One of the first questions we get asked when a potential customer contacts us is, “How much is screen printing going to cost?” When we request more information before providing a quote, we’re sometimes met with frustrated sighs. It’s never a big deal since most people understand, but it’s clear that customers want an easy answer to what they view as an easy question. They want shirts printed and they want to know how much it’s going to cost. Period.
It’s completely understandable that customers want a quick answer. Sometimes they don’t know what they want until they get an idea on what it’s going to cost so it becomes a catch-22. When we price out a job, we do our best to give as many options as possible to help avoid this and limit the back and forth.
After the pricing question is taken care of, the next most common question we get is, “Can you print a sample first so I can check the quality before I commit to an order?” Unfortunately, that’s just not possible without a lot of work when it comes to screen printing.
We thought it would be helpful to dive into what’s involved in screen printing to hopefully demystify the pricing and explain why we can’t print samples. We’ll also talk about different pricing strategies and why some companies charge more than others. Why are we taking the time to do this? Well, we think it will be a helpful resource for our own customers when they want to get some shirts printed. We also believe that an educated consumer is a better customer.
Please Note: One thing I would caution you about is choosing a screen printer based solely on price. There are a lot of us out there and some are better than others. There are lot of great screen print shops doing good work, but there are shops that will do anything to get the job and will undercut everyone to get your money. Screen printing is definitely one of those services that you get what you pay for. Make sure you are using a shop with a good reputation that knows what they are doing. Nothing is worse than spending money, waiting patiently for the shirts to be delivered, and then being disappointed with the end results. We are not the cheapest shop out there, but we are very reasonable, and we take the time to do the job right.
The Screen Printing Process
First, we thought it would be helpful to give you a brief overview of the screen printing process. This is by no means comprehensive. There is a lot that can go into a screen print job — variables and special processes that we aren’t going to take into account here. We are going to give you a basic overview so you understand what goes into your standard screen print job.
- Art Work – It all starts with the artwork. Most of the time, we do not get an ideal file to do a job. We almost always have to manipulate it to make it work. In the best-case scenario, the customer gives us a proper vector file, but that happens less than 50% of the time. So, what happens when we receive a file that isn’t necessarily up to snuff? We do our best to push for the highest resolution image we can get, and then we work our magic which turns it into a usable vector file. Once we have a usable file, we move on to separating the colors (more on that later). Now we take the image and create a separate file for each color in that image.
- Print the Film – Once the images are separated into different files, they are printed on a clear plastic film. It looks very similar to what teachers used to use on projectors before they were replaced by modern technology. You need one film for every color in the design.
- Burn the Screens – The process of screen printing is really quite interesting. It involves taking a screen (usually made of polyester, not silk) that’s already in a frame, turning that screen into a stencil, and then pushing ink through the screen onto the shirt. That doesn’t just happen by itself. The process isn’t hard, but it takes practice, time, equipment, and supplies. You start with a fresh screen and apply a coating of photo-reactive emulsion that reacts to UV light. Because it’s photo-reactive, a coated screen needs to be stored in a dark place while it dries. Once the emulsion has dried, you need to burn the image onto the screen. You do that by placing the film you printed in the previous step over the screen and then exposing it to UV light for a period of time. The length of time depends on a few factors, but a good average is about 20 minutes per screen.
- Wash out the Screens – Once you’re finished burning the screens, the next step is to wash them out with a high-pressure stream of water. The film that was placed over the screen blocks the UV light from hitting the emulsion where the design was printed. The rest of the emulsion hardens from the exposure to the light, but the part of the screen that had the film didn’t get that exposure. So, when you hit it with high-pressure water, the emulsion washes right off the screen. That leaves us with a template of uncovered screen for each design.
- Setup the Press – Once the screens are ready they get attached to the press. Each screen gets the right color ink poured onto it and a squeegee is used to push the ink through the screen onto the shirt. This is where there can be a lot of variation based on the number of colors, what the colors are, the type of ink and color the shirt is. I am not going to to into a lot of detail on the printing process itself since it can vary but the basic gist of it is, each shirt gets one color pressed onto it at a time.
- Cure the Shirt – Once the shirt is printed, it gets put under a flash dryer or put through a heated tunnel dryer to dry the ink and cure it to the shirt.
