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Screen Print Transfers vs. DTF Transfers

Tom Gloubovich

In the world of custom apparel printing, the choice of print technology can be a game-changer. For small businesses, entrepreneurs, and side hustlers in the t-shirt business, selecting the right print method is a critical decision impacting your brand's quality, efficiency, and bottom line. Understanding the nuances of different printing techniques is essential.

This post compares two popular methods: screen print transfers and direct-to-film (DTF) transfers. Each offers unique advantages and challenges, and knowing which aligns best with your project needs can set you apart in the competitive world of custom apparel. Let's jump in.


Table of Contents

- What Are Screen Print Transfers?

- What Are DTF Transfers?

- Comparing Screen Print Transfers to DTF Transfers

- How They Work

- Color Reproduction

- Print Quality

- Ease of Use

- Versatility / Fabric Types

- Print Durability

- Transfer Longevity

- Cost and Profit Margins

- Production Time

- Comparison Chart

- Conclusion



    What are screen print transfers?

    Screen print transfers are a method in custom apparel printing where designs are first printed onto a special transfer paper using screen printing techniques. In this process, ink and hot melt adhesive are applied through a mesh screen onto the transfer paper. These transfers are then applied to garments using a heat press.

    This method is notable for its durability, vivid color reproduction, and suitability for high-volume orders. It's ideal for designs that have limited colors and works best on cotton and cotton blend fabrics. Screen print transfers offer a balance of quality and efficiency, making them a popular choice for both small-scale and large-scale production.


    What Are DTF transfers?

    Direct-to-film (DTF) transfers represent a newer, innovative technology in custom apparel printing. Unlike traditional methods, DTF involves printing a design directly onto a special transparent PET film. This is achieved using modified inkjet technology, allowing a full spectrum of colors. A powder adhesive is applied to the design during printing, which melts and bonds to the fabric when heat pressed.

    DTF transfers are lauded for their ability to handle complex, multi-colored designs easily and are suitable for a wide range of fabric types, including synthetic materials. This versatility and high-quality print resolution make DTF transfers a go-to for custom, detailed, and color-rich designs.



    Comparing screen print transfers to DTF transfers

    Deciding between these two methods depends on your specific needs and the nature of your projects. The choice boils down to a number of factors specific to your printing needs. Here, we break down each factor and compare how it applies to the print methods.


    How they work

    Screen print transfers are created using plastisol ink, a petroleum-based substance known for its durability and vibrant color. In this process, each color of the design is printed onto heat transfer paper using a mesh screen. The plastisol ink is pushed through the screen onto the paper, creating a layer for each color and adhesive powder. The finished screen print transfer paper can be applied to garments using a heat press, allowing the plastisol ink to adhere firmly to the fabric.

    DTF transfers employ a completely different technique, using water-based DTF inks. These inks are applied to a special clear PET film, along with adhesive powder, through advanced inkjet nozzles in specialized DTF printers. The process enables a full-color spectrum with gradients and fine details. This method produces transfers that are highly adaptable to various fabric types, including those that are challenging for plastisol inks, offering a broader range of design possibilities.


    Color reproduction

    Screen print transfers deliver a wide range of colors through spot colors, allowing for precise Pantone matching. This capability is a significant advantage for businesses and designers seeking exact color specifications for branding or design accuracy. Additionally, screen printing can utilize out-of-gamut colors, including fluorescents and specialty inks, offering a broader spectrum of creative possibilities. This method is ideal for designs requiring specific, vibrant colors or unique effects only specialized inks can provide.

    DTF transfers operate within the CMYK color model, supplemented by white ink. This 'full color' spectrum is highly effective for reproducing complex gradients and photographic quality in designs. While DTF transfers may not always guarantee exact Pantone color matching due to the limitations of CMYK, they excel in creating smooth color transitions and detailed color variations. This makes them particularly suitable for designs with intricate color work, such as detailed illustrations or photorealistic images.



    Screen print transfers are synonymous with durability and vibrant color output. Plastisol inks in screen printing ensure that colors remain bright and do not fade easily over time, even after multiple washes. However, this method can sometimes struggle with reproducing fine lines and intricate details. The print's 'hand' or feel can also be noticeably heavy when dealing with large designs, especially on darker fabrics. This results from the ink layer's thickness, which is necessary to achieve opacity on dark colors.

    DTF transfers are also known for their durability, but they particularly excel in reproducing intricate designs, crisp details, and smooth gradients. The inkjet technology used in DTF allows for a high level of detail and realism, making it ideal for photorealistic images and complex graphic designs. The 'hand' of DTF transfers is generally smoother and lighter compared to screen printing, providing a more comfortable feel on the garment. However, large solid-colored areas in DTF prints can sometimes have a slightly stiff or sticker-like feel due to the nature of the film and adhesive used. Learn more about DTF printing.



    Ease of use

    Screen print transfers share a common advantage with DTF: they simply require a heat press for application. This commonality makes them accessible and user-friendly for businesses and individuals alike, regardless of their level of expertise in apparel printing. However, a slight difference emerges in the pressing process.

    DTF transfers are transparent, so it's easier to position the design correctly. They also offer more ease when it comes to peeling after pressing. The advanced PET film used for DTF transfers results in a smoother peel-off experience, potentially saving time and reducing the risk of damaging the design during the final step of the application.



    Versatility / and fabric types

    Screen print transfers excel when used on natural fibers, mainly cotton and cotton blends. This preference stems from the way plastisol inks bond with these materials, ensuring a vibrant and durable print. The method is highly effective on these fabric types, producing long-lasting and visually striking results. However, screen print transfers may be less effective on synthetic or more textured fabrics, where ink adherence can be less reliable, potentially affecting the quality and durability of the print.

    DTF transfers, in contrast, have tremendous versatility when it comes to fabric compatibility. They are adept at adhering to various materials, including challenging synthetic fabrics and coarse fibers. This is mainly due to the unique adhesive properties of the DTF process, which allow for a strong bond with various fabric types. Whether polyester, lycra, or rough-textured fabric, DTF transfers maintain high-quality print results, making them versatile for a wide range of quality apparel.



    Print durability

    Screen print transfers are renowned for their durability, particularly when it comes to withstanding numerous washes. The robust nature of plastisol ink, used in screen printing, ensures that the designs remain intact and vibrant for an extended period, even under frequent laundering. This makes screen print transfers preferred for garments requiring long-lasting prints. However, it's important to note that while durable, these prints can sometimes be prone to cracking or splitting, especially in areas where the fabric is stretched frequently.

    DTF transfers offer competitive durability and an added advantage in flexibility and stretch. The unique composition of DTF inks and the adhesive allows the print to move and stretch with the fabric, reducing the likelihood of cracking or splitting. This makes DTF transfers particularly suitable for garments that undergo significant stretching, such as athletic wear or fitted clothing. While they are generally durable, the longevity of DTF prints, especially under heavy washing, is slightly less compared to screen print transfers. For more, check out our post about how long DTF transfers last.



    Transfer longevity

    Screen print transfers, when stored properly, can last for extended periods. However, they are somewhat more sensitive to environmental factors like extreme heat, cold, and prolonged exposure to sunlight. These conditions can affect the transfer paper's plastisol inks and adhesive qualities, potentially decreasing the transfer's efficacy over time. Storing them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight is recommended to maximize their longevity.

    DTF transfers boast a long shelf life and are generally more resilient to varying environmental conditions than screen print transfers. The composition of DTF inks and the PET film tends to be less susceptible to degradation from heat or cold, making them more stable during storage. Like screen print transfers, storing them in a controlled environment away from direct sunlight will help maintain their quality over time. For a deeper dive, read all about how to store DTF transfers.



    Cost and profit margins

    Screen print transfer cost is closely aligned with traditional screen printing: it increases with the addition of each color in the design. This makes them a cost-effective option for simpler designs that use one or two colors. However, as the color count rises to four or five, the cost becomes comparable to that of DTF. Beyond this, screen print transfers can become more expensive, especially for highly colorful designs. Additionally, the size of the design can also influence the cost, though it's primarily the color count that drives the pricing. This pricing model allows for strategic planning, especially for bulk orders of simple designs.

    DTF transfers typically have a more consistent pricing structure regardless of the number of colors used. Since the printing process always utilizes CMYK plus white ink, the cost is not influenced by color complexity. However, the size of the design can affect the price. DTF transfers offer the advantage of bulk discounts, and with Ninja Transfers, customers can order DTF gang sheets where multiple designs are printed on a single sheet, significantly reducing costs. This pricing model makes DTF transfers particularly appealing for intricate, multi-colored designs or when ordering various designs simultaneously.



    Production time

    Screen print transfers typically require a longer production time, primarily due to the setup involved in the screen printing process. Each color in the design necessitates a separate screen, meaning that the more colors involved, the more complex and time-consuming the setup becomes. This is especially true for large orders with multiple colors, where the production turnaround time can become significant. The time invested in setup and layering colors makes screen print transfers less time-efficient for urgent or time-sensitive orders, particularly those with high color complexity.

    DTF transfers benefit from a much quicker production time. The lack of extensive setup, thanks to digital printing technology, significantly reduces the time from design to finished transfer. The process involves digitally printing the design onto a film without needing individual screens per color. This streamlined approach means that DTF transfers can be produced much faster than screen print transfers, making them an ideal choice for projects with tight deadlines or when rapid turnaround is a priority.


    Screen print transfers vs. DTF transfers comparison chart

    Category Screen Print Transfers DTF Transfers
    How They Work Plastisol ink on heat transfer paper. Water-based DTF ink on PET film.
    Color Reproduction Spot colors, Pantone matching. CMYK + White, better for gradients.
    Print Quality Durable, vibrant, can struggle with fine details. Durable, excels in detail and realism.
    Ease of Use Requires heat press. Heat press or iron, easier film removal.
    Versatility / Fabric Types Best for cotton and blends. Works on a wide range of fabrics.
    Print Durability Highly durable, can crack when stretched. Durable, better stretch without cracking.
    Transfer Longevity Long, sensitive to environment. Long, more resilient to conditions.
    Cost and Profit Margins Vary with colors, cost-effective for simpler designs. Consistent pricing, suitable for complex designs.
    Production Time Longer due to color setup. Quicker, minimal setup.
    Best For Simple designs, low number of colors, bulk orders, specialty inks Complex, multi-color designs, fine details, and variety of fabrics

    Choosing the best method for your needs

    In the journey of custom apparel printing, the choice between screen print transfers and direct-to-film transfers can significantly shape your project's outcome. Screen print transfers offer a traditional approach with their vibrant and durable prints, best suited for simpler designs on natural fibers like cotton. They excel in large-scale orders where color consistency and longevity are paramount.

    On the other hand, DTF transfers bring modern versatility, easily accommodating intricate designs and adhering beautifully to a wide range of fabrics, including synthetics. Their faster production time and consistent pricing structure make them ideal for detailed, multi-colored projects and urgent orders.

    Your decision ultimately hinges on the specifics of your project: the fabric type, design complexity, color requirements, production time, and budget. Understanding these nuances will help you leverage the strengths of each method to your advantage.

    As you navigate this choice, remember that both methods are unique in custom apparel. Ninja Transfers is your trusted partner for top-quality transfers that align with your creative vision and business needs. We're here to ensure that your custom apparel stands out in quality and durability.

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