Main Differences Between Screen Printing and Digital Printing

screen printing vs digital printing

Have you just started looking into the world of printing and come across the terms digital printing and screen printing?

If so, you might have some questions about the two – like what the differences are, what the costs are, and what the advantages and disadvantages of both methods are.

For instance, you may have come across comparisons such as screen printing vs digital printing vs heat-press, and be wondering how you know what to buy for your business.

That is why we’re going to help you understand which printing style suits which applications so you can decide whether a screen printing kit or a digital printing kit is the right choice for you and your business, and what kinds of clients you’ll best be able to serve with each.

Don’t worry if the printing world seems full of confusing terminology, complicated kits, or endless things you need to learn; we’re here to help with all of it and get you set up with exactly what you need.

So, which is better? Screen-print or digital print?

Let’s find out!

Screen Printing

Of the two terms, you are more likely to have come across screen printing, if only because it has been around for longer. Many print shops have been offering screen printing for years, while digital printing is becoming a popular technique now, but hasn’t existed for as long.

Did you know?
Screen printing is also sometimes known as silkscreen printing. A screen printing machine can be used to speed up the traditional screen printing process and make it more viable in today’s world.

What Is Screen Printing?

Screen printing is a technique used to print on fabric, textiles, posters, canvases, and other products. It’s a highly versatile way to transfer a design onto something professionally and neatly, without having to have an artist spend hours drawing and/or painting every individual item that you want printing.

It involves pressing ink through a mesh that has been stenciled on. This will create a printed design in the correct color.

Once washed, the mesh can then be used again to create another print, and you can make many identical prints using this method.

What Do I Need?

Screen printing can be done on all sorts of materials, providing you have the correct inks.

For example, you can’t print on metal using ink that is intended for wood (or vice versa), but you can print on most surfaces with screen printing techniques.

These include:

  • Glass
  • Wood
  • Plastic
  • Metal
  • Paper
  • Fabric

If you want multiple colors in a screen print, these have to be applied in separate layers, so it may be necessary to make multiple prints, allowing the ink to dry in between each application.

There are a few types of stenciling techniques, which include using “screen blockers” such as glue to paint the stencil onto the mesh; using masking tape to cover up parts of the screen, or using a light-sensitive emulsion that can then be developed a little like a photograph.

Screen printed items should last well, depending on their use; in fabrics, you will need to use special ink to ensure that it won’t wash out.

For other items, longevity may vary, especially if they are used in the sun, but screen printing is a durable, lasting solution to printing.

What Is Best Used For?

Screen printing is great if you want very vivid colors, especially if you are keen to get the appearance of overlay that the multiple layers will provide you with. It is also very useful if you want to reprint the same design again and again.

Screen printing can be a good way to apply a design to a team shirt or company logo, or to create repeat signage for a company.

Did you know?
You can even print on pressure-sensitive surfaces such as balloons, making screen printing very versatile, and suitable for all kinds of events and products.

Age Of The Screen Printing Process

Screen printing is an old technique. It’s pretty hard to measure when it became a thing because it has existed in various forms for a long time. You might be able to trace it back as far as China, 960 AD, just over 1000 years ago!

You may also have come across a couple of other terms. 

Firstly, the term lithography, which means printing at speed, with high definition. This is usually used for printing on paper, rather than on fabric. It is an offset printing technique, in which the ink is first applied to the plate, and then transferred to the material being printed.

Second, flexography, which means engraving a cylinder with designs, and then filling the engravings with ink and rolling the ink onto the substrate to create the design.

You May Also Like – Is A Screen-printing Kit All I Need To Start A Print Shop From Home?

Digital Printing

What Is Digital Printing?

Digital printing, also referred to as Direct to Garment printing (or DTG printing), involves using a digital screen printing machine to transfer an image to a piece of fabric. It doesn’t utilize the mesh panels or the equipment that screen printing does, but relies almost solely on the machine.

There are two kinds of digital printing:

  • Sublimation Digital Printing: uses a heat transfer to apply an image printed on coated paper to any polyester fabric
  • Direct Digital Printing: prints directly onto fabric using a DTG printer

What Do I Need To Know?

Digital printing can be done on various materials, but in this context, it’s generally for garment printing.

A DTG printer is much like using an inkjet printer to print things from your computer – except that it’s usually bigger, and it prints on fabric instead.

What Is Best Used For?

