Digital Print vs Screen Print: What It Means for You

Digital Print vs Screen Print: What It Means for You

 Digital Print vs Screen Print: What it means for you    

While looking into designing custom shirts, you've probably seen the terms digital printing and screen printing. Although these are two of the most common printing methods, the differences -- and what they mean for your custom shirts -- might not be readily apparent.

Here are some key differences and why one printing method may work better than the other for your needs.

[Note: Given our decades of printing experience, Bolt Printing will always choose the print method that makes the most sense for your order.]

 What's screen printing?    

Screen printing, also called silk screening, involves pushing ink through a mesh screen to print your graphic design on a flat printing surface.Screen print white ink being readied for dark shirts

 How screen printing works   

 Step 1 - Art separation

Whether screen printing or digital printing, the basic process starts with reviewing a file

After we receive your art files (and any necessary corrections are approved), the screen printing process begins by separating a design into layers based on the number of print colors used.

 Step 2 - Create a film positive 

Black ink is used in our film layers.

Each layer is converted to a black color and printed onto a transparent positive film.

 Step 3 - Prepare mesh screens   

Screen printers push ink through a mesh screen to create images

Each film layer is placed on a mesh screen, cleaned with a degreaser, and then coated with a light-sensitive emulsion.

When the emulsion is exposed to UV light, it burns an image onto the screen, thus creating a stencil. Finally, the screen is rinsed and fully dried.

Step 4 -- The screens are used to print a design onto a shirt  

One of our screen printers in action

During the final phase, ink is pushed through the screens onto the shirt.

The screens are carefully placed so the colors line up correctly. Note: One screen is used for each color in the design (or, in simpler terms, each layer is basically a different stencil).

Each squeegee is reserved for a different ink. Using multiple squeegees ensures the ink used on one screen doesn't contaminate another ink

A squeegee is used to push the ink through the screen when performed manually.

If multiple colors are being applied, we flash-dry between layers to prevent bleeding.

 The benefits of screen printing   

Screen printing produces bold, vibrant colors that are difficult to replicate through other printing techniques. There are also fewer restrictions and limitations when it comes to the surface required for a print -- you can print just about anywhere on a shirt.

Likewise, there aren't as many ink limitations, meaning you can use a much wider ink variety.

Plastisol inks are thicker than water-based inks, sometimes giving you a slighlty raised print. White ink on a dark shirt may make it stand out more

 The drawbacks to screen printing   

While screen printing is an amazing technique that creates incredible, colorful designs, it has a flaw -- because it's labor-intensive, it can be expensive. When you're ordering a large number of tees, that cost is spread across fifty or more shirts (meaning the cost is low on a per-shirt-basis). However, if you're just ordering a few shirts, the associated set-up costs make it completely impractical to screen print very small orders.

[Note: Despite the expenses associated with preparing things for a screen print, Bolt Printing doesn't charge a set-up fee. However, there are other custom apparel companies who will try to nickel & dime you for every tiny thing -- that's why you have to look carefully when comparing prices!]

Screen printing also has limitations when it comes to color blending in small quantities. 

 What's digital printing?     

Prior to the early 2000s, the options for printing a small number of custom tees weren't great. You were either stuck paying a large premium if you went with a quality technique (like screen printing) or you had to rely on inexpensive, low-quality solutions (like transfer paper). All that changed with the advent of digital printing.

Digital printing (also called direct to garment printing, or DTG printing for short) is a printing process where a machine interprets a digital file which is then printed directly onto a garment. (Think of it as a big inkjet printer designed to create custom t shirts.)

Unlike screen printing, DTG printing could even be done from the comfort of your home (although the machines tend to be a lot bigger than a home printer) -- assuming you're willing to make a large upfront investment by buying one of those machines.

A digitally printed dog on the front of a shirt -- no need for multiple print locations

(Above is an example of a digitally printed dog. At a glance would you be able to tell if it was digitally printed or a screen print?)

 The benefits of digital printing   

A digital printer tends to excel when it comes to elaborate, multi-colored artwork. It handles color blending a lot better than screen printing (which tends to leave the colors more distinct).

