Jennie Zell

Design - Illustration - Creative Mischief

Screenprint vs Print on Demand

When deciding to purchase t-shirts, many people are unsure whether to go with screen printed shirts versus any of the print-on-demand services that you’ll find online. No one seems to be willing to discuss the differences in an unbiased way; most of them are ultimately trying to sell you a service.

I, however, am just trying to sell you art. If (or should I say, when?) you hire me to create a shirt design for you, I’m happy to prepare the art for either type of printing, but it’s best if I know in advance.

Here are a few important things to consider, which will affect the way I do your art also:

  • How many shirts will you be buying?
  • Do you want shirts to sell for profit or to give away/sell for cost as promotional items?
  • Who’s in your target market?
  • What color and style do you prefer?

First, I’ll describe HOW each process works, if you’re completely unfamiliar with either.

Screen Printing

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Screen printing is the tried and true method of printing on shirts, tote bags, bottle cozies, hats… the list of possibilities is a mile long.  The artwork is  separated into individual colors, turned into stencils (screens), and each color is printed one at a time with plastic-based inks. The ink is cured with heat for a long-lasting, durable design that rarely if ever fades. In fact, if done properly the design will last as long as the shirt.

Here’s a design I did for This one there was three screens – white, brown, and black. There are dots of black are over the brown and white to make the shading, eliminating the need for each ACTUAL color to be its own screen.

This method is typically best for very graphic designs with solid colors versus full-color art or photographs, but that’s not to say that you CAN’T get full color screen print.  It’s just a bit costly if you’re not buying in large volume (6 dozen shirts or more.)

The screen print shop will typically charge you a fee to create each screen, or will require you to purchase a minimum number of shirts–or both. This is probably the biggest drawback for most people since it ends up incurring a large out of pocket expense.

Using this example, the estimated costs would be: $25 each for 3 screens ($75) and about $8 a shirt (more or less, depending on style). The more you buy, the cheaper each piece will be since the setup fees are only charged once. 25 shirts would be $275 ($11 each), but 50 shirts would be $475 ($9.50 each.) You might also get a price break as you go up in volume, making the price even lower.

Some shops might add an additional fee for art charges if you don’t send it separated and ready for production. Since I know how to do that, I’m happy to do that part for you and save you a bit of money!

Print on Demand

Print on Demand websites (like CafePress, Zazzle, Redbubble, etc) have exploded in the past few years. The technology keeps increasing to make fantastic quality prints.

Their print method is much different. It’s called direct garment printing because they put the garment  into a fancy inkjet printer that will — get this–print directly on the shirt. On a dark shirt it will lay out a solid patch of white first, and then print the image over that in 4 colors just like your inkjet printer at home, except with waterproof inks. The color inks are translucent so without the white base ink you wouldn’t see anything on the shirt.

Take a look at the sunday comics or your local supermarket’s sale paper. You might want to use a magnifying glass or your grandpa’s reading glasses. See how there’s different colored dots overlapping? It’s a lot like that.

Direct garment printing is great for full-color images because the inkjet printer doesn’t care how many colors you used in your design. It turns everything into a 4-5 color print. The dots are relatively small to the point that you often can’t even see them if you look up close. (That’s called continuous tone, in case you care.) When printing full-color as a screened image, you’ll be able to see the dots.

But, back to the quality –here’s where I am admittedly a bit biased.  I’ve only bought two of these, ever. One is on a white shirt and the other is on Navy. On white they just print directly on the shirt, so the design is subject to stretching, and it’s not as bold as I’d like. The navy blue shirt has the white base ink which is reminiscent of the old heat transfer prints. It feels kind of thick and yet still fragile like it could peel or crease if not treated delicately. They usually recommend delicate wash and line dry for these, which just isn’t realistic for people who ain’t got time for that nonsense.

“Cost” on these is about $20 each for a basic shirt depending on the site.

So that’s how it works. Now what should you choose?

