Creating custom footwear with heat-applied graphics

Custom Kicks

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

With a vinyl cutter and a heat press, customizing apparel can be easy. But what about customizing shoes? The business that learns how to customize footwear and makes it an offering opens up an uncontested market space in their area for huge profit potential. And, while the task of putting a design on a shoe may seem a bit daunting at first, it’s nothing to be afraid of when the right tools and accessories are present.

The cobbler’s bench

One of the first items required for heat printed customization is a heat press. Accurate delivery of heat, pressure and time is a must, especially when working with shoes as a substrate. The heat and time typically do not pose a problem, but, for footwear, the pressure element is not exactly clear cut.

Using a press with some height off the table surface will allow shoes to be loaded efficiently. Also, a shoe platen that helps to mount various sizes of sneakers, cleats, etc. to the press is required. Even with this proper attachment, though, there still will be areas that will be difficult to decorate. 

In such cases, a tool called a tacking iron is extremely beneficial. The tacking iron looks like a miniature hand iron with a handle and allows application in small spaces between seams and other obstructions. While there are tacking irons at all price points, one with an adjustable temperature range is paramount in order to accommodate the variety of transfer and adhesive types.

Even with the use of special tools, it is of critical importance to evaluate the specific placement of a graphic on a shoe prior to approving that it can be done. Try to stay away from printing designs extremely close to the sole of the shoe, for example.

Another area of concern when decorating shoes is the possibility of the shoe material melting, as it often consists of leather, soft plastic or another synthetic product. Here, a special flexible silicone application pad will help to limit risk. Simply place the flex pad over the entire area of the shoe that will come in contact with the heat. If accommodating a pair of shoes per application, invest in a couple of them. 

Now, with a basic understanding of the tools and accessories required, let’s look at transfer types. Most types of heat applied film product will adhere to shoes, meaning a vinyl cutter workflow can be leveraged for customization.

Transfer types

Generally, the transfer media itself is very low-cost for these applications as designs are typically small and don’t require a lot of material. Upon sourcing a film, ensure its ability to achieve designs with fine details. Also, a stronger adhesive will yield longer-lasting results and, the thinner the material, the better. Any raised edge will facilitate the possibility of abrasion, especially if designed for cleats and game use. Most heat-applied films offer the possibility of a pressure-sensitive sticky carrier, which will aide in the secure placement of designs without risk. 

The issue of placement requires special consideration for this specialty substrate. Specific tools can be used to heat print just about anywhere on virtually all types of footwear.

Since heat-applied films are more or less limited to one-color designs for shoe application, it is a good idea to find a source for solvent printed digital transfers to do multi-color designs. This allows the incorporation of logos, multi-color text elements and even photos or other unique ideas. 

Just as with single-color heat transfer films, printable films with strong adhesives are available that are recommended for nylon or leather application. These adhesives will also work on almost all shoe materials.

Regardless of whether the selection is a single-color heat transfer film or a multi-color digitally printed transfer, the cost is relatively the same. A 2" X 2" customization will cost approximately $0.10 to $0.15 to create. The going rate for aftermarket customization is $10, while some shoe manufacturers will throw in customization as a value-add just to move high-margin footwear out the door.

Finally, consider merchandising varying styles of customization. With the range of footwear on the market and various color trends, there is opportunity for metallic based materials, neon colors, glitters and more. Just as with T-shirts, as you venture beyond the basics, a higher selling price and perceived value can be commanded.

Heat printing is extremely versatile. There are certain styles of shoes that a business can hoop and embroider and also certain types that can be printed with a direct-to-substrate printer. However, heat printing allows decorators to accommodate virtually any shoe with confidence. Begin bringing business through your door that can eventually translate into more decorated products by adding this capability.