DTG vs. Screen Printing | Pros, Cons, How Much It Costs

Business Lessons

Screen printing and DTG (direct-to-garment) printing are two of the most common ways to print custom t-shirts. 

Both printing methods have pros and cons.

So how do you choose between screen printing and DTG printing?

Steven Farag from Campus Ink in Champaign, IL showed us the difference between DTG and screen printing:


Let's start with the absolute basics.

Question: What are screen printing and DTG printing?

Answer: Screen printing is a tried-and-true method for printing ink on textiles, garments, and a variety of substrates. A nylon mesh screen has a light-sensitive emulsion applied to it, a negative image is "burned" into the emulsion, then ink is pressed through the openings in the emulsion on the screen with a squeegee directly onto the printing surface.

Direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is a newer method that utilizes a digital print head to print designs directly onto a substrate. DTG printers are functionally similar to the typical inkjet printer you'd find in a home or office. An image is digitized by the printer and then printed directly onto the t-shirt or garment.

Question: Why would a print shop use DTG printing instead of screen printing?

Answer: Screen printing presses can print shirts quickly – sometimes up to 1080 pieces an hour.

However, a screen printer's setup time limits what's possible. Screen printers can print one design at high volume quickly. But if they need to print multiple designs, or do just a few prints, screen printing can be costly and prohibitive compared to DTG printing.

Here's why: the extensive labor required to create, separate, coat, expose, and register screens make screen printing presses inefficient for small quantity orders with lots of colors.

Let's say you want 20 t-shirts, with a 4-color design that requires 5 different screens to print.

It takes far more time to create those 5 screens and set them up on the screen printing press correctly than it does to actually print the 20 shirts!

IMPORTANT DIFFERENCE: Screens and setup make screen printing too expensive for low-quantity custom orders.

Question: What are the cons of DTG printing?

White DTG ink in its container in front of a DTG printer.
"Always shake your white ink." DTG ink is expensive.

Answer: It may sound like DTG is a futuristic answer for printing everything under the sun. But don't rush out and buy one right away.

DTG technology improves by leaps and bounds with each passing year. Regardless, DTG has several important downsides to consider.

  1. It’s expensive. The ink is expensive. The actual equipment is expensive. Maintenance and R&D are expensive.
    1. It can cost $4 (or more!) in ink and pre-treat to print one large and colorful print on a dark shirt.
    2. You must meticulously maintain your DTG printers. They are not maintenance-free machines.
  2. It's slow. DTG printers cannot keep pace with screen printers. They print line-by-line – just like a printer at your house.
    1. With the most common DTG printers, you may be able to do a shirt every two minutes.
    2. Amazon tried to overcome this speed issue via scaling – they bought thousands of Kornit DTG printers – but their Merch by Amazon fulfillment business is still not fully operational after more than two years of development.
  3. DTG quality is not equal to a good screen print. Yes, it's true, DTG prints typically aren't as good as screen prints.
    1. Excellent screen prints still look miles ahead of good DTG prints.
    2. DTG prints are typically made for customers that have different demands than customers that place high-volume screen print orders.
  4. You need to "pre-treat" a lot of garments. Want vibrant colors or to print on a dark t-shirt? You'll need to pre-treat your shirts.
    1. Pre-treating adds another minute or two of time to each garment you print (and costs more money).
    2. A rule of thumb: if you're printing white inks, you must pre-treat.

The exception here is a hybrid printing system like the M&R Digital Squeegee or one of ROQ’s ROQhybrid systems.

Question: Why would a print shop do DTG printing?

Answer: DTG printing lets screen printers take small and complex orders that they would normally turn away. Print shops use DTG printers for:

  • Complicated artwork
    • You can print full-color photographs and other challenging high-color-count art with DTG printing easily
  • 12 to 24 piece orders
    • Since screen printing typically isn't profitable at these volumes, DTG printing offers a reasonable alternative
  • Small reprints or re-orders
    • Shop often use DTG printing for one-off re-orders and replacements (i.e. a single shirt from a larger order)
  • Rush orders
    • DTG printing is fast: instantly upload art, pre-treat, print, and charge a premium
  • Bad artwork (i.e. photographs)
    • DTG printing is ideal for art that isn't ideal for screen printing
    • Take a picture, then print it on a shirt (no complicated separations required)

Question: Should you use DTG or screen printing? How do you decide?

Choosing between screen printing and DTG printing
DTG and screen printing are just ways to meet a customer's demands.

Answer: Choosing between DTG printing and screen printing isn't so difficult if you know the specifications of the order.

First, consider what it will take to screen print the order. If you see that artwork can easily be separated, lean toward screen printing. It’s still the first and best way to print a shirt.

Second, consider whether the artwork is complicated (i.e. a photograph) or if it's for a small quantity (i.e. 12 shirts) – you can lean toward DTG printing.

Third, if the customer wants a high-quantity print with complex art – you don't want to sacrifice quality – consider subcontracting the job to a print shop that specializes in complex simulated process screen printing (or trying to separate and print it yourself).

