Screen Printing vs. Heat Press: Which is the Better Pick?

Posted by Jeffrey Gononsky on

Newcomers to this creative art often debate between screen printing vs. heat press. Many who've done it a while choose screen printing – find out why.

Screen Printing vs. Heat Press: Which is the Better Pick?

Suppose you're getting into adding images onto clothing and accessories for personal or business use. In that case, your initial research will inevitably lead you to the debate of screen printing vs. heat press and which is suitable for you. Heat transfer printing may be tempting because it is simpler to understand as a beginner. You print and cut out an image and use a heat presser to apply vinyl or digital images; the silkscreen print has its advantages when you take the time to learn the nuances. 

That's not to say we will only recommend the silkscreen print method because we are one of the oldest suppliers of equipment and tools for this craft in North America. Heat transfer printing has its uses and is a great skill to learn. But, when it comes to screen printing vs. heat-press, nothing looks as good or lasts as long as a silkscreen print, especially on shirts. And, since education is a big part of what we do at Holden's Screen Supply Corp., we will give you all the information we can in a short article on the pros and cons of both to make your own decision. 

Heat Transfer Printing

While the silkscreen print method has been around for hundreds of years, heat transfer printing is relatively new and has grown popular only in the last couple of decades. The technique involved with heat transfer printing uses a combination of heat and pressure – with a tool known as a heat presser – to apply photorealistic images to fabrics. 

Indeed, it is typically photo images applied to fabrics with this method, which is an advantage it has over the silkscreen print technique. You have many more options in complexity and intricacy in designs that you can apply and an easier way to apply designs with different colors. There are different sub-methods of heat transfer printing: vinyl and digital prints.

Vinyl Heat Transfer Printing

The vinyl heat transfer process is a popular method that you have probably worn yourself. Many fashion brands use it. The vinyl will feel raised under your fingers, and it is widespread for the numbers and logos you see on sports jerseys. A specialized machine is employed to cut these designs out, and a heat presser is then used to make them stick to the fabric. This process has four steps: 

  • cut file
  • cutting
  • weeding
  • applying

Preparing Your Cut File

A cut file is a design intended to be printed onto a vinyl material and intended for heat transfer printing. There are many different cutting machine software programs to design a custom cut file and be cut. Electronic cutting machines such as the Silhouette or Cricut are very popular, but you can also perform this by hand. 


Just as it sounds, this is the step where you cut your image out of the vinyl.


Weeding is removing any excess vinyl bordering your image. 


Applying is the ironing stage. It's best to use an iron that does not have a lot of steam holes and a hard surface. A heat presser is an iron specifically designed to apply sufficient heat for transferring your vinyl onto the fabric. A typical ironing board will not work for the pressure needed and will likely collapse. You can buy specialized ironing pads for this work.

More detailed instructions are found online – this is only meant as a general guide. Typically, vinyl has to cure for 24 hours before someone should wear the clothing. 

Digital Heat Transfer Printing

Your custom logo or design first gets printed onto transfer paper with the digital heat transfer printing method. The ink is then thermally transferred from the paper to your fabric using heat and pressure.

Photo images or custom-made ones on a PC are all viable options for digital heat transfer printing, and you have the benefit of being able to print multiple colors in one pass. There are some limitations to either the digital or vinyl method that you should consider when determining between screen printing vs. heat-press, including substrates used, the part design, and how you want the finished product to look. 

What is a Silkscreen Print?

The first benefit of screen printing vs. heat press methods is that screen printing doesn't require any advanced technology or technical software knowledge. However, it is a bit more of an art form. But, when you learn the techniques and all of the screen printing steps, you can achieve a much better look and feel in your garment, and the image will last longer, too.

Silkscreen printing was introduced to the western world from China in the 1700s, but the technique was perfected in the east going back to the 10th century AD. Many innovations have occurred in that time, but probably nowhere near as in the last 50 years. 

A silkscreen print is a kind of stencil printing. Silk was the material used for centuries, but many materials are employed today – polyester is one of the most popular. The process involves squeezing ink with a squeegee through a mesh screen with all its holes blocked except those used to form the desired image. By placing the stencil on a screen, open and closed areas can be more detailed than would be possible with a simple stencil. Also, a simple stencil deteriorates more readily than a silkscreen, which can be used, potentially, for hundreds of printings.

Silkscreen printing can be done in almost any space – bathrooms are employed by many people just getting into the hobby. Printing images on T-shirts and baseball caps are one of the most popular ways it is used. The primary requirement of a room for silkscreen printing is that printed items can dry, and there is a sink or water source to clean up afterward.

