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Screen Printing vs Heat Press: What Are The Differences?

Screen printing vs heat press: which of these garment printing techniques is the right approach for your project? We’ve put together a complete guide weighing the pros and cons of each to help you decide.

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

If you need some custom shirts made for an event, you need to know the two most common methods of shirt printing—screen printing and heat pressing.

Each shirt printing method has its unique pros and cons. If you want to know which shirt printing method is the best for you, keep reading. We’ll go through the process of each method and differentiate the costs, quality, and flexibility of the two. By the end of this article, you’ll know for sure which approach is right for you!

What Is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is one of the oldest methods of printing. It used to be known as silk screening because silkscreens were originally used to transfer the designs. Today, the screen printing process is done by pressing ink through a mesh screen using a squeegee.

This process is not only used on garments, but it is also used for posters, specialty items, and anything with a flat surface. Before you can start transferring the ink onto the item of your choice, you first have to stencil out your design.

Stenciling is the first step in the screen printing method. This is done through a photo emulsion process. You’ll take a transparency of your design, coat a mesh screen with emulsion, place the transparency on top, and shine a UV light on it.

The transparency blocks the UV light from hitting the emulsion. So as the rest of the surface dries, the part of the mesh screen blocked by the design remains unhardened. Once you rinse the mesh screen the unhardened emulsion washes out revealing the stencil.

If you’re using multiple colors in a design, you will need one mesh screen or stencil for each color. That is why it’s unadvisable to use very detailed designs when screen printing.

Pros

  • Screen printing is a very human-driven and hands-on process, so the quality of the prints is controlled.
  • There are tons of ink colors and types to choose from, such as water-based ink, plastisol, discharge ink, and even metallic ink. Each type of ink gives off a unique finish. Certain inks can even be used on non-porous items such as glass, tiles, and so much more.
  • The more custom prints you buy, the cheaper it gets, which makes screen printing great for bulk orders.
  • Screen printing produces the most vibrant and high-quality prints—even on dark-colored garments.
  • Ink is cured into the fabric instead of on top of it, so it can withstand multiple washes in a washing machine without getting damaged. It can even last as long as the garment itself.
  • It has a softer feel than transfers.
  • Perfect for logos and texts.
  • Screenprint fabrics can be ironed.
  • Designs can be stored for years.
  • Can print over 500 units.

Cons

  • Screen printing isn’t ideal for small quantities. The fewer shirts you get, the more expensive they are.
  • There is a minimum number of orders that differs from company to company.
  • Intricate and detailed designs, such as photos, are hard to achieve in screen printing. Screen printing favors simple designs with fewer colors and details.
  • Tons of equipment and material are needed, especially if you’re working on multiple designs.
  • If you’re planning to set up your own screen printing business know that the process is time-consuming and messy. You will also need a larger workspace to fit all your equipment.

What Is Heat Pressing?

Heat pressing or heat transfer is a more modern process of shirt printing. It is the process of transferring a design made with solvent ink onto the material using a heat press machine. There are three types of heat transfers available—vinyl transfer, screen printed heat transfer, and digital print.

Vinyl Heat Transfer

Vinyl heat transfer is the lowest quality among the three. It is commonly used for printing the names and numbers on jerseys. This type of heat transfer usually ends up cracking or peeling after a few washes if not transferred correctly.

Screen-printed Heat Transfer

Screen-printed heat transfer still requires the use of traditional screen printing. But instead of directly stamping the ink onto the material, it is stamped onto release paper to create a heat transfer. The transfer is then placed on top of the material and is applied using a heat press machine.

You’re probably wondering, why not just use the direct screen printing method? Why screen print onto release paper? The main advantage to screen printing on release paper is that you can store them for years without getting destroyed.

This method is also great if you have repeat customers who want the same design but over an extended period. You can also use them for on-site events, so instead of bringing all your equipment, you just need to bring the heat press and the transfers.

You can also use this technique when you’re printing small designs for smaller surfaces, such as caps, mugs, name tags, sleeve prints, and so on. One sheet of release paper can fit about 10 to 15 small designs.

Digital Print Heat Transfer

Digital print heat transfers are done by using digital printers to print designs onto a transfer paper which is then placed onto an item and heat pressed. This method is great for transferring very detailed designs and in full color. You can use this to print your favorite photos onto almost any material.

Pros 

  • Easy to use, less equipment is needed, and doesn’t require a large workspace.
  • Great for small quantity orders, and there are no minimum required orders.
  • Detailed designs can be achieved with heat-press, even photographs.
  • Can print in full color.
  • The process is much faster, and so is the turn-around time.
  • Can be used on a variety of items, even non-porous ones.

Cons

  • Heat transfers aren’t as long-lasting and durable as screen printing.
  • The design is placed on top of the fabric and not cured into it.
  • Can crack, peel, or fade after several washes.
  • Not advised to be used in a washing machine and can’t be ironed
  • Prints aren’t as bright as screen printing, even when professionally done.
  • Isn’t great for dark-colored shirts.
  • It has a rubbery feel that makes fabric materials feel tough.
  • It isn’t the most cost-effective process for large quantity orders.
  • Can’t go above 500 units.

Screen Printing vs Heat Press: Which is Better?

Screen printing and heat pressing are two very different techniques. They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Whether one is better than the other solely depends on your needs and preferences. Here are some things you should consider to help you decide which printing method is the most ideal for you:

Quantity

If you’re planning to order in large quantities, screen printing is the most cost-effective for bulk orders. But if you’re ordering less than a dozen custom items, heat transfer printing is more suitable.

Design

Screen printing is best for simple designs, such as logos or texts that use less than six colors. Heat transfer methods can print designs in full color. And it even works for detailed designs, such as photographs. If you’re looking for something that pops off the fabric at you, you may want to consider learning about screen printing vs embroidery.

Quality

For higher-quality and long-lasting prints, screen printing is the best option. You get the cleanest and most vibrant finish when it’s screenprint. It also works well with dark-colored items, unlike heat press transfers that often look dull when used on darker backgrounds.

Get High-Quality Custom Screenprint T-Shirts at T-Shirt Express Ohio

If you’re looking for a place to get bulk customized t-shirts, you won’t find better quality, prices, and service than T-Shirt Express Ohio. When you order from us, you’re bound to leave satisfied and happy. We accept a minimum of 12 custom shirts to as many as 5,000, and we make sure to get them to you in 10 business days.

Plus, we don’t only print on shirts. You can also choose to print on long sleeves and hoodies. Just pick your preferred garment, tell us your design, and we’ll do our best to make your vision a reality. What are you waiting for? Give us a call or send us an email, and we’ll get in touch as soon as possible. You can also visit us in person!

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.