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Custom T-Shirts - Affordable custom printed t-shirts and apparel from Underground Printing, offering online ordering with no minimums, no set up fees and no art fee. Custom T-Shirts - Affordable custom printed t-shirts and apparel from Underground Printing, offering online ordering with no minimums, no set up fees and no art fee.

Screen Printing vs. Digital Printing: Everything You Need to Know

Screen Printing vs. Digital Printing: Everything You Need to Know

Allyson Sprague
8 minute read

As you may know by now, Underground Printing Company specializes in many types of printing; embroidery, heat press, screen printing and digital printing. However, screen printing and digital printing are the most common. You may ask yourself, what’s best? While there may not be a direct answer to which is better, there is a definite difference. It all depends on what you want for your custom shirts! To make it easier, we have the knowledge and have done the extra research for you to explain the difference between Screen Printing and Digital Printing. 

 

Screen Printing is defined as “the technique of creating a picture or pattern by forcing ink or metal onto a surface through a screen of fine material.” Screen Printing has been around longer than any living human (since the Song Dynasty in China approximately 1000AD) but became big in modern culture during the 1960s. Technological advancements have been consistent, improving quality, efficiency, etc. One thing that hasn’t changed is the main concept. The way Screen Printing works is ink is pushed through a mesh stencil onto fabric. 

 

 

Digital Printing, or Direct-to-Garment (DTG) is described as “the process that lets us print full color, photo quality images directly onto your custom printed t-shirt within minutes.” Unlike Screen Printing, Digital Printing has been around for about 15 years. During this time, technology has advanced greatly allowing this print method to improve every year becoming faster, more affordable, and higher quality. Digital Printing has become much more popular over the years now being used by the majority of online on-demand printing companies.

 

 

Now that we learned what Screen Printing and Digital Printing is, let’s dive into the perks of Screen and Digital Printed products. The largest pro to screen printing is the saturation and brightness of the prints. This method makes your designs stand out from the crowd with a vibrancy that digital printing could never do (at least yet). This vibrancy is because Screen Printing uses Plastisol ink which is generally made of PVC particles in a plasticized emulsion making it extremely opaque with a wide variety of colors. Digital printing uses water-based inks which make them not as opaque and vibrant.

 

 

Let’s talk about color matching. Accurate color matching is important for every print, especially when it comes to corporate branding. Many companies have brand guidelines that have specific Pantone colors which can only be accurate with Screen Printing. If these colors are attempted to be matched with Digital Printing, they will be off the majority of the time. This is because Digital Printing has an underbase that isn’t opaque enough to match perfectly. The shirt color bleeds through and the darker the shirt, the more of a problem color matching is for Digital Printing. Even the most advanced Digital Printing machines have trouble printing the range of colors that Screen Printing can do. Whenever you need to match exact colors, screen printing is the way to go 100% of the time.

 

Durability is something that Digital Printing is good with while Screen Printing is great. The main issue with Digital Printing’s durability is fading of the design. After washing enough times the art work on the garment will fade, how fast depends on how often you wash it as well as how it is washed. No matter how you wash it, even the best made digital printed apparel will eventually fade with time. Screen printing doesn’t have this problem if done properly. The only thing that will cause screen printed designs to fade is if the ink is applied incorrectly or not cured properly. One thing that both Digital and Screen Printing have in common with their durability is the fact drying could have a negative impact on the longevity of the print. For best results, turn your shirts inside out when drying while drying on low heat.

 

 

An important factor for printing on anything is versatility. Versatility for us is being able to print on a variety of textures, styles, locations, etc. Digital Printing is continuing to make technology advances however, it cannot print on everything in the industry quite yet. Digital Printing will usually have trouble with polyester and 50/50 blends making the number one recommendation 100% cotton garments. Screen Printing works well on all three garment types as well as canvas, denim, performance, and more. Digital Printing also can only print on specific styles like T-shirts and hoodies while Screen Printing can do hats, bags, and other accessories. Also, when it comes to locations Digital Printing is limited while Screen Printing can print anywhere as long as the printer can position the item properly. 

 

Special Effects can be anything from raising print to textures, shines and sparkles. This can be done with specialty ink and is designed to add extra dimensions to a print. Some of the most popular specialty inks and additives include puff, metallic, glitter, glow-in-the-dark, shimmer, crackle, and the list goes on. Effects like this simply can’t be done by Digital Printing making Screen Printing the go-to for any extremely creative, out of the box print designs. Specialty inks like this can make a T-shirt design super unique and increase the value tremendously.

 

Now onto color blending. Color blending is the ability to create gradients and a range of colors by blending a smaller amount of colors. Digital Printing does way better in this area than Screen Printing because that is what Digital printers were made to do. Digital Printing is basically a much larger version of a normal printer you would have at your home or office however it is declined for apparel instead of paper. Compared to Screen Printing, Digital Printing is much more reliable when it comes to gradients with smooth transitions. These can be smoke that fade into the shirt or a specific blend needed for skin tones.Screen Printing can take cspot colors off Plastisol and create a spectrum of colors using a “simulated process” but the set up required makes it less efficient (especially for smaller orders). Since Direct Printing inks are water-based and more transparent than Plastisol, the ink can overlap and blend much easier making smooth gradients and fades which Screen Printing cannot. 

 

 

Another advantage of Digital Printing is the details. These details could be small, thin lines, small text, specific textures, small elements, really anything. Screen printing is not as strong when it comes to detail due to screen tension, pressure, speed of ink application, ink gain, ink spread, surface properties of the material, etc. The biggest issue with Screen Printing’s detail is halftones which are tiny dots required when an image is a direct photograph or has gradients. Digital Printing also uses halftones but the machines can print up to 1200 DPI and use diffusion making the dots much smaller than Screen Printing. 

 

Next, let's talk about comfort and feel. This is how the print feels on the shirt (heavy vs. light), if the texture is rough, and if the ink clogs the fibers. The Screen Printing ink Plastisol will usually be heavier on the shirt (which is one reason it’s so durable!) while Digital Printing water-based ink weighs lighter. Some Screen Printing techniques such as “distress effect” can be lighter and softer than other techniques because it’s reducing the amount of surface area occupied by the ink. This breaks it up a bit so it is more flexible and comfortable. The only issue with that being that these types of techniques do not look good on all designs. The majority of regular Screen Printed items are printed with a normal ink layer with two layers, including the under base, of ink on darker items. 

 

They say consistency is key and for the custom printing industry, identical apparel for large orders is a must. Screen Printing can be tricky for every item to be exactly identical. The process has a lot more variables than Digital Printing. With Screen Printing, there can be tension in the screen, the mesh can be clogged, the squeegee sharpness, pressure, and angle can be off, etc. If any of these variables are off, it will make a difference causing at least some variation (even if it is miniscule). Digital Printing however, kills consistency. Unlike Screen Printing, the Digital Printing machine processes as a digital file and prints that exact file onto the shirt. There are basically no variables to stress over. The only variable for Digital Printing is ensuring the garment is placed correctly. 

 

Overall, Screen Printing is the most widely known and most popularly used for printing custom apparel but Digital Printing is still extremely fast and becoming more popular. 


If you ever need assistance with finding out what option is best for you. Contact us and our team members will happily guide you through that process.

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