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Printers for T Shirts | What’s the Best Type to Choose?

Looking for printers for t shirts for your own business is like looking for a new phone, new computer or a new car. There are a lot of options, a lot of similarities, AND a few compelling reasons to choose one over the other.

Deciding on which method is best for you and your business is what this article is all about. And if you stick with and read through to the end you’ll have some vital information that will help you choose correctly.

What is the answer? What kind of Printer for T Shirts is the RIGHT One?

Let’s just set aside what our screen printer friends already know. If you need to print 1,000 shirts with the same 1 color design on them, or 10,000 full-color ones for a brand then screen printing is likely the best solution.

However, in today’s market, there is more and more demand for full-color embellishment in lower numbers and/or with variability in size and content.

Enter in digital decoration.

Let’s look at the options and their strengths and weaknesses.

Digital Direct to Garment Printing

DTG – Direct to garment printing has been around as a viable option for about 15-16 years now.

It uses flatbed inkjet technology to print aqueous, pigmented inks with binders onto the surface of the garment (most frequently pre-treated to help with ink bonding to the surface). All that means is that it’s specially formulated water-based ink. Specifically for printers for t-shirts.

Once printed the garment is dried in a heat press or conventional belt dryer to set the inks and evaporate off the water in the inks. At higher volumes, you’ll want the belt dryer, but most small to medium volume custom t shirt shops use 1 or more heat presses.

Typical curing times in the heat press are 30-45 seconds with similar times for the pre-treatment.

The vast majority of DTG printers are equipped with white ink to allow for consistent color replication on all colors of garments (and always require a pre-treatment to the garment). 

Most DTG printers can produce 25-100 shirts per hour (depending on image size, the necessity of white under-base, and post-processing method – heat press/belt dryer). That quantity range separates the big $100K and up DTG Printers vs the more economical ones like the DTG G4

DTG prints have a very soft hand and handle translucent “fade to shirt” type images very well since they are direct imaged. Ink costs range from a few cents to a couple of dollars per print with pre-treatment costs typically running 20-40 cents per print.

Direct to garment is limited to cotton/high cotton blends for dark garment prints while handling lighter garments (no white ink required) well in a number of blend and polyester compositions.

Equipment costs range from under $15,000 up to $250,000 or more – for a full solution including pre-treatment equipment, printer, and post-processing solution.

Pros and Cons of DTG Printing

Pros of DTG

Cons of DTG

Direct to Film Printing (High Volume)

DTF – direct to film (also known as FTF – film to fabric) printing is a relatively new process that combines the best of some established technologies to make something BETTER than the sum of its parts.

Direct to Film printing combines the following:

Transfer costs are generally under $.60-$.75 per square foot. And theirs no pretreat liquid costs or additional labor to treat and cure the shirt before application.

Pros and Cons of Direct to Film Printing for T Shirts

DTF transfers will adhere to most types of fabric ranging from polyester to tri-blends to performance wear and all of the natural fibers like cotton, hemp, bamboo … etc. Prints do have a heavier hand than direct to garment prints but not as heavy as traditional plastisol transfers, white toner transfers or digitally printed heat applied vinyl.

Most DTF printers are roll fed and thus not efficient when trying to print just a few garments at a time. Transfers can be easily stored for up to two years without concern, making it easy to quickly respond to reorders when they come in.

Press times are generally less than 20 seconds between initial and finishing presses. Fade to shirt prints are not as good with DTF as with DTG, however with the proper setting in your RIP software very acceptable results can be expected.

Equipment costs for production DTF systems range from $15,000-35,000 – plus heat presses.

Pros and Cons of Direct to Film Printing

Pros of DTF

Cons of DTF

Printing T-Shirt Transfers with Sublimation

Like DTF, sublimation printing is also a transfer process.

Prints are generated on a page fed or roll-fed printer and then heat applied to the garment. Sublimation is a dye process that requires a synthetic substrate to receive the dyes. So polyester and similar materials only.

Natural fibers like cotton result in blurry results and poor washability.

Both of those things are unlike white toner transfers and direct-to-film transfers which can be applied to almost any garment.

Where sublimation really shines is on light-colored polyesters prints – the images come out very vibrant and have no feel at all (no hand).

Sublimation also works well on specialty coated items like coffee mugs, plaques, plates, trophies, and a number of other items that are specifically treated to receive the dyes.

But because it is a dye process there is no “white” option with sublimation. Therefore, dark garments or dark promotional products are not an option with this process.

Like other transfer processes, it allows for faster per print times. Sublimation can be done with relatively inexpensive desktop printers making it one of the lowest entry cost products for garment customization. Typical startup costs range from under $1,000 to about $10,000.

Pros and Cons of Sublimation for TShirts

Pros of Sublimation

Cons of Sublimation

Printing T-Shirt Transfers with White Toner

White toner printing uses color laser printers that have either CMY+W or CMYK+W toners in them to generate a white under the base when a transfer is printed.

The transfer prints require a secondary process to “marry” the adhesive to the white toner to allow for transfer. This step takes some time to master and adds to both time and cost.

But the big attraction to white toner printing is that there’s no liquid ink, so they require virtually NO maintenance and can set for indefinite amounts of time without concern.

This makes them a good fit for applications that may be seasonal or infrequently used, very practical for home-based businesses, kiosks, and ancillary printers for special projects.

Much like DTF, they transfer to a wide variety of fabrics. But they have the added benefit of working on rigid goods like coasters, small signs, even mugs.

 

The transfers can have a bit more of a hand than most of the other processes here. Since the process is page-based the cost of output can be high especially if the entire page is not utilized. A full-page can cost upwards of $4 making the cost of 2 6×8” transfers $2 each, which is higher than the other processes discussed here.

Equipment costs range from just under $5000 to nearly $15,000.

Pros and Cons of White Toner Printing for T Shirts

Pros of White Toner Printers

Cons of White Toner Printers

Heat Transfer Vinyl for T-Shirt Applications

Heat Transfer Vinyl covers 2 very different kinds of equipment: Simple cutters like a Graphtec CE600 and print and cut devices like the Roland BN-20a.

Heat transfer vinyl can be solid colors that are simply cut and heat pressed for single-color designs (or multicolor designs if you take the time to carefully register the separate colors on each garment).

With an eco-solvent print and cut machine like the Roland BN-20a you can print out full-color designs and then cut them out for application. The cost of output for full-color type designs is typically in the $1.50-2.00 per square foot range and single color vinyl cut and apply heat transfer vinyl can be $2.50 or more per square foot.

The process involves “weeding” the vinyl after it is cut – removing the areas that are not part of the design. This can become tedious and time-consuming especially for detailed designs.

Having a vinyl cutter or print and cut machine opens up opportunities for other output such as for signage – making it a very versatile solution. The versatility puts it more in the category of sublimation and white toner printing than DTG and DTF.

Good quality HTV single color designs done with a cutter can feel great, though a little heavier than sublimation. But the Print Cut version does have a bit of a feel when heat applied, more like the hand of white toner printer transfers and generally heavier than DTF.

Startup costs for a print and cut can range from around $4,995 to more than $15,000 and vinyl cutters start under $1000.

Pros and Cons of Heat Transfer Vinyl

Pros of Heat Transfer Vinyl
(print and cut machines and vinyl cutters)

Cons of Heat Transfer Vinyl
(print and cut machines and vinyl cutters)

So, what IS the best type to choose?

More than likely a couple of these in combination would suffice to handle the vast majority of applications that shops would face.

DTF is likely the best solution for all but the lowest volume shops. Combining DTF with any of the other methods will greatly extend your range.

It will just take some evaluation of your business model to determine whether you need/want the softer feel of DTG, do a lot of light-colored polyester garments which lend themselves well to sublimation, want the versatility that a vinyl print and cut or vinyl cutter will bring to your business or the ability to quickly create transfers on a smaller scale between DTF runs with a white toner printer.

Any way that you look at it – being able to offer short to medium-run options to your customers can greatly increase your sales as well as your profits.

Direct To Garment Printing

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