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Is Heat Press Better Than Screen Printing?

We get asked this question all the time. People want to know that they are making the right decision when entering the garment decoration industry. They don’t want to spend a lot of money that they can’t easily recoup. We’ve created this guide to help you figure out the right decision for you. Should you start a screen printing business or a heat press business? We're here to help.

What is heat press printing?

Heat press printing is when you print out a design on transfer paper and then print and apply the image to a garment using a heat press. 

What is screen printing?

Traditional screen printing is the process of applying ink to a shirt using a design burned into an aluminum or wooden screen. The ink adheres to the shirt and then is cured so the ink is set. 

Comparison of Heat Press and Traditional Screen Printing

We must compare the two to each other to make a final determination. We have chosen to view this comparison through the lens of running a business. This way we can limit our discussion to a few primary topics.

Equipment: There is equipment involved in both forms of garment decoration. However, there is significantly less equipment involved in a heat press business. You only have to have a heat press and an inkjet printer. With a screen printing business there are typically 4 pieces of equipment. You will need an exposure unit, a washout sink, the screen print machine, and finally some form of a dryer. This could be a flash dryer or conveyor dryer. 
We are separating equipment from cost because there is a prime consideration when thinking about all of this equipment. You will need space for each of these setups. A screen printing setup will more than likely require an entire room to run the business because the screen printing machine itself is quite large. The heat press equipment doesn’t take up much space. The printer will probably sit near your computer anyways, and the heat press can be stored in a closet when it is not in use. When it is in use it can be set on the kitchen table. 
Cost: A traditional screen printing setup can start somewhere around $5000. That is a hefty layout for a start up business. A heat press business can start with as little as a few hundred dollars. You may be able to alleviate the costs of either of these businesses if you purchase used screen printing equipment. 
Quality: You can get interesting prints out of both types of setup. You will have unlimited colors with a heat press setup. However, the prints won’t last a long time once they are on the shirt. When printing with plastisol ink a screen printed shirt is very high quality and can last many washes before going bad.The drawback is that you will not have as many colors to print with. Most screen printers only print with 4 colors. 
Ongoing Costs: You will need to purchase ink for both setups. The ink in traditional screen printing can be a significant outlay, but moving forward you won’t need to purchase additional ink for a while because it goes a long way. The ink for an inkjet printer can get pricey over time as those little cartridges are expensive and they don’t hold much. With traditional screen printing you will need to purchase new screens as well. 
These are the main costs for screen printing. It does not include things to just run your business like business cards, a website, or rent. Those are important things, but they are not part of the decision about whether to go with heat presses or screen printing. 
Ease of Startup: There is a clear winner for this. A heat press business is much easier to get going. You have less equipment to deal with. The learning curve is much smaller. If you can iron, you can probably use a heat press. It’s that simple. Now you may have issues lining up images on shirts, but after you get that you will be a pro. On the other hand there is a learning curve to becoming a screen printer. It really is not that difficult, however there are a lot more variables. You will have to learn how to make a screen. You will have to learn how to mix colors. These things take time. It is an art. You learn something new every time you run a print. 
Output: You can make money with a heat press and a screen press. However, one of the biggest differences between both is the final output. How many shirts can you put out in an hour? There is a clear winner here as well. It’s screen printing. With screen printing you could put out a thousand shirts every hour. That’s a lot of shirts. With a heat press you can probably only put out about a hundred shirts per hour. When it comes to the bottom line you will clearly make more money with screen printing because you are going to print more shirts. Plain and simple. 

The Final Word on Heat Press and Screen Printing

The decision comes down to the size of the business. If you are looking for something smaller and cheaper then the better option is a business built around a heat press. A heat press business is cheap to set up and get going. It can definitely be the perfect side hustle. Ultimately it is limiting. You can’t put out as many shirts as you can with screen printing. If you want to be a larger business then you will have a very difficult time with a heat press. 

Traditional screen printing  gives you better options, but it comes with a larger initial startup cost as well as a larger learning curve. Even with those drawbacks it is much easier to print a lot more shirts. With more shirts comes more money. That is the bottom line. Customers consider screen printed shirts better than heat pressed shirts. 

There are a few additional things to understand. You may start with a heat press and work into a screen printing setup. There are advantages to combining the equipment into one overall business. If you were to add a direct to garment printer then you will need a heat press in that setup as well. Some customers may want rhinestones added to a shirt. You can do this with a heat press. A screen printer can’t add rhinestones to a shirt without a heat press. 

The other thing that I left out of this discussion is that you can actually startup a screen printing business much cheaper than $5000. You can probably start one with less than $100. Look on YouTube or Pinterest for cheap screen printing startups. People can start screen printing on any budget that they want. They really can. However, when you really want to run a business then you need the full complement of quality screen printing equipment.

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