Cap-Printing Options

James Ortolani is a veteran of the printed-apparel industry with more than 20 years of experience. He has traveled to 22 countries setting up screen-printing operations and presenting screen-print related seminars.

Attachments that adapt to your present T-shirt printing press are an option but, if you’re going to get into cap printing in a big way, a dedicated, stand-alone unit is probably a better way to go.

If headwear printing will be an adjunct to your mainstream T-shirt efforts, you should consider one of the cap-printing options available from many of the industry’s primary manufacturers, as well as after-market products such as this accessory. (Photos courtesy Livingston Systems.)

If you opt for the heat-transfer headwear-embellishment route—non-digital transfers, that is, which you intend to print yourself—a helpful piece of equipment will be a vacuum platen such as this one, photographed by the author. If you are a T-shirt printer who wants to add a new and exciting service to your company’s bag of tricks, cap printing is the perfect product to consider. Chances are your customers are already buying imprinted caps elsewhere and this should be your business. And why not? If you have in-house artwork capabilities, screen-printing supplies, and basic screen-printing equipment, you’re already 75 percent of the way there! Many things have changed in our industry during the past decade, but the demand for printed headwear is still as strong as ever. Among those changes, though, is that the variety of headwear styles and methods of embellishment has grown. Following is a snapshot of how to cash in on the opportunities in our growing headwear industry, along with some easy screen-print and heat-transfer options for you to consider for your business.

Direct screen printing on caps

There are two basic methods for direct printing of caps, one with the imprintable area flat, the other with it curved. While both methods are widely used, it will be your choice as to which works best for your shop. If, for example, a flat (or curved, as the case may be) cap-printing attachment is available from the manufacture of your T-shirt press, this could be an inexpensive option for you. However, if you are wanting to add cap printing as a main product offering you may decide to invest in a stand-alone cap printer to keep your T-shirt press free for flat work. Stand-alone cap printers require less floor space and are not as cumbersome as printing your caps on the larger T-shirt printing press. In fact, many stand-alone units are available for table-top use and can easily fit in tight quarters.

Flat versus curved

Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages; it really comes down to matter of personal preference. Here are some observations to consider when investigating which method is best for your operation. Printing the cap flat feels comfortable to many because the squeegee technique associated with printing on a flat surface is one with which T-shirt printers are already familiar; whereas printing over a curved surface takes a little bit of practice. A downside of printing a cap flat is that loading the cap on the press can be a bit tricky since you are forcing the cap out of its natural shape. This causes some issues to overcome in the area of avoiding image distortion after the cap is printed, then removed from the press. As an example, when a circular design is printed on the front of a cap using the flat method, the printed circle can turn into an oval shape when the cap is removed from the platen. Many graphic artists have learned how to engineer circular artwork to compensate for this distortion. In other words, if your artist knows a design is going to distort when printed flat over the curved contour, he or she can allow for this in the artwork. Practice makes perfect!

More about art

Keep your artwork simple when designing for cap decoration; as the print area is typically 3½" X 5", try not to include too much information on this small canvas. The text in the design should be readable from 10 feet away and, by keeping the artwork simple and clean, you will not only please your customer, but also make screen-mesh selection a whole lot easier with less detail.

Anytime the artwork can be exposed on a coarser mesh count for cap printing (60 or 86 mesh) you’ve just made printing the job a whole lot easier. Printing a cap with a coarse mesh count allows its front to be printed in one easy squeegee pass instead of multiple strokes; this is especially important when printing a cap over-the-curve when squeegee angle can be an issue.

When I first entered the decorated-apparel market in the 1980s, the big billboard foam-front caps were the main style screen printers were printing; much to my surprise these “trucker hats” are making a rebound in the marketplace today. But younger cap wearers still demand the more stylish lower-profile five- and six-panel cotton-front caps. Life was easier in the early foam-front days, but now we have to contend with the dreaded center seam. But don’t be afraid of printing over the seam on these six-panel caps. In fact, many screen printers are pleasantly surprised to find that printing over the seam on a six-panel cap is no problem at all. The fear of seam printing is more of a perception issue than real fact, as most of today’s cap-printing machines utilize a spring-loaded hold-down that pulls the cap secure to the platen during the print process. This spring hold-down device opens up the seam a bit, allowing for ink to penetrate into the seam; when the cap is removed from the lower platen, the seam closes up allowing the print to bridge over it.

