The printing industry has seen some leaps and bounds over the years, and many innovations have been making waves – one of which is direct-to-film (DTF) printing. With its incredible versatility on various substrates, some quarters are sure that this spells the end of the popular direct-to-garment (DTG) printing method; others are not so convinced.
Perhaps you’ve been looking at DTF and DTG printing methods as part of your shop’s future expansion of services. You’ve been doing screen printing for some time now, but you’d like to try something new and appeal to a new customer base. You’ve heard a lot about both, and you’re curious if either of these options can take your business further.
Making a decision isn’t so straightforward. How much can you commit to the budget? Which method is the best to drive new customers to you? You’d also have to juggle conflicting information on which is the best. How do you know what’s right for your business?
Well, don’t fret; let this article help you decide whether DTG or DTF is the way to go for your business.
What is DTG Printing?
Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is digital printing onto a garment, the same way you’d normally print a document on your desktop printer. You’ll first need to digitize a design into the system, then a raster image processor (RIP) software translates it into a set of instructions the printer can use to print it out.
Before printing, the garment needs to be pretreated with a special solution. This solution prevents the inks from being absorbed into the garments while accentuating the colors of the inks. After pretreatment, simply dry the garment with a heat press for a short while.
Once it’s ready, place the shirt onto the printer’s platen, ensuring it’s properly aligned for printing. The printer will apply ink onto the garment’s surface using carefully controlled print heads, creating the design. Heat press it once more after it’s printed, and your garment will be ready!
The main selling point of DTG printing is its ability to print out complex designs with multiple colors at relatively fast printing speeds. It’s best suited to reach small-time customers looking for unique custom prints with less than 30 shirts per order, which is something screen printing cannot do effectively.
Screen printing handles bulk orders very well due to increasing cost-effectiveness for bigger orders; the more orders you receive, the more affordable your unit costs become. This works against its favor where small orders are concerned, as it becomes less cost-effective to print small quantities with the amount of time, labor, and preparation needed to print a batch.
What about DTF Printing?
On the other hand, DTF printing prints designs on a special transfer film. The artwork will be printed on the reverse side of the film, after which a hotmelt powder is applied to it. The powder is an adhesive, helping the inks bond to the garment by using a heat press to apply the design to the chosen garment.
Conceptually, DTG and DTF printing similarly use digital inkjet technology to print their designs on substrates. The difference is that DTG prints directly onto the substrate, while DTF uses transfer films as a medium to transfer the design to the substrate.
DTF printing’s main advantage comes from its cost-effectiveness. Consumables such as printer inks, transfer films, and hotmelt powder are relatively inexpensive, allowing you to keep costs low while maximizing the gains from your prints. Since you’re printing on sheets or rolls of film, you can easily print multiple designs on a single sheet or length of the roll.
DTF is also a very versatile printing method. Not only can you heat press your prints onto garments, but it works just as well on various other substrates. Polyesters, glass, ceramics, and even metal make for excellent surfaces that are compatible. Plus, you can also store extra prints for future use or sell them as-is to anyone who wants to do it themselves!
Comparing DTG and DTF
But which one is the better option for your business? If you’re new to the industry or are looking to expand your existing business, consider the following pointers before you pick either printing solution for your needs.
We’ll be comparing DTG and DTF based on the following criteria:
- Startup Costs: this includes the initial purchasing of the necessary printing equipment.
- Consumables: we factor in the cost of inks and other associated consumables used in DTG or DTF printing.
- Production time: the amount of time needed to produce a batch of garments.
- Order quantity: how many orders each method can efficiently complete.
- Print quality: the overall feel of prints on the substrate.
- Versatility: the variety of materials that are compatible with these printing methods.
- Color vibrancy: how bright or colorful the prints are and how well they turn out on the physical substrate.
- Durability: how durable prints are to physical stress, such as stretching.
- Maintenance: how often does maintenance need to be done to keep the printers in excellent working condition?
Cost is possibly the most critical factor when deciding on your next investment. Of the two options, DTG is by far the MOST expensive one. A standard DTG printer can easily cost between $13,000 to $25,000 – if not more – and that’s only the printer you’re purchasing! Add a pre-treatment machine, the pre-treatment solution, a heat press, and RIP software, and your bill will skyrocket.
Even if you invested in a reasonably priced entry-level printer (such as a Texjet shortee2 that costs at least $8k), the total investment you’d spend on consumables and equipment can go as much as $12,000 or more!
In the case of DTF equipment, you’ll only need a DTF printer, inks, transfer films, and a heat press. You can easily acquire an inexpensive converted desktop printer, a heat press, and other necessary items with a relatively frugal budget. Most importantly, you won’t need a pre-treatment machine or solution, further driving down your expenses.
A converted printer is a repurposed digital inkjet printer used for printing documents. Instead of printing documents on paper, the printer is now calibrated to print on your DTF transfer films. Previously, DTG-converted printers were quite popular as a cheap option to get started with DTG printing, but these have been overtaken by DTF-converted printers instead.
