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1. What is screen printing?

Screen printing vs. digital printing: What's right for your project?

If you're thinking of starting a custom t-shirt design business, then you'll need a way to transform blank t-shirts into customized creations! That's where the magic of printing comes in.

You'll quickly discover there are two main printing options to choose from: screen printing and digital printing. But what's the difference between the two, and which print method is right for you?

You've come to the right place to find out. We'll break down the difference between the two popular printing methods, complete with pros and cons, to help you decide which is the best choice for your business.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Screen printing and digital printing are two of the most popular methods used to produce customized t-shirts and other merchandise.

  • Screen printing involves applying multiple layers of plastisol ink onto a product, while digital printing tends to be much quicker and easier.

  • While screen printing is only cost-efficient for bulk orders, the ease of digital printing generally makes it a much more affordable choice for smaller, individual, or print on demand orders.

  • Screen printing creates durable designs that tend to be heavier and stiffer. Digital printing produces lightweight, breathable designs, which can be a great choice for apparel.

What is screen printing?

2What is screen printing

For centuries, screen printing, aka silkscreen, was the go-to method for transferring designs onto fabric. Most historians believe the technique was first developed in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) to transfer decorative designs to silk.

While machines have since been developed to make things much quicker, the basic concepts of the screen printing process are still the same. Screen printing works by applying each ink color to a surface through its own stencil.

After all the various colors have been layered onto the product to create the final image, the ink is then set or "cured" with a heating tool like a heat press, flash dryer, or conveyor dryer. One of the perks of screen printing is that it's been around so long that many different inks have been invented to produce effects like distressing, crackling, or an iridescent shine.

What is digital printing?

3What is digital printing

Unlike screen printing, digital printing is a newer technique that's grown leaps and bounds in the past few decades alone. As technology advances, digital printing is becoming more popular for direct-to-garment printing, aka DTG printing.

The digital printing process begins by pretreating the surface of t-shirts (or any other product you want to customize) to prevent unwanted color blending. Once the pretreatment has been cured, digital designs can be applied to the shirt with a special machine that works much the same way as the digital printer you use for your computer.

Once the design has been printed, the garment dye is cured again with a heat press or forced air dryer to fix the newly printed design. This process also helps ensure that the print will hold up over time, even when washed.

Screen printing vs. digital printing

4Screen printing vs digital printing

Now that you've got an idea of how both screen printing and digital printing work, let's delve a little deeper into the pros and cons of each. While both are very popular techniques, one may be more suited to your needs than the other.

Order quantity and costs

In general, it tends to be more expensive to go the screen printing route unless you're ordering a large number of products that feature the same design. This goes back to the fact that screen printing takes much longer to set up and complete, due to the need to use multiple stencils.

That said, many screen printing services will give you a hefty price break if they can use the same stencils on a larger quantity of shirts. For this reason, screen printing works best for customers who intend to place bulk orders for the same product.

Digital printing, on the other hand, is a much more cost-effective option for orders of any size. The setup is as easy as preparing the printing surface and transferring the digital file onto the garment.

For this reason, many digital printers don't have minimum or maximum order requirements. If you plan to open a print on demand business, digital printing will usually be the most cost-effective option for you.

As you'll quickly discover when looking into professional equipment, both screen printing and digital printing machines can cost anywhere from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Working with a print on demand (POD) service like Gelato allows creators to enjoy the benefits of professional-grade printing equipment without purchasing it themselves.

Print locations and design placement

Do you want your tiny designs printed directly 1.7 inches below the top of a pocket? If so, you may want to look into screen print options, as screen printers tend to enjoy slightly more flexible placement options.

But as long as you're looking to go with popular placement options like the front, back, sleeve, or outer neck of a shirt, you shouldn't have any problems going with digital printing. At Gelato, our free product design tools include plenty of templates designed to help you find the perfect design placement option for your custom apparel.


Durability is one category in which screen printing has a reputation for reigning supreme. Once a design is screen-printed onto a shirt, you can rest assured it's there for the long haul.

The only potential downside is that the colors of a screen print may fade over time or even succumb to cracking or peeling. But you may be able to mitigate such issues by washing screen-printed items in hot water.

That said, digital printers have come a long way since they first debuted as a t-shirt customization tool. These days, digitally-printed designs are much more durable and long-lasting.

At Gelato, we use DTG printing tools that fuse our specialty inks directly into the fabric fibers to prevent fading or cracking. Our process also helps ensure that your customized shirt will remain soft to the touch for years to come.

Design color

Screen printing is achieved through the use of plastisol ink, which produces saturated, vibrant colors because it's extremely opaque. Plastisol also comes in very bright neon colors and is even available as light-activated ink that can produce glow-in-the-dark shirts.

If you're out to produce a special FX Halloween shirt or a neon shirt that would make the 80s proud, screen printing with specialty ink is probably the way to go. As screen printing has been around a lot longer than its digital counterpart, it's got a lot more to offer when it comes to effects like raised print, specific textures, exact color matching, and sparkly designs.

