T-shirt printing technologies

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.

Sublimation & ChromaBlast

Sublimation 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.

Fig 1: Sublimation produces very colorful, very soft transfers Fig 1: Sublimation produces very colorful, very soft transfers

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. Currently the Virtuoso product line consists both desktop and large format models. The desktop options consist of the Virtuoso SG500 and SG1000 printers. SIGNWarehouse also 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.

Another common complaint is about the relatively high cost of dye sublimation ink, which is available from Sawgrass Technologies. There are a few more options coming into the desktop sublimation market these days, and large-format sublimation systems tend to have larger ink cartridges and lower printing costs. In the desktop printer market, print costs are generally higher across the board and sublimation is no exception.

Speaking of printers, you can't use Sawgrass inks in just any printer. It must be a piezo inkjet printer for which Sawgrass has drivers. These are typically Virtuoso, 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.

ChromaBlast: ChromaBlast is Sawgrass' answer to the polyester problem. Many customers prefer the softness and breathability

Fig 1A: ChromaBlast produces sublimation-like transfers on cotton. Fig 2: ChromaBlast produces sublimation-like transfers on cotton shirts.

of cotton. Garment decorators prefer cotton because cotton shirts are much less expensive than polyester. ChromaBlast is Sawgrass' solution for producing something like the quality and feel of a sublimated transfer on a cotton shirt. The process is almost exactly the same, but different inks and paper are used. The ChromaBlast paper is coated with a chemical that blends with the chemistry in the ink to bond with cotton fibers under heat and pressure.

Advantages: The main benefits of ChromaBlast relative to sublimation are the aforementioned popularity and price of cotton shirts. Otherwise, ChromaBlast offers most of the same advantages as sublimation. The transfers are almost as soft, and there are no design limitations. And, like sublimation, ChromaBlast start-up packages are very affordable. Sawgrass Virtuoso SG500 starter bundles start well under $600.

Disadvantages: ChromaBlast has the same disadvantages as sublimation. White shirts are required for best image quality. Grayscale will work, but colored and dark shirts won't. In addition, the ChromaBlast chemistry tends to leave a slightly visible and tangible residue on the shirts immediately after pressing. This generally washes off the first time the shirt is laundered, but that doesn't always happen on gray or pastel garments. And - unlike sublimation - ChromaBlast can't be used to decorate hard surfaces. It's specifically for textiles, so it can be used to decorate shirts, pillow cases, tote bags, and mouse pads, but not mugs and tumblers.

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 SubliJet or ChromaBlast ink. So if a ChromaBlast shop gets an order that must be applied to black shirts, they can use Logical Color DarkJET sheets and ChromaBlast ink to print and cut the graphic and apply it to a black shirt. Sublimators can do the same with Logical Color SubliDark PRINT or Siser Easy Subli HTV. Since the design must be contour-cut with a vinyl cutter, this option requires simpler designs. More on that later.

It won't be as soft as sublimation or ChromaBlast, but it does add a utility that can turn some lost opportunities into happy customers. These packages include an advanced by right-sized MUSE M15 vinyl cutter and LXI software. The ChromaBlast option for the Sawgrass SG500 starts well under $1,700, so it's extremely affordable. Tabloid-size cotton decoration packages featuring the Virtuoso SG1000 start well under $2,799.00. The Print & Cut Sublimation packages with the Virtuoso SG500 and SG1000 are similarly priced.

UniNet IColor 350 sublimation toner printerSublimation 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 or ChromaBlast cotton decoration 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

Laser transfer is a newer 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's more similar to the ChromaBlast paper in that 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.

laser transer decorates dark garmentsDark 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 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 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 650 laser transfer printerUniNet 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. The result is bright, correct color on any color fabric. 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. The iColor ProRIP is included in the purchase price. ProRIP is a queue-based 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. ProRIP also has custom ICC profiles for self-weeding laser transfer paper, so it produces more correct color. This is a plus when selling commercial customers branded corporate apparel. If you're looking for a do-it-all T-Shirt printer for a decent amount of money, 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.

Advantages: Laser transfer has many virtues. The most appealing is the soft hand of the transfers, especially when applied on white garments with one step self-weeding paper. It's also quite versatile. 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. The other versatility advantage comes from the fact that 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, and some print & cut film 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 heat press, and make sure it's calibrated. Click here for more details on how to do this.

Speaking of heat press requirements, our experience indicates that the two-step papers work much better on a swing away press than a clam shell. So if you have a trusty Mighty Clam or DK16, you may need to upgrade to a swing-arm model. The EnduraPRESS SD20, SilverBolt 1620SA, 1620PA, Geo Knight DK14S, or Hotronix Fusion are all good choices. These heat presses will help you produce consistent quality laser transfers on light and dark garments. Even a lower cost swing away heat press can work, if It produces consistent pressure and temperature across the platen.

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 easy as Sublimation, ChromaBlast or print and cut appliqués.

Print & Cut

Logical Color SubliDark PrintThe 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, ChromaBlast, 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 sub 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 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.

What to Buy

So you have lots of options, but we hope you now have some guidance that will help you pick the right T-shirt printing method or mix of methods for your business goals. To help you sort out the pros and cons, we've devised a chart that compares all of these methods side by side. For each method, there are hard numbers like start-up cost and average operating costs. 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 or print and cut process.