That $30 Barry Manilow or Fugazi t-shirt you bought at your last concert went mostly into someone's pocket who is not the printer. Probably only the cotton farmer was paid less. If you cruise through this interactive guide you will get some idea of the complexity of the printing process. In business school they would say however that screen printing t-shirts has "low barriers to entry", which means that for a relatively paltry sum you can set up to print t-shirts in some form. This means there are many printers out there and their competition keeps consumer prices precariously low. Garage printers may not be able to produce what you want, when you want it , at an acceptable quality, so caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

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Your local printer may base his/her prices on a Ouija board or Magic 8 Ball, but more likely it is based on the cost of the garment you selected and the roughly estimated cost for the printer to print it (and a little profit).

The garments fluctuate in price, but usually a white 100% cotton heavyweight t-shirt costs your printer just under $3 each. You can then add to that price for pockets, long sleeves, hoods, diamond sequins, color, custom dyeing, oversize (bigger than XL), etc. Manufacturers price their shirts based on color, breaking it into three or four categories: Neutrals - white, natural Lights - Ash, stone, yellow, pink, and other mostly ugly pastel shades Darks - Black, Navy, Kelly Green, Red, and so on. Premiums - Jade Green, Deep Teal, Forest Green, Burgundy and other expensive dye shirts which were all previously considered darks and sometimes still are.

Depending on the size of your printer's operation and the size of your order, the shirts may be priced in an escalating price structure by the piece, the dozen, or the case (usually 6 dozen of a size and color). Your printer may buy directly from the mill or more likely buy from the local wholesaler. Mill purchasing can only happen under large volume (usually 5,000 or more shirts monthly) and with more advance notice (booked 6 months in advance). No printer is going to get Fruit of the Loom to send them your dozen orange tank tops from the mill. Wholesalers will charge more, but their inventory is usually large and allows for buying any quantity quickly.

Customers often ask if they can save money by buying their own garments. Usually not, because they do not receive the printer's discounts. The customer is also paying the printer to store the garments before printing, to deal with returning the inevitable defective merchandise, and last but not least paying the printer to front the money. Because the garment is a large percentage of the final price, it is very common for printers to ask for a deposit of 50% or more.

The printing price includes charges which may be itemized or sometimes lumped together. Each color requires a film positive and a screen to be made. Generally this does not mean that the customer can actually take the screen with them. With the advent of retensionable screens (which are constantly recycled) images are not kept on screen between print runs at all. Usually you are in effect renting time for your image to remain on screen. Many times printers will charge much less or nothing for screens on reprints. This is merely an incentive for you to come back, since it costs the printer money each time to "shoot" the screen to print the job. Screen charges generally run $10 to $40, with $10 clearly being a loss leader and $25 to $35 being closer to what it actually costs the printer.

The printer will then charge you a price per shirt for printing. This is based almost always on the number of colors in the design and sometimes also takes into consideration the degree of difficulty. Each color has a screen which must be put into registration with the other screens. This often time-consuming process is more difficult the more colors that are involved and hence the customer is generally charged more. With low volume, shirts are generally hand printed and the printing process itself actually takes longer with each added color. With increased quantities (usually over 300 shirts) it is likely that the job will be printed automatically. Each additional color will add less to the price on an automatic press, since all colors are actually printing at the same time.

Some printers will not charge more for printing on dark shirts than light shirts. Such printers are called fools and probably won't be around for long. Printing on dark shirts is very difficult to do well and usually requires heavier ink deposits and flashing (partial drying) between colors. The flashing slows the printing process and therefore costs more. Colors printed on darks usually require a white undercoating of ink to be printed and flashed to add opacity and brightness. This requires an additional color and therefore screen to be paid for as well.

Printers will also usually charge for changing ink colors during a run, since it means stopping to clear ink from the screen, clean the screen, and add ink. Custom colors may take a long time to mix and therefore ink matching may also incur an additional charge.

The most important factor in pricing is the quantity to be printed at one time. Whether the printer prints one sample or one hundred thousand shirts, the screens must be exposed, set-up, and registered, the printing process worked out by making adjustments to squeegees, pressure, etc. By the same token, after printing clean up time is the same no matter what the quantity. It would not be unusual for a printer to take four hours to print a very difficult image, but only five hours to print one thousand. Hence there is usually a discount on larger volume jobs.

Some common pricing misconceptions:

Five jobs of one hundred are not the same as one job of five hundred. Discounts come almost entirely from efficiency of printing, not from volume purchasing.

Printing the backs of the shirts is no small matter. The back printing is virtually like another entire job and usually will be priced accordingly.

You can't just throw a couple black shirts in with a white shirt order and expect a similar price for them. Printing on dark shirts usually means using different screen meshes in addition to the shirts costing more and so also they need to be priced as though it is a separate job.

In conclusion we can see that pricing for screen printed garments involves some complex formulae and most of the details of a job must be finalized in order to make an accurate price quote. There are many more factors involved than in offset printing. After reading this, you should be more aware of the significant variables.