For such a converted printer, prices go from as low as $600 to $2,000 from various online sellers. With a decent heat press and a starter kit of consumables, your estimated budget might be at most $5,000. However, do note that converted printers have their fair share of cons maintenance-wise, many of which could spell trouble for your business if left unaddressed.
DTG ink is astonishingly expensive, especially white ink. White ink serves as the underbase when printing on black garments, and DTG printers may use twice the amount of white ink to color ink! You might find authorized resellers of Brother DTG printer inks selling compatible Brother inks for $89 or higher just for a single 1L bottle. Prices for original ink cartridges and bags go even higher!
It is recommended that you buy cheaper compatible inks to reduce your overall costs – but this does have its caveats, such as having to reconfigure your ICC profile to match the colors you need to print. Still, with careful management and pretesting, it’s better than having to spend two to three times more on original inks.
You also need to buy pretreatment equipment and liquid solution for the pretreatment process. You can buy a Wagner pretreatment sprayer for $99 as a cost-saving option, but you’ll need to ensure your pretreating process is consistent. Otherwise, you may end up with imperfect prints or less vibrant inks. Automating pretreatment will set your budget back considerably.
In contrast, DTF inks are more affordable, and prices for your transfer films and hotmelt powder are relatively low. Not only that, DTF uses much less ink than DTG, especially white ink. The hotmelt powder will bond the inks to the garment, so you don’t need that much white ink as an underbase. You’ll be able to comfortably scale order quantities as required without making a considerable dent in business expenditures.
To put it in perspective, 500ml bottles of DTF CMYK ink can go for $12 per unit. Some sellers even offer preferential rates for larger orders. Larger quantities above 500ml can go for about $50 or more. The large price gap between DTG and DTF inks is pretty substantial!
DTG printing is the slowest of the two printing solutions since it prints designs line by line. For an entry-level DTG printer, you’ll print between 15 to 20 t-shirts per hour, excluding the time you need to pretreat the garments beforehand. You can still reduce the time by pretreating garments ahead of time or by buying readily pre-treated garments sold at various stores.
With the right equipment setup in your shop, a team of two can finish a print run, from pretreatment to final heat press, in an hour with six to seven shirts ready. Further workspace optimization can easily let you match the 15 to 20 shirts per hour statistic.
However, in the case of DTF, printing multiple designs on a single transfer film helps cut down production times significantly. Based on some estimates, you might be able to print 60 transfer films with artwork within approximately half an hour or so before applying a heat press to the design onto the garment.
It still requires manual labor to cut and separate all the printed films, but you’ll spend much less time preparing your shirts than DTG printing. The omission of the pretreatment process more or less gives DTF printing a significant time advantage over DTG printing.
DTG printing is suitable for small-scale, highly customized orders with complex designs and multiple colors. DTG printing has a short setup time since it’s a lot like printing a document. Once you’ve pretreated the garment and let the pretreatment settle in after a heat press, line up the garment to the printer platen, smooth out any creases, and start printing!
It’s therefore essential to have a well-optimized printing process that can enable you and your team to put out a lot of output in good time to meet customer demand. You’ll still need to be mindful of your overall output so that you don’t spend too much on production costs.
Why is this important? It’s because DTG printing can’t scale well with larger order sizes. The increasing overhead costs make this highly unfavorable for long-term runs.
DTF printing can take on larger orders, much like screen printing, as the designs are printed onto the relatively wide transfer films. It’s more cost-effective to perform bulk printing than small-scale orders, especially since you can print multiple designs on a single sheet of transfer film. Transfer films come in various sizes, allowing you to find the correct measurements to maximize your prints.
Moreover, you can easily print out popular designs onto transfer films and stock them on these prepared films for future orders. You can even sell them on their own for those who’d like to apply these designs to anything they wish, including non-garment items!
DTG printing is well-regarded as being able to create prints with a very soft hand, considered by many to be the softest compared to the other popular printing methods. Because the inks are bonded directly into the garment, and designs are created straight from your computer, you’ll be creating high-quality, full-color designs that stand out against the competition.
You’ll be printing garments at fast speeds without sacrificing the overall quality of your prints. Complex designs, shading, multiple colors, and various gradients are no challenge for DTG printing. At the same time, you’re allowing the garment to remain as breathable as possible since the inks don’t clog up the fibers of the garment.
With DTF, the design transfers tend to have a plastic feel since it’s printed on film before being heat pressed onto the garment. When printed on cotton garments, you’ll have that firm, plastic-like finish when you feel the print. On substrates like polyester, however, the print is indistinguishable from the substrate. You’ll eliminate the plasticky feeling since it feels like a part of the substrate itself.
The texture quality can be affected by factors such as the amount of pretreatment applied for DTG prints or the amount of hotmelt powder used in DTF prints. The right balance of these elements should help improve the feel of your prints, but expect quality differences when you use products from various brands.
We tested a few DTF samples at a recent trade show and found them to be comparable to DTG prints. DTG definitely has that soft hand that people talk about, but we think they’re quite similar texture-wise to DTF prints. If anything, we believe that DTF printing is starting to catch up.
