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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 is optimal for large orders and designs needing solid colors, but it's less cost-effective for smaller batches and can lead to heavier designs.

  • Digital printing excels in detailed, multi-colored designs for any order size, offering cost consistency and producing lightweight, breathable prints.

  • While screen printing offers durability and versatile design placement, it may pose environmental concerns and lead to design stiffness and potential cracking.

  • Digital printing is eco-friendly and ensures excellent design consistency and resistance to peeling, but it's less flexible in unconventional design placement.

  • Decision factors include design detail, fabric type, order volume, cost-effectiveness, environmental impact, and the need for design consistency.

  • Consulting professionals and testing both methods are recommended to align the printing choice with specific project or business requirements.

What is screen printing?

Screen printing process

Screen printing has been a prevalent method for transferring designs onto fabric for centuries. Historians largely agree that the technique originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), primarily used for imparting decorative patterns onto silk.

Despite technological advancements and the introduction of machines to expedite the process, the fundamental principles of screen printing have remained consistent through time.

How the screen printing process works

The screen printing process is distinguished by its method of applying ink to a surface through stencils, one for each color used in the design. Here's a breakdown of the process:

  1. Stencil creation: A separate stencil (or screen) is created for each color that will be used in the design. These stencils dictate where ink is applied and where it's blocked from reaching the surface of the material being printed.

  2. Ink application: The ink is added to the screen and then pressed through its fine mesh onto the printing surface beneath. This is done one color at a time, allowing for precise control and vibrant, opaque colors.

  3. Layering colors: After applying one color, the product is left to dry briefly, and then the process is repeated with the next screen and ink color. This layering can create intricate, multi-colored designs.

  4. Curing the ink: Once all colors have been applied, the ink is cured or set. This is commonly done using a heat source like a heat press, flash dryer, or conveyor dryer. The curing process ensures that the ink dries quickly and adheres firmly to the printed material, making the design durable and long-lasting.

  5. Creating special effects: Thanks to the longevity and popularity of screen printing, a wide array of inks have been developed to achieve various effects, such as distressing, crackling, or producing an iridescent shine. These special inks add unique textures and visual appeal to the final product.

What is digital printing?


Digital printing represents a modern technique that has significantly evolved over the past few decades. As technological innovations continue to advance, digital printing has gained increasing popularity, especially for direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. This method offers a quick and efficient way to transfer detailed and colorful designs onto various materials, including fabrics.

How the digital printing process works

The process of digital printing is notably different from traditional screen printing, offering a more direct and faster method of transferring designs onto materials. Here's an overview of the digital printing process:

  1. Surface pre-treatment: The material, such as a t-shirt, is first pre-treated to prepare the surface. This pretreatment is crucial as it helps to ensure that the colors of the digital design do not bleed into each other or spread uncontrollably on the fabric. The pre-treatment liquid is applied and then cured (dried) to prepare the fabric for printing.

  2. Digital design transfer: Once the surface is pre-treated and cured, the digital design is then transferred onto the material. This is done using a specialized digital printing machine, which operates similarly to a standard digital printer used for paper, but is specifically designed for fabric or other materials. The machine precisely applies the design directly onto the material, allowing for high-resolution images and a wide spectrum of colors.

  3. Curing the print: After the digital design is applied, the material goes through another curing process. This time, the goal is to set the dye of the digital print into the fabric. The curing is often done using a heat press or a forced air dryer. This step is vital as it ensures the durability of the print, making the design resistant to fading and wear from washing and regular use.

Screen printing vs. digital printing

Screen and digital prints

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

When considering the order quantity for printing services, it's crucial to understand how different printing methods cater to various volume needs.

Screen Printing

Screen printing is often considered less cost-effective for smaller orders due to the extensive setup required, involving creating and using multiple stencils. This method becomes more economically viable for bulk orders featuring the same design.

Many screen printing services offer significant discounts for large quantities since the same stencils can be utilized across the entire batch, making this method ideal for customers intending to place large orders of the same product.

Digital Printing

Conversely, digital printing offers a flexible and cost-effective solution for orders of any size, from a single item to a large batch. The setup for digital printing is minimal, involving merely preparing the printing surface and transferring the digital file onto the garment.

This ease of setup eliminates the constraints of minimum or maximum order requirements, making digital printing a preferred option for businesses, especially those focusing on print on demand models.

Cost implications

When assessing the costs associated with different printing methods, it's important to consider several key factors:

Initial investment

Both screen printing and digital printing require substantial initial investment. Professional-grade machines for these methods can cost from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. This high entry cost can be a significant barrier for small businesses or individual creators.

Production cost

In screen printing, the production cost per item decreases with the increase in order quantity, thanks to the ability to reuse stencils for large batches. However, the setup process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, contributing to higher costs for smaller orders.

In contrast, digital printing offers a more uniform cost structure regardless of the order size, as the setup process is straightforward and quick, making it cost-effective even for small orders.


Screen printing is more scalable for large orders due to the reduced marginal cost with increased quantity. Digital printing, while flexible, may not offer the same level of cost reduction for bulk orders but is unbeatable for scalability in terms of order size variability and customization options.

ROI and break-even point

Investing in screen printing equipment might make more sense if you consistently fulfill large orders, as the break-even point comes faster with larger batches. For businesses focusing on smaller, customized orders or varying designs, digital printing is more likely to offer a quicker ROI due to its low setup cost and flexibility.

Utilizing print on demand (POD) services like Gelato allows businesses and creators to access professional-grade printing without the hefty initial investment. These services handle the printing and logistics, offering a cost-effective solution for accessing high-quality printing technology.

This can significantly lower the entry barrier for new businesses, allowing them to benefit from professional printing capabilities without the need to invest in expensive equipment.

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

Decision-making in printing

Selecting the right printing method for your business or project is a decision that should balance cost, quality, design requirements, and the environmental impact of the production process. Both screen printing and digital printing have their unique advantages and limitations.

Here's a step-by-step guide to help you make an informed choice:

1. Understand your design

If your design involves high detail, gradients, or a wide color spectrum, digital printing is usually the preferred choice due to its precision and ability to handle complex designs. For solid, vibrant colors, and especially if you require exact color matching (such as for brand logos), screen printing might be the better option.

Screen printing offers more versatility in design placement and is well-suited for larger designs or prints that wrap around the fabric. Digital printing, while slightly less versatile in this regard, is still suitable for most standard placements.

2. Consider the fabric or material

Screen printing can be applied to a wider range of materials and fabric types, including thicker fabrics and unconventional items. Digital printing is generally suited for lighter fabrics and may not adhere as well to some non-textile materials.

Screen-printed designs can be felt on the fabric and may be heavier or stiffer, affecting breathability. Digital prints are generally lighter and integrate more seamlessly with the fabric, maintaining its breathability and texture.

3. Quantity and cost-effectiveness

If you're planning a large order with the same design, screen printing becomes more cost-effective due to the economy of scale.

For smaller orders or designs that require frequent changes, digital printing is more cost-effective and flexible, as it doesn't require the same initial setup.

4. Evaluate durability and usage

Screen prints are known for their durability and longevity, especially on suitable fabrics, but they can be prone to cracking or peeling over time with extensive wear or improper care. Digital prints are more resistant to cracking and can also be quite durable when properly cured and cared for.

5. Environmental impact

Consider the environmental impact of your printing method. Traditional screen printing can involve chemicals and processes that are not eco-friendly, though more sustainable options and inks are becoming available. Digital printing is generally more eco-friendly; it uses less water and energy and produces less waste.

6. Making your decision

If possible, do a small test run to see how your design looks and feels with each printing method, especially if you're deciding on a large-scale project or a long-term business venture.

Reach out to professional printers who can provide insight into the best method for your specific needs and who may offer options or innovations you haven't considered.

By considering these factors and how they align with your project or business objectives, you can make a well-informed decision on whether screen printing or digital printing is the right choice for you.

Create beautiful, intricate designs for custom products

Custom printed 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.

Screen printing vs. digital printing FAQs

Is screen printing more expensive than digital printing?

The cost comparison between screen printing and digital printing depends on the order quantity and complexity of the design. Screen printing involves a higher initial setup cost, making it generally more expensive for small orders. However, for larger orders, the cost per unit decreases significantly, potentially making it less expensive than digital printing for bulk orders.

Digital printing, on the other hand, has a relatively consistent cost per unit regardless of the order size, making it more cost-effective for small to medium-sized orders.

Does digital printing last on shirts?

Yes, digital printing does last on shirts, especially when proper care instructions are followed. Advances in digital printing technology and inks have significantly improved the durability and wash-fastness of digitally printed garments. While it may not have the same lifespan as some traditional screen-printed garments, a digitally printed shirt can still maintain its vibrancy and detail for a considerable number of washes.

Is screen printing better quality?

"Better quality" can be subjective and depends on the specific requirements of the print job. Screen printing is renowned for its vibrant, opaque colors and its ability to print on a variety of materials and fabric types. It's particularly effective for designs that require a high level of vibrancy or special ink effects.

Digital printing, however, excels in reproducing intricate details and a wider color palette, making it ideal for complex or photorealistic designs. The best method depends on the specific needs of the project, such as the complexity of the design, the type of material being printed on, and the quantity of the order.

Why is screen printing so difficult?

Screen printing can be seen as difficult because it involves a more labor-intensive setup process, requiring the creation of stencils (screens) for each color in the design. It also demands precise alignment or registration for multi-color designs, along with the mastery of various inks and their respective curing processes.

The physical process of pushing ink through the screens requires technique and practice, especially to maintain consistency across multiple items. However, for those who invest the time to master it, screen printing can be both rewarding and effective.

Which is better: Screen printing or digital printing?

The choice between screen printing and digital printing depends on the specific needs of the project. Screen printing is often preferred for larger orders, designs requiring vibrant, opaque colors, or special ink effects. It's also better suited for certain types of fabrics and products.

Digital printing is ideal for smaller orders, designs with high levels of detail or a wide range of colors, and when quick turnaround times are needed. It allows for greater flexibility with order quantity and design changes.


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