For example, it often makes more sense to digitally print something like a photograph.

A traditionally printed photo, hence the lack of tiny dots.

 (As seen above, you can still screen print a photo.) 

The other obvious benefit is that it requires less set-up. Once the image is correct, you're good to go.


 Why not digitally print everything?    

Although digital printing might feel like the future, it has some significant downsides.

The first and most obvious is cost. Digital printing might be more affordable than traditional printing on a small-order basis, but when you're buying in bulk, screen printing becomes a lot more cost effective.

The short explanation for the difference in expense when it comes to digital vs screen printing is that DTG printers basically provide a fixed cost -- meaning no matter how many you order, the cost remains the same. (That and digital printing materials, equipment, and so on is much, much, much more expensive -- absurdly so! And the technology is highly unlikely to ever compensate for those costs.)

Screen printing, on the other hand, requires initial labor when separating the design into screens and then a bit of set-up time when placing each screen. But the larger the print run, the more you'll save on a per-shirt basis when screen printing because the process is more efficient and faster (meaning lower labor costs).
Digital printing vs screen printing example -- note the color saturation between the screen printed tee and the digitally printed tee

Another downside is the colors on digital prints generally aren't as vibrant and some specialty inks can't be used. (Or, in other cases, there might be a more expensive workaround for a specialty ink.)

The printer interprets things exactly as seen in the digital file. So if there's a flaw in the original image file -- including something you might not see on a screen -- that flaw carries over to the t shirt design. And, in the case of low-quality art files, you may see a white outline around the design.

 Print consistency can be an issue with digital printing   

You also don't have the same print consistency from shirt to shirt like you'd get with screen printing.

The easiest explanation for the variation in consistency is dye batches remain the same when screen printing a run of t shirts. Or, in simpler terms, the same ink is being used for all of the shirts in that order.

A digital printer, on the other hand, interprets the design each time -- basically repeating the same process like it's never seen the image before and making new judgments accordingly. Each t shirt may come out a little different as a result.

 You can't digitally print on everything   

Some garment styles won't work with digital printing.

For instance, you can't digitally print on v-necks and tank tops because of the style. You also can't print in certain locations with a digital printer.


 The biggest factor is the order quantity   

When it comes to how we select a printing method, the largest consideration is usually the order quantity. If you're buying a large quantity of t shirts, it probably makes more sense to screen print. And if you're only buying a few shirts, we'll digitally print them.

Given the set-up costs associated with screen printing, it's not a practical print method until a certain order quantity is reached.

Traditional screen printing becomes increasingly more cost effective as your order grows larger until the screen printed tees are far cheaper than the digital prints.

Screen printed tees headed down a conveyor to be dried -- screen printing is great for large quantites

 Other differences when it comes to digital printing vs screen printing   

Screen printing will also give you more vibrant, richer colors -- meaning that your red will be a pure red rather than a blended red (or your black will be a pure black, rather than a mix of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) -- and more options when it comes to ink types (including specialty inks, like metallic, glitter, or glow-in-the-dark).

You can achieve amazing effects with screen printed tees (although don't expect very bright neon colors)

(Above is an example of an awesome screen printed tee, which shows a design doesn't lose by going with screen printing over digital printing.)

 The final decision?   

Ultimately, the benefits of screen printing vs digital printing come down to a number of factors. For most uses -- provided you have a good order quantity -- screen printing is probably the better option, especially where price is concerned.

At the end of the day, what you want is a shirt that meets your needs (whether it's promoting a business, announcing an event, or celebrating an occasion). Both screen printing and digital can deliver great-looking designs with excellent durability. However, there's definitely a difference between the two.

Digital printing vs screen printing isn't some great battle -- each print method has its uses

Despite the talk of digital printing being the future of the printing industry, screen printing remains the go-to option. However, DTG printing definitely has its own role to play.

 Digital or screen printing, we deliver high-quality custom tees   

And remember -- whether it's a digitally printed tee or a screen print, Bolt Printing has you covered.
Does it matter whether a design uses water-based ink or light-activated ink? Ultimately, you want a stellar design

Check out our design studio to get started on your own custom tee.