Digital Heat Transfer Printing
Ever heard of printing real life images or complex designs on t-shirts without the hefty price tag of silk screen printing of 8-10 colors? If you guessed it right, this method of print, Digital Heat Transfer Printing, has the capability to print full-colored designs. As the method of print suggests, this is best used when you have a full-colored designs or images to print on apparels at smaller quantities (eg. 20 pieces). Not only that, if you have gradient coloring for your designs, this method will print exactly the same as your photo-image! Sounds too good? And the best thing is that it doesn’t cost as much as DTG Printing. Let’s explore this advanced method of print.
1) The History of Digital Heat Transfer Printing
It wasn’t too long ago before heat transfer printing was discovered by using a heat press machine. We are looking at during the 1980s, when a company, Stahl’s, created heat transfer materials. The key player in the process of heat transfer printing involves the heat press machines. As machines were not advanced at that point of time, many things can go wrong each step of the way. On a bright side, advanced technologies have come a long way since then.
Many different companies have spent money on Research & Development to create better heat press machines which solved problems such as uneven pressure, temperature & timers. Today, we have very high quality heat press machines which can let us focus on being efficient and making more profits, than to solve problems that occurred in the past. It is ever changing, and the method of print will remain an important printing method in the future.
2) Heat Press Machines
Today, there are many kinds of heat press machines that are available. There are manual ones that are still in the market, and also the more advanced automatic ones as well. Even a hybrid version exists as well, with features of both manual and automatic. New technology of heat press machines have capabilities of providing even pressure and temperature across the entire platen. We will look further at each step of heat transfer printing later on in this article. There are many uses of heat press machines for different method of prints, such as Vinyl Transfer Printing and Sublimation printing, but we are looking at specifically, inkjet digital heat transfer printing.
The heat press machines most commonly used for inkjet heat transfer printing is the one that uses a flat platen to apply heat and pressure to the substrate (commonly known as the Heat Transfer Paper). A common term would be the “Flatbed” Heat Press machines. There are various designs of this heat press machines. We will briefly take a look how different types of machines work. They are also known as the Clam Heat Press and Swing Motion Heat Press. In the clam design, upon completion of the printing process, the upper element of the machine will open just like a clam releasing its pearls. On the other hand, the swing motion machine, as the name suggests, will have the upper element to have a swing motion away from the surface when the printing process is done. In these scenarios, the air pressure forces the top and bottom elements of the heat presses machine to separate, thus releasing the end product.
As we have learned thus far, the basis of heat transfer printing involves 2 surfaces coming into contact applying pressure and temperature onto the substrate to be applied on the products such as t-shirts or polo shirts. The top element usually consists of aluminium material that can withstand high temperatures. This will then be used to apply sufficient pressure and heat onto the substrates (inkjet transfer papers) onto the products.
3) Process of Digital Heat Transfer Printing
We have mentioned earlier that heat press machines have various uses for different kinds of printing. In this article, where we focus on inkjet heat transfer printing, we will look how the use of inkjet transfer papers create amazing designs on products such as t-shirts, without losing any detailing.
i) Setting up the heat transfer paper
- First, we have to choose a suitable transfer paper. Do note that this is the substrate that is going to be in contact with your apparel / product. We strongly recommend inkjet transfer papers as they are translucent and easy to print using an inkjet printer.
- Now that we have the perfect transfer paper, we can print our image or design onto the paper. An important step is to ensure that the image is printed on the film side of the transfer paper.
- By using this method of printing, we have a border around our image also called the “bleeding” line. To reduce this bleeding line, we trim down our transfer paper, only leaving the design file and the bleeding line. Transfer paper preparation is done at this phase.
ii) Setting up the heat press machine
- Next, we will prepare the heat press machine by lifting the handle to open up the heat press machine. As mentioned earlier, the heat and pressure that is used in this printing method is the most important factor!
- Most common settings to use is 350 to 375°F (177 to 191°C) and medium to high pressure.
- As we recommend inkjet transfer papers, if you’re using it too, do remember to set a timer of 14-18 seconds for the heat press. Any shorter or longer may cause a disruption in the outcome of the print.
iii) Setting up the t-shirts
- The final step of the printing process is placing the product in the correct position. We commonly print on t-shirts, therefore, we will use it as an example.
- Fit the t-shirt properly on the bottom platen as you would on a skin of the drum, well fitted and stretched.
- Place the inkjet heat transfer papers (prepared in phase i) on top of the t-shirts face down. Do remember to cover it with a thin layer of protection, such as handkerchief or towel, if required.
- Pull the top element of the heat press down, “claming” the press together. Once completed, press the start button. Let the machine does it magic in an instant!
- Open the heat press machine quickly and remove the transfer paper as soon as possible. The image should be printed on the t-shirts by now.
- Repeat the process for more prints.
- If you are printing on the back of the t-shirt, do remember to adjust the height of the plates as well as placing a cardboard inside the t-shirt. This is to prevent reheating of the first image on the other side of the t-shirt.
We hope you have gained insights to how digital heat transfer printing is done! If you are a visual learner, check out the video below for reference!
4) Advantages and Disadvantages
To help you make a better choice when deciding on the type of t-shirt printing services, we have also come up with some advantages and disadvantages of digital heat transfer printing.
- Unlimited Color Printing – Flexibility on customizing any kinds of images with unlimited colors on the apparels or products. No color restrictions.
- Price – If you are planning to print a complex full-colored designs at lower quantities such as 20 pieces, it will be cheaper than silk screen printing.
- Durability – Many have been worried that it will not be a durable method of print. There are no perfect method to printing complex designs, but technology advancement has come a long way for heat transfer method to last at least 50 washes (subjected to the method of washing).
- Price – Despite being cheaper than silk screen printing at lower quantities, it is relatively a more costly method of printing especially for bigger sizes like A4 or A3 sized design.
- Bleeding Line – As mentioned during the preparation phase, there will be a bleeding line around the designs. This is inevitable. On the bright side, the bleeding line is usually similar color to the t-shirt, hence may be “invisible”.
- Plastic feel – We used the heat transfer paper as a medium to transfer the design or image onto our t-shirts. Hence, there is a plastic feel of the design on the t-shirts. It can get very heavy if a large image is printed onto the t-shirt.
5) Digital Heat Transfer Printing can be used on the following Products from our T-Shirt Printing catalogue.
6) Recommendations by MEOWPRINT
Digital Heat Transfer printing is recommended for customers who have full-colored designs which they wish to customize on the apparels at small quantities (eg. 20 pieces). Silk Screen printing is cost effective at bulk quantities, but for low quantities, Digital Heat Transfer printing is the choice.
For this method of print, we strongly recommend it for printing on our reversible windbreakers. This is because we cannot embroider on reversible windbreakers because the backing can be clearly seen on the reversible side. Since embroidery is not possible, we recommend vinyl transfer printing or digital heat transfer printing, both utilizing the important heat press machine. If you need custom-made services to create a full customization of your apparel, check out our custom-made services!
Still have no idea how heat transfer printing looks like? Refer to our recent projects below! 🙂