If you're a customer trying to decide between DTG and screen printing, you should consult with your print shop about what they suggest for your specific order.

Question: What is "pre-treating" for DTG printing?

Answer: A t-shirt typically has to be pre-treated for DTG printing. A DTG pre-treat machine applies a special coating to the shirt. This coat acts like an underbase (or primer) so that the ink is more vibrant and longer-lasting.

Pre-treating is almost always necessary if the t-shirt is black or another dark color, and may be required for light garments as well depending on the colors in the image to be printed.

Pre-treatment can take a minute or more. Pre-treat can be expensive (Ryonet sells a 20 liter supply of Epson's pre-treat for just under $700) but it's necessary for professional-quality prints.

Question: How much does it cost to print a shirt with a DTG printer?

A DTG printer while it prints a t-shirt
DTG pricing is actually fairly simple.

Answer: There is a major upside to DTG printing that's worth discussing. You can accurately calculate most of your costs, which makes setting your prices a lot easier.

Epson and other DTG printing manufacturers actually offer a cost calculator tool for DTG printers.

With DTG, you’re applying a given amount of ink over a pre-determined area on a garment.

You can actually calculate the exact cost of the ink over the area!

A complicated DTG print (i.e. with 7 colors on a dark garment that covers a large area) could cost $8!

A DTG pricing formula is typically simple: cost of labor + cost of ink and pre-treat over the area printed + cost of garment = total cost.

When you’re starting to price your own DTG prints, you should consider the cost of pre-treating, the cost of ink, and how large the image actually is. Luckily, these are all known quantities – which means pricing your DTG prints can be a lot easier than pricing your screen prints.

Some awesome resources to estimate DTG pricing:

Question: How much does a DTG printer cost?

Answer: DTG printers cost tens of thousands of dollars. Prices vary according to the manufacturer and model.

We advise print shops to consider purchasing their first DTG printer after they've contracted thousands of dollars of DTG prints out of their business. Put another way: DTG printers – and any custom printing equipment – do not generate demand.

A typical Epson or Brother DTG (direct to garment) printer for the everyday print shop costs between $10,000 and $20,000. High-end digital hybrid printers like M&R’s Digital Squeegee cost significantly more.

Remember: DTG printing requires more than a printer! A pre-treatment machine typically costs between $3,000 and $4,000. Don’t underestimate your pre-treatment machine! It’s one of the most important parts of your DTG setup.

Lawson, Equipment Zone and M&R all make pre-treatment machines for DTG printing (along with numerous other manufacturers).

Finally, you’ll need a heat press. They can cost $1,000 to $2,000 for a high-end model. However, you can use the heat press for innumerable things in most print shops.

So how much does it cost for a DTG printer? All-in, you’re looking at a minimum $20,000 to $30,000 investment for a complete DTG printing setup. The most expensive DTG printers can easily exceed $50,000 – though that will typically include a comprehensive warranty and maintenance package as well.

Question: Can you buy a used DTG printer for less than a new DTG printer?

Used screen printing equipment is a notoriously affordable way to get started in screen printing. The second-hand resale value for M&R and ROQ automatic screen printing presses is very high, but it's still a significant discount compared to new equipment.

Unfortunately, DTG equipment does not retain its resale value like screen printing equipment does – and used DTG equipment is a total crapshoot.

Most experts don't recommend purchasing used DTG equipment since the maintenance and upkeep are so important (and you have no way to verify if it was done correctly).

Be prepared for additional repairs, costs, maintenance, and troubleshooting if you buy used DTG printers – and beware that you likely won't benefit from the manufacturer's warranty!

Question: How much does DTG printing ink cost?

A: Here’s the most important part about DTG printing: ink costs are higher than screen printing. While there are a lot of ways to save money on screen printing ink, DTG inks are typically crafted for one specific manufacturer's printers. This is known as the "razor and razor blade" model, and it's the backbone of DTG printing manufacturer's business model.

So how much does DTG ink cost? Each DTG ink cartridge costs around $200. For a typical CMYK DTG printer (with two white inks), there may be $1,200 worth of ink in the printer at any given time.

DTG ink has a shelf life, so you can’t buy it on sale and save it for later like you can with Plastisol screen printing ink.

It may cost $300 to $400 a month to run a DTG machine.

If it’s a busy month, your costs will swell since you use more ink. And of course...pre-treat is fairly expensive as well. If you dive into DTG printing, be mindful about tracking your ink usage and associated costs.

Question: Who makes DTG printers?

A DTG setup with a pre-treater.
Your pre-treat machine is really important for successful DTG printing.

Answer: There are a handful of major DTG printing manufacturers – with many more waiting in the wings.

An important note: virtually every DTG printing manufacturer utilizes the "razor-razor blade" model – meaning they make the bulk of their income from selling DTG ink, not selling DTG machines – so check ink pricing as well as machine pricing. A higher-cost machine may have lower-cost ink (and vice-versa).

Kornit is based in Israel and has partnered with Amazon to develop their Merch with Amazon service. Their DTG printers are priced at a premium but are known for excellent service, warranties, and generally high build quality.

Brother has made a name for itself in the DTG space with their versatile and powerful GTX line of printers.

M&R made the M-LINK line of DTG printers (which are often considered a gold standard) and currently manufactures the EZPREP Pretreatment system.

Epson is famous for their large-format printers, and is a common household name with decades of experience in inkjet printing. They make an extensive line of DTG printers for a variety of industrial applications.

AnaJet by RICOH is Ricoh's DTG division. Ricoh is a leader in embroidery technology and has begun its acquisition and expansion phase. AnaJet invested heavily in consumer education and ongoing support for their DTG users.

Omniprint is a leader in the DTG space, offering a variety of DTG printers at various price-points as well as turnkey DTG printing businesses.

Col-Desi manufactures a variety of DTG printers, including one of the earliest two-platen DTG printers. This allows print shops to print two designs on one printer simultaneously.

A number of Chinese manufacturers are also beginning to bring their DTG offerings to market. We expect that there will be dozens more manufacturers and suppliers for DTG printing in the next 5 years – no single company owns the DTG market yet!

Question: How does DTG feel compared to screen printing?

Answer: There's no simple answer to this question because of the many variables involved.

You can do extremely soft screen printed t-shirts with the right tips – but certain screen printing inks and techniques can achieve results as soft as the t-shirt itself.

However, we can generally assume that:

  • DTG printed t-shirts have a softer hand feel than plastisol screen prints.
    • This is simply because DTG ink is thinner than plastisol ink once it's on the shirt.
  • DTG printed t-shirts may or may not have a softer hand feel than water based screen prints.
    • Depending on the technique, water based printing can have virtually zero hand feel.

Generally speaking, DTG printing is softer than screen printing. But that isn't always the case, and DTG printing isn't always the best way to achieve softer prints.

Question: how much does DTG printing cost compared to screen printing?

Answer: DTG printing costs less than screen printing for most small quantity orders. Screen printing typically costs less for large quantity orders.

Here's why: to overcome the cost of creating screens and then setting up those screens on press (as well as breaking down and reclaiming the screens), screen printers need to print a certain quantity of shirts to make the job profitable. This "break-even point" varies from business to business, but a common industry minimum is 24 t-shirts for screen printing.

The "cost curve" for DTG printing is very low initially – you can quickly print 1 to 12 shirts compared to screen printing. But past 12 to 24 garments, screen printing becomes exponentially faster and more profitable – while DTG printing stays at the same level of production and profitability.

Comparing DTG pricing to screen printing pricing
Comparing some idealized prices for DTG (blue) versus screen printing (red)

One way to get around this is to do a "pod printing" setup.

Shops that do a lot of DTG printing will daisy-chain their pre-treat machines, DTG machines, and curing dryers to create a "pod." This means they can print multiple designs at once, or raise their overall capacity to print larger orders. This is what Amazon attempted to do with Kornit (mentioned above), though on a much larger scale.

Learn more about pod DTG printing in our guide to DTG printing with Luke Ryerkerk.

Question: is DTG printing better than screen printing?

Is DTG better than screen printing?
Which is better? Well...it just depends.

Answer: there's no simple answer to this question. Yes, you'll hear screen printers trash DTG as "direct to garbage" and hear DTG lovers call screen printers old-fashioned. There is definitely some animosity here!

So let's start with something most people can agree on: screen printing is still the most durable, time-tested, and familiar printing method for custom t-shirts and garments. DTG printing is typically another tool for a print shop to meet the needs of their customers. Very few shops are throwing out their screen printing squeegees for inkjet printers!

You could evaluate DTG vs. screen printing according to print quality, speed of production, price, and so on. Different shops have different competencies.

Ultimately, each shop is different. There are large contract DTG businesses that never do screen prints – and multimillion-dollar screen print shops that would never think of using DTG. Different businesses have different models – some do print-on-demand via Etsy and need the instant turnaround time that DTG offers, while others make their money on 30,000 piece runs that DTG printers could never keep up with.


Conclusion: DTG vs. screen printing

Ultimately, there's no clear winner between DTG and screen printing. There are simply too many variables in the custom apparel industry to say that one decoration style is the best or only way to accomplish the ultimate goal. And what is that ultimate goal? To meet the needs and wants of your customer.

We urge anyone considering a new decoration method – whether that's purchasing your first DTG printer or trying out screen printing – to be agnostic about the exact decoration method they use.

The number one priority is fulfilling your customer's vision – or connecting them with someone that can.

In screen printing and custom apparel decoration, you are more like a barber than a mass manufacturer. You are responsible for creating a custom experience that reflects the customer's needs. Become the expert and guide your customers toward decorations and customizations that they'll love – and that help you turn a profit.


Next Post: The Easy Way to Save Money on Screen Printing Ink | Standardizing Your Inks

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