Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: What’s the difference?
Screen printing is the classic technique of pushing plastic-based ink through mesh and onto the garment. It’s the most versatile and popular printing method. Digital printing is the newer technique of spraying ink onto the garment. It’s the fastest and easiest way to print, especially designs with many colors.
What is Screen Printing?
Screen printing is the most widely-known and widely-used form of decorating apparel, a traditional technique dating back thousands of years. Each color of ink is pushed a different stencil (screen) and layered onto the surface of the textile (fabric), then cured (heated) to set the ink.
Screen Printing technology
Newer automatic machines can easily print over 100 T-shirts per hour. This allows printing companies to crank out high-volume order with highest quality in the business. Although technological advancements have improved the quality, accuracy, and efficiency over the years, the central concept remains the same. Even with all the innovations, there’s still a need for manual screen printers doing each shirt by hand.
In what ways is Screen Printing better than Digital Printing ?
Screen printing is better for:
- Larger, high volumes orders;
- Unique or oversized print areas;
- Single-color prints, such as text or logos;
- Specialty or special FX inks;
- Printing on polyester and other synthetic fabrics;
- Vibrant colors on dark-colored fabrics;
- When exact color matching is required.
What is Digital Printing?
Digital printing uses the “process” method, making a range of colors out of just 4 or 6 colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, black, red and green). A digital printing machine is essentially a big inkjet printer, similar to what you have at your home office, but designed to print on T-shirts and other garments.
Digital Printing Technology
Digital Printing has been around close to 20 years now, and in that time, the advancements in technology have come at a rapid-fire pace. Each year this method gets faster, more affordable and produces higher quality prints. Many of the early issues have been solved, and Digital Printing has gained widespread adoption and popularity.
In what ways is Digital Printing better than Screen printing ?
Digital Printing is better for:
- Smaller, simple orders (including single pieces);
- Standard print locations and print sizing;
- Printing on 100% cotton;
- Designs with lots of detail;
- Gradients and other photographic elements;
- Designs with many color and blends;
- When soft feel or lightweight print is important.
1- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Vibrancy
Vibrancy is the combination of color saturation and brightness, While Digital Printing has made impressive advancements in recent years, it still has a slightly duller appearance when compared to screen printing.
When you want your design to pop off the shirt, screen printing is the method that stands out.
Screen Printing Ink
Tradicional screen printing use Plastisol Ink, which is composed of PVC particles suspended in a plasticizing emulsion (there are eco-friendly, non-PVC Plastisol inks on the market). This type of ink is extremely opaque, which can create a bright white underbase on dark garments, something that is key for vibrancy.
On top of that Plastisol inks come in the most vibrant colors available, such as fluorescents. The top ink brands offer a standard set of base colors to be used for mixing into the thousands of custom Pantone colors.
Digital Printing Ink
Digital Printing, on the other hand, uses water-based inks which lack the opaqueness and vibrancy of Plastisol inks -especially on darker garments. Although Digital printing machines can provide a decent underbase (plastic particle pretreatment and titanium dioxide white ink), the final results are not quite as bright as screen printing.
On the plus side, instead of individuals colors, you achieve a spectrum of colors using four to six colors. Digital Printing is based on process printing, which relies on the CMYK color model: cyan, magenta, yellow and black, with newer machines incorporating red and green for a wider color range.
While the colors themselves are bright and matured, they are also semi-transparent. This is valuable for blending but not for vibrancy.
Digital Printing can handle the vast majority of jobs without sacrificing saturation and brightness.
2- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Color Blending
Color blending is the ability to create smooth gradients and a range of colors by blending together a lesses amount of colors.
From gradients to tiny color details, to subtle elements like smoke that fade into the shirt or precise blends like those needed for skin tones, digital printing in a smooth operator with color blending.
Digital Printing inks are water-based and more transparent than Plastisol, allowing them to overlap and combine much easier, making beautifully even, smooth gradients and giving Digital Printing the wining edge in color blending.
With Screen Printing, we can take the same number of colors – but using Plastisol to blend a range of colors using halftones, a technique known as “simulated process”. But accuracy in color blending is harder to achieve, and the setup involved makes it less efficient-especially for smaller orders.
3- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Color Matching
With screen printing, we can duplicate literally any color the client need using Pantones.
That includes colors that are outside the range of CMYK, super-saturated colors, and specialty inks. When it comes to precision color matching capability, it’s no contest.
Matching colors accurately is especially important when it comes to branding. Many companies have brand guidelines that specify Pantones colors. If you try to match those colors with Digital Printing, chances are they’re going to be off – or completely out of gamut.
Pantone matching can be done with process inks to a certain degree, and several Digital Printing manufacturers claim they can Pantone match – but only within gamut. This means a certain amount of colors (the brightest, most vibrant ones) are not guaranteed to match.
The other reason Digital Printing can have trouble with color matching is that if the underbase isn’t opaque enough, the shirt color bleeds through a bit, especially on darker and bright color shirts.
