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Screen Printed Transfers vs Screen Printing: What’s The Difference?

Screen Printed Transfer on Shirt

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In the world of custom apparel, one question that frequently arises is: “What’s the difference between screen printed transfers and traditional screen printing?” Both methods have their unique advantages and specific applications, but understanding the key differences can help you decide which is best suited for your business needs. In this post, we will dive deep into these two popular methods of t-shirt printing, comparing their processes, costs, and benefits.

Understanding Screen Printing

Screen printing, also known as silk screening, is a traditional method of printing designs onto t-shirts. This process involves creating a stencil (or screen) and using it to apply layers of ink on the printing surface. It is a versatile method that works well on various materials, offering vibrant colors and durable prints.

The Screen Printing Process

The Screen printing process begins with creating a stencil or screen. This screen is then placed on the t-shirt, and ink is pushed through the screen onto the fabric. Here’s a breakdown of the steps involved:

  1. Creating the Screen: The first step involves preparing the screen, which requires materials like mesh, emulsion, and a light source to expose the design.
  2. Setting Up: Once the screen is ready, it is set up on a press. This press helps in holding the screen in place and ensures accurate registration for multi-color designs.
  3. Applying Ink: Ink is applied to the screen and pushed through the mesh using a squeegee. The ink passes through the open areas of the stencil and prints onto the t-shirt.
  4. Curing the Print: After printing, the ink needs to be cured. This is typically done using a heat press or conveyor dryer, ensuring the ink sets and bonds with the fabric.

Pros and Cons of Screen Printing


  • Vibrant Colors: Screen printing offers bright and vibrant colors that stand out.
  • Durability: The prints are long-lasting and can withstand multiple washes.
  • Cost-Effective for Large Runs: Ideal for large orders due to economies of scale.


  • Setup Time: Requires significant setup time and materials.
  • Not Ideal for Small Runs: Not cost-effective for small orders due to the setup costs.
  • Complex for Multi-Color Designs: Multi-color designs require separate screens for each color, increasing setup time and complexity.

Exploring Screen Printed Transfers

Screen printed transfers offer a modern alternative to traditional screen printing. This method involves printing designs onto a special transfer paper, which is then applied to the t-shirt using a heat press. It provides a quick and easy way to produce high-quality prints without the extensive setup required for Screen printing.

The Screen Printed Transfers Process

The process of using screen printed transfers is relatively straightforward:

  1. Ordering Transfers: Designs are printed onto transfer paper by a professional service like Transfer Express.
  2. Applying Transfers: The printed transfer paper is placed on the t-shirt, and a heat press is used to transfer the ink from the paper to the fabric. This process typically takes only a few seconds per shirt.
  3. Curing the Print: The heat press not only applies the design but also cures the ink, making the print durable and ready for wear.

Pros and Cons of Screen Printed Transfers


  • Quick Turnaround: Transfers can be ready in as little as a day.
  • Easy Setup: Minimal setup required compared to traditional screen printing.
  • Flexibility for Small Runs: Cost-effective for small orders and on-demand printing.


  • Limited to Pre-Printed Designs: Customization requires ordering new transfers for each design.
  • Dependent on Transfer Quality: The quality of the final print depends on the transfer paper and application process.

Comparing Costs and Profitability

When it comes to cost and profitability, both methods have their strengths and weaknesses. Screen printing is generally more cost-effective for large runs, while screen printed transfers offer better flexibility for small runs and on-demand printing.

Screen Printing Costs

The initial setup costs for screen printing can be high due to the need for screens, inks, and other materials. However, once the setup is complete, the cost per print decreases significantly with larger quantities. This makes screen printing ideal for bulk orders, where the setup cost is spread across many units.

Screen Printed Transfers Costs

Screen printed transfers eliminate much of the setup cost, making them suitable for smaller runs and on-demand printing. The main costs are the transfer paper and the heat press. Although the cost per unit may be higher than screen printing for large runs, the overall cost is lower for smaller orders, and there is no need for extensive setup or cleanup.

Durability and Print Quality

Both methods produce durable prints that can withstand regular washing and wearing. However, there are some differences in the feel and appearance of the prints.

Screen Printing Durability

Screen printing produces vibrant and opaque prints with a slightly raised texture. The prints are highly durable and can withstand multiple washes without significant fading or cracking.

Screen Printed Transfers Durability

Screen printed transfers produce smooth and flexible prints with a soft hand feel. The prints are also durable, but the quality can vary depending on the transfer paper and application process. Properly applied transfers can match the durability of screen-printed designs.

Which Method is Right for You?

Choosing between screen printing and screen printed transfers depends on your specific needs and business model. Here are some considerations to help you decide:

  • Order Size: For large bulk orders, traditional screen printing is more cost-effective. For small runs and on-demand printing, screen printed transfers are more practical.
  • Setup and Equipment: Screen printing requires more extensive setup and equipment. Screen printed transfers need only a heat press and transfer paper.
  • Turnaround Time: Screen printed transfers offer faster turnaround times, making them ideal for quick orders and last-minute jobs.
  • Learning Curve: Screen printing has a steeper learning curve and requires more training. Screen printed transfers are easier to learn and can be quickly mastered.


Both screen printing and screen printed transfers have their unique advantages and are valuable tools in the custom apparel industry. Understanding the differences between these methods can help you make informed decisions about which process to use for your business. Whether you need the vibrant colors and cost-efficiency of screen printing for large runs or the flexibility and convenience of screen printed transfers for small orders, both methods can help you achieve high-quality, durable prints that meet your customers’ needs.

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Alex Hales

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