Sublimation vs. Screen Printing: What’s the Difference?

Sublimation and screen printing are two popular printing methods that can print high-quality, colorful images onto T-shirts and other products. Learn more about the two different processes and the practical differences between the two.

What is sublimation?

In sublimation printing, the ink shifts from being in a solid state to being in a gaseous state without ever becoming a liquid. First, an ink design is printed onto a specialized transfer paper. Then that image is laid against a polyester or polyester mix fabric and heated until the ink disintegrates and transfers onto that final piece of fabric.

Advantages of sublimation printing:

Sublimation printing processes last longer than other printing methods, with minimal risk of fading or patchy color over time. The ink design also won't peel or crack as it's washed and worn. Sublimation printing processes can also transfer the entire image at once, instead of layer by layer or color by color. This results in a faster application and no risk of misalignment.

What is screen printing?

Screen printing methods, on the other hand, use liquid inks. The ink for a design passes through a screen mesh onto the underlying fabric; the mesh and the temporary application of impermeable barriers determine where the ink does or does not transfer in order to create the design. This process applies one color, or layer, at a time, so complex designs often have several screens that are used one by one to create the design.

Advantages of screen printing:

Screen printing is extremely versatile. Along with t-shirts and apparel, manufacturers can also use screen printing to add images to signs, decals, merchandise, and more. Substrate options include textiles, glass, wood, and metal. Screen printing can even be used on medical devices and electronics to create printed circuits and practical elements.

Screen printing is also cost-effective and can be used to produce high-volume orders because the screens can be used again and again. Printers can easily control where the ink goes and create high-quality images.

How to determine which to use for your project

Both screen printing and sublimation printing processes can create high-quality, long-lasting images that resist fade and wear from frequent use. But it's important to choose the right method based on the details of your project. Some factors to consider include:

  • Size of the project: Screen printing becomes more cost-effective as the production size grows, as it's a bulky and time-intensive process. But sublimation printing works best with small or custom orders because the process doesn't scale.
  • Color quality: Dye sublimation is the preferred choice for vibrant, long-lasting color. This process can also better create complex designs with dozens of different colors since it can print all of the colors at once. This is different from screen printing, which can only print one color at a time and so presents some risk of misalignment with extremely intricate images.
  • Type of substrate: The substrate is the material or object that you're printing a design on. Screen printing is designed for flat surfaces, such as wood and plastic. Dye sublimation, on the other hand, works best with hard and synthetic surfaces, such as plastics. But both methods can be used to create graphic tees (though dye sublimation only works on materials like polyester rather than cotton or silk).

Final thoughts on sublimation vs. screen printing

Sublimation and screen printing techniques can both be used for creative projects. But it's important to consider which method is the best fit for your production demands before you finalize your designs.

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