Screen Print Vs Sublimation [Differences & Ideas]

Customized apparel and accessories are a trendy form of art today and screen printing is among the most popular techniques used to create them. In fact, the best screen printing machine can help you create awe-striking designs from the comfort of your home! 

At the same time, other methods like DTG (direct-to-garment) printing and heat press have garnered attention over the past few years. Hence, you will find a lot of information on screen print vs. DTG or screen printing vs. heat press.

However, sublimation is another printing technique that’s emerging as an easier and less time-consuming means of creating custom prints. So, today, we will walk you through the differences between screen printing and sublimation, which will help you make the right choice. 

Dive in! 

What Is Screen Printing?

Format large inkjet printer working on yellow vinyl banner. What is screen printing.

Simply put, screen printing works by pushing ink through a stencil on a meshed screen (hence the name) to create the design on your desired fabric. This can be done either manually (by using a squeegee) or through a screen printing machine.

Although traditional screen printing uses silk fabric as the screen, the screens today can be made from any meshy fabric.

What Is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing or dye sublimation printing is the process of creating designs on t-shirts or other similar apparel with the help of a special heat transfer paper and heat press. All you have to do is use a sublimation printer to print the design and transfer it to the garment with the heat press. 

Now that you have an idea about these techniques, let’s compare the two on the basis of some important factors. 

1. Quality Of Print

One of the first things that both professionals and DIYers would want to know about is the quality of print achieved through these techniques. 

Starting with the screen printing method, it creates textured or raised designs that can have as many or as few colors as you want. The colors come out bright and vibrant, and you can rest assured that your screen-printed shirts or t-shirts won’t be fading anytime soon. However the setup costs and printing time will significantly increase if you want to print using multiple colors. 

Sublimation printing can also create bold colors and prints that last for a long time. However, the prints don’t have any texture as such and sit completely flat on the fabric (like ink on paper). On the flip side, it’s preferred by people who want to create fine details in their artworks. 

Talking about longevity, the quality of the ink and the process of heat transfer will decide how long the design will stay on the fabric before fading. The good news is that following the proper technique and allowing the printed surface adequate drying time will keep the design as good as new even after many washes. 

2. Ease Of Printing

When it comes to ease of printing, we’d say that sublimation printing has the upper hand, as it allows you to replicate photo-realistic designs without much effort. 

A very big advantage of sublimation transfers is that they can create detailed prints on different surfaces. It essentially uses a special printer to print a digital image on a sublimation transfer paper, meaning you can create the most complicated designs using almost any design software. 

Once this step is over, stick the printed paper on the t-shirt with the design side down and use the heat press to transfer it. Voila! Your custom art is ready to use.

Silk screening is a more complicated printing technique since it has a number of steps that may not be easy to master, especially for first-timers. It starts with creating a stencil (or outline) of your desired design, which can become time-consuming, and at times, frustrating if you want to create a detailed design.

Next, you need to place the emulsion on the screen, coat it with a light-sensitive emulsion, and expose it under a strong light source. After the design forms an outline, use a squeegee to force the ink through the stencil to create the print.

Long story short, screen printing projects require a lot of time and effort, especially if you need multiple prints at once. Moreover, printing varied colors will require different screens, thereby adding to the complexity of the process.

3. Cost Efficacy

The cost efficiency of these two methods will largely depend on your business model. For instance, if you’re into custom t-shirt printing, then sublimation prints will be more cost-effective. 

Moreover, sublimation generally requires a one-time setup (except for the inks, which may need to be restocked frequently), so the overall printing process becomes more cost-effective no matter how many t-shirts you print. This will come in handy for people who want professional results from the get-go with high-quality equipment but may be wary about cost efficiency during the initial days of the business.

Alternatively, if you want to replicate the same design on more than just a couple of t-shirts or other apparel, then screen printing may be your go-to method. The reason is pretty simple- the cost and efforts required for the setup will not be worth investing in if you’re printing on only one or two t-shirts. 

In fact, this is one of the many reasons why many businesses dealing with screen printing only accept bulk orders.

That said, people who like making custom-printed t-shirts occasionally may prefer screen printing with a DIY screen and some emulsion. The stencils can either be hand sketched or printed from a laser printer.

4. Consistency Of Prints

Both sublimation and screen printing can produce consistent designs, provided you use the right technique and placements. 

In the case of sublimation prints, you can replicate the same design repeatedly by simply printing it over and over again on the special transfer paper. But you have to ensure that the paper is placed properly on the t-shirts each time to negate the chances of misaligned designs or smudges from the paper.

Similarly, you can reuse the individual color screens to create the same print repeatedly for high-volume orders. However, given the surface of the screen itself, there may be more chances of unwanted ink transfers or smudges, especially if you don’t have a screen printing machine.

In our opinion, both these techniques require practice and patience to master, so it’s recommended to create a couple of practice prints before moving on to the final one.

5. Special Effects

If you want to create special effects in your design, then screen prints are the way to go. You can use different paints like glitter paints, 3D inks, acrylic paints, etc. Not only that, but you can also create different textures and designs, such as foil designs or even glow-in-the-dark artwork.

Furthermore, you can alter the pain application process (on the mesh screen) to create the desired effects. Keep in mind that the turnaround time will be longer as you may need to create different screens for different colors or paints. But your customers can definitely wait for a custom print t-shirt that sets them apart from the crowd!

When it comes to sublimation printing, the scope of creating special effects is limited, as you can only use prints that are compatible with the printer and paper being used. You may, however, choose a fabric with a low cotton percentage to create a faded or vintage design.

Equipment and machines for painting cloth at a garment factory closeup. Screen print vs sublimation : the color theory.

Screen Print Vs Sublimation: The Color Theory

Sublimation printing works best for creating multi-colored designs, which can be a hassle to achieve in screen-printed designs. Screen printing requires different colors to be applied one layer at a time, so you can imagine the time and effort needed to create designs with complex color combinations.

Professional screen printers generally use large machines with multiple arms, each responsible for printing with a separate color screen. However, this isn’t really feasible for first-timers or DIYers looking to screen print with more than one color.

This problem is solved to a great extent by sublimation printers, as they can print any color combination you want (just like ordinary prints). But there’s a catch here- sublimation works better for printing on white fabrics than others.

The main reason for this is the usage of CMYK (also called process color or “four color”) printers, which can’t print using white ink. Hence, you will need to leave blank spaces on the white fabric to include white in the designs. 

Moreover, sublimation prints may not give you the desired clarity while printing dark colors, especially on dark-colored fabrics. This is not the case with screen printing, as you can employ this technique to print on almost any fabric.

The Printing Methods And Color Blending

Another important aspect related to color is color blending, and let us tell you that precise blending is challenging in both screen and sublimation printing. Besides, the technique used to create the required shade is completely different for the two.

Screen printing uses manual color blending, meaning you need to mix the shades of colors by hand. While professionals generally use blending machines to create their desired shade before applying it to the screen, you may do it directly on the mesh screen.

This will also render a nice ombre effect to your effect; however, it requires some skill and, of course, a lot of practice.

As far as sublimation printing is concerned, there’s one crucial step to ensure that you get the right shades according to your requirements. Although the printer will do the blending for you, always make sure that you use an ICC profile-supporting software while using colors for the design on the computer.

Printers print color shades differently than what is seen on the screen, and an ICC profile ensures that you get the shades exactly as you see them on the screen.

Fabric Compatibility

Sublimation printing is generally preferred for printing on polyester fabric (or synthetic fabrics), as the synthetic polyester helps the chemical dyes used in the process bond with the fabric. So, as long as the fabric has large amounts of polyester or synthetic, you can use sublimation printing to create custom prints on it.

In contrast, screen printing is more suitable for cotton t-shirts or cotton-based fabric. However, you can use both these techniques for blended fabric as well by ensuring more cotton for screen printing and polyester for sublimation printing.

When Should You Choose Screen Printing?

Screen printing will come in real handy if you want to create designs on flat surfaces like t-shirts. The textured prints created in screen printing can turn any plain garment into a piece of art. However, it can be used on just about any surface, like coffee mugs.

  • Suitable for many surfaces and fabric types
  • Compatible with different types of paints
  • Ideal for creating special effects
  • Cost-effective for replicating designs
  • Requires more setup time
  • Can be difficult to master for first-timers
  • Elaborate printing process

When Should You Choose Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing is suitable for situations when you need to print on polyester and synthetic fabrics as well as on polymer-treated hard surfaces within a short span. Other than that, it can be used to create posters, banners, signs, etc.

  • Prints multi-color designs much faster
  • Ideal for printing detailed designs
  • Produces vibrant and bold colors
  • Comparatively easy for first-timers
  • Expensive setup
  • Can be used with only polyester and synthetic-based surfaces
  • Prints are more visible on light-colored surfaces or fabrics
Large inkjet printer working on vinyl banner with computer control. Screen print vs sublimation frequently asked questions.

What Are The Primary Resources Required For Screen And Sublimation Printing?

Here are a few basic things that are required for screen printing:

  • Mesh screen (multiple for more than one color)
  • Emulsion
  • Squeegee or scoop eater
  • Stencil (design cutout)
  • Screen printing machine (for professionals)

However, the resources required for screen printing will vary according to the type of printing you choose. For instance, many first-timers prefer investing in a screen printing kit with a vinyl starter, which comes with all the required accessories. In this case, all you really need are a vinyl cutter and tape to stick the design to the ready-made screen.

But if you’re designing a screen from scratch, you will need a lot of things, such as:

  • Wooden frame
  • Mesh fabric
  • Painter’s tape
  • Fabric cutter
  • Staple gun

Once you construct the frame using these and apply the emulsion, you can move on to exposing the screen to imprint the stencil and print on the shirt through it. On the other hand, sublimation printing will need:

  • Sublimation printer
  • Sublimation ink 
  • Heat-transfer paper
  • Heat-resistant tape
  • Heat press (size will depend on the dimension of the design)
  • Lint roller (optional)

What Is The Difference Between Sublimation And Digital Printing?

The main difference between dye sublimation and digital printing is the process through which the ink “attaches” itself to the printed surface. While sublimation uses chemical bonding to attach the ink to the surface, digital printing places the ink superficially. 

What this means is that sublimation prints tend to last longer than their digital counterparts, as the former is integrated into the surface. 

Is Screen Printing Better Than Digital Printing?

Digital printing uses a special type of printer to print the design directly on the garment, which is why it is also known as DTG printing. It’s a highly affordable means of designing custom apparel, but screen printing can create high-quality and durable designs that don’t crack, peel away, or fade even after multiple washes. 

How Is Heat Transfer Different From Screen Printing And Sublimation Printing?

Heat transfer printing requires the use of laser printers to print designs on specialized transfer papers. These papers are then placed on the required surface, and heat is employed to transfer the design, which in turn, creates an additional layer (like a thick paper) underneath the design. 

In contrast, screen printing uses the technique of pushing plastisol ink through a mesh screen to create different designs, while the sublimation process involves turning the paint into gas using heat. The gas then attaches to the fabric at a molecular level, which creates permanent designs. 

What Is The Drying Time Involved In Screen Printing And Sublimation?

In the case of screen printing, you will need to ensure that the emulsion coating on the screen is completely dry before exposing it under light to form the stencil. This process can take anywhere between a few hours to a couple of days, depending on the type of emulsion you use and the size of the screen. 

For best results, we strongly recommend following the manufacturer’s instructions on the emulsion package. 

Sublimation printing requires the printed design to be completely dry before it can be transferred to the garment. Again, the drying time here will depend on how many colors you use, as more colors will need more drying time, with black requiring the most time. 

Furthermore, we’d suggest allowing the final printed surface to dry for a couple of days in a non-humid environment to help with maximum paint adherence. 

Serigraphy silk screen print process at clothes factory. Frame, squeegee and plastisol color yellow paints. Screen print vs sublimation final words.

So, is screen printing better than sublimation? Or is it the other way round?

If you ask us, we will say that there’s no right or wrong answer here. Each of these techniques is suitable for certain purposes, so the decision to choose one comes down to your requirements.

But no matter which technique you go for, always ensure that you get the right tools and follow the steps for the best results. Otherwise, you will end up with distorted designs and low-quality prints.

With that, we will now wrap up. See you next time!

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