Sublimation vs Screen Printing: Which is Best and When to Use Each Process

by Odmya
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When it comes to customizing fabrics, garments, and other products, sublimation and screen printing are two of the most popular printing methods. Both techniques allow you to transfer ink or dye onto fabrics to create custom designs, logos, and more.

But sublimation and screen printing use very different processes to transfer ink and achieve different results. Knowing the key differences between sublimation and screen printing will help you determine which is the right option for your specific printing needs.

This guide will provide an in-depth overview of sublimation printing vs screen printing. We’ll cover how each process works, the pros and cons of each method, key differences between the two techniques, and recommendations for when to use sublimation or screen printing.

What is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing is a digital printing process that uses heat to infuse dye into polyester fabrics and products. A sublimation printer uses specialty sublimation inks that turn into a gas when heated. The gaseous ink then permanently bonds with polyester fibers.

How Sublimation Printing Works

The sublimation printing process involves three core components:

  • Sublimation printer and inks
  • Sublimation paper
  • Heat press

The process starts by printing your custom designs or images on special sublimation transfer paper using a sublimation printer loaded with sublimation ink.

The printed sublimation transfer sheets are then placed against a polyester fabric or item and heat is applied with a heat press. The heat converts the solid sublimation ink into a gas that infuses into the polyester.

When the fabric cools, the ink solidifies and bonds with the polyester. This creates a permanent image that won’t fade, crack, or peel off over time.

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Sublimation vs Screen Printing: Which is Best and When to Use Each Process

Pros of Sublimation Printing

There are several benefits that make sublimation printing a popular choice:

  • Vibrant, permanent colors that embed into fabrics
  • Photographic print quality with precision detailing
  • Soft feel and hand to finished products
  • Ideal for printing all-over prints, not just designs
  • Environmentally friendly process with no residual waste
  • Cost effective for shorter runs once setup

Cons of Sublimation Printing

The limitations of sublimation printing include:

  • Only works on polyester fabrics or specially coated items
  • Requires a heat press for sublimation process
  • Specialized ink, printer and paper can increase startup costs
  • Not ideal for bulk production or high volume orders
  • Some trial and error is required to master the process

Overall, sublimation is best suited for printing precise, photorealistic designs in short to medium runs, particularly soft goods like t-shirts, mugs, and other poly-coated products.

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing, also known as silk screening or serigraphy, is a printing process that uses a mesh screen and stencil to transfer ink onto materials like fabric, paper, and plastics.

How Screen Printing Works

The screen printing process involves three main components:

  • Screen printing screen with stencil
  • Squeegee
  • Printing ink

The stenciled design is imprinted on a finely woven mesh screen, which is stretched across a frame. Printing ink is placed at one end of the screen.

The squeegee blade is then pulled across the screen, forcing ink through the open areas of the stencil and transferring the image onto the material underneath. The ink is then cured or dried.

This process can print one color at a time, so multi-colored designs require one screen for each color.

Sublimation vs Screen Printing: Which is Best and When to Use Each Process

Pros of Screen Printing

Benefits that make screen printing a popular choice include:

  • Ability to print on all types of fabrics from cotton to polyester
  • Good for printing bulk orders and high volume production
  • Applicable to multiple surfaces beyond fabrics like posters, plastics etc.
  • Cost effective for large quantity orders and simple designs
  • Quick and efficient for high volume printing
  • Established process with low startup costs

Cons of Screen Printing

Limitations to consider with screen printing:

  • Lower print quality and detail than sublimation
  • Ink sits on top of fabrics and can crack or fade over time
  • More setup time and costs for multi-color prints
  • Screen printing equipment takes up significant space
  • Labor intensive process, less automated than sublimation
  • Involves some messy clean-up and setup

Overall, screen printing excels at printing cost effective, bold graphics and simple designs in bulk. But sublimation offers greater precision and detail for photorealistic prints.

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Key Differences Between Sublimation and Screen Printing

Now that we’ve covered the basics of each type of printing, let’s compare some of the key differences between sublimation printing and screen printing:

Ink and Dye Used

  • Sublimation uses specialty sublimation inks that vaporize and bond with polyesters
  • Screen printing uses standard plastisol, water-based, or discharge inks that sit on top of fabrics

Ideal Fabrics

  • Sublimation only works on polyester or polymer-coated surfaces
  • Screen printing can be used on cotton, polyester, canvas, and many other surfaces

Color Limitations

  • Sublimation can only print CMYK colors. Metallic colors like gold and silver are not possible.
  • Screen printing can print metallic, fluorescent, and custom Pantone matched colors.

