One of the questions we hear most is "What's the best start-up equipment for T-shirt printing?" Given the wide range of T-shirt printing options in the market, that's a challenging question. There's dye sublimation, laser transfer, print and cut appliqués made with a digital printer and vinyl cutter, direct-to-garment printing, and good old fashioned screen printing. These methods all use heat to cure color to fabric, but that's about the only thing they have in common.
Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages and prices range from a few hundred dollars to over thirty grand. Most people are looking for some kind of start-up package in a specific price range. To make it easier to sort out, we'll group them into options under $5,000 and those between five and ten thousand. This article will focus on the first group. T-shirt printing options in the five to ten thousand dollar range will be covered in a separate article. What we offer here is a review of the best T-shirt printing options on a budget. What's the best choice for you? That all depends on your priorities.
Dye SublimationSublimation is a natural process by which a solid or liquid becomes a gas. Dye sublimation is the process of turning a water-based dye ink into a gas that stains polyester, resulting in a vibrant and durable graphic. With dye sublimation, you simply design your image and print it in reverse using dye sublimation ink onto specific transfer paper. Then place the paper print-side down on white polyester, and press it at about 400°F. When the paper is removed, the image has been sublimated into the fabric.
Advantages: Since there is no ink or media applied to the fabric, sublimation produces the softest transfers in the entire garment decoration spectrum. The transfers are also very washfast (meaning, the image won't wash off if the garment is properly laundered). There are no design limitations dictating the range of colors or kind of images you can sublimate. Everything from fancy, full color images to simple logos will work (See Fig 1:). And sublimation can also be used to dye polymer-coated items like mugs and ceramic tiles. HTX offers a wide range of blanks for sublimation including hats, keychains, tumblers, masks, and more. Sublimation is pretty easy to do, and the quality of the transfers is fairly consistent . Finally, one of the biggest advantages of sublimation is the low initial equipment cost. Depending on the size of the printer, startup packages including a basic heat press can be purchased for less than $1,000. If you already have a heat press, you can get started for under $600.00. SIGNWarehouse offers the Sublime DS170 bundles starting as low as $550.
Disadvantages: The main drawback is the fact that sublimation only works on polyester fabric or polymer-coated items. You can't sublimate cotton shirts or un-coated mugs or magnets. Even cotton-polyester blends cause problems because the dye only adheres to the polyester. The second most vexing issue is the requirement of a white substrate. Since the dye is applied directly to the fabric, sublimating colored apparel will cause color shifts that may ruin the design. Click here for a more detailed explanation of this problem. Many people successfully sublimate pastel-colored fabric. And gray shirts will generally work okay, but with diminished saturation. But dark colors and black shirts are off-limits.
Contrary to what you may have seen on Tiktok, you can't use sublimation inks in just any printer. It must be a piezo inkjet printer with drivers or ICC profiles compatible for sublimation ink. These are typically Epson and RICOH models. So if you have a perfectly good inkjet printer you'd like to dedicate to garment decoration, it may not be usable for sublimation. If you do have a suitable model on hand, the printer in effect becomes a one trick pony. It can no longer be used for office documents or other applications.Another common complaint is about the relatively high cost of dye sublimation ink. SIGNWarehouse has addressed that with our economical EnduraIINK Sublime, which is available in 400ml bottles ideal for use in desktop ink tank printers. Click here for a deeper dive into the dollars and sense aspect of the Sublime DS170 sublimation solution.
Dark Shirt Solutions: There are solutions to the white shirt problem in the form of heat-applied print-and-cut media that is fully compatible with Sublimation ink. So if a DS170 user gets an order that must be applied to black shirts, they can print on Logical Color SubliDark Print or Siser Easy Subli HTV sheets, then hand cut or contour-cut the graphic and apply it to a black shirt. Since the contour-cut process requires a vinyl cutter with specific features, this option requires more advanced software and simpler designs. More on that later.
The final product won't be as soft as sublimation, but this option can turn some lost opportunities into happy customers. Equipment packages that support this workflow include an advanced but right-sized MUSE M15 vinyl cutter and LXI software.
Sublimation Toner: If you're excited about the versatility of dye sublimation, but less so about the ink cost, consider the new UniNet IColor 350 sublimation toner option. The IColor 350 uses an innovative patented sublimation toner to produce the same kind of soft, vivid transfers as an inkjet sublimation system. It's also a CMYK printer, so you have the same white polyester limitation. But since it's a toner based printer, you get faster print speed and much lower operating costs. It's a little more expensive up front. Prices start at $1,495.00 for this letter-sized desktop printer. But the long-term business case is very economical.
Summary: If your goal is to create really soft transfers, or if you want to create photo realistic images with soft edges and complex graphics, or if you're looking for the most affordable start-up package, a dye sublimation starter bundle might be right for you. If your goal is to create full color graphics that you can slap on any shirt of any fabric or color, keep reading.
Laser transfer is an alternative to dye sublimation that has some similar features and benefits. It uses a very similar transfer process whereby a sheet of paper is pressed to the apparel. The main difference is that the paper isn't just an ink carrier, like that used for sublimation. It has unique chemical properties required for the transfer. These are referred to as 'self-weeding' or "no weed" papers because only the toner transfers to the fabric. This gives them the ability to decorate light and dark garments, thus addressing one of sublimation's main drawbacks.
To decorate white and pastel shirts with laser transfer, you can design your full-color graphic with very few constraints. Use raster or vector graphics, high resolution or bold, bright colors. Take care to avoid very light pastel hues. Then print it in reverse and heat press it to a white or gray shirt of any fabric; cotton, polyester, blends, cashmere, whatever. Transfers generally last for about 30 wash cycles.
Dark Shirts, White Toner: If you want to create laser transfers with a full range of color applied to dark and colored garments, you're going to need a laser printer with white toner. Laser transfer printers with white toner support full color photographic image quality comparable to DTG, DTF, and screen print. The white toner is printed last so it becomes the under-base when the transfer is applied to the shirt. This of course requires two-step paper, a good swing-arm heat press, and a little finesse. But the applied image has a relatively soft hand and photo-realistic quality. The durability is about the same as the CMYK laser transfers, but there's a slight trade-off. The density of the white toner can be varied slightly. A higher density setting makes the image brighter and more opaque, but less washfast.
Two-Step Transfers: The white toner is supplemented by white adhesive paper. After the print comes off the printer, it's married to a sheet of white adhesive paper on a heat press. This is the first step of the 'two-step transfer' process. The adhesive bonds only to the toner. Then the sheet is heat-pressed to fabric. The white toner and white adhesive layer support completely opaque, colorful transfers on dark fabric.
UniNet IColor: There are a few options currently on the market, but the original and most enduring is the UniNet iColor Series. The UniNet iColor Series have succeeded by offering unique benefits, great value, and excellent versatility. All IColor printers in this price range come with five toner cartridges: CMYK plus fluorescent White. The product line starts with the IColor 560, a desktop printer that uses letter-sized sheets. The next step up is the tabloid size IColor 650. That one starts at just under $7,700, so it's out of the price range for this article, but you can read more about it here.
Versatile Color Configurations: The printers can be loaded with CMYK for printing on standard paper and for making textile transfers to white apparel. Or they can be loaded with CMY plus White. One of the unique advantages of the IColor series is their patented color mapping feature. In IColor laser transfer printers, the White toner cartridge can be positioned before or after the process colors. This opens up lots of different applications. IColor printers can print CMYW for textile transfer on dark garments, where the white toner supports the process color like a sheet of white paper. Or you can print with white over CMY to create vivid, opaque transfers for things like waterslide decals and elegant dark paper.
Bundled Software, Great Value: The color mapping options are supported by the bundled software that is part of the package. iColor ProRIP is included in the purchase price. ProRIP is a queue-based RIP* software that greatly simplifies the laser transfer process. There are pre-loaded workflows for CMYK, CMYW, and even for applying the white over or under composite color. If you're looking for a do-it-all print solution that can handle standard printing jobs as well as heat transfer applications, it's hard to beat the versatility of a laser transfer system, especially one with white toner. The iColor 560 handles letter size sheets and starts at only $3,695.00.
*Raster Image Processing.
Advantages: Laser transfer has many virtues. The most appealing is its versatility. As noted above, the process works on cotton, polyester, cotton-poly blends and other fabrics. Like sublimation, laser transfer offers much more than t-shirt printing options. It can also be used to decorate hard surfaced items like mugs, mouse pads, magnets, sign blanks, and ceramic tiles. Unlike sublimation, these objects do not require any special coating in order to receive the toner. A laser transfer printer can turn a black, dollar-store ceramic mug into a profitable promotional item. And, as noted above, an iColor printer can be used for both heat transfer applications and standard office document printing. And, since the heat transfer applications use OEM toner, there's no tug of war between the OEM printer manufacturers and garment decorators. And unlike sublimation, laser transfer can be used to decorate dark garments without purchasing additional equipment.
