Questions To Ask For 4-Color T-Shirt Printing

By   |  Stashed in Graphic Design


Have you ever cranked out a t-shirt design for a client or yourself, only to find out the printer does not do 4-color process printing? If this has happened to you, you were probably left with a lot of lost hours without much to show for it.  We want to clear that up for you and provide you with the information to avoid the same problem next time.

Four color process printing, or sometimes referred to as full-color printing, is the process of mixing CMYK inks to print a high quantity of colors on a t-shirt.  It is much more common to see full-color printing on paper and that’s because the quality of the end result can be drastically better than on fabric.  T-shirt screen printing is best accomplished when using single solid spot colors.

Here are some images of t-shirts printed with four color process:



Sometimes, 4-color process printing is unavoidable when you are dealing with a photograph or an image with a lot of colors and/or shades and gradients. While I won’t bore you to sleep with the printing side of the operation, I can suggest you ask the printer a few simple questions from a design perspective:

1. First and foremost, do you print 4-color process?

This is very important because not all printers do.  The process is very much a science and printers are skeptical because the customers expectations are not in line with reality.

2. Is it screen printing or digital printing?

Screen printing, is the real deal.  Digital printing is like T-shirt printing with an inkjet on steroids.  Digital has come a long way, but still has quite a way to go.

3. How much do you charge for the color separations?

Believe it or not, you can provide a printer with a high resolution, high quality image, and they still charge you a hefty sum for separations.  Unfortunately, it is a necessary evil, because the printer has to be comfortable with the screen angles, screen mesh, halftones, etc. All of this is accomplished in the color separations process.

4. Can you print 4-color process on dark colored garments as well as white tees?

Printing four color process on dark t-shirt adds even more difficulty to an already difficult job. It is very common to find a screen printer that will print four color process, but only on white t-shirts.

5. What format and DPI do you prefer to work with?

There is a wide variety of formats preferred ranging from a high-resolution tif to the original Photoshop PSD file with layers. Some printers prefer 300 dpi while others think that is too high.

6. Any suggestions or preferences that I should know about before I get started on the artwork?

I can’t even begin to tell you what the answer may be on this one because of different strokes for different folks. One thing I can be sure to make you wary of is to avoid lots of detail in the artwork.  Some of it inevitably gets lost in the separations.

Here are some more examples of t-shirts printed with four color process:




About the Author

Blake works at where you can print and design t-shirts. He has been doing this gig for quite some time and feels that wearing a t-shirt to work everyday is the best perk. :)

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  • John

    Good article, nice samples, thanks.

    John´s last post was… A designer walks into a psychiatrists office…

  • Patty

    This is very helpful. Thank you for these pointers. I’ve shyed away from 4-color both because of cost and because of not understanding all this.

  • Murray Lunn

    Oooh good information.

    My friend actually works at a print shop, they do sports wear.

    I always wanted to print a few shirts sometime, this is good info to know.

  • Webdesigner Depot

    The timing of this post could not have been better. I was actually talking with several of my friends over the weekend, and we had decided that it would be fun to try out printing some of our different designs on t-shirts, so I’m going to print out this post and hopefully refer to it in the near future!

  • NetOperator Wibby

    Thanks for this. I want to start production of some shirt designs I have this year.

  • Blake Poutra

    Thanks for the kind responses!

    Blake Poutra´s last post was… Interview at Taddict

  • Under

    Funny, that last shirt looks like a 3-color design. White undercoat, with a halftone red & blue on black shirt.

    Saved you the cost of one seperation, there!

  • logo design guru

    the shirts look great with all of those bright colors. Thanks for sharing, they look great and i love the original designs.


    Oh wow. What a great Post.
    This helps a lot, I really appriciate it. Thak you.

  • loswl

    Thanks for this, bookmark!! for future reference :o)

    loswl´s last post was… iTube Video Roundup-February

  • Andrew

    According to the DBH page, the design ‘Bold is Beautiful’ is a nine color print:

    Andrew´s last post was… James Jean

  • C

    I want to know what printer do you use.

  • Blake


    A 9-color print can still have 4-color process incorporated into it. They can also use highlights and spot colors in addition to 4-color process work.

    Blake´s last post was… Interview at Taddict

  • C

    and what 9 color printer are u using and are u using heat presser?

  • Blake

    @ C

    I didn’t do the print, Design By Humans did the print for their collection. I doubt they use a heat press because of the quantity and instead opt for a belt dryer. I personally have the shirt and know that it is screen printing they used.

    Blake´s last post was… Working Hard at You Design It

  • jonas

    Good article guys, nice printing style. Good job!!!

  • varsha

    I am totally new to this domain of t-shirt designs.
    Currently my concern is that I am unaware of the tools I can use for drawing designs. Is adobe photoshop the best?
    Also What care must be taken with colours and gradients in order to reduce the cost of printing?

  • Mandy | Print n Ink

    Great post, this is my first visit to the blog and I will becoming back again, I just loved those printing styles, they are just fantastic and to have the whole procedure explained helped even more.


  • Caity @ Cartridge

    Very interesting post, my first time here and I just love those designs, really changes the whole look of a printed t-shirt.

  • Custom Printed T-shirts

    Now actully brothers have a very nice machine that can print full color and the results are really good, you can call them and they give you a phone number for a printer that has one in your area, good luck

  • Matt Redmond

    I gave this blog a quick read and it is very helpful. I had a t-shirt designed for a friend of mine who is a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. It is a 4 color (so far) process shirt that I want printed on black t-shirts. The price ranges I’ve seen so far are about $25-$30 per screen, although none of the companies I have contacted do 4 process screen printing. I am located in Troy, MI. I am wondering if anyone has a company or can recommend one that will do this t-shirt printing for me. I don’t mind the shipping cost I just want the shirts done right. I can send a picture of the t-shirt design and put my designer in touch with any accepting company. I will be looking to purchase anywhere from 10-50 t-shirts and hopefully save the screens for more orders as the fan club grows. If anyone has advice please contact me anytime at [email protected]. Thank you.

  • Nikita Sumeiko

    Excellent explanation, guys!
    I have picked up my favorite t-shirts from Design By Human website and posted them to my blog. There are a lot of cool t-shirts, that could be great dress in summer time.
    So, maybe, you are interested too:

    Thanks guys!
    .-= Nikita Sumeiko´s last blog ..Fantastic Designed Handpicked Tshirts =-.

  • T-Shirt Printing Hyderabad

    Awesome designs.Thanks for sharing

  • http://t-shirtTHE-MARS-VOLTA,929/ tshirtWUTANGCLAN

    Hi, this post is very inspiring and it enriches my idea about this topic.

  • t-shirtprinting

    The colors on white tees look more vibrant than the ones on dark t-shirts. It’s amazing how a 4-color screen printing process can produce photorealistic images.
    .-= t-shirtprinting´s last blog ..T Shirt Printing =-.

  • Ron Arts Web Design

    Awesome samples, nice printing styles. Thanks for sharing such a good information.

  • Edith Chan Design

    Great post! Had a bad experience on printing full color t shirt last time. Will definitely ask the questions beforehand next time. Thanks for sharing.