There are four different methods of t-shirt printing that we’ll look at in this article. They are listed in order from easiest and cheapest method of t-shirt printing, to the more difficult and expensive.
Iron-on heat transfers
Heat press machine for heat transfers
Screen printing designs
Direct to garment printing (DTG printing)
Iron-On T-Shirt Printing
Method number one: Iron-on heat transfers! This is the easiest way to put a print onto a t-shirt (or other garment). Most people begin their t-shirt making careers starting with iron-on transfers.
There are a few types of iron-on transfer. These include heat transfer vinyl (HTV), inkjet or laser transfers. This technique is very straight forward once you have your transfer. Simply place your t-shirt and transfer on a hard surface and press down with your iron for 10-15 seconds. If it cannot be done in one go, make sure each part of the transfer is pressed one after another.
Irons and iron-on transfers are the cheapest way to print t-shirts
A lower quality transfer
Difficult to do large transfers
Easier to burn or scorch a tee with an iron
Irons with steam holes are not as good
Irons are not designed for heat transfers
Who Should Use This Method?
Iron-on transfers are a great way to start making your own t-shirts. You can buy transfer paper for very little, and print on it with your own inkjet printer and get started right away (though do double check your ink is appropriate for transfer). Iron-on transfers are not good for business purposes, you really want to get a heat press machine if you are wanting to sell them.
Iron-on transfers are great for kids as well (with supervision). I think I was about 10 when I did my first one on top of our washing machine. It’s a cool feeling pressing your first transfer and peeling back the transfer paper to reveal the design. Maybe you could sort your kids out with some iron-on transfers for Christmas?
Method number 2 (and our personal favorite): Heat press machines for t-shirt printing and transfers. We’ve created this website around heat press machines because we think they’re the best way to print t-shirts!
The process of using a heat press machine for t-shirt printing is similar to using an iron. These machines use a combo of time, temperature and pressure to press the image or vinyl from the backing sheet onto a t-shirt. Most people begin by doing HTV transfers. There are a number of cheap cutting machines that you can use to produce these transfers.
Designs pressed with a heat press machine sit on top of your t-shirt. More specifically, vinyl is clearly situated over the fabric. Whether this is a pro or con depends on your personal preference. Some people prefer the screen printed effect where the design is absorbed into the fabric. Other people, like myself, like it all. I like variety – give me heat pressed tees AND screen printed tees!
Not as efficient as other methods for larger quantities
Weeding vinyl is time consuming
Difficult to do multiple colors with HTV
HTV transfers do not last as long and as well as screen printed tees
Who Should Use A Heat Press Machine?
Everyone should use a heat press machine. Haha, but seriously, they should. They’re good for beginners, or old hands. They are great for home and hobby use, or in a t-shirt design store. Heat press machines are affordable and easy to use, meaning even teenagers are able to start a small business with one. Check this list to see what we think are the best cheap heat press machines.
By Manolis Angelakis (Manolis Angelakis) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Screen printing is another method for making t-shirts. In my view, it is a level up from heat press machines in difficulty, but it does produce amazing results. In particular, it is one of the best ways to do large volumes of t-shirt printing. The screen printing process involves using a silkscreen with your design exposed. You swipe ink across the screen with a squeegee, which allows the ink only through the design onto the tee. You can see some quality videos toward the bottom of this article for a demonstration of the process.
Pros & Cons Of Screen Printing
Use your screens again and again
Great for doing lots of the same design
You can make your own screens
Creates nice clean designs
Tee designs last a long time
Designs “become one” with the tee – absorbed into the fabric
Making the screen designs takes practice
Best for single colors
Can get messy
More set up and tidy up required
Not good for one-off or small jobs
Direct To Garment Printing
Direct to garment printing is the final type of t-shirt printing. If you haven’t heard of it before, can you guess what it involves…? Yep, printing directly onto your garment. DTG printers are very expensive and are not typically bought for home use. Professional design shops tend to be the ones using these machines.
Pros & Cons Of DTG Printing
Best way to do multiple colors
A sharper image on the tee
Looks very professional
Headache free design changes
Good for small runs
Not economical for large quantities
Design placement limited
Not for home/hobby use
Who Should Use DTG For T-Shirt Printing?
These machines are best for professional shops. The expense of these machines is high, running in the multiple thousands of dollars. Also, it is good for them to be used often, keeping the ink from settling in the machine for too long. The output of these machines is great, but only consider buying one if you have a sure path to recouping your income.
T-Shirt Printing Videos
If you prefer to consume your content via video, here are some of the best explanations and demonstrations of these different types of t-shirt printing methods.
Charli Marie summarizes the four t-shirt printing techniques in this short but thorough video. Be sure to subscribe to her channel on YouTube!
Charli again giving a lot of value in this video. She teaches how to make screens and then shows how to do the t-shirt print. Again, I recommend you subscribe to her YouTube channel.
So there you have the four ways of printing on t-shirts.
They are all quite different, producing different looks and effects. As we’ve seen, each has its pros and cons – you have to weigh what your needs are and what’s important for you.
Of course, we’re fond of the heat press option here and recommend you try one out. There are plenty of cheap heat press machines for you to play with and gain experience. Let us know in the comments below what your plans are – we love to hear people’s stories!