Drawbacks: If there is an Achilles heel for laser transfer printers, it's the paper. Applied two-step transfers can feel somewhat heavy and don't always stretch as well as end users would like. Sublimation is much softer, DTF transfers and some print & cut films are more flexible. But the main challenge is the heat transfer window. Self-weeding laser transfer paper has a very narrow range of temperature and pressure. A temperature variance of ten degrees can affect the quality and feel of a transfer, or defeat the first step of the two-step process for decorating darks. It is very important therefore, to make sure you have a good quality swing-away heat press - Clamshell presses don’t work well with laser transfer paper. And make sure your heat press’ temperature display is properly calibrated. Click here for more details on how to do this.
Finally, the two-step weeding process can be delicate, even with a calibrated swing away heat press. It takes a little practice and finesse to get it right. But then, so does fine tuning a vinyl cutter or squeegeeing ink through a screen press. To help shorten the learning curve, UniNet has produced a very helpful video tutorial series called the White Toner Master Class. It's not free, and it's not cheap, but it is a good investment. The bottom line is laser transfer for dark fabrics is pretty nifty, but not quite as simple as sublimation, print and cut appliqués, or DTF..
Print & Cut
The other affordable option for T-shirt printing is a print and cut process using adhesive backed inkjet paper. As Jimmy Lamb pointed out in our Digital Decoration 101 webinar, it's not really a "transfer" because you're not using paper to transfer ink or toner into the fabric. You're actually creating a decal that you heat apply to the apparel. There are a few more steps in the process and there is more specific equipment required, but the print-and-cut offers some unique benefits.
For print and cut T-shirt printing, obviously you'll need a printer and a cutter. Almost any printer will work, but you'll need a vinyl cutter that can read registration marks, and software that can coordinate the printer and cutter. And of course, a heat press and the right adhesive backed inkjet paper or film. It's basically a three step process, so I guess we should call it print, cut, and press.
First, you design a graphic with a defined cut path around a printed image. Think of something like Superman's S or Ford's blue oval. The software should add registration marks to the design. These will be printed with the image on your inkjet paper of choice. Then you place the print on your cutter and use its registration mark sensor to find the first mark. Then send the cut job to the plotter. The software drives the registration mark sensor and the cutter finds those, then automatically places a "kiss cut" around the edge of the printed image, creating a contour-cut decal. Remove the print from the cutter, weed it, (remove the excess vinyl See FIG 4) and peel the liner. Place it on the shirt, press it and you're done. Some films require tape to transfer the weeded graphic from the release liner to the shirt. If you use tape, make sure it's the right kind, and leave it on the applied graphic until it's cooled to room temperature. Did you get all that? No? That's okay, you can download a step-by-step tutorial that explains it fully.
Advantages: The white inkjet paper serves as the under-base for your CMYK graphics the same way as white toner in an iColor laser transfer printer. This means that your color print will look correct, vivid and opaque no matter what color the shirt might be. And, since you're not transferring ink directly to the apparel, you're not limited to a particular kind of fabric. The heat press stage is much easier and more forgiving than laser transfer, and you don't need a calibrated swing away press to make it work.
Because there are heat-applied films for all kinds of inks, including basic desktop inkjet printers, print-and-cut is a very affordable option. If you choose a universal paper like Logical Color DarkJET, just about any inkjet printer will work. And, as noted above, some HTV films like Logical Color SubliDark Print or Siser Easy Subli can be used with your Sawgrass or Epson printer to add dark garments to your dye sub repertoire. Like laser transfer, the print and cut process can be used to decorate lots more than shirts. You can produce decals for vehicle graphics, YETi tumblers, laptop and tablet skins, wall graphics, and more. By the way, these other applications don't require a heat press. But they do require different media: printable vinyl or sign vinyl.
Disadvantages: Compared to sublimation and laser transfer, the print and cut process requires a few extra steps and of course a fairly advanced vinyl cutter with a registration mark sensor. Adequate software is also required to coordinate things. So if you have an entry-level five hundred dollar vinyl cutter, you'll probably need to upgrade your equipment. Start here to find the right cutter. Your designs will need defined borders to make it easier to weed and apply the graphic. No feathered edges.
And of course, the appliqué won't be quite as soft as soft as sublimation or white toner. But if it's printed on a thin PU, film it will be very soft on the shirt. Some inkjet papers are more stretchable than toner. Some films are thicker than others. So if softness is a priority, choose wisely. Also, not all films work with all inks. Universal films like DarkJET can be used with aqueous inkjet, solvent inkjet, and even laser transfer. Easy Subli and SubliDark Print are primarily for dye sublimation inks. If you choose to use your desktop inkjet printer, be aware that many of these printers use dye based aqueous inks. These are the least-durable of all ink types. The transfers generated by these printers are not very washfast. Shirts decorated with pigment based inks will be more durable. Click here for more about printable vinyl.