That was a very basic overview of how a design is screen printed onto a garment. Hopefully, at this point, your biggest takeaway is how unreasonable it would be to go through all that work to print a single sample shirt. Screen printing almost always has a minimum, and the reason for that is all the prep you have to do before you ever touch a t-shirt in order to print a design onto it. You have to make enough from printing shirts to cover the time and expense of all the setup work. It should also give you some insight into all the different expenses that need to be figured out in order to give an accurate quote.
Screen Printing Expenses
In this next section, we are going to try to cover all the areas we look at when calculating our cost and what we charge. Most efficient screen print shops have systems in place that estimate many of these values, and they simply have to enter in the details of the order to get a fairly accurate quote. Therein lies the sticking point: we need as many details as possible before entering the correct variables into our system in order to get the right pricing. It’s too hard to estimate without the details.
The Major Factors in Quoting a Screen Printing Job
As we already outlined, there are many steps and consumables that get used to print an order — it would be too complicated to factor in every one of them. That’s where the margin comes in. We use the biggest expenses we can easily identify to generate the quote, then build in an acceptable margin to ensure that we are covering all of our expenses and making an acceptable profit. After all, we are a business and we are doing this to make a living.
Here are the factors we consider when trying to price out a screen print job:
- Type of Garment – There are hundreds (if not thousands) of garment choices out there that we can print on. What type of clothing is it? Is it a t-shirt, a hoodie, a v-neck, or something else? Is it for a man? Woman? Child? Are you looking for a budget blank or a premium blank? Would you like it to be all cotton or a blend of different fabrics? This part of the process isn’t difficult. Typically, a customer knows the basics of what they want, and most screen print shops have their “go to” brands and styles they offer. Once we know what garment you want, we can check the price of that item and use that as the basis of our quote.
- Number of Colors – This plays a factor in several different ways. If you go back to our “How Screen Printing Works” section, you know we need to create a screen for each color in the design. A screen can be $20 to $30. Those screens get reused so it’s not as if we expect the customer to bear the full cost, but it’s still part of our overhead. Another concern is labor. For every color, we have to go through the process of adding emulsion, burning the image, setting the screen, etc. Additionally, when we go to print the shirt, we add time to each garment. So, the two biggest things that come into play when looking at the number of colors is the screens required and the labor involved.
- Number and Size of Impressions – More important than the number of garments we’re printing is the number of impressions we’re printing. By “impression,” I mean the actual print. For instance, if we had 50 t-shirts but we’re printing on the front and the back of those shirts, we’re actually going to look at that as a quantity of 100 rather than a quantity of 50. It doesn’t really matter to us that the end product is 50 pieces — to us we are printing 100 designs. This is where screen printing really shines. So much of the work is in the setup. The higher the quantity, the more spread out the setup cost, so the price per shirt comes way down as the quantity of impressions increases.
- Color of Garment – On darker garments, it’s sometimes necessary to do an underbase so the colors really pop. It may be just a 2-color design, but an underbase may take it to 3 colors without you realizing it. We also may need to spend more time printing it.
- Special Locations – Are there any special locations involved in the project? For instance, is it a pocket t-shirt and you want to print on the center of that pocket? If so, we have to charge a little more. It’s a trickier print so it takes more time.
- Spoilage – This is what we call mistakes or defects. No matter how careful you are, there are always going to be bad blanks that you don’t catch, or mistakes made in the printing process. With each mistake we have wasted time, ink, and materials. It’s hopefully a very small number, but we have to take that into account and price the product at a margin that covers the spoilage.
- Labor -All of the above should show that it is a very labor- intensive job. You need a person to show up and do all the work and that person costs money. One of the biggest factors in any quote is the labor cost.
Once you get the right systems in place and understand your numbers, it’s not hard to generate a quote. Our goal in writing this out was not to overwhelm or make it seem harder than it is, but to simply explain the “whys” and “hows” of pricing out a screen print project.
Screen printing is a great method of garment decoration, but it’s not the only method. We also offer Dye Sublimation and DTG (direct to garment). Both of those methods allow for far less setup but don’t scale as well as screen printing. When it’s a small job, we use one of those two methods to complete the job. For screen printing, our minimum is 24 pieces (although DTG may still make more sense in some situations). It all depends on the answers to the questions above.