On the other hand, direct-to-garment printing uses water-based ink that's far better suited to color blending. While some DTG inks are slightly less vibrant than plastisol, that's part of what allows them to overlap to produce smooth transitions between colors.

Much like home digital printers can now perfectly reproduce a photo in stunning detail, the latest DTG printers have developed impressive multi-color capabilities. By blending just a few key colors, digital printing machines can recreate the exact color of nearly any design with exceptional resolution.

We also recommend ordering a sample of each product you intend to sell to ensure you don't run into color-matching issues, especially on darker-colored shirts. Because digital printing dye is much less opaque, in some cases, the color may be affected if the shirt color bleeds through.


At Gelato, we're all about sustainability and offering creators an eco-friendly approach to ecommerce. We use 100% biodegradable DTG-TX2 garment inks in our digital printing process.

These water-based inks are not only 100% non-toxic and environmentally friendly, but they also offer excellent color fastness, high elasticity, and non-cracking attributes. As part of our commitment to sustainability, we also use energy-efficient digital printing machines that don't generate harmful wastewater.

Unfortunately, the plastisol ink still being used by many screen printing companies is made from polyvinyl chloride, a type of plastic better known as PVC. Throughout the heating stages of the screen printing process, plastisol has been shown to release chemicals that can be harmful to both human and environmental health.

To make matters worse, many plastisol inks require toxic solvents to be used throughout the clean-up process. Recently, several advances have helped make traditional screen printing more eco-friendly, including the development of water-based plastisol ink.

Just be sure to do your research when selecting a screen printing company to work with, as some offer more sustainable options than others.

Design intricacy

The ability to reproduce intricate details is a big part of what makes digital printing the best choice for photos or complex designs. If your design includes small elements, thin lines, or any other precise detail, then digital printing is usually the way to go.

While it's possible to use screen printing to produce smaller details, it's also a lot more difficult due to everything from screen tension to the speed at which the ink is applied. The biggest issue, however, comes down to halftones, which are all the tiny dots that are used to make up an image.

Digital printing machines can create much smaller halftones than those typically produced by screen printing. Digital prints also tend to hold details much better in the long run than the average screen print.

Design consistency

Have you ever ordered a batch of t-shirts from a screen printing company, only to discover that they don't all look the same? As we pointed out above, many variables go into the screen printing process, from the pressure and angle of a shirt as each different stencil is applied to squeegee sharpness.

The bottom line is that variability and inconsistency are much harder to avoid during screen printing. Digital printing, on the other hand, has virtually no issues in the consistency department.

Once the machine processes a digital file, it can effortlessly reproduce it on however many shirts you'd like. Ironically, the fact that consistency is so easy to achieve with digital printing is also part of what makes it more cost-effective.

Design feel

It's usually not hard to tell the difference between t-shirts made using screen printing vs. digital printing. Whereas screen printing leaves what feels like an extra, thicker layer on top of the shirt, digital printing can make the print feel much lighter.

While screen printing designs can be more durable due to the use of plastisol ink, they tend to be less breathable. Often, the ink clogs the shirt's fibers, which can create a stiff and heavy feel, particularly in the case of a large design.

When it comes to designs with soft, smooth gradients, then digital printing is the way to go. Because the ink is infused into the shirt fibers, designs transferred through digital printing are more lightweight, smooth, and breathable.

How to choose the right printing method

While the choice between screen printing vs. digital printing may vary on a case-by-case basis, we hope we've given you enough info to make the right choice for you. Here's a quick recap of the pros and cons of both options.

Screen printing
  • It can be a cost-effective option, but only for bulk orders of the same design

  • Very versatile design placement options

  • Durable over time but prone to cracking or peeling

  • Better for exact color matching

  • Traditional screen printing is not at all eco-friendly, though more sustainable options are now available

  • Not the best choice for intricate design details

  • Design consistency is much harder to achieve

  • Screen printing can produce designs that are heavier, stiffer, and less breathable

Digital printing
  • Cost-effective option for orders of any size

  • Slightly less versatile when it comes to unorthodox design placement options

  • More resistant to cracking or peeling

  • Better for color blending

  • Uses sustainable ink and an eco-friendly process

  • Excellent for reproducing intricate designs

  • Design consistency is no problem for digital printers

  • Digital printing produces lightweight, breathable designs that are a great choice for apparel

Create beautiful, intricate designs for custom products

As you can see, there are plenty of factors to consider when deciding between screen printing and digital printing. At Gelato, we offer professional-quality digital printing for a wide range of customizable products.

Our DTG printing methods can turn even the most intricate designs into long-lasting customized products with vibrant, eye-catching colors. With no minimum order requirements, Gelato's DTG printing service is the perfect choice for print on demand retailers everywhere.

Ready to have your designs printed onto high-quality merchandise your customers will love? Create a free Gelato account today to turn your designs into customized creations.


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