The softer PU films like HotMark PRINT, Logical Color printable HTV, and Siser ColorPrint PU are made for solvent, eco-solvent, and Latex printers and won't work with aqueous inks. They will also work with a PrismJET VJ24 printer. All of these options are in the above $5,000 category. You can read about them here.
Direct-to-fIlm printers are the ‘new shiny’ in the garment decoration industry. DTF printers offer many of the same benefits as laser transfer, but with a simpler workflow. Well, it’s not simpler, - there are just as many steps in DTF - but it is easier to get right. DTF is an apparel decoration process in which custom images are printed with an inkjet printer on a specially coated film. The ink is then coated with white or black adhesive powder, and the powder is cured by heat which fuses the powder and ink.
From here, the process is pretty much the same as laser transfer. The film is then placed on apparel in a heat press and heat applied to the garment. Once cooled, the film is removed and the printed image remains on the garment. The applied transfer is soft, durable, and stretchable. Please click here for a step-by-step pictorial guide to the DTF process. The Uninet DTF1000 comes in a well-equipped starter bundle that includes RIP software, bulk ink system, DTF film, and maintenance equipment, all for $4,950.00. So it just squeaks under our $5,000 price ceiling for this article.
DTF’s popularity comes from its unique set of advantages, compared to other digital garment decoration techniques. One might say that DTF’s popularity comes from fixing what decorators don’t like about other technologies, but that’s a matter of perspective. Taken by itself, the appeal of direct to film heat transfer can be summed up as follows.
- Ease of use | There are four steps in the DTF process, but they’re all fairly simple.
- Durable transfers | DTF transfers are more wash-resistant than DTG (direct-to-garment) and laser transfers
- Soft and stretchable | DTF transfers have more plasticity than laser transfer and some HTV (heat transfer vinyl) transfers. They’re not as soft as sublimation, but they stretch with the fabric.
- Vibrant color, opaque white | The bright colors and opaque white of DTF transfers are comparable to that of DTG prints and screen printed apparel.
- Weedless transfers | Like DTG, sublimation, and laser transfer, complex DTF transfers can be applied without cutting and weeding.
Click here for a detailed comparison of how DTF stacks up against laser transfer, DTG, and print & cut HTV. For now, let’s look at the other side of the DTF Pros & Cons ledger.
All of our sub-$5000 T-shirt printing options have their drawbacks. DTF is no exception. If you’re hearing from everyone in the industry that DTF is the only way to go, keep reading. There are some important things to consider before making a decision.
- Hazardous fumes | The adhesive powder used in direct-to-film processes emits fumes containing polymers that can be hazardous to your health. Do not breathe the fumes from the powder during coating or after curing. A fume extractor with a HEPA filter and well-ventilated workspace are highly recommended.
- White Ink | Any white-ink enabled inkjet printer requires regular maintenance to prevent the titanium dioxide that makes white ink white from settling and causing clogs. If not used or maintained properly, DTF printers will experience clogged ink lines and/or print heads that can lead to costly downtime and repairs. Dedication to regular maintenance and cleaning is absolutely essential.
- Slow print speeds | DTF printers are relatively slow. A 10” x 13” print can take 5 minutes or more to complete. Both laser transfer and eco-solvent inkjet printers (HTV) offer much higher print speeds. So, if you need a high-speed printing solution, direct to film may not fill the bill.
- Apparel only | As easy as DTF is to use, it’s not as versatile as laser transfer and sublimation, which can be used to decorate hard-surface items. DTF printers can be used to decorate cotton and polyester garments and other textiles like caps and tote bags, but not mugs and metals.
Having looked in depth at dye sublimation, laser transfer, print & cut HTV, and DTF, you may be struggling to decide which is right for you. Sometimes what you need is an infographic. We’ve compiled a simple chart that ranks all of these technologies in four key metrics: ease of use, equipment cost, print speed, and operating cost (presented in average cost/shirt).
Each is also ranked on a scale of one to five for ease of use, versatility, durability and more. You'll probably find that not one method fits all your needs perfectly. So you'll need to prioritize what metric is most important for you. If you value versatility above economy, sublimation may be the wise choice. If decorating dark garments is a must, you may be better served with a laser transfer, DTF, or print and cut process.
Refer to the chart below to rank the options and make your choice. Click the thumbnail to view a full-size PDF version. And remember, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Many well-established decorators use a combination of decoration methods so that they can be prepared to take on a variety of jobs and handle them all well. Maybe a DTF and sublimation combo is right for you.