Print-On-Demand vs. Screen Printing: Which is Right For You?
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Print-On-Demand vs. Screen Printing: Which is Right For You?

Learn the differences between screen printing and print-on-demand and what suits you.

There are a ton, we mean a TON, of t-shirt printing options out there, each one offering something unique that makes it an excellent fit for some projects but not so much for others. Picking the wrong t-shirt printer for what you're trying to do can be like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

We broke down two of the most popular printing services –– on-demand t-shirt printing and screen printing –– to help you determine which is best. Knowing the difference can save you a lot of time and money.

Screen Printing T-Shirts

Screen printing works like a giant stencil. You create your design and send it to your printing partner. They then burn it onto a screen, push ink through it, and onto your garment using a squeegee.

Simple in theory but can get technical in practice. Especially when you start talking about automatic screen printing presses that can put out hundreds of shirts per hour.

There is more setup involved on the front end for screen printing, but once your screens are in place, screen printers can produce shirts at a rapid rate and a great price break.

Pros and Cons of Screen Printing

Pros: Screen printing has many pros, the first being the high quality of the print. 

Your t-shirt prints will be more vibrant in color compared to on-demand printers. And if you're using water-based ink, the image will feel softer and last longer.

Screen printing is perfect for ordering t-shirts in bulk (think 25 or more t-shirts). The exact amount of setup goes into printing one t-shirt as it does 1,000 –– so small orders are challenging. But your cost per shirt will be much less expensive when ordering in bulk.

Packing and shipping don't have to be a hassle, either. Find someone to handle your fulfillment and dropshipping, and you'll still have the convenience of an on-demand printer.

Cons: The most significant "knock" on screen printing is how difficult it is to print a small run of shirts. 

Since there is a high amount of setup involved, most screen printers won't print less than 20 shirts at once — not ideal if you're looking for shirts for your 10-person softball team or a family reunion.

Screen printing is also trickier for printing photorealistic images. It takes burning a lot of screens and delicate blending of colors to work. Find an expert, and they'll be able to print the image nicely, but DTG printing usually makes the image sharper.

Is Screen Printing Right For Me?

Screen printing is the way to go when you're ready to up your quality and profit margin. The print quality will be different than an on-demand printer, and you'll likely get better price breaks.

The only real exception is if you need a very accurate photorealistic print. In that case, it could be worth looking into someone who will print that digitally for you.

But suppose you're working at a company stocking up on employee gear, a church or non-profit ordering volunteer t-shirts, or a clothing line that has graduated from the trial phase and is ready to start turning a profit. In that case, screen printing will be your best option.

Ready to get started with screen printing? Download our custom t-shirt design kit and start creating!

On-Demand T-Shirt Printing

On-demand t-shirt printing is more of a service than a style. On-demand t-shirt printing services like Printful or Teelaunch use a process called DTG (direct-to-garment)to print t-shirts. You can think of DTG printing as the t-shirt version of an inkjet office printer, printing on t-shirts the same way your printer at home prints on paper.

Since there is virtually no setup to print a shirt on a DTG printer, you can produce smaller t-shirt runs and even one-off prints with little hassle.

On-demand printers typically sync up to your online store, and only once someone orders a shirt from your site will it get printed, which means minimal up-front investment on your end and no chance of having a leftover inventory of t-shirts.

Pros and Cons of On-Demand T-Shirt Printing

Pros: As we said, on-demand printers use DTG technology. 

For DTG printers, there is no actual prep or setup involved, which makes it easy to print small quantities and one-off t-shirts at a reasonable cost. 

Also, since the print is done digitally and not with screens, DTG is excellent for high-detail and photorealistic prints.

Cons: On-demand printing is *not* ideal when you're planning on ordering t-shirts in bulk. 

There usually aren't price breaks for how many shirts you request, and the cost to produce one shirt is still high, making it hard to profit if you're looking to sell your t-shirts.

The other major setback of on-demand is print quality. DTG printers don't print quite as vibrantly as screen printers do. Many DTG printers will tell you not to print on dark t-shirts because the dark garment color will dull the print. DTG prints tend to fade much quicker than screen-printed t-shirts- longevity could be an issue.

Is On-Demand Printing Right For Me?

On-demand printing is an excellent option if you're at the beginning of launching a brand and want to test many designs and see what sticks. It's convenient, with no commitment, and you're not limited to one or two designs. 

On-demand is an intelligent route to launch a side hustle that takes minimal effort and might make a small profit.

We hope this guide helps determine which t-shirt printing option fits your needs. Ensure you're partnering with a printer that knows your vision and is committed to helping you reach your long-term goals.

If you'd like to chat with someone and figure it out, give us a shout! We'd love to help you select which printing option is best for you.

Originally Published 01/31/2018 | Updated 06/16/2023

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