Dye Sublimation vs. Screen Printing – Which is Better?

If you’re into graphic tees and custom designs, you’ve likely owned several screen-printed or dye-sublimated products before. After all, they’re among the biggest leading printing techniques in the world.

Screen printing and dye sublimation are known for their high-quality prints and ink longevity. With the right materials and technique, both yield visually appealing results in a matter of minutes. 

This brings us to today’s dilemma: sublimation vs. screen printing—which is better? 

To help you make the right choice for your next project, we listed the biggest similarities and differences between these popular printing techniques. Let’s dive right in! 

What Is Dye Sublimation?

Dye sublimation is a digital printing technology in which an image is transferred to a surface through a heat press. It uses a special inkjet-like printer to sublimate liquid gel ink onto sheets of “transfer” paper, creating a permanent color bond.  

Unlike most printing techniques, sublimation ink is embedded rather than printed. As a result, the transferred dye doesn’t fade or crack even after multiple washes. 

Pros of dye sublimation

  • Allows you to create detailed multi-colored designs 
  • Can be printed on rigid surfaces (plates, mugs, photo slates, etc.) 
  • Short learning curve
  • Unlimited range of colors at no additional cost 
  • No minimum print run
  • Design is unnoticeable to the touch

Cons of dye sublimation

  • Equipment is expensive, so start-up requires a sizable upfront investment
  • Only works on white or light-colored polyester surfaces and fabrics

What Is Screen Printing? 

Screen printing

Screen printing, also known as silk screen printing or serigraphy, is a “traditional” printing technique in which a stenciled design is transferred onto a flat surface. Usually, this is done with the use of a mesh screen, a squeegee, and special ink. 

Like dye-sublimation, the ink won’t come off even with multiple washes. Once cured onto the surface, the ink won’t peel or scratch off.

Pros of screen printing

  • Can be printed onto almost every surface
  • Ideal for simple designs 
  • Doesn’t fade under direct sunlight 
  • Cost-effective if printed in bulk 
  • Affordable equipment 

Cons of screen printing

  • Expensive if not printed in bulk 
  • Cost increases with each addition of color
  • Isn’t suitable for coated fabrics
  • Complex set up 
  • Slower turnaround time than other print methods
  • Limited color selection
  • Isn’t suitable for ultra-detailed designs

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

Although both are used to print designs on surfaces, there are several major differences between the two. These are as follows:  

Cost-Effectiveness 

Screen printing is much more cost-effective with large orders. The larger the order volume, the more cost-effective it is. It isn’t suitable for single orders as the setup is extremely time-consuming.  

On the other, dye sublimation doesn’t work well with large orders. It’s more suited for small, simple orders (including single pieces). 

Due to the time and effort required to print a single order, dye sublimation isn’t the most practical when it comes to bulk printing or large orders. It’s more suited for special orders. 

Versatility

In terms of substrate versatility, screen printing puts dye sublimation to shame. 

Screen printing is the go-to method for custom clothing and products because it prints on almost any surface available, regardless of the color. Although it’s mostly used for t-shirts, it’s just as effective on solid surfaces such as plastic, wood, ceramic, and others. 

Dye sublimation only works on selected fabrics, particularly light-colored polyester and other special synthetic garments. Cotton, performance, denim, and moisture-wicking fabrics like rayon are a no-go. In terms of flat surfaces, it only works on polymer-colored materials, such as polymer-coated aluminum, PVC sheets, fiberglass, and vinyl. 

Also, keep in mind that sublimation ink isn’t visible on dark surfaces, so the substrate must be white or at least light-colored. 

Design

Due to the effort required to recreate the design, screen printing is ideal for simple, big designs. 

The great thing about screen printing is that it isn’t limited to flat print. The machine allows you to use specialty inks to create a variety of printing effects, from 3D puff ink designs to shiny metal flake designs. 

Dye sublimation is perfect for more intricate, detailed designs. It prints the tiniest of details with ease and does so consistently over the course of the print run. It handles the vast majority of jobs without sacrificing brightness and saturation, producing photo-quality work within minutes. 

Color

Though more suitable for simple, two-colored designs, screen printing, can achieve just about the same photo-realistic result as dye sublimation. This is usually done through simulated process printing, which recreates detailed images with grids of tiny dots. 

However, simulated process printing takes a ton of practice to perfect because the dots must be aligned precisely to replicate the desired image. 

Dye sublimation doesn’t have this issue. It can produce any design, regardless of how detailed or colorful, with no additional setup. 

Through the CMYO ink set (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Overcoat), dye sublimation generates almost every color under the sun without the need to buy separate inks. As such, it’s the preferred method for ultra-colorful art designs. 

Setup Time

Screen printing takes a lot of time and effort to set up because you can only apply one color at a time. For designs with more than one color, you’ll have to set up a separate stenciled screen and make sure the design is aligned correctly underneath the first. 

With dye sublimation, you can print all the colors in one session. Customization is likewise an easy endeavor; simply edit the graphic file and print the new design onto the existing substrate.

Conclusion

In the head-to-head battle of dye sublimation vs screen printing, it’s difficult to choose a winner.

For start-up businesses with limited budgets, screen printing is the better choice. The machine used in dye sublimation costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is quite hefty for at-home business. Screen printing is likewise the suitable choice for printing on an array of clothing materials, since dye sublimation can only be used on polyester. 

In terms of detailing and work effort, dye sublimation takes the crown. It’s much easier than screen sublimation and can create the most intricate, detailed designs with ease.

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