The essential equipment needed for the necessary screen printing steps include:

  • Silkscreen
  • A wooden or metal frame stretches out the mesh to the appropriate size to suit your image. The mesh itself can be bought from Holden's, too, and you will need to consider the image detail when selecting the mesh count, substrate, and the type of ink you will use. The artist usually stretches mesh screens onto a frame, but you can have it professionally done with closely calibrated machines.

  • Emulsion
  • Emulsion is the vehicle that will allow the image to be imparted onto the silkscreen. The selection is based on the type of inks printed with, the clean-up utilized, and the light source. We carry photo emulsion at Holden's. The photo emulsion is applied across the front of the screen on a thin and smooth surface. It is light-sensitive. A photo-positive film, backward, in full size, is placed against the screen and exposed to a light source when it dries. Since it is light-sensitive, the emulsion should be kept in darkness until exposed.

  • Film Positive
  • Using photo emulsion, you will need a film positive for the photographic silkscreen print process. This is an image represented in opaque black on a transparent or semi-clear medium that is used to impart the image onto the silkscreen.

  • Degreaser
  • You must treat a silkscreen with a degreaser before applying the emulsion. 


  • Scoop Coater
  • Scoop coaters are used to hold the emulsion as you coat your silkscreen. 


  • Screen Printing Ink
  • Typically, the substrate you choose to print on will determine the screen printing ink used. Water-based fabric inks and plastisol are the most commonly used.

  • Squeegee
  • A squeegee is used to press the ink through the mesh and onto the substrate – fabric, paper, wood, etc. They come in different sizes and should match the size of the image plus the interior dimensions of the silkscreen. The pressure applied while running the squeegee across the screen's surface will influence the amount of ink forced through the screen. A more rigid squeegee will help create a more precise, defined image. Softer squeegees make thicker applications of ink and more intense color areas when meticulous detail is less a part of an image than large color areas.

  • Emulsion Remover
  • Getting emulsion off of the silkscreen requires emulsion remover.    


  • Haze Remover
  • Ink will stain and degrade a silkscreen over time, but a haze remover can remove this build-up and keep it in good working condition for numerous prints.      


  • Hinge Clamps
  •  Hinge clamps are used for affixing silkscreens during the printing process. 

  • Light Source
  • Images need a good light source to be exposed to the silkscreen. A large light bulb is often suitable enough, though some people invest a lot into UV or other lighting for faster run times and efficiency.        


  • Washout Sink
  • You can use a washout sink for many messy jobs in screen printing, including de-hazing and reclaiming.        

    Screen Opener Spray

    Another tool that you will want to ensure you have on hand is a can of screen opener spray. Holden's Screen Printing Supply Corp. has them available for water-based and plastisol inks. Screen spray openers are great for de-clogging your screens from the ink accumulated in the mesh, blocking ideal prints from transferring onto your substrate. Using screen opener spray regularly will prolong the life of your screens and ensure less downtime between prints – which is extremely important if you are printing as a business.

    Screen Printing vs. Heat Press – Weighing Their Pros and Cons Against Your Needs

    As far as printing quality goes, durability and the resolution of the image onto fabric – one of the most popular substrates – are generally the most important. Screen printing wins in both categories in the screen printing vs. heat press debate. Transferring vinyl and digital prints with pressure and a heat presser initially looks great, but it will not hold up for long. Especially not against the wear and tear that comes from washing, drying, and wearing the garment. 

    This is because ink applied with a heat presser only sits on top of the shirt, tote, hat, or whatever fabric you are printing on, while inks applied through silkscreen printing become a part of it. Vinyl and digital prints start to crack and fade from constant wear and tear, as you have probably seen with your store-bought clothing manufactured with the same process. Screen-printed images retain an accurate depiction of the original quality for much longer. 

    But, one of the aspects where heat transfer printing shines is in the complexity of designs you can work with. Squeezing ink through a mesh is limited in how detailed the images can show up on the fabric. It is also easier to apply more colors with heat transfer methods than with silkscreen printing. You will have to use a new screen for each different color in an image. If you are running a business, applying multiple colors in one run allows you faster production times. 

    That's not to say that you cannot enhance your skills ant silkscreen printing and learn how to transfer images that rival the beauty of those that are heat transferred. There is a lot more you can do with silkscreen printing artistically. Heat transferred images are like photography, whereas silkscreen printing is more like a painter's brushstrokes. Substrates that feature silkscreen prints have a more classic and timeless look.

    Master the Art of Silkscreen Printing With Holden's

    Screen printing vs. heat press comes down to personal taste and artistic vision. We think silkscreen prints look much better and admire the artform's deep roots, but personal preference should trump everything. We have everything you'll need if you're like us and want to master the art. For everything from frames to inks to screens, emulsions, and more, shop the online store at Holden's Screen Supply Corp.