By Cassandra Balentine
Direct to garment (DTG) printing is one of many popular methods for printing to textiles. The process involves a digital image printed directly to a garment. The process works best on cotton materials and requires pretreatment as well as heat to set the image after printing.
Based in Fountain Valley, CA, Refuge Printing, opened as a side business by Jason Bryan, owner, Refuge Printing in 2009. Vinyl sticker and some screen printing work turned into an on demand t-shirt printer. It was one of the first organizations to adopt DTG technology in the Orange County, CA area over ten years ago. In March of 2021 Jason welcomed his son Brandon into the family business, and he now runs most of the day-to-day operations.
Its primary reach is its immediate vicinity, but has completed work outside of CA. It focuses on production runs, with a preference for jobs between 100 and 200 shirts at a time. Many of its customers are screen printing businesses that want to cost-effectively produce shorter runs. It also services bigger companies and bands. “We can easily do one to two shirts, but bulk printing is our preference,” says Brandon Bryan.
The shop operates out of a 1,000 square foot facility, which houses an office and warehouse, and has three employees.
Refuge Printing’s first DTG printer, an Anajet, got it started in this segment. The firm continued to evolve and update its equipment as it advanced. Today the print provider utilizes a Ricoh Ri 1000 DTG press, which was purchased from DTG Connection. It also relies on AnaRIP software to prepare graphics prior to print.
The Ricoh Ri 1000 prints full color, 10×8-inch graphics on light garments in less than 28 seconds. It delivers high-resolution images up to 1,200×1,200 dpi. Bryan finds the Ricoh DTG technology user friendly and easy to navigate.
The shop’s primary product is by far DTG printed t-shirts, primarily cotton. Bryan estimates that 75 to 80 percent of its orders are t-shirts. “With DTG we can print on any cotton materials. We mainly do t-shirts but have also done other items like tote bags,” he shares.
One thing to consider with DTG is that everything other than a plain white cotton shirt requires pretreatment. Another important step of the process is curing or heating.
The printer employs tunnel dryers to fix the inks onto the shirt after printing. “We have two tunnel dryers, one for curing and the other for drying,” notes Bryan.
For ink, it utilizes the water-based DTG ink, which are specifically developed for the Ri 1000. There isn’t an option when it comes to ink, as the machine has a chip that will not run with different ink. However, Bryan says it is great quality ink and they are satisfied with it.
For the t-shirts themselves, it hasn’t run into many challenges despite global supply chain issues. “Luckily many of our customers supply their own shirts for us to print. When we do our own stock we order from SpectraUSA and haven’t had many challenges,” comments Bryan. Its shirt supplier is based close by in Carson, CA.
In terms of design work, the shop’s clientele mainly sends professionally designed artwork. “That’s why we got into production work. They send it and we print it,” notes Bryan.
The shop finds many advantages with DTG printing technology. For one, the water-based inks are environmentally friendly. Also, the on demand print model eliminates set up fees and allows for variability. “If you need one or one thousand prints, DTG is the way to go,” he adds.
Of course, there are some limitations to consider. First, Bryan admits that it’s sometimes difficult to handle really big graphics. Some of the graphics are designed up to 15 or 16 inches, at this point the ink costs go up. “People don’t realize we have to charge more for that,” he shares. In these cases it can be difficult to remain competitive.
Another challenge is the use of neon ink. “It’s hard to hit those exact colors,” cautions Bryan. Refuge Printing tries its best to manage customer expectations when it comes to neon prints.
The company has many ongoing jobs for its clients. For instance, it recently fulfilled 50 online orders for TheForestLab, an online streetwear brand. An order like this is great for DTG because it’s usually about 50 shirts, nearly all with a different design on it. Usually every two to three weeks they fulfill an order, handling everything from output to fulfillment—including the t-shirt graphics, neck labels, packing, and shipping.
In addition to DTG, Refuge Printing recently added direct to film (DTF) printing to its service offering.
The t-shirt printer got into DTF when a client requested this type of print. Because the Ricoh Ri 1000 handles DTF work, it was an easy decision to try it out.
Bryan describes DTF as, “a manually applied image.” He says it is almost the reverse process of DTG. The first pass is color on a cold sheet. The image is then flipped, and this is when the white ink is applied. From here, a DTF powder is spread over the graphic. The sheet is sent to a heater to cure. The sheet is then ready to transfer to the final medium with heat, or stored for later.”
In addition to selling DTF merchandise, the shop is also able to sell the sheets to its existing screen print customers with their own heat presses—a win/win in terms of pricing and productivity for both the printer and customer.
The biggest advantage is the media versatility it brings to the table. Because output is not printing directly to a medium, but instead a sheet, the output is not restricted to cotton materials. It also does not require pretreatment and uses the same inks as DTG. This makes it easy for print providers like Refuge Printing to add the service with minimal investment. Since they have the press and heaters, it just requires an investment in the DTF sheets and powder.
The process has allowed Refuge Printing to print items like sleeves, pillowcases, neck labels—things that were out of reach when they were strictly doing DTG.
Another major benefit is the reduction in white ink use. Bryan says the DTF process allows operators to have more control over the application of white ink. However, he admits that they are still new to the process and are working out how to get the right amount of white ink.
In terms of limitations, the feel of the finished graphic tops the list. Bryan finds that you can tell the difference between a DTG and a DTF printed item. Where DTG presents a more natural feel, a DTF print is shiny. To help combat this, the use of tunnel dryers helps, but Bryan can still tell the difference.
Many of the DTG jobs the shop has recently done are for screen printers looking for shorter runs, somewhere between five to 30 shirts. In this case the run is too small to be effective in a more traditional manner and has two to three colors. For these orders they just send the completed sheets out to be transferred and cured on the client side.
In With the New, and Old
Refuge Printing has built a solid business on production-level DTG work. The print provider takes care to stay up-to-date on industry advancements and trends, investing in new equipment and learning new process where it makes sense.
Overall, DTG is the favored method for Refuge Printing. Typically, unless someone specifically requests DTF they will default to DTG. However, it is a valuable addition to the shop’s service portfolio—expanding its capabilities with minimal investment.
Sep2022, Digital Output