Growing Your Print Shop from DTF Printing: A Primer

Growing Your Print Shop from DTF Printing: A Primer

Are you stuck with how you want to take your fledgling print shop to new heights? With the many different printing methods available today, it can take time to pick one that would work best for your business. The stakes can be high if you don’t know what you’re doing, and one wrong move can cost you dearly.

Choosing a printing method you like, then working your way from there might seem easy. But take it from us: going in blindly without any research will only be very costly to your business in the long run. You need to know what the market wants and how to meet that demand with the resources you have.

And that’s just where this guide comes in. We’ll provide you with helpful pointers to growing your print shop and how you can take your business further as time goes by.

So Where Do I Start?

You may have also been looking around at all the different ways to print custom garments. Most of them produce great-looking prints, and, as such, you need to come to a decision. If you want our opinion, we’ll recommend you choose DTF printing – and with good reasons.

A rack of colorful shirts

But Why DTF Printing?

DTF printing is a heat transfer printing method. You’ll create a design, print it on a special transparent film, and apply an adhesive powder that you’ll need to melt before applying it to a garment. Despite being a recent innovation, it’s taken the industry by storm because of its versatile applications and impressive printing speed and volume, especially with industrial-grade DTF printers.

Still, DTF printing presents many advantages and much-needed flexibility for your fledgling printing business. These include:

Low entry ceiling: Simple at-home printing doesn’t need to break the bank to start with DTF printing. You can purchase converted inkjet printers that are now tailored for DTF printing for prices as low as $200. There’s an abundance of low-cost converted printers available on the market, but your mileage will vary with their ease of use and maintenance cycles.

You can also find various starter packages, which come with a DTF printer and all the consumables you’ll need. You can find some packages going for around $1,000. Other equipment, such as a clamshell heat press, can also be bought at a relatively low price.

Nevertheless, the low cost – like screen printing – helps beginners start printing custom garments quickly. With free online tutorials, you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank by investing in the necessary printing equipment.

Ink cartridges loaded in a printer

Affordable consumables: Not only is it easy to acquire an affordable starting printer, but most of the consumables you need are also very affordable. You’ll need DTF transfer films for printing the designs, DTF inks, and hot melt adhesive powder that allows the design to adhere to the garment’s surface.

For a single DTG ink bottle, you can purchase two DTF ink bottles with a similar capacity at a lower price point. You can also buy good quality transfer films in sheet packs or rolls for just $100 or less (depending on their size).

Easy printing process: Getting prints out is a very straightforward process. First, print your design onto the transfer film, then apply the hot melt powder to it. Place the film over the area of the garment, cover both with a sheet of protective paper, then use the heat press to set the design into the garment’s surface. It’s that easy!

You can even heat press the design a second time (again with the protective paper) to help drive the inks further into the garment’s surface to improve its overall durability. Once it’s sufficiently cooled, it’s ready to pack and send to your customer.

Incredible versatility: DTF printing works on various substrates, be it cotton, polyester, and even metals and glass. You need the right heat press to apply the print to whatever item you print. In fact, why limit yourself to custom garments? With so many other ways to make a unique gift for someone, you could print on mugs, flasks, caps, and more with DTF printing’s incredible versatility. You can even sell printed films, enabling your customers to heat press your prints to almost anything they like.

Good print quality: DTF printing quickly creates beautiful-looking prints with decent color vibrancy and durability. DTF prints have a noticeable plastic-like feel when you run your hand over them, but it’s comparable to the feel of DTG prints.

Fast production speeds: If you use transfer film rolls and have a streamlined workflow, you can print multiple designs on a single roll and have them all pressed on garments before the day ends. It’s nowhere as slow as weed vinyl designs or going through the long-winded pretreatment process for DTG printing.

With better DTF printers, you can even use wider transfer film rolls to print more designs faster than converted printers.

Can I Consider Other Printing/Decoration Methods?

Your foremost concern should be how you make use of your budget. While other printing methods have their fair share of advantages, some require significant equipment, time, and skill investment to get it running optimally.

A glittery gold heat transfer vinyl sheet

Heat transfer vinyl (HTV): This method is similar to DTF printing because it’s a simple heat transfer method to create custom garments. It differs from DTF in its use of vinyl sheets, a specialty material with an adhesive backing to bind itself to the garment. Vinyl comes in various colors and patterns that are relatively easy to work with. Creating prints requires a vinyl cutter to cut the vinyl sheet to the desired shape. You’ll then need to remove any excess material (weeding) from the cut sheet before applying it to the garment.

HTV’s biggest drawback is its slow speed. While a vinyl cutter doesn’t take very long to cut vinyl sheets into shape, the weeding process requires careful, meticulous attention. Any small mistake can affect the overall print, so you can’t rush the process. The degree of precision needed hinders HTV from adequately meeting medium-large orders and is thus best suited for small, unique orders. Meanwhile, DTF printing doesn’t need any weeding; once the printed film is ready, heat press it to the garment, and you’re good to go.

A blue shirt ready for DTG printing

DTG printing: DTG is short for direct-to-garment, where a printer creates designs directly onto the garment’s surface. It’s a digital printing process that enables you to create complex, multicolored designs from your computer and translate it to the garment. DTG prints remain a popular choice thanks to excellent color blending, good production speeds, and decent durability.

While DTG printing continues to be popular, its biggest drawback is the high investment ceiling. Even a mid-range DTG printer can set you back at least $5,000, and that’s just for the printer alone. Converted DTG printers used to be common on various online marketplaces. The rising popularity of DTF printing has largely supplanted these converted DTG printers in favor of converted DTF printers.

Consumable prices are also rather costly, even if you use compatible inks. Much of the cost comes from the white ink you use as an underbase on dark-colored garments, a necessity to prevent the water-based DTG inks from being fully absorbed by the garment. Its printing speed is also relatively slow, and the only way to increase productivity is to invest in automation systems, which inevitably require more money. This is not ideal for a brand-new print shop trying to spread its wings.

Dye sublimation: Dye sublimation uses heat and pressure from a heat press to convert special dye sublimation inks from solid to gaseous. The gaseous ink will then turn back into a solid, being absorbed by the substrate and becoming a permanent part of the substrate. It’s mainly used to create vivid, photographic-quality prints. It’s also considered a heat transfer method, as the inks must be printed on special transfer paper before they can sublimate from solid to gas.

Dye sublimation inks loaded in a printer

Dye sublimation is also an expensive printing method to start with. It requires a lot of very specialized equipment to use, and even though some entry-level equipment does make it easy to produce garments, it also has a relatively slow production speed compared to the rest. Dye sublimation is usually only viable when using larger machinery to mass-produce garments, typically known as cut-and-sew or all-over printing.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Expanding your print shop will take a lot of work. If you stick to your business plan and manage your budget carefully, you can improve your current setup and take things further.

Converted printers alone won’t work if you plan to attract more customers. They work for an entry-level setup, but you can’t continue selling entry-level goods. Eventually, you’ll need to get dedicated printing equipment to create better goods to keep the momentum going.

While DTF printing opens up many possibilities, you shouldn’t restrict yourself to that one avenue. The niche for other printing methods is still as popular as ever. It all boils down to where you plan to take your business: will you print similar designs in large volumes or have more varied designs in smaller custom orders?

Diversifying with Screen Printing

A manual screen printing press

Once your shop has reached the point where you have sufficient staff and budget to meet your steadily increasing customer orders, you can provide new, attractive services to attract potential customers. Diversification helps your shop stand out and offers new avenues for growth. As such, screen printing is an excellent choice for your shop to start diversifying.

Screen printing is a laborious process from start to finish, though an ideal setup can improve overall productivity. At this juncture, your printing shop would have sufficiently expanded so that you could dedicate people to handle screen printing orders. With a streamlined printing process, you’ll be able to quickly add screen printing to your list of services and open up to a new customer base.

Screen printing’s advantages complement DTF printing’s pros and cons, allowing you to expand your customer base and give them new, enticing choices.

Efficiency: Its strength lies in its ability to complete bulk orders in record time. With a proper setup, screen printing can quickly produce 150 garments per hour, easily keeping pace with DTF printing’s output. In fact, its cost-effectiveness steadily increases the more garments you need to print; basically, the more you print, the more you save.

Versatility: Screen printing is just as versatile as DTF printing, though it’s unable to print onto polyester garments as effectively as DTF. Nevertheless, screen printing can create unique prints made from cotton, blends, or other natural fibers.

Color matching: Screen printing inks are best used for Pantone color matching, making it suitable to print company logos with the correct color schemes. Some customers can be pretty particular about color consistency with their company logo, and DTF printing might not be able to replicate that color using the CMYK color gamut. As such, you can meet a company’s needs with screen printing.

A collection of Pantone color cards

Color vibrancy: Screen printing inks are capable of accurate color matching partly due to their vibrant, solid colors. Since colors are applied using separate screens, each color retains its original brilliance, creating very bright prints.

Diversification has advantages, but keeping it to a narrow spectrum isn’t a limiting factor to your shop’s growth. For one, you can focus on your two core niches (DTF and screen printing) and establish your reputation as a specialist in these two fields. From a practical point of view, this means keeping costs manageable while allowing your shop to offer specialized services within your niches.

Equipping for Better Productivity

Making the most of the time available can change how your shop handles all its orders. Using time-saving equipment, such as conveyor dryers that quickly dry multiple newly printed garments at once, can significantly reduce the overall production time of garment orders. Adding multiple printers (of the same model you’re currently using) is also a simple strategy to keep your production going as your orders increase.

The adage “Work smart, not hard” very much applies in the context of productivity. Take dunk tanks, for example. Using a dunk tank provides a faster way to reclaim screens quickly; fill it up with water, add some emulsion stripper to it, and then place a few screens inside and let them soak for a while. Take them out and rinse them thoroughly, and you’ll have removed any excess emulsion on the screens. This helps cut down on cleanup time, which then helps boost production times on more essential tasks.

A person using a squeegee to push ink through a mesh screen

Eventually, you’ll need to buy better printers with better printing speeds to keep up with growing demands. With that comes a need to get better equipment to keep pace with faster printing speeds. These are all integral parts of scaling your business; otherwise, you’ll never be able to finish your many customer orders promptly. You can purchase multiple printers to help meet your current demands while keeping your costs relatively low; as your demand grows, you can potentially see a return on investment within a few weeks or months.

Even as the business expands, your current equipment will still be necessary. Demand will grow, but that doesn’t mean order sizes will also grow similarly. You’ll still have a variety of customers to cater to, after all.

Taking Growth Further

As your print shop receives more and more orders from customers, scaling your business becomes crucial to keep up with the non-stop orders your shop accepts.

Automatic Machines

An automatic screen printing press

Investing in automatic screen printing presses is the most cost-effective way to grow your business and keep up with demand. Sure, the investment ceiling for these pieces of equipment is pretty high, but once you implement their use in your printing operations, you’ll find that they ramp up your production to unprecedented levels. That’s not to say manual printing isn’t any good. However, the most apparent means of scaling your printing business would be to jump to automatic printing.

You may run into situations where you have to decline an order because you can’t meet the customer’s needs. It might be a large-scale volume that your shop isn’t equipped to handle or have specific printing requirements you can’t meet. If you also find yourself dealing with close calls from overlapping deadlines, or even burnout among your staff, it’s high time to get an automatic printing press.

Automatic printing brings several key benefits to your shop’s output:

  • You’ll be able to print garments at far more impressive speeds, tripling your output (if not more!) for jobs that usually take hours to complete
  • You can reduce your overhead costs while improving efficiency
  • You can reduce labor costs for hiring replacements if any of your hires call in sick (for example)
  • You retain the same consistent print quality you’ve always achieved

Investing in an automatic is still a daunting task, owing to the various factors you need to consider: spatial and power requirements, ventilation, the press’ capabilities, training staff to use the machine – the list goes on. Ensure that you carefully weigh your options before jumping headlong into buying one.

For your DTF operations, consider industrial-grade printers like the Digital HeatFX DTF-24H2 for their ability to print multiple designs on a single roll while automatically applying hot melt powder while the inks are wet. They might be on the same scale as an automatic screen printing press. Still, their ability to improve your DTF printing process’ efficiency, such as the inclusion of an automatic hot melt powder shaker, is quite similar to what an automatic press can do for your screen printing.

Emerging Technologies

A promotional image of the Digital Squeegee
Image sourced from M&R

With so many advances in the printing industry, it wouldn’t hurt to consider implementing emerging technologies as part of your services to your growing audience. Consider, for example, M&R’s Digital Squeegee, which combines screen printing techniques with DTG printing methods: you’ll apply a screen-printed underbase to the garment, then follow it up with digital artwork printed on top of that underbase. Doing so reduces the need for pretreating garments beforehand, reducing overall pre-printing time (and the associated costs) while allowing you to create more colorful and intricate designs in no time.

Because of its merging of two printing methods, the Digital Squeegee operates alongside an automatic screen printing press, which means that you can significantly ramp up your production speed and still enjoy high-quality digitally printed garments.

Marketing and Promotions

With the automatic presses and printers working hard to meet your customer orders, you can focus on marketing your business and offering a variety of promotions to attract more customers. For example, if you have several screen printing services, you can use that as a selling point for taking on specialized screen printing jobs. You can extend your DTF printing services to create simple posters or signage, opening up new opportunities with what you have.

It’s always exciting when you can offer something different than what you usually provide to customers. It isn’t just about retaining your customer base or drawing in new customers; keeping up with the times allows your shop to stay competitive against competitors offering the exact solutions you have.

Take it Step by Step

In conclusion, starting with DTF printing is a simple, affordable, and effective way to begin with custom garment printing. As you build your business, you’ll be able to invest in better equipment and have more hands available to keep the business growing. At the same time, once you’re in a better financial position, you can have an additional source of income (such as screen printing) to drive sales and attract a new niche to your business.

Over time, investing in automation systems, such as automatic screen printing presses and automatic washout booths (among other things), is the logical conclusion to further your printing operations. The exponential growth you stand to gain from such an investment is bound to help boost your sales and drive new growth in other markets.

All these will take time, so don’t be too hasty to think quickly about reaching impossible heights. Have a detailed plan, keep your budgetary needs simple for now, and be sure to adapt to changes as the industry naturally evolves through various innovations. In time, you might get the chance to watch your brand grow into a significant industry player.