DTF White Paper and Apparel Decorating Comaparison

This article is intended more for entrepreneurs, start-ups, small shirt shops and print businesses interested in DTF technology and how we can help you. 

Digital Heat Transfers

Heat Press for Transfers

There are several different transfer methods used today in the garment decoration industry, or more specifically, the production of graphic tees. Almost all transfers produce high-definition prints with good-to-excellent color but wash durability and soft hand varies.

Perhaps the biggest difference between transfers is in the manufacturing of them. This includes production output, raw material costs to manufacture, the feasibility for POD production and lastly the flexibility they offer t-shirt shops and home-based small businesses.

All the major technologies used to create graphic transfers and tees along with the pros and cons of each one is discussed below and include:

  • Screen Printing
  • DTG - Direct-to-Garment Printing
  • Vinyl Transfers 
  • Laser Transfers
  • Dye Sublimation Transfers
  • Digital Screen Transfers (DST)
  • Direct to Film Transfers (DFT) 

Heat Transfer Comparison Chart

On a scale between 1 (least desirable) and 5 (most desirable), we compiled the following chart for a side-by-side comparison. The technologies compared are commonly used for garment decoration, photography, promotional items, etc. Both the DST and DTF technolgies are fairly new as of this writing.

Technology Screen Vinyl Laser Dye DST DTG DTF
Machine Maintenance 4 4 5 5 4 3 3
Art/Screen Preparation 2 4 5 5 3 5 5
Labor (post setup) 5 3 3 5 4 5 5
Investment (equipment) 1 2 2 4 1 2 4
Material Costs 5 2 1 5 4 5 5
Substrate Flexibility 4 5 4 1 4 3 5
Application Flexibility 3 3 3 4 3 1 4
Soft Hand 5 1 3 5 4 4 5
Labor (production) 5 2 4 5 3 3 4
Print Stretch 4 4 3 4 4 4 4
Print Definition 4 5 4 5 5 5 5
*Overall Score 42 35 37 48 39 40 49

*assuming all things equal

Transfers vs Screen Printing

The pros and cons of screen printing (the grandfather of t-shirt printing) are difficult to list since much of it varies depending on the sophistication of the equipment, the availability of skilled labor and of course, requirements of the jobs its intended for. Also, keep in mind for large runs, screen printed transfers can be made using suited equipment and ground hot melt powder as the binder.

Pros of Screen Printing and DST

  • Very low cost per shirt on large runs
  • Fast production for high volume printing
  • Ideal for 1 or 2 color jobs (full color for DST)
  • Excellent print quality and versatility 
  • Good shirt soft hand (softness to the touch)
  • Good wash durability
  • Flexible inks for dark or light garments and other materials.
  • Commonly used for political sign printing, promotional items, etc.
  • DST (Digital Screen Transfer) production offers similar DTF benefits

Cons of Screen Printing

  • Required screen developing and burning for each color required
  • Requires costly equipment, chemicals and inks
  • Requires skilled labor
  • Not ideal for short runs (25 or less shirts)
  • Requires more job planning and inventory
  • Messy for clean-ups without the correct equipment

DTF vs Laser and Vinyl Transfers:

  • Superior soft hand (softness to the touch)
  • DTF transfer print resolution can be double that of lasers 
  • DTF graphics can incorporate shadows, gradients and fine lines
  • DTF and Lasers incorporate white ink for dark color shirts
  • DTF press time is normally 15 seconds or less
  • DTF transfers benefits from much lower material costs
  • DTF and Lasers offer excellent wash durability
  • Laser transfers require A/B sheets which add to inventory and labor costs 
  • Laser Printers that can print C-size transfers are usually @ $10k
  • Laser Printers are almost maintenance free compared to DTF  
  • Vinyl transfers require skill with vector art, a cutting plotter and weeding
  • Vinyl has limited colors and is much more per square inch than DTF ink
  • Vinyl sales suffer from the sometimes-unfair reputation of cracking 

DTF Transfers vs DTG Printing

  • DTF does not require pretreating equipment or chemicals
  • Pressing shirts allow for point-of-sale completion
  • Far less inventory is required for DTF than DTG for reasons above
  • Transfers are portable, easily inventoried and economical to ship
  • Shirts can be manufactured during printer maintenance
  • Last minute pressing is much faster than DTG printing 

DTF Transfers vs Dye-Sublimation Transfers

The dye-sublimation method of transfers offers the most soft hand (softness to touch) of all the transfers mentioned in this article and also excellent color. Pressing dye-sub transfers require more expertise than pressing DTF transfers. 

  • Dye-sub transfers require polyester shirts
  • Dye-sub transfers require light color shirts
  • Dye-sub transfers can be more difficult to master than DTF
  • Dye-sub should be considered where applicable

Shirt Inventory Using Transfers

Unlike DTG printing, transfers such as DTF, offer the most flexibility and require far less inventory to satisfy any given sale than do pre-printed shirts of different styles, sizes and colors.

Last Minute Pressing

Conventional t-shirt inventory requires that for every 5 graphics you need to inventory 25 tees (5 sizes x 5 graphics = 25) to satisfy any given POD store purchase. Contrast this to DTF and you only need 5 tees (5 sizes x 1 graphic) to satisfy the same store purchase since the shirts are not already printed.

Reduce Slow Moving Inventory

Inventory of obsolete transfers is far less expensive than inventory of obsolete t-shirts. Theoretically, losses could be reduced by as much as 80%.


Although all this information may be interesting but overwhelming for someone who just wants to purchase a cool t-shirt - the scope of the article is intended for new start-ups, small businesses and shirt shops that want efficient and profitable operations that produce head-ache free, high-quality merchandise.

The reviews here are somewhat biased in favor of DTF (and DST for large runs) for good reason. With years of hands-on experience in both printing and small business operations and production of promotional items, you sometimes have to learn the hard way.

Hopefully, this saves some of you a lot of time, aggravation and startup costs for things like equipment that was not really needed in the first place. If you think we can help you with your new venture or existing operation, please drop us a line.