Screen printing is an analog technology that involves pushing ink with a squeegee through a stencil on a fine mesh screen and onto the substrate being decorated. This process can be done either by hand on a manual screen printing press or with an automatic machine. Dye sublimation is a digital printing process that requires a specialty printer similar to an inkjet printer. For dye sublimation, you must first print a mirror image of your design onto special transfer paper, which you then apply to the substrate using a heat press. The heat from the press sublimates the ink on the transfer paper, meaning it goes directly from a solid to a gas without becoming a liquid in between. As a gas, the ink penetrates the material being decorated.
So which is the right method for your project? Here are some of the most important factors to consider:
High volume is the bread and butter of screen printing. The larger the screen printing order, the more cost effective it becomes compared to other methods. By contrast, dye sublimation is time consuming, expensive and highly impractical for large orders. Small orders can be equally impractical for screen printing. To compensate for the setup times needed for screen printing, many screen printing shops will have a minimum order requirement to make jobs worth their while.
Screen printing is a very versatile process, allowing you to print on virtually any garment in any location, and on almost any substrate in addition to shirts – thought it’s easiest on flat surfaces and most commonly used on clothing. While dye sublimation also allows you to decorate almost any product (notably banners and flags), when it comes to shirts your options are more limited. One of the biggest limitations of dye sublimation is that it only works on polyester or other special synthetic garments, so cotton shirts aren’t an option. While dye sublimation delivers vibrant prints, it only works well on white or very light colored garments. Dye sublimation will not be visible on dark substrates. Screen printing, on the other hand, can be applied to garments of almost any material and color.
Perhaps the biggest limitation of screen printing is that you can only apply one color to the substrate at a time, so multicolor designs require multiple screens with different colors of ink that must all be properly aligned – or registered – so the layers line up correctly in the final print. Screen printing setup is fairly labor intensive, especially for multicolor jobs. You don’t have to worry about lining up separate layers of ink with dye sublimation; this method prints all colors at once. Dye sublimation also allows you to customize individual designs more readily than screen printing. For dye sublimation, all you have to do is change the artwork file and print a new transfer; screen printing requires the preparation of an entirely new screen.
Both screen printing and dye sublimation are capable of reproducing fine details and photorealistic images. Dye sublimation always uses combinations of CMYO (cyan, magenta, yellow and clear overcoat) ink to produce any color you desire, so photorealistic images require no additional setup. Screen printing, though more suitable for simpler designs, can achieve the same result using techniques called four-color process or simulated process printing, which recreate photorealistic images using grids of tiny dots. This takes some practice to get right – both on press and in the creation of your artwork – as the dots must be carefully aligned to get the desired result.
While dye sublimation allows you to easily create detailed prints, these come at the expense of special effects possibilities. By nature, dye sublimation leaves you with a flat print that is absorbed into the garment fibers. Screen printing allows you to use specialty inks to create a huge variety of effects, from shiny metal flake, shimmer and foil designs to 3D prints with puff ink.
Both screen printing and dye sublimation can produce prints with a soft hand feel. Dye sublimation ink by nature permeates the substrate material, so the final print has no noticeable weight, leaving you with a more comfortable garment. This can also be accomplished with screen printing using water-based or discharge ink, which also permeates the fabric (plastisol screen printing ink sits on top of the fabric, creating a heavier print). Both methods, when properly executed, will produce long-lasting prints that won’t crack or fade after repeated washing.
Dye sublimation prints are cured with the heat press during the application of the design, while screen printing ink must be heated after printing for proper curing. That means in order to produce screen prints in any volume, you’ll need a conveyor dryer.
Both screen printing and dye sublimation are valuable, versatile methods for garment and promotional product decorators. Both processes have positives and negatives, projects they’re best suited for and projects that won’t work so well. It might be a good idea to consider offering both services at your print shop, so you can take advantage of the strengths of each to give your customers quality prints at any volume while keeping your profit margins as high as possible.
Want to learn more about how screen printing stacks up to other methods? Check out these blogs: