Heat Press vs Screen Printing: Which Is Better?

With a number of printing options available now anyone can print a t-shirt and even mass produce hundreds of them for a lucrative business.

Screen printing and heat press printing are two of the most common processes used but how do you know which one can suit your needs?

To understand that you need to understand what makes these printing methods special. That is why we wanted to take a closer look at the classic battle - heat press vs screen printing - so you can make the right choice and become the undisputed champion!

Heat Press vs Screen Printing - In My Craft Room

What is Heat Press Printing?

A heat press is a printing machine that has a plate that can get scalding hot to the touch. You can control it with pressure, temperature and time to get the print quality you need.

These allow you to set precise conditions that can ensure that a print is transferred to a garment accurately. Using this printing method you can print on different sized shirts easily enough.

The machine makes use of heat and pressure to transfer a design from paper to a piece of fabric. It starts with a work of art that is created on special transfer paper using special ink.

That artwork is then transferred to a shirt via heat and pressure. Think of it as a huge iron just for printing on shirts.

Make sure to check out our more in-depth article on how to make heat press transfer for t-shirts...

Types of Heat Press Printing or Transfer

There are 2 kinds and sources of heat transfer that heat press prints utilize. Topical transfers stick to the surface of the material while sublimation transfers are absorbed in the fibers.

Vinyl Heat Transfer

This material is used regularly in a heat press machine since it acts as a natural adhesive at high temperatures.

Here is how it works...

You need to use a machine cut out the design you want to print on a piece of colored vinyl. The heat press is then used to transfer the design onto the shirt or printing object.

The vinyl melts onto the fabric and adheres to it for a final print. This also ensures that the garment can undergo many wash cycles without getting damaged.

If you have small orders to take care of, the heat press is the best option. That way you will also be able to reduce the time and resources needed to print the order.

This makes vinyl and heat press transfers the best option for custom jerseys.

Digital Heat Transfer

The first thing you need to do in this is to print the digital image on a heat transfer paper using special solvent ink. This ink allows the design to transfer from the paper to the garment via heat and pressure.

However, vinyl printing can last longer especially if you follow the washing instructions that are mentioned on the cloth. This includes temperature and whether the garment can be ironed or not.

Heat Press Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Heat press printing is environmentally friendly and is a great option for anyone who wants to reduce his/her carbon footprint or wants to make a t-shirt printing business environmentally friendly.
  • Special inks ensure high-quality prints. Depending on the machine you get, you can get better software or advanced graphical options that can ensure more flexibility and better control
  • Can be used to print multiple colors as long as they do not overlap.
  • Affordable and does not require registration marks.
  • Easy to set up and use.

Cons

  • The printed design may feel bulky and heavy on the shirt. However, the print provides unmatched and lasting quality.
  • The prints come out best in the hands of a professional or with practice.
  • Ironing can damage the print since it is basically stamped onto the fabric. However, with proper care, the print can last for a long time.

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing harkens back to the ancient Chinese who used to use silk to print which is why this process is also called silk screening. The technique has been used for thousands of years but despite its age, it is still widely used today because of how efficient it is.

In the simplest terms, screen printing involves the application of ink on objects via a screen thus the namesake.

Even though it is predominantly used for clothing, it can be used to print on any surface such as products like pens, business cards, bottles, and hats.

The process is quite complex and requires a special environment, equipment, and chemicals.

This includes:

  • Emulsion which is used to create a screen.
  • An emulsion remover, ink thinner, and dehaze that are used to clean the screen after use.
  • A washout booth that is used to clean as well as create the screen.
  • A dark room for storing and drying emulsion coated screens in and a light machine to burn screens in.
  • A flash and conveyer belt dryer for drying screens.
  • A printing machine.

Besides these essentials, you may also need some tape, films, scrubbers, squeegees and at last 20 screens of different mesh sizes.

Types of Screen Printing Inks

You have 2 ink choices in screen printing namely:

Water-Based Ink

This eco-friendly ink seeps into the fabric which ensures a soft feel and causes minimal to no harm to the environment.

The designs that are printed with water-based ink do not crack or fade with time but the best materials to use it in include towels, pure cotton fabric and stretchy/lightweight material such as bamboo.

Most water-based inks are not capable of producing bright colors on darker shirts.

To produce darker prints, you will need to use ink that has higher opacity which won’t compromise the soft feel of the printed shirt. Or you can just use discharge ink to produce the same result.

Keep in mind that the type of ink you use for screen printing will depend on the manufacturer and client specifications.

Plastisol Ink

This ink doesn’t enter the fibers of the shirt it is being used to print on. Rather, it sits on top which means that it is more prone to cracking and damage.

Shirts that are screen printed with plastisol ink may be cheaper but besides its low life span, it is also not very eco-friendly.

Screen Printing Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Ensures a softer feel compared to heat transfer methods.
  • Best for large designs that are made of multiple colors.
  • Results in a bright print even on darker fabric.
  • Fabric that goes through screen printing can withstand washing machine cycles since the heat is dry. Ideally, a screen printed design can last till the lifetime of the fabric it is printed on.
  • Ideal for cotton printing or fabric that is a blend of polyester and cotton.
  • Best and most cost-effective printing method for bulk orders.

Cons

  • Screen printing can be quite a time-consuming task since each color has to be prepared on a different screen. This can take a lot of time and energy when you have to set up each screen and clean each one before the next can be applied.
  • The process can get complicated especially if a design has multiple colors.
  • To reduce the cost of the print you will have to print a number of shirts that have the same color or colors. Otherwise, the printing can get quite expensive since you will need to make a number of screens for one design.
  • Photographs do not print well with screen printing.

Wrapping It Up...

The type of prints you are looking for will depend on the printing technique you choose. Screen printing may be an old method but it is quite effective since it has better equipment and tools that can help you create complex designs.

However, the heat press is ideal for multi-color designs but that will depend on the quality of the machine you get.

If you need designs to last for a while and retain their quality for longer, you should go with screen printing but there is an issue. While you can create multi-color designs on print, complex ones can come out wonky.

To get pristine prints for sophisticated designs, you will need to use multiple screens which can cost a lot of money, but the quality will be unquestionable.

The bottom line is that the type of printing technique you should go for will depend on the money, time and resources you have on hand and which you are ready to invest in.

If you can afford it, you can keep a heat press in your screen printing business for customers who need bulk orders over an extended period of time. This is why most printers prefer this method when they are starting out or want to sell several prints at a time.