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How does DTG T-Shirt Printing compare to Sublimation Printing?

DTG vs Sublimation

DTG t-shirt printing is how most of the big custom t-shirt businesses online print their shirts.

But sublimation printing is also VERY popular, especially for startup custom apparel printers and embroidery or heat transfer vinyl shops wanting to expand.

In this article, we’re going to help you decide which is right for your business by breaking down the following:

By the time you’re done reading and watching videos, you should be ready to make your choice!

What are DTG t-shirt printing and sublimation printing, exactly?

DTG Printers and Printing

DTG stands for direct-to-garment. A direct to garment printer is a digital t-shirt printer that uses inkjet technology to spray ink directly onto an item.

It works like a commercial version of your desktop inkjet printer.

You load a blank t-shirt into it – like you would load a piece of paper into a home printer. Then the ink is sprayed onto the shirt, like the ink in your home printer makes an image on paper.

In the early days of DTG t-shirt printing, people adapted office or graphics style inkjet systems into ones that were good for apparel. But now all current digital garment printers are purpose-built.

Sublimation Printing

It’s the science behind this technology that earned the term “sublimation” printing.

Sublimation is when something goes right from a solid to a gas, and in the case of this printing technology, that gas becomes part of the material of the t-shirt.
You can learn more about the science here.
But for our purposes here, you can just think of a sublimation printer as a “transfer printer”.

So you’re never actually printing directly onto a shirt, like with DTG. You’re printing on a special piece of sublimation paper that is the applied to a shirt with a heat press.

That’s a sublimation transfer.

The sublimation printer you’ll use – like one of the Sawgrass Sublimation Printers you’ll find here – looks just like a higher end desktop color printer. It also uses inkjet technology to spray ink to make your design, but in this case, it goes onto paper first. Then the t-shirt.

Steps to Comparing DTG vs Sublimation

There are some crucial similarities and differences between DTG and Sublimation when it comes to the steps involved.

Steps to printing with direct to garment printers

1. Pre-treat your shirt – pretreatment is like a primer. It helps the ink bond with the material of the shirt. You can use a hand sprayer or buy an automatic pretreat machine along with your DTG printer.
2. Heat press the shirt – that pretreat has to be dried and pressed into the t-shirt
3. Load the shirt onto the printer

4. Print the shirt

5. Cure the shirt with a heat press

Steps to making a custom t-shirt with a sublimation printer transfer

1. Print your transfer onto a good quality sublimation transfer paper.

2. Lay the sublimation transfer on top of the shirt in your heat press

3. Heat press the shirt

Take a look at the 2 videos below that demonstrate each one of the processes.

Both of these specific machines come with training – so don’t think that you’ll have to learn on your own!

DTG Printing and Sublimation Printing Pros and Cons

First the direct-garment-printing and sublimation DO have a few things in common:

Or why you SHOULD to get a DTG printer…

Or why NOT to get a DTG printer…

You probably noticed the Steps to make a DTG printed t-shirt are a little longer than the steps to create a sublimation one.

The pretreating process adds 2 steps, a spray and a cure step. That is unless you use one of the new wholesale blank t-shirts that come already pretreated – they’re available at for about $5.00 wholesale. 

There is also a little more work involved to get your graphic ready for printing.

Printers like the G4 DTG Printer or the Epson F2100 printer both come with some kind of RIP software that is a little more complex than what you’ll use for sublimation.

The positive side of a dtg printer machine being a commercial printer is that it’s made to churn out custom t-shirts. All day, every day.

The downside is that it DOES take up more space for a complete set up.

We keep both the Epson F2100 and G4 printers on 48” x 30” industrial packaging tables. Like this one from Uline

Then you’ll need room for the heat press and pretreatment machine too.

It all fits comfortably into a 10’ x 10’ space, but it’s still more than the sublimation printer needs.

Or why you SHOULD to get a sublimation printer…

Or why NOT to get a sublimation printer…

Specifically, polyester.

No cottons. No linen. No denim.

While it’s not exactly accurate, you can think of the sublimation process as melting the polyester and pressing the ink into it.

When you try that with a natural substrate like cotton it just doesn’t work. Cotton burns or scorches, it doesn’t melt.

There are some amazing sublimation shirts made specifically for the process that can feel much like cotton, but you’ll never get the real thing.

Here are a few great examples of specifically sublimation t-shirts.

These are both PREMIUM shirts as you can see, but they will get you a higher price for the end product. And they’re the perfect sublimation shirts.  You can shop more sublimation shirts here.

No black shirts. No dark gray or dark blue.

The closer to a white color you get, the better your image will be.

If you see an all-over print on a black, 100% polyester, that was most likely created on the fabric before it was assembled into a shirt.

In that case, they actually printed the entire thing, including the black or dark color, onto a white roll of material.

So in the end you’re limited to light-colored poly or synthetic garments to base your business on.

The reason for that is because you cannot sublimate white ink – and that’s how other printer technologies like DTG get a great image on a black shirt.

T-Shirt Printing Machine Costs - DTG vs Sublimation

DTG Printer Costs

Most people spend $20,000 to $25,000 for a DTG Printer set up.

Financing is available for around $330/month depending on the bundle, and the usual things that influence financing.

vs Sublimation Printer Costs

And for a sublimation printer bundle you can get started with a pro set for about $3,500.

Financing is available for around $100/month, depending on the bundle, and the usual things that influence financing.

That may seem like a big difference in upfront costs, and in ongoing payments. And it is in some ways. But if you consider that the vast majority of custom t-shirt printing businesses make between $10 and $15 in profit per shirt, both systems look very easy to cash flow.

And that brings up the big question:

Is DTG Printing or Sublimation Printing better for your business?

The answer depends on what you want to DO in your business – but given the price why not consider both?

You’ll get the best of both worlds! Able to print on almost any garment – and sell almost any kind of custom apparel.

All the profits you’d make selling UNDER 50 shirts per month!

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