Detail and Resolution

  • Sublimation produces photographic quality with precision detailing and high DPI resolution
  • Screen printing has lower print resolution and detail quality that can appear pixelated up close

Costs

  • Sublimation printer, ink, and materials have higher startup costs but lower per unit costs
  • Screen printing equipment is more affordable upfront but has higher per unit costs for bulk orders

Setup and Equipment

  • Sublimation requires a printer, heat press, and specialty paper and inks
  • Screen printing uses presses, screens, squeegees, and cleanup equipment

In summary, sublimation offers greater precision while screen printing has advantages for bulk production. Next we’ll compare optimal uses cases.

Which is Better for Different Uses?

Deciding between sublimation and screen printing depends greatly on the type of products you want to print and the quantity. Here are some recommendations based on use cases:

Clothing and Apparel

For all-over prints, photorealistic designs, or short runs – sublimation is preferable. The high detail sublimation offers makes it ideal for printed clothing. For bulk team uniforms or basic prints – screen printing is more cost effective.

Home Decor

For specialty items like custom printed pillows, mugs, mousepads, or mirrored surfaces – sublimation provides great results. For wall prints, posters, or canvas where cotton is preferred – screen printing is often the better choice.

Promotional Products

When printing branded merchandise in smaller quantities like hats, totes bags, or tech accessories – sublimation excels. For bulk batches of the same logo or design – screen printed promo products have a lower cost per item.

Fine Art and Photography

For detailed reproductions of artwork, paintings, or photos onto canvas or poster prints – sublimation provides amazing photorealistic quality. Large format original artistic creations are often best as screen prints.

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As with any printing method, testing is required to find the right process for your specific needs. In general, sublimation excels at photorealistic detailing while screen printing is ideal for bold, solid color prints in bulk.

Sublimation vs Screen Printing: Which is Best and When to Use Each Process

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you combine sublimation and screen printing?

While tricky, it is possible to combine sublimation and screen printing on the same product. For example, screen printing a white base layer first, then sublimating CMYK colors on polyester over top. Proper preparation is required to get good results.

Does sublimation fade over time?

Because sublimation dye infuses into the fabric itself, it does not fade or peel like screen printed ink sitting on the surface. Sublimation prints can last for decades without fading when printed on quality polyester fabrics.

What fabrics can you use for sublimation?

100% polyester works best for sublimation printing. Poly-coated items like mugs, mousepads, and puzzles can also be sublimated. Some cotton/polyester blends work but may have faded or blurry results.

Can you feel sublimation prints on fabrics?

Sublimation has a soft feel compared to plastisol screen printing inks. Because the ink bonds at a molecular level, you generally cannot feel sublimated designs on poly fabrics. There is no rubbery surface texture.

Is sublimation good for business?

Sublimation is great for businesses printing promotional goods, customized apparel, decor, and more. The ability to print photorealistic images, detailed logos, and complex designs in short runs makes sublimation extremely versatile.

What are the disadvantages of screen printing?

Disadvantages of screen printing include lower print quality and detail than sublimation, inability to print photographic images, labor intensive setup for multi-color prints, required cleanup, and a fixed setup cost regardless of order size.

When should I choose sublimation over screen printing?

Sublimation is better for shorter runs, full color or photographic prints, polyester fabrics, finely detailed logos or designs, and softer hand feel. Choose sublimation when print quality and precision is more important than bulk printing capacity.

Conclusion

When comparing sublimation vs screen printing, the main considerations are print quality, ideal fabrics, order quantities, and cost.

Sublimation excels at full-color, photorealistic prints with a soft hand feel ideal for apparel, soft goods, and other poly-coated items. Screen printing stands out for bold, high-opacity prints economically printed in bulk.

Understanding the core differences allows you to determine when to use sublimation or screen printing based on your specific products, designs, and business volumes. Both techniques have their advantages and are useful to have in a print shop’s arsenal of capabilities.

By leveraging the strengths of both sublimation and screen printing, you can produce amazing customized prints on fabrics and other items across varying product lines and business needs.

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