Digital printing is great when you want to add lots of colors, or when you have a complicated design that doesn’t work well in stencil form.

Digital printing can create something close to photograph-like quality on clothes, which is obviously a major step up from screen printing techniques that – while occasionally detailed – cannot really achieve anything like this level of intricacy.

It’s easy to customize the prints repeatedly, which is tricky to do with screen printing. Once the stencils have been made, they’re fairly fixed – while digital images can be altered over and over again.

Did you know?
To get the ink to adhere to the fabric properly, you usually need to treat the fabric with a special liquid, which flattens the fibers.

Age Of The Digital Printing Process

Digital printing has only been around for about 15 years. It started around 1996 when the first commercially available DTG printer hit the market in Florida.

Digital printing has come along in leaps and bounds, countering many of the disadvantages originally associated with it, and claiming a good slice of the printing market.

Main Comparisons

Setup and Maintenance Cost

Simply put, DTG is expensive…PERIOD!

Not only can the printers cost anywhere from $16,000 to $250,000, but you would also need a pre-treatment machine, a heat press, and RIP software.

On top of that, the ink is equally expensive. DTG printers also require careful and regular maintenance, which further drives up the cost of owning and operating a machine. 

Compared to that, an entry-level screen printing machine starts at $400, and for $3,000, you can have a multi-color multi-station screen printing for some serious printing.

Screen printing requires significantly less maintenance and the ink is much cheaper to boot.

Related: The True Cost Of Owning A DTG Printer

Winner: Screen Printing

Printing Speed

When it comes to the speed of printing, there is no contest. Screen printing wins hands down.

Since the DTG printer has to print line-by-line, it ends up being much slower than screen printing.

For comparison, an entry-level DTG printer can typically print 15 – 20 t-shirts per hour, while a screen printing machine can easily do 150 per hour. 

Winner: Screen Printing

Bulk Printing

If you need to print large quantities of t-shirts, screen printing is the way to go.

As mentioned above, a screen printing setup can cranks out 150 t-shirts per hour, while a DTG printer can barely keep up at 15 – 20 t-shirts per hour. The cost-saving and increased output make any setup you have to do for screen printing negligible

Winner: Screen Printing

Durability

When it comes to durability, screen-printed t-shirts tend to last longer and withstand more washes than DTG printing.

While the exact number varies depending on fabric and ink used, DTG typically lasts only 25% – 50% as many washes as screen printing.

Winner: Screen Printing

Print On Demand

Conversely, if you only need a couple of t-shirts, then DTG is the way to go.

All the extra setup you have to do to screen printing will make the cost of printing a handful of t-shirts prohibitive.

DTG requires minimal setup, and you can print a t-shirt as you would print a paper. 

Winner: DTG

Colorful and Intricate Artwork

Need to print a family photo on a t-shirt? DTG is your friend!

Screen printing requires you to have one screen per color. The more colorful the art, the more screen you need, and the longer it will take to print a single t-shirt.

Furthermore, after a certain number of colors, screen printing is not feasible.

DTG has no such restriction.

With proper pre-treatment, you can print any number of colors you want. Need a photo-realistic print, go for DTG.

Winner: DTG

Which one should you choose?

  • The best printing method ultimately comes down to what you want your business to be. Our rule of thumb is simple. 
  • If you are going to be printing in bulks, then go for screen printing. 
  • If you are tight on budget, then start with screen printing.
  • If you are going to be doing print on demand, or small orders, or ultra colorful pictures, then go for DTG. 
  • Also, it’s not uncommon for screen printing shops to have a DTG machine to handle smaller orders. You can always start with one and grow into the other.

Conclusion

In terms of money, digital printing vs screen printing cost is very difficult to weigh up because it depends on your customer’s needs.

In terms of quality, screen printing will offer lasting prints with more accurate colors and better textures, but digital printing will offer more flexible, variable, and detailed designs.

What kind of printing works best for your business will depend on which market you would like to cater for. If you can afford to get involved with both, do so; it will maximize the number of clients you can market to, and give you flexibility with the jobs you take on.

Do some market research before you purchase your equipment, so you can make sure you are buying the right thing for the clients you will be aiming to serve.

CEO & Principal Engineer at

Having worked as a software engineer for Amazon and Microsoft, Anbin founded YoPrint to build the best-in-class print shop management software. Anbin aims to use cutting-edge technology staple to tech giants to help modernize the print industry.