DTF Printing vs. Traditional Screen Printing: What’s the Difference?

Isn’t it about time we discuss the differences between DTF (digital-to-film) and traditional screen printing and see how they stack up against each other?

To be honest with you, we think it’s long time overdue and should have been done earlier.

In a text format that is…

While we recorded a video on this topic a year ago, we still haven’t compiled all this information into one place for you to look back on.

So, today, we’re excited to offer you a comprehensive comparison between these two methods to make up for it.

So, let’s not waste any more time and get right to it.

1. The Basics

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. To begin with, the first thing we should look at is the type of technology and functionality used by these two methods.

For the most part, they are very different from each other. If you’re a little baffled to see or understand the differences, let us break it down for you here.

DTF Printing: Like everything else these days, decoration methods, too, come with cute ‘’nicknames’’. In case you’re scratching your head at this one… DTF simply stands for direct-to-film.

Basically… with this technique… your design gets inkjet-printed onto a special clear plastic film, like a see-through sheet. If you’re into acronyms, it’s officially called PET film.

This film goes through the printer from one end to the other. And during this process, the printer does a number of things to this film. First, it lays down the color, then it applies a thin layer of white base coat over the design area. But it doesn’t stop there, the printer then takes the film and sends it into the shaker-drier to cover everything with an adhesive powder.

And voila, like that, out comes a finished design.

Of course, this is an oversimplified way of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

But, all in all, we would say the printer does all the work for you. You can easily sit back and watch the process or do other things around the shop.

As we said above, this is not the only method around, another option is screen printing. So, let’s talk about that next.

Screen Printing: Screen printing has been around for a long time. If you’re here you probably don’t need an introduction to it. But you’re getting one anyway.

They say repetition is the mother of learning… so… let’s take a quick refresher.

You remember how when you were a kid, you used a magnifier glass to burn patterns in paper, wood, or whatever was handy?

It has come full circle but with a grown-up twist.

This time around, we’re putting thought into this. It’s no longer a fun childhood experiment; it’s business.

Here’s how it works and how you would go about setting everything up for yourself: to begin with, the first thing you’ll need is a frame. You can either make one yourself or purchase a pre-made frame. You’ll use it as a helper for holding everything together in place so nothing shifts or moves out of place when you print.

The next thing you’ll need to do is stretch a fine mesh screen over the frame. It’s typically made out of nylon, silk, or polyester. The idea here is to create a taut and smooth surface for your screen printing process.

Once you’ve attached the screen to the frame, you’ll want to coat it with a light-sensitive emulsion. And you know where this is going next, right? Bingo! You’re a smart crafter — this emulsion is photosensitive, meaning it reacts to light. When you expose your screen to light, the emulsion will harden in the areas not blocked by your design, creating a stencil.

And there you have it, you’ve essentially made yourself a stencil, which will allow ink to pass through and onto your printing surface.

2. Printing Speed and Volume

Now that we’ve run you through the basics, let’s take it up a notch and compare the differences in production. After all, you don’t want to be stuck with a printer that doesn’t fit your business needs.

DTF Printing: if you want to go all out, and have the best printer there is… you might want to consider upgrading to a DTF printer. It’s basically a workhorse — it will get you where you need to go! It doesn’t crack under pressure; it’s designed for high-volume, high-speed, full-color tasks. Plus, DTF transfers are very durable, flexible, and can withstand as many washes as screen printed garments.

Screen Printing: While we can’t say that there are all the same features about screen printing, it’s still a reasonably good choice. Sure, it might not be as fast as zippy DTF, but it has amazing durability and longevity of the prints. 

Boy, do both methods really last! They can withstand multiple washes without fading away, peeling, or cracking. Therefore, decorators who prioritize long-lasting and robust prints would find both ways of decorating apparel suitable.

3. Cost Efficiency

Which printing method is the most cost-effective one? Well, let’s find out the answer to this question! But make no mistake, the cheapest option may not always be the best value… or… deliver the quality or durability you’re aiming for.

DTF Printing: This might not be the cheapest of the two, BUT… it’s certainly the most cost-effective in the long run. Look, you don’t have to deal with setting up or cleaning screens every time you want to print, like how it is with screen printing. Here, you just ‘’buy once cry once’’ so to speak. The initial investment is a big one, but the long-term advantages are worth it.