DTG printing brings a lot to the table but is unfortunately incompatible with non-cotton-based substrates like nylon or polyester. DTG printing works better on cotton and specific cotton blends, such as canvas or hemp, as the water-based inks are easily and permanently absorbed into the fabric. Substrates like polyester have waterproof properties, making it difficult for the inks to stay onto the substrate surface.
DTF printing shines in this regard, owing to the use of transfer films. You can quickly transfer the designs onto substrates like polyesters, silk, nylon, and more. In fact, why stop there? We’ve already mentioned the ability to stock up on printed films and apply them to other things; put your designs on cups, thermos flasks, and signboards – the possibilities are limitless!
Not only that, DTG printing isn’t able to print on specific parts of your garment, such as the collar or the cuff of a shirt’s sleeves. It could be due to different materials used to make those parts or the small area they present for printing.
In contrast, DTF can easily do so since you can customize the size of your designs on the films. It’s just a matter of careful positioning when you heat press it to the substrate.
DTG and DTF prints use CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black), which accurately conveys colors once printed onto a physical medium. You can capture a color vibrancy that’s appealing to the eyes, even if it may not be as bright as screen-printed designs.
Screen printing still leads the way thanks to its inks’ Pantone-matching color range. As such, screen printing can meet the needs of corporate clients who need their corporate logo printed with the correct color gamut.
Luckily, you’ll get excellent color blending properties from your DTG and DTF prints. It’s pretty easy to capture or replicate gradient changes and subtle elements in the design, thanks to the inks’ water-based nature and transparency properties. Inks can easily be combined to make beautiful blends.
Screen printing has difficulty replicating these design elements due to how tedious it is to print multiple colors for a complex design. You’ll need to repeatedly apply all the needed colors and clean multiple screens, over and over again, for every different color on the design to accurately capture its details.
Because no two monitors, printers, and color inks are the same, you’ll need to be able to manage color expectations. The RGB gamut is used for the digital designing process while printing the garment uses CMYK inks. When you print out the design, the colors will not exactly match what the customer might expect.
A Pantone Bridge tool can give your customers a preview of how RGB colors will look once printed into CMYK. You’ll be able to manage your customers’ expectations based on which colors closely match what they need.
Where durability is concerned, we’re looking at a print’s stretchability and washability. The first refers to how well a print returns to its original shape after being stretched multiple times by hand. The second refers to how well a print lasts after numerous washes in a washing machine.
For DTG printing, printed garments that are properly pretreated and cured are quite durable. DTG prints usually last for up to 50 washes – more if you take extra care of them. Note that this can depend on the fabric and ink you use. After some time, you might notice scattered cracks or faded colors on various parts of the print.
The type of inks, the pretreatment solution, and the curing method are some factors that can affect how resistant the prints are to stretching or other forms of wear and tear. Experimenting should help you achieve a good balance to get the best results from your printing. Using the heat press a second time can also ensure the inks are set into the substrate, further improving their durability.
Take a DTF printed shirt and stretch the design as much as possible. You might notice that the design returns to its original shape once you stop – no stretch marks, tearing, or damage! Their durability in the wash is also better than DTG’s, especially if you take good care of your garments.
Still, your mileage will vary based on the kind of consumables and the printing method you use. Even DTF prints benefit from a second heat press with a finishing sheet.
Maintenance is one of the most important considerations when you’re thinking about a printer to buy. Both DTG and DTF printers have relatively similar maintenance cycles. However, DTF printers benefit from using much less white ink than DTG printing; white ink is the source of many maintenance issues where printers are concerned.
Generally, basic maintenance is good enough to keep your printers running optimally. Dedicating five minutes a day is one way to do it. You may just need a standard print head cleaning cycle or gently shaking the ink tanks to prevent the inks from settling and potentially causing a printhead clog.
You may have often heard that DTG printers are simple plug-and-play machines: once you have it hooked up, you’re ready to go. This is misleading as even the best printers still need regular maintenance to keep them functioning. Keeping them in a clean room with enough ventilation also helps them function properly. The same principles apply to DTF machines.
Different printers require different maintenance methods, so make sure you read the manual carefully before you start.
Which Solution Should You Choose?
Depending on where your business is now, either DTG or DTF printing will offer you flexibility in various ways.
If you’re happy to take up small orders of customized shirts with complex designs and a vibrant color range relatively quickly, then DTG printing is the way to go. The initial entry costs may be a daunting hurdle to overcome, but if you’re able to justify the expense, the return on investment – and the potential of your clientele’s rapid growth – is well worth it.
If you’d like to be able to meet medium-to-large orders for various materials, then DTF is a good pick. DTF printing is a straightforward way to expand your market share since you can easily print designs for a wide variety of material types that cater to a broad audience. Moreover, DTF printing is economical and environmentally friendly since it requires less ink than DTG.
Suppose you have the means to support both solutions. In that case, you’ll be putting yourself at an advantage over your competitors, giving you many opportunities to meet the needs of various clients. Just be sure to weigh your options carefully and plan before taking a plunge with either one (or both) of these printing solutions.