Risk vs. Reward vs. Convenience

This is where people usually make up their mind and it all comes down to how much you are willing to invest, in both time and money. I can’t tell you which to choose, but I can help you decide if you’re not sure.

Screen print: Huge out of pocket cost, but this can be offset by taking preorders. If I can sell about half of the shirts before I place the order, that’s enough to cover the cost. You get all the shirts at once which means you are in charge of  inventory, selling, and distributing them yourself. You can set a higher profit margin and still keep the shirts affordable.

This is the no-brainer choice if you’re getting them for promotions, giveaways, or events where you’ll be handing them out in person. For internet businesses of any sort, you’ll need a way for them to pay you (PayPal has some really handy tools for making a shopping cart system), and you might find yourself making lots of trips to the post office.

Print on demand: You basically do nothing but market the items. You upload the images to their site, then they do all the printing, credit card sales, and distribution. They take $17-20 out of each sale, so you have to price them pretty high to get any money. But, there’s no risk or legwork for you.

Another benefit is that you can often easily sell the same design on multiple products. This is also a great way to go if you want to test several designs and see what’s popular before going ahead with a large print run.

Most people go with print on demand just to avoid the drawbacks of screen printing.  I call this the “Look, man, I just want to sell some shirts and make extra pocket money” strategy.


First, a disclaimer.  I am not getting paid to tell you to check these guys out, nor have I used them.  I personally have my own sources for screen printing, and have not truly set up a store on any of the print-on-demand sites.

If you’re going with screen printed shirts, ask around. You’ll likely find someone who knows a guy who does screen printing. The quality could be a little diminished but he’ll likely give you the best prices. There’s probably a few professional shops in your area too, who will charge a little more but ought to be top notch quality. If you’re not sure where to start, ask a school, or a local business where employees have logos printed on their shirts.

At one point, wholesale clubs (Costco, BJ’s) offered some garment services. They might still, if you have access to those places. is a screenprint company … sort of … where you can get any quantity and any amount of colors, if you’re willing to pay the price! Why I say “sort of” is because they don’t actually print anything themselves. My understanding of how it works is this: They have a directory of screen printers who do the actual printing for them. (It’s called contract printing, in case you care.) When you submit your order, they send the shirts and design to the local guys, who print the order and ship to you. They get paid their cut from and everyone is happy.

If you’re doing print on demand, check out Unlike Cafepress or Zazzle, pretty much only sells apparel. They have a few other items, like tote bags and mugs, but the assortment isn’t quite as vast as Zazzle, for instance, where you can buy personalized postage stamps. Yep. However, Spreadshirt’s prices seem rather low which should mean that you can make more on each sale.

Hybrid option: Printful prints directly on garments as well as posters, canvas prints, bags, cards, and probably a few other things. Their selection is much lower, but so are their prices. However, they seem to sell larger quantities of the items to you not the customer, so you  still have to do the fulfillment. Their site suggests that you can set up a shop through their API. Without knowing how easy that actually is, it sounds like a lot of technical legwork that I’m betting you don’t want to mess with either.

Which did you choose?

When you’ve decided on your marketing strategy and are ready to get started on some designs, let me know and I’ll be happy to get to work on them for you. You may be thinking, “But I just want some wacky text, I can do that in MS paint, right?”

Well, I suppose you COULD… but I’d do it better. And you want to have the best looking art ever, right? 🙂

If you have used any of the services above and want to lend your testimonials or warnings to my page, please leave a comment below!


4 Comments on Screenprint vs Print on Demand

    • Ruight now we are not selling them online, but send me an email and tell me where you’re located, and I’ll try to find the closest retail location for you!
      jennie.l.zell (at) gmail (dot) com

  1. Thanks for this info! It is a great article. For starters I think I am going with on demand printing at spreadshirt. Then as I get more time and demand for the apparel, I will probably move toward screen print.

    Thanks again 🙂

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