When you absolutely need to match exact colors for your brand, go with screen printing.
4- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Details
When it comes to details, Digital Printing handles this much better than screen printing. The smallest parts of the design can include fine lines, small text, textures, and tiny elements. Digital Printing not only holds the tiniest of details but does so consistently over the course of the print run.
Screen printing has some difficulty holding details. For that reason, we pay special attention to screen-printed jobs that have details and make sure we set the client order up for success. Sometimes we advise customers to adjust their artwork slightly to compensate – increasing the text size, for example.
If the image is photographic or has gradients (fades, blends), screen printing will require halftones (tiny dots). On a T-shirt, these dots are visible if you look close enough.
Digital Printing uses halftones as well, but these digital machines can print up to 1200 DPI, and use diffusion dither. To get extra technical, this is a frequency modulated halftone instead of an amplitude modulated halftone. It can sometimes result in a grainy look, but a much better reproduction of small details.
5- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Durability
Durability is how long the quality of a print lasts, and something that Digital Printing has struggled with since its beginning. In the early days of Digital Printing, you would be lucky to get 10 washes out of a T-shirt before the colors would start fading. Nowadays, a well-done Digital Printing print can handle dozens of washes.
Screen Printing doesn’t have this durability problem – as long as it’s done right. If the ink is not applied correctly or not cured properly, even Plastisol can start to fade or deteriorate.
6- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Comfort and Feel
When you want a super-soft, lightweight print that barely feels like it’s on the shirt, Digital Printing is the way to go, especially on dark shirts and if there are lots of colors in the design. Since the ink is sprayed onto the fabric, there is much less build-up of ink, more flexibility, and more airflow through the fabric.
By comfort and feel, we’re talking about a few factors:
- The flexibility of the fabric, also known as “drape”. Heavier prints can be stiff and feel plasticky.
- The breathability of the print. When too much in clogs the fibers, it can cause what is affectionately known as a “sweat patch”.
- How heavy the print is on the shirt. If the ink is too thick, it can weigh down the area of the garment where the print sits. This is especially important for all the lightweight blends that are popular today.
- The texture of the print, if it feels rough on the skin. You don’t want a print to feel like sandpaper, or give someone a road rash from hugging them.
This feel is also know as “hand” in the screen printing business. A request for “soft-hand” usually means using discharge or water-based ink. We can still achieve a soft hand with Plastisol by thinning the ink down with an additive to make it smoother and more lightweight on the shirt.
Screen Printing techniques like the “distress effect” (vintage look) can also create a softer hand by reducing the amount of surface area the ink occupies and breaking it up so its more flexible. Adding this style is up to the costumer and will not look right on all designs, so this saving grace only applies to particular orders.
Plastisol Screen Printing ink will typically tend to lay heavier on the shirt, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so durable. When it comes to comfort and feel, Digital Printing comes out on top.
7-Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Consistency
Printing crushes it in the consistency department. Since the machine processes a digital file and prints it directly onto the shirt, there are almost no variables to worry about.
Screen Printing can be consistent, but only if the job is set up perfectly and each item is printed exactly the same.
The Screen Printing process has many variables: screen tension, mesh, ink viscosity, dot gain, flash dry temperature, squeegee sharpness, pressure and angle, registration, etc. The list goes on. Each one of the things can make a difference on its own, so when you combine them all, chances are there’s going to be some variation.
So when you need absolute consistency, it’s all about Digital Printing.
8-Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Special FX Inks
Special effects printing is all about adding extra dimensions to a print. From raised print to textures to shine, and glows, there’s a specialty ink or additive to do it.
Examples of specialty inks and additives:
- Discharge: Chemical removes the dye from the pigment of the fabric.
- Puff: This additive expands while being cured, for a soft, raised feel.
- Fluorescent: Very bright neon colors, also known as “day glow”.
- Metallic: Popular ink for a shiny look. Typically in gold, silver, or copper.
- Glitter: Contains glitter for a sparkly look, often combined with a clear gel.
- Glow-in-the-dark: Almost clear, light-activated ink that glows in the dark.
- Shimmer: Creates a unique reflective, iridescent shine.
Screen Printing specialty inks can elevate a T-shirt design like nothing else, and significantly increase the value for retail. Digital Printing has been making a few in-roads on the specialty ink front, but nothing that is widely available or as easy to accomplish.
9- Screen Printing vs Digital Printing: Popularity
When it comes to popularity, Screen Printing is the crowd favorite and has been for decades.The factor that this classic print method excels at are the main things that people look for in a custom tee: ink vibrancy, durability, affordability.
For Screen Printing vs Digital Printing – Choose CFB as your supplier
CFB is a Portugal based clothes manufacturing having a different perspective from the conventional fast fashion industry and that perspective is providing eco-friendly and sustainable products to the market.
At CFB we go to great lengths to ensure we exceed your expectations, no matter which printing method you use.
Not only are we Portugal made and owned, but we also treat your artwork and products with meticulous quality control processes. You can be assured you will love your finished product.
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