The truth about transfer printing (the good and the bad)

Just in case you don’t know, Transfer Printing is a method used to transfer an image from one surface to another, permanently. Nowadays Cad Cut vinyl Printing is mostly used to transfer designs onto T-shirts or other kinds of garments. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish Transfer Printing from other printing techniques like screen-printing or cad cut vinyl. What sets it apart is the fact that Transfer Printing is the only printing technique where heat is applied at the end to set the image.

 

Transfer printing cheat sheet banner

 

Where does transfer printing come from?

Transfer Printing was first developed to embellish ceramics, not clothing. The technique was born around the 1750’s in England and quickly spread to other parts of Europe where it caught on. Back then the process involved a copper or steel plate or roller that was engraved with a decorative element. The roller or plate would have its surface covered with ink and later would be pressed or rolled over the desired piece. It wasn’t an easy procedure (or fun) by any means, but it was still quicker than hand painting and the result was similar enough.

Thermal Transfer Printing, which is the kind of technique mostly used today, didn’t come until much later. It was invented by a corporation called SATO during the late 1940’s in the US (Is it just me? Or does it kind of sound like an evil corporation from a comic book?).

What’s all the fuss about?

As with everything in life, Transfer Printing has its advantages and its disadvantages.

On the good side: It’s fairly simple (you don’t really need a master’s degree), the equipment is relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to DTG printers, and it can reproduce high quality, complex images. It is also one of the best techniques to use for full-colour prints.

 

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On the bad side: It is slower than other procedures (still faster than hand painting, though), it’s got limitations onto which types of fabrics it can be printed; those sensitive to high temperatures are a no-no, and there might be some restrictions on the reproduction of darker shades.

Transfer Printing: Properly Explained

Let’s take a look at the different stages of transfer printing:  

Image selection

You can choose virtually any image for transfer printing. It’s way of transferring allows for both complex (with many colours) and simple (with a few colours) images to be printed. Thanks to the fact that the design is printed onto paper first instead of the garment, it allows for more intricate details to show when compared to DTG that may have a more “blurry” finish. As with any other printing technique, it is advised that the original file be a high-quality one (300 dpi) to ensure the best possible result.

Heat transfer

Once the design has been selected, it is printed on a special heat transfer paper (I told you there was magic involved) which is then positioned on the garment. The (magical) paper is later squashed against the fabric using a heat press. It is left this way for the amount of time is necessary for the heat to do its job. After the required amount of time has passed, the press if lifted and the garment is left alone to cool down. If everything went well, then you should have a quality finish t-shirt.

 

heat transfer

 

How does transfer printing it work?

Most professional T-shirt printers nowadays use a more sophisticated version of the simple iron-on method, but the basics are still the same. What happens is that the heat transfer machine releases the right amount of pressure, holds the garment in place and has a consistent temperature which allows the colour pigments to be transferred from one surface to the other. Heat transfer literally melts the image onto the fabric.

Heat Transfer Paper

It’s advisable to use commercial heat transfer paper as this will give the image a much better quality finish, lasts longer and won’t fade, bleed or peel. Cheap paper is not suitable for professional looking print since it is likely to show a line around where it’s cut and have that awful shiny finish, making the garment look very ‘homemade’.

Benefits

  • Inexpensive
  • Good for small quantities
  • Can print complex images with many colours and intricate designs
  • Prints on any garment regardless of colour
  • Easy for amateurs
  • Clean (screen printing can be very messy)

Disadvantages

  • Not practical for large quantities
  • Not as flexible when it comes to printing on different kinds of materials
  • Each design must be cut one by one

Heat transfer printing for small businesses

Heat transfer machines are relatively cheap, easy to use, lightweight and don’t take up much space. This kind of printing can be done on demand, eliminating the need for holding stocks or large print runs. Just print when people place orders, as opposed to printing, keeping garments in stock and hoping you’ll receive hundreds of orders. This can be beneficial for start-ups offering small quantities of specially designed t-shirts as there are virtually no extra costs involved.

 

Transfer printing cheat sheet banner

 

What’s next for transfer printing?

We’re never quite sure about the technology of these techniques, but after seeing this video, everything might be possible. Some savvy people in Barcelona discovered a way to transfer prints using water.

 


Printsome is a clothing printing agency in the UK based in London that delivers all across the UK, from printing T-shirts in Brighton to York and anywhere in between. So, if you’re after a T-shirt or custom clothing, get in touch for a quote and indulge yourself in some awesome customer service.

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