A wide variety of interchangeable cap platens are available for today’s cap-printing equipment. And some equipment manufactures even offer a special grooved cap platen that allows the seam to drop into the groove providing a smooth print surface to the cap front.

Headwear styles

As the name implies, five- and six-panel caps are constructed with either five or six panels to make up the crown of the cap. A five panel cap has a solid billboard on the front of the cap providing an open space ideal for screen-printing, while the six-panel cap has the seam running directly down the front of the cap that sometimes requires the special lower platens described above to print successfully. Other specialty caps include visors, bucket hats, hunting hats, relaxed fit and more. A relatively new style to be on the lookout for are polyester pro-mesh caps constructed with an open mesh material similar to the fabric of which team jerseys are constructed. Many pro ball teams wear this type cap during practices, and the public has picked up on the trend making it a big seller for many who specialize in this unique substrate.

Heat transfers for caps

Imprinting caps with heat transfers provides a sharp, crisp image each time without the concerns associated with printing over a curved surface, determining squeegee angle, or other variables associated with screen printing on caps. Using heat transfers is definitely one of the easiest ways to decorate caps, with either transfers purchased from a transfer house, or those you make yourself.

If you are not satisfied with digital transfers (discussed elsewhere in this issue), certain specialized equipment is required in order to print and apply your own plastisol heat transfers: a vacuum-platen attachment for your manual screen-printing press and a cap-specific heat-transfer press.

Heat transfers are not only easy to apply to caps, but also add flexibility to your system when customers reorder the dreaded two or three extra caps a week later. Most screen printers invest in the modest insurance of printing a few extra heat transfers for a given order; this often pays off later when re-orders are placed. Reorders of two or three extra caps are a breeze with heat transfers . . . but extremely impractical with direct-screen-printed caps.

Unlike when transferring onto flat goods, it is important to have the correct-size lower platen on your heat-transfer press for caps. As caps evolve through the years, they are getting smaller in crown size. For example, the old-school foam-fronts have crowns of 3½" to 4" in height, compared to the lower 2¾" to 3' crown height of the popular six- and five-panel twill caps popular today. Most commercial heat presses for caps have interchangeable lower platens to accommodate variations in crown height from one style to the next. It is recommend to have two or three different-size lower platens from which to choose, to accommodate varying cap-crown heights.

An American tradition

If you simply look around, you’ll see that people everywhere are wearing embellished headwear. It’s far more than a fad; it’s become an American tradition . . . just like the printed T-shirt. And as long as team sports continue to include caps as part of their uniforms, and as the business world continues to need promotional headwear, our cap-printing market will continue to grow in leaps and bounds for decades to come. Pick one of the above cap-printing methods—or the headwear embroidery you’ll find detailed on page 36—and join in the profits!


Digital, direct-to-garment printing—whether it’s on flats or hats—has become a reality. (Photo courtesy US Screen & Inkjet Technology.)

Digital printing

By now, everybody knows that digital, direct-to-garment printing has become a reality. Some said it would be another decade before headwear was printed via this still-emerging technology, but turns out it’s available now from at least one source and, no doubt, more to quickly follow (if the initial emergence suggests an anticipated pattern).

Caps can now be embellished with a direct-to-garment inkjet printer if the machine is equipped with the proper hold-down device. With such an arrangement, the cap is loaded flat onto a small cap-hold-down unit that works similar to the way a jacket hold-down secures a jacket from four sides. This device also forces the bill of the cap flat and out of the way of the inkjet heads during the printing process.

Simply load the cap, print the image direct to the cap front and remove. The cap is then cured on a heat transfer machine or with an industrial heat gun. No more film positives, coating and exposing screens, registering the press or messy clean up. Keep watching for more innovative inkjet printing applications as the new year continues to unfold, for digital-direct inkjet printing on textiles and caps is evolving at a pace quicker than any of us imagined.!