Heat Transfer vs. Screen Printing on T-Shirts and Promo Items

Updated November, 2019

Heat-Transfer vs. Screen Printing on T-Shirts & Promo Items

Printed promotional apparel is among one of the most popular categories of promo items. From casual to formal, outdoor to accessories, apparel is something everyone loves. This go-to choice turns your recipients into walking billboards for your brand!

When it comes to customizing t-shirts and other apparel items, there are two main ways to get a logo or other artwork onto the product: heat-transfer printing and screen printing. While both methods essentially transfer an image onto fabric, there are plenty of differences and situations where one method might be better suited than the other.

In addition to their advantages and disadvantages, the two designs come out quite differently, so customer preference also comes into play. Let’s take a closer look at these two imprint methods:

What is Heat-Transfer Printing?

A somewhat recent innovation, heat transferring images to fabric has become more popular in the last 20 years. A heat transfer uses a combination of heat and pressure to print images onto t-shirts and other items. There are two main kinds of heat transfer methods: vinyl and digital print. Both methods require the use of a heat-press machine.

How Does a Vinyl Heat Transfer Work?
The vinyl heat-transfer process uses a machine to cut out individual letters and designs from pieces of colored vinyl. The full image is then pieced together on the promo item and pressed with heat to transfer the image to the item. This method is best suited for printing sportswear jerseys, slogans, or small, multi-colored graphics.

How Does Digital Print Heat Transfer Work?
A digital print heat transfer is accomplished through a process much like a home printer. The full graphic image is designed on the computer and digitally printed onto high-quality paper using a special, solvent ink. When the paper is pressed to the promo item with heat, the ink adheres to the material and the graphic image transfers to the item. T-shirts and other garments printed using this method offer high-resolution images and are ideal for complex designs with many colors.
Heat transfers are great for smaller print runs or jobs that involve many colors. This method of printing requires a special printer and quality of paper, as well as a heating press to set the design in place.

The Pros:
o More cost-effective for smaller orders
o Easy to print images containing multiple colors and complex designs
o Affordable setup keeps costs down
o Produces high-quality images
o Allows you to easily customize different shirts
o Clean and environmentally friendly

The Cons:
o Not ideal for darker shirts
o Designs don’t last as long as screen printed shirts
o Results in a stiffer feel on the fabric
o Colors aren’t as bright as screen printed shirts

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing basically uses screens and ink to transfer an image onto a t-shirt or promo item. While original forms of this art date back to around 960 AD, screen printing in its current form was not discovered until the 1910s after several printers stumbled upon the modern emulsion process. It wasn’t until Andy Warhol began popularizing the practice in the 1960s that screen printing (or silk screening as it’s also called) really started being used in the mainstream.

To get the desired effect, the screen is first cut to create what is essentially a stencil for the design. The ink is then spread over the screen with a squeegee, passing through the “stencil” to the t-shirt or promo item underneath. Only one color may be used for each screen, so for a design with multiple colors you will need multiple screens.

This process can be more time-consuming for designs that have many colors; however, screen-printed art tends to last much longer than heat-pressed art. It also requires more chemicals and equipment for it to work.

The Pros:
o Screen printing is more cost effective for large quantities
o Results in a softer feel on fabrics
o Designs are more durable and last longer
o Allows for more vibrant colors, even on a dark-colored fabrics

The Cons:
o Limited to simple designs with few colors
o The process can be messy and time consuming up front
o Expensive to set up requiring higher minimums – not suitable for small orders
o Not ideal for photo replication
o Uses more chemicals and equipment than heat transfers

Heat Transfer vs. Screen Printing Quality

When it comes to printing quality, there are a couple ways to look at it: durability and resolution. While heat-pressed items yield a higher resolution image to start with, the image won’t last as long as one on a screen-printed item.

Freshly printed it will likely appear that the graphic produced using the heat transfer method is of better quality; however, over time graphics produced using the screen-printing method will appear of better quality.

During the screen-printing process, the ink actually becomes part of the fabric as opposed to a heat-pressed ink that just sits on top of the fabric. That’s why heat-transfers don’t hold up as well to machine washing and drying – they may crack and fade over time whereas screen prints tend to hold fast and true.

While screen prints may hold up better in the long run, you’re limited in the complexity of the design with screen prints. Heat transfers allow more freedom in color and sophistication making a more crisp-looking image (but keep in mind the crisp look will not last as long).

Which Printing Method is Best?

The printing method best for you depends on your individual needs. Consider your answers to following questions when deciding between the two:

• Does your imprint image have a complex, detailed design?
Yes = Heat transfer will cost-effectively produce the crispest image

• Does your imprint image contain more than two or three colors?
Yes = Heat transfer is the more cost-effective method

• What color is the t-shirt fabric you’re printing on?
Dark = Screen printing will produce the more vibrant imprint
Light = Heat transfer will produce the more vibrant image

• Does your target audience value environment-friendly products?
Yes = Heat transfer will add value

• How many shirts or promo items are you ordering?
Less than 500 = Heat transfer is the more cost-effective method
More than 500 = Screen printing is the more cost-effective method

• Does your target audience prefer longer-lasting clothing and promos or a higher-end appearance for the short-term?
Higher quality, short-term = Heat transfer is the best method for you
Lower resolution, lasting image = Screen printing is the best method for you

While both methods offer solutions to getting a design onto a t-shirt or other product, screen printing and heat transfers are each great for different reasons. If you are printing customized designs with different names (such as sports team uniforms), a heat transfer might be the most cost-effective way to go; however, if you are printing a larger order of the same image and want a more durable design, screen printing is likely your best bet.

It all depends on what you need and what’s important to your target audience.

For more imprint method options, check out our glossary. And if you have any questions about heat transfer vs. screen printing or other imprint methods, give us a call! Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is happy to help you find the best possible imprint and item for your unique situation.

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