May 14, 2023

Sublimation Printing vs. Screen Printing: 12 Key Differences

Sublimation and screen printing are two of the most popular printing methods that companies use for custom merchandise printing and signage. They both use a type of stenciling technique – sublimation is an advanced digital tool, while screen printing is meant for small-batch use cases. This article explains the difference between the two techniques in 12 areas.

Sublimation printing is a common printing technique that employs pressure and heat to transfer a pattern from sublimation paper to fabric or material (anywhere around 350-400 degrees). Transforming the solid particulates of the inks into a gaseous form, it is a simple and cost-effective method for enabling the customization of products used by businesses and individuals at home.

In recent years, sublimation printing has risen in popularity due to the high quality of its final output. Incorrect execution of the procedure might result in designs with white creases or ghosting patterns. This might result in time and financial losses. It is prudent always to test some designs before one initiates mass production to acquaint oneself with the machinery and how the patterns will appear on the cloth.

Sublimation is the transformation of a solid into a gaseous form without passing through the liquid state. At the time of the dye sublimation printing method, the artwork is transferred to an item in a gaseous form utilizing a high-temperature heat press. It varies from conventional printing techniques in that the liquid stage is omitted. The step of ink drying on the printed material is therefore avoided.

A few items are required to begin printing designs on materials with sublimation printing. The first is a printer that supports sublimation printing and accepts sublimation ink cartridges.

Users must purchase a heat press to print the patterns into the cloth. One may obtain a mug clamp and press if that is an option — like printing the artwork onto a ceramic mug. Considering the material you want to use for sublimation printing is essential since not all materials are appropriate. In addition to transfer paper (possibly sublimation or copy paper), you may acquire raster image processing (RIP) software for color correction.

Polyester and ceramic are the optimal substrates for sublimation printing. However, some designs do not lend themselves very well to sublimation printing, such as motifs that must be placed everywhere on the garment. This is partly due to the possibility of "ghosting," color mismatching, and white streaking.

100% cotton and other natural fabrics are not acceptable for this printing procedure. They lack the necessary pores to absorb ink. If you’re dealing with such materials, digital or screen printing may be more practical.

One can work on the following elements and achieve largely successful outcomes:

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Screen printing is the method of producing a design by forcing ink through a stenciled mesh screen. It is a common strategy used in a wide variety of sectors. The technique is also known as serigraphy and silk screen printing; however, both terms refer to the same fundamental technology. Different stenciling methods include:

Even on dark materials, the screen printing process generates vibrant colors, which is one of the primary reasons for its widespread usage. The layers of ink or paint on the face of the cloth or paper provide a pleasingly tactile texture to the print.

There are several screen printing techniques; however, they all utilize the same fundamental process. A light-reactive emulsion may be used to produce a bespoke stencil. This is often the most common type of commercial printing since one can create elaborate stencils.

Beginning with the design specifications for the completed product, the printer prints it onto a clear acetate film. Then, the printer will select a mesh screen to accommodate the design's complexity and the fabric's texture. The mesh screen is next covered with a coating of light-sensitive emulsion that will harden when exposed to intense light.

The design-bearing acetate sheet is then placed on the emulsion-coated screen and subjected to powerful light. The light solidifies the emulsion, leaving the design-covered portions of the screen in liquid form. This leaves a stencil or "screen" with a clear impression of the pattern for the inks to pass through.

The printing press is then loaded with the screen. The object or garment to be printed is spread flat on the print board, underneath the screen, before printing. Ink is applied to the screen's uppermost portion. This pushes ink across the exposed sections of the stencil, transferring the design to the object underneath.

Screen printing is an efficient process for generating vibrant canvases, banners, and artwork. Still, it can also be employed to print textiles and fabrics, making it ideal for producing a wide range of unique clothes and products.

One can create every hue imaginable in screen printing, but it is a popular option concerning printing in vast quantities. Small print runs are impractical due to the per-print setup. Since it only produces one color at a time, users may experience alignment issues and color bleeds with multicolored designs.

Screen printing is a human-led technique, while digital printing incorporates computer processing of the designs before printing. Machines may perform silkscreen, but the process is not digitized; this differentiates it from digital printing. Sublimation and screen printing rely on digital technology to a lesser extent.

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The following are the 12 key differences between sublimation and screen-printing techniques:

Screen printing produces excellent print quality with vibrant and sharp colors. It is best used with designs that consist of one or a few colors, such as texts and logos. It does not support multiple color designs such as photos. Additionally, screen printing produces prints with refined textures and striking designs.

The sublimation technique similarly produces admirable print quality with vivid and sharp colors. However, it allows for the detailed printing of designs with multiple colors, including photos.

In screen printing, the ink does not sink into the fabric but rather remains on top of the material; thus, the more colors printed, the thicker the print is. Although the plastisol ink used in screen printing allows the prints to last for a long time, the ink cracks and peels, and the color fades after several washes. Thus, it is less durable.

In the sublimation technique, the print lasts longer. The durability results from color embedding into fabric fibers during the heat-based process, making it less susceptible to washing out. Moreover, the sublimation print doesn't fade or peel.

Screen printing is better used for bold designs with one or a few colors. One may produce designs with gradients different than expected because they are hard to print. This is because you require a lot of expertise, chemicals, and patience to make a detailed screen print stencil, which is a complex process.

Sublimation printing allows you to print intricate pattern designs with complex gradients, intriguing artwork, or digital photos. Before printing, you can use graphic designing software like Adobe Photoshop to create your artwork. You then let the printer do everything else as it transfers the design to the transfer sheet. Thus it's a much easier technique to print complex designs.

Screen printing works best with designs with one or a few colors. With screen printing, only one color is printed at a time. Therefore it takes longer to print if you have more colors. It works well on materials of any color. In this method, color blending is mostly done by mixing the required shades of colors by hand or using mechanized paint mixing machines. Manually blending colors indicates that the color shades could change from one project to the other depending on the expertise.

The sublimation printing technique produces fantastic print quality for designs and gradients with multiple colors. It is usually done on light or white-colored fabric, using transparent inks, which may not appear on darker fabrics. In this method, the primary CMYK colors are blended to get the precise tone using design software that offers an internal color consortium (ICC) profile. The ICC profile allows the printer to produce designs with precise tones, as expected.

Special effects are incorporated in sublimation prints to make them look glamorous with eye-catching designs and create interesting textures such as a cracked texture or a leather effect. Special effects can be added to a garment using glitter or other specialty inks such as gold or silver.

In screen printing, different types of ink can produce special effects such as 3D designs or provide a cracked texture effect. While the sublimation printing technique uses the four primary colors CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to print designs, it does not offer support for specialty inks.

The screen printing technique is best used on cotton fabrics as the ink adheres better to the fabric fibers.

Sublimation printing is suitable for use with fabrics with a high percentage of polyesters, such as polyester blends, polymer-coated fabrics, and light-color polyesters. The higher the percentage of polyester in the material, the better. It is used with materials that consist of neoprene, spandex, and nylon. You can also use this technique to print designs on mugs made of ceramic or enamel and cork-backed coasters.

Sublimation does not work well on material made with natural fibers such as cotton and silk, as the sublimation ink does not adhere well to these fibers.

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Screen printing uses toxic and non-biodegradable plastisol inks for printing which are not eco-friendly. However, it does have the option to use water-based inks, which are more eco-friendly. Often, screen printing products are bought in bulk to get discounted prices which may result in leftover stock and product waste if the products are not used.

Sublimation printing uses non-toxic sublimation ink for printing. It also uses less water in comparison to other dye transfer techniques. Products used in sublimation printing that is created on demand reduce leftover stock. Produced waste is recycled to minimize wastage. For instance, you can use leftover fabric scraps to design headbands.

Screen printing is more suitable for producing bulk orders. Stencils are designed specifically to be used to print manually on each garment. This process takes a lot of time and effort to set up and is not worth the trouble of just making a few t-shirts. Thus, it is more cost-efficient for large-scale orders. Additionally, screen printing products are often ordered in bulk to get discounted prices, leading to leftover stock that may only sell if all the purchased products are used up. This makes it an unpopular and less cost-efficient technique for on-demand fulfillment.

Sublimation printing can be used for small or bulk orders, making it a popular printing technique among companies. This method requires the same effort and time to make each t-shirt. Therefore, it is more cost-efficient to make just a few t-shirts or custom-ordered t-shirts. In addition, you can purchase a single sublimation product and avoid having leftover stock. This makes it a more cost-efficient technique for on-demand fulfillment.

Screen printing allows you to produce a specific design consistently. It also makes it easier to produce duplicates, as you can reuse a particular color screen several times to make duplicates of the same design. On occasion, you might notice smudges after several duplicates.

Sublimation produces designs consistently but requires printing a new transfer sheet for each garment. In these scenarios, it is important to carefully set up the transfer on each garment to prevent ghosting caused by moving the transfer sheet or residual smears caused by pieces of lint stuck on the cloth.

Although screen printing and sublimation techniques allow you to produce a design consistently, there might be minor errors resulting from ink smears or trapped pieces of residue in the design.

Screen printing requires ink, a screen, a squeegee, stencils, and masking tape. The squeegee pulls the ink across the screen and through the stencil openings onto the paper. The stencils are used to define the art that is printed. Masking tape blocks the open mesh and prevents the ink from going through the open mesh onto the garment. Plastisol ink is mostly used to provide clear graphic detail of the design.

You require a computer, heat press, sublimation printer, and sublimation paper for sublimation printing. A computer contains the printing software necessary to operate the sublimation printer. It also should contain design programs with an ICC profile to enable you to set precise tones to print complex designs.

The heat press machines have high temperature and pressure capabilities needed for sublimation, thus allowing for the creation of higher-quality graphics. The sublimation paper prints on garments, mugs, and other sublimation blanks.

The set-up time for screen printing and sublimation techniques depends on the type of design. Overall, screen printing needs a lot of setup time. For a simple one-color design, a stencil must be made and ink applied to the screen, which is time-consuming. For designs with more than a single-color design, a separate stencil and screen have to be made for each color. Thus, it requires more time for set-up.

The setup time for sublimation printing is relatively shorter. A digital image is created and printed onto a transfer paper during setup. The transfers can even be custom ordered to save time.

The costs for each printing technique depend on the equipment used. In general, screen printing is less expensive for start-up costs. You can choose to buy expensive equipment, or you can use do-it-yourself (DIY) mesh screens made of cheap craft equipment. Additionally, extra colors and designs cost more as they require extra effort and time. Any reorders made for screen printing also cost more as set-up costs are included.

Sublimation is more expensive for start-up costs as the equipment is costly. In this method, you have to buy a special printer, sublimation inks, transfer paper, a subscription fee to buy graphic design software, and polyester t-shirts.

This method also takes longer to produce each garment as it uses up a new sheet for each T-shirt, thus may lead to additional costs in work hours for companies. Additionally, sublimation allows you to print everything in one piece; therefore don't have to pay more for extra colors or designs. Reorders can be made easily without having to pay set-up costs.

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For several decades, screen printing was the go-to printing technology for small and large businesses. But now, sublimation printing has come to the fore due to the advantages it offers, and the versatility of printing surfaces, durability, and detail. Translating digital images and files into a sublimation-printing-ready format is also easier. However, screen printing continues to be a popular tool for its affordability and low barriers to entry – particularly in developing economies.

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Technical Writer

Sublimation and screen printing are two of the most popular printing methods that companies use for custom merchandise printing and signage. They both use a type of stenciling technique – sublimation is an advanced digital tool, while screen printing is meant for small-batch use cases. This article explains the difference between the two techniques in 12 areas. Rigid substrates Signage Polyester fabrics Knit fabrics Woven fabrics Home decor Photographs See More: What Are Haptics? Meaning, Types, and Importance See More: What Is the Metaverse? Meaning, Features, and Importance See More: What is CAD (Computer-Aided Design)? Definition, Types, and Applications See More: What Is Spatial Analysis? Definition, Working, and Examples Do you still have queries about sublimation or screen printing techniques? Please tell us on Facebook , Twitter , and LinkedIn . We’d love to hear from you! MORE IN TECH GENERAL Join Spiceworks