Different jobs are suited to different printing methods – is screen printing or pad printing more suitable for your project?

Screen printing is probably the most well-known process for imprinting logos and custom designs on everything from t-shirts and sports shirts to promotional coffee mugs. There’s another option for laying down ink for custom designs: Pad printing. So what’s the difference between screen printing and pad printing? And which process should you be using?

Screen Printing: Not Just for Textiles

Screen printing is a centuries-old process for printing artwork on textiles and other materials. A screen, or series of screens, is overlaid with a stencil. The ink is placed on top of the screen, and a roller or squeegee passes over the screen, forcing the ink through the stencil on to the substrate below. Screen printing is by far the most common method for inking images onto athletic jerseys, t-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, coffee mugs and more. It’s also used in some industrial applications.

Screen printing is popular because it creates a durable bond with many materials. On fabric, screen printed ink settles into and bonds with the fibers of the garment. It’s also fairly easy to print multi-colored prints using screen printing. Screen printing can be difficult on hard, smooth-surfaced substrates or substrates that include uneven surfaces. While specialty printing can result in highly detailed and even photorealistic images, it can sometimes be difficult to capture the finest images in screen printing.

Pad Printing: Making Difficult Substrates Print-able

Pad printing has been around since the 1960s, and the technology has become more advanced and easier to use over time. An easy way to envision pad printing is to think of the rubber stamps used in crafting. An ink pad is etched with the desired image, and ink is flooded into the etching. A large rubber pad comes down onto the etching, picking up the ink. The pad then stamps the image onto the substrate. Like screen printing, pad printing can be done with multiple colors, but each color has to be printed separately.

Pad printing can be used on nearly any material. It’s especially popular for printing on irregularly shaped surfaced, like golf balls or stress balls, because the soft pad conforms to the surface of the object. For that reason, pad printing also can be used to overlay an image onto an object that has an uneven or multi-level surface. The inks used in pad printing bond easily with plastics and other smooth surfaces. Pad printing also can capture extremely fine details in an image, allowing for the printing of clearer and finer images than is typically possible with screen printing. However, pad printing isn’t a good option for process, photorealistic images, and it is generally used for printing on smaller objects.

Should You Be Pad Printing or Screen Printing?

With multiple options for laying down an image onto a substrate, which is the best choice? It’s important to realize that neither pad printing or screen printing is a superior option. It’s about choosing the right printing option for the project at hand. Laying down large images on t-shirts and jerseys is probably best left to screen printing, but pad printing makes an easier option for printing on small, uneven, curved or plastic surfaces, or when you are trying to capture fine details in an image.

Want to see how screen printing compares to other decoration methods? Check out these blogs:

Screen Printing vs Direct-to-Garment

Screen Printing vs Dye Sublimation

Screen Printing vs Heat Transfer