digital printing is a newer process compared to other garment printing techniques. However, it can achieve what many other methods cannot: detailed, intricate designs with a high level of accuracy.

Digital printing can be used for fabric, plastic, paper, acrylic, and so on. The digital printing process is applicable for almost any type of medium as long as transferring the design is physically possible.

How Does Digital Printing Work?

Digital printing is quite simple. First, a design is created on the computer and saved in the correct format and resolution. Proper formatting is crucial for the printer to be able to recognize the design and print it correctly.

Before the printing process starts, the print heads are cleaned so that they don’t dry out or sustain damage. Cleaning is done every 100 prints, sometimes more frequently if the design involves a lot of colors.

The product is then placed on an appropriately sized pallet that is attached to the printer. The printer begins the actual printing process, spraying the ink onto the product. During the process, the waste ink must be monitored. Waste ink is collected in a drum and should be emptied regularly to avoid spillage.

A digital printer also has a container for cleaner, which must be replenished every time it gets low. Otherwise, the printer heads may suffer damage. At the same time, the ink temperature needs to be monitored; it should remain between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius to prevent damage to the printer heads.

After the design is printed, the product is taken off the pallet carefully and placed in a dryer, where it is left to dry until the ink adheres securely to the item.

Pros of Digital Printing

  • The biggest advantage of digital printing is that it can easily print intricate and highly detailed designs with multiple elements and colors, even full-colored photographs.
  • Digital printing requires less manual work than screen printing and transfers.
  • Digital printing can be a cheaper option if you are only printing small quantities.
  • Printing takes less time, equipment, and effort, which makes it a good business option for aspiring entrepreneurs.
  • The digital printing process is incredibly fast for small items.
  • The printer proof shows exactly what you will receive for the project. No surprises here.
  • Digital printing allows frequent changes to the design as needed. Altering the design is difficult to do with other methods of printing.

Cons of Digital Printing

  • Digital printing is not cost-effective for very large volumes.
  • There are limited placement options for your design.
  • Digital printing can be too slow if you are printing on garments and large items. It can, however, be fast enough for small orders with fast deadlines.
  • Digital prints are not as durable as screen prints, but they can still be reliable with the right amount of care.

Screen Printing Vs. Digital Printing: Which One Should You Choose?

As you can see, screen printing and digital printing are two completely different methods, each with varying pros and cons. So, how do you choose which one is best for your project? Here are the factors that you should consider to help you make a final decision:

Design

First and foremost, what design do you want to print on your garment? Remember, the more complex your design is, the more difficult it is to print. If your design is simple and involves only a few colors (less than six), screen printing is best. But if you want to print intricate designs or photographs, digital printing may be the better choice.

Quantity

Screen printing is most suitable for large orders. This method can produce over 500 items at a time. But if you’re looking for lower quantities, digital printing is the premier choice. It’s far more cost-effective in low quantities.

Time

Screen printing is much faster than digital printing when it comes to bulk orders. So, if you have to print a large number of units and are pressed for time, we recommend going with screen printing. On the other hand, digital printing is a great choice if you have to print only a small order with a limited amount of time.

Budget

Screen printing is cheaper if you are printing a large number of units. This is because stencils require a lot of time to create, and can therefore be expensive if you are only printing a few items. Digital printing is more cost-effective for small orders but becomes more expensive with larger quantities.

Durability

When it comes to the durability of the print itself, screen printing trumps digital printing. Digital prints last 25% to 50% shorter than screen-printed designs. The reason for this is that screen printing presses the ink into the fabric, not on top of it, whereas digital printing does the opposite.

Quality

Both screen printing and digital printing produce high-quality prints with vibrant colors and clean finishes. Therefore, it all boils down to the complexity of your design.

Equipment, Manpower, and Material Requirements

This factor is for aspiring entrepreneurs that want to start a T-shirt printing business. If you want to simply create your own designs and let someone else handle the rest, T-Shirt Express Ohio can take care of the printing process for you. But if you want to start your own printing plant, you need to consider the equipment, manpower, and materials that every print method requires.

Screen printing requires more of these resources compared to digital printing. You need mesh screens, printing boards, acetate sheets, squeegees, and drying vessels. Plus, the process is very hands-on and will require an actual person to create each design. Digital printing, on the other hand, requires less equipment and effort. After you put each item on the palette, you simply let the printer do its job.

Other Types Of Printing To Consider

Screen printing and digital printing aren’t the only two options you have in your arsenal. We’ve written blog posts on other styles you may want to check out, too, including:

Bring Your Designs to Life With High-Quality Screenprints From T-Shirt Express Ohio

Now that you know the difference between screen printing vs digital printing, you probably already have the right choice in mind. Digital printing is great for small orders and complex designs. But if you’re looking for maximum cost-effectiveness and prints that can last as long as the garment, we highly suggest going with screen printing.

And if you want to get bulk customized T-shirts, look no further than T-Shirt Express Ohio. We can print up to 5,000 units at a time, all with the same level of quality and at the right price. Aside from T-shirts, we also print on long-sleeved garments and hoodies. All you have to do is pick your design (or let us make one for you!), choose your garment, and we’ll take care of the rest.

Let us bring your designs to life. Give us a call, send us an email, or request a quote directly from our website. Our team will get in touch with you as soon as possible. Want to have a glimpse of our business? You can also visit us in person in downtown Mt. Vernon, Ohio. We are open Monday to Friday from 9 AM to 4 PM.

Ready to take the next step? Request a quote today.

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Written by

Drew McCoy

Head honcho at T-Shirt Express Ohio. 12 years in the screen printing industry. Over-thinker.