Screen Printing: While screen printing may appear to have lower upfront equipment costs, it comes with other expenses you need to factor in. As we were saying, you’ve got to deal with creating and maintaining screens. That means you’ll need to invest time and money into making screens for each design you want to print. And it’s not a one-time thing — you’re in for a repeat.

Then there’s cleaning those screens. Another chore you can’t skip. The list goes on… it’s a classic case of “you get what you pay for,” and sometimes, paying a bit more upfront can put a ton of cash back in your pocket later.

4. Detail and Color

Now, coming onto the juicy part of this comparison, that is the details and colors. How do these printers stack up against one another? Which one is a better buy in terms of color reproduction, contrast, readability, and overall picture quality? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by putting these two methods head to head.

DTF Printing: We briefly touched up earlier on how direct-to-film prints in full color. And we almost forgot to add, that it prints in CMYK color gamut.

Before you reach for a dictionary, it simply means that it uses just four ink colors – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black) — to produce a wide spectrum of colors for your custom designs.

What you get is an impressive color reproduction that can accurately match the hues in your original artwork. The fine lines or text can be easily read and understood even from a distance.

All this combined together with the efficiency of DTF makes it a no-brainer if you’re deciding between the two.

Screen Printing: We don’t want you to be swayed by our opinion one way or the other. But, things don’t look so great with screen printing. In other words, this method has its limitations.

Which one would you like us to start with?

O.K. Let’s get the details out of the way first. It comes out quite well for simpler designs that use bold elements, but falters with highly detailed and intricate artwork.

The same can be said about the color application; achieving smooth transitions, shades, or gradients can be a real challenge.

So, that’s something to think about…

5. Durability

We’ve covered functionality, production quality, and costs, but what about how these prints hold up? Let’s talk durability – how they handle wear, washing, and exposure to weather over time.

DTF Printing: The way things are going for DTF, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that prints come out durable enough to withstand plenty of sun, wind, moisture, and daily use without peeling off or tearing. But, as with everything, results also depend on the materials you’re using.

Screen Printing: Now, as for screen printing, it’s safe to say it’s not far behind in terms of durability. Screen prints are known for their weather resistance and ability to endure multiple wash cycles without fading or peeling, even when exposed to harsh sunlight. You can’t go wrong with either of these two methods; they both offer comparable durability.

6. Environmental Impact

Let’s speak the truth here — printing in general isn’t exactly eco-friendly. It requires a host of things to feed from; first, it sucks up a ton of energy in order to operate machinery and equipment. Then, it demands materials like fabrics, inks, and sometimes even chemicals. But that’s not the end of it. You also have to ship these products to consumers, which burns fuel and adds to your carbon footprint.

And don’t even get us started on the waste…

But, it’s not all bad news. We’re slowly but steadily moving towards a greener future through innovations and new technologies in this space.

DTF Printing: DTF printing is an example of this. It produces less waste compared to screen printing, as it doesn’t involve the creation and disposal of screens. Combine this with the use of water-based inks, and you’ve got a more sustainable printing option on your hands.

Screen Printing: Screen printing has a big problem – the screens it uses. These screens wear out and become useless when you want to change your design. So, you end up with a lot of useless screens, and that’s not good for the environment.

Also, when you’re working with screens, you have to use chemicals and solvents to make them and clean them. These chemicals can be harmful to people and nature.

So, even if you try to be responsible, the fact is that screen printing creates a lot of waste and uses potentially harmful chemicals.

7. Flexibility on Materials

Understanding what you can and can’t print on is essential. Actually, it’s quite a big concern for us decorators because we don’t want to start a project that we can’t finish, you know? The last thing we want is to leave our clients disappointed. So, to avoid that kind of situation, let’s run you through the types of materials each method can handle.

DTF Printing: So… the BIG question: what materials can DTF print on? You’ll be surprised to hear that it can handle virtually all types of fabrics. That includes polyester, cotton, silk, and leather. Everything to cover your (or your client’s) needs.

Screen Printing: You can print on anything that’s flat! We’re talking paper, plastic, glass, metal, and your classic textiles like cotton, polyester, and blends!

For one-on-one help simply call 800-891-1094 or live chat with one of our pros!

Wait! Before you go, watch THIS: