Even today, when I am exhibiting at a tradeshow, I find it remarkable how many digital transfer paper users are shocked when they visit our booth and learn that certain laser-transfer papers can be applied to non-fabric and non-wearable substrates such as wood boomerangs, ceramic mugs, metal spatulas, aluminum candy tins, and crushed stone tiles. This, in fact, has been possible for over 15 years. We are continually trying to educate digital transfer users that laser toner can be applied to non-fabric substrates without a special coated surface being necessary.
So how is it possible to transfer onto non-fabric, non-wearable substrates? It’s achieved by using either a heat-pressable toner-release transfer paper or a water-release decal-paper process. Let’s take a look. . . .
Only laser toner can be applied to non-fabric substrates that are not specially coated with a sublimate-able surface. Many people are familiar with sublimation for transferring onto non-wearable and non-fabric substrates because of all the special coated products that are promoted by sublimation ink companies. The sublimation process requires a poly-type coated surface on the product in order for the dye to permeate into the coated surface of the product—T-shirts need to have a certain polyester content and ceramic and wood items require a coated poly-surface in order for the sublimation-transfer image to transfer to the product.
With laser toner, this is not necessary because the toner is capable of bonding to the surface of virtually any non-fabric substrate that fits in a heat press and—if the laser transfer paper is a “multi-surface transfer paper”—the same transfer paper can also transfer onto most non-wearable fabric products such as mouse-pads, tote-bags, coasters, teddy Ts, puzzles, can covers and custom embroidery patterns, to name a few.
There are two types of heat-pressable laser-toner release transfer papers: natural toner-release and multi-surface transfer papers (isopropyl alcohol is required for peeling non-fabrics). The items shown in figures one, two and three could be produced using either the toner-release or the multi-surface transfer papers.
Keep in mind that whatever color your substrate is, your image will pick up a shade of it because laser toners are transparent. If you are transferring onto yellow aluminum, for example, everything white and lighter than the yellow substrate will become a shade of yellow. Choose your substrates accordingly.
To make your laser-toner image more scratch-resistant, heat-resistant substrates such as glass, mirror, stone, ceramic and metal can be baked in a conventional oven for approximately 15 minutes at 325°F. This puts the toner through another chemical change and makes it harder and more scratch-resistant.
Natural toner-release transfer paper
This paper is designed to release the laser toner from the transfer-paper coating when the product is at room temperature. No chemical peel agents are necessary for this type of transfer paper. Depending on the product, a dense-rubber application pad may be required. This special pad protects the toner from burning and the product from melting if it is a plastic- or vinyl-like substrate.
Flat non-fabric non-wearable substrates can either be transferred onto with the image on top of the substrate or underneath the substrate. Whether to transfer upside-down (with the transfer underneath) depends on the thickness of the product, the type of heat press, and whether the substrate is breakable. For example, a mirror or flat-glass item can be pressed upside down to reduce the chance of breaking. Some heat presses either can’t close, don’t accommodate substrates thicker that one-half inch and/or are not able to have the pressure lowered enough to insert breakable items and the rubber pad, without breaking the item. In such cases, do not put the rubber pad on top of the breakable item. Alternately, I suggest laying plain paper on your lower platen, centering and taping the transfer onto the glass/mirror (using the heat-resistant mug tape), placing the item with the transfer image down, and the back of the mirror face-up; cover the mirror/glass with plain paper to protect your upper platen from the sharp glass edges. Depending on the thickness of your glass/mirror, the pressing time is approximately two minutes at 350°, and peel cold.
When transferring onto cardboard and other substrates that would be affected by alcohol, the natural toner-release transfer paper is recommended.
Multi-surface transfer paper
This paper is capable of releasing the laser toner from the transfer-paper coating onto a non-fabric substrate when isopropyl alcohol is sprayed between the non-fabric substrate surface and the paper coating—and is capable of releasing the laser toner and the coating from the transfer paper and transferring onto any fabric substrate. The non-fabric application is usually cold-peel and the fabric application is hot-peel.
As with the natural toner-release paper, the product can be transferred image-up with the rubber pad or image underneath with the product on top. It all depends on the product and the heat press.
I have found, when transferring onto porous non-fabric substrates such as the crushed stone tile in Figure One, that the multi-surface transfer paper transfers more easily than the natural toner-release paper because the multi-surface coating is more pliable and penetrates the toner deeper into the pores.
If you are transferring onto a given substrate and are not pleased with the image results with multi-surface transfer paper, try the natural toner-release paper because, between the two types, one of them should work well. The exception to this is with very heat-sensitive and low-melting-point materials such as thin plastic shopping bags.
Water-release decal-paper process
These papers are available for most laser and inkjet printing systems. Some of the decal papers are available in white opaque or clear options. Depending on your substrate and image, you may prefer the white opaque water decal over the clear, or vice versa.
Same as with the laser-toner release papers, if you are transferring onto colored substrates, the image will take on a shade of the substrate because the laser toner and the inkjet ink are transparent and the color of the substrate will be visible through the image.
You only see white in the image if you transfer onto white substrates. When transferring onto clear substrates, the opaque decal may be preferred so the image will not be clear and you can now see white in the eyes and teeth of the photo.
The basic process when using a water-release decal paper is that the coated surface has a water-soluble adhesive material in between the coating and the backing paper. When submerged in room-temperature water for about one minute, the adhesive material separates the backing paper from the coating. The image is on the coating. Place the backing paper next to your substrate, hold down the image side with your fingers and use your opposite hand to pull out the backing paper. This leaves the image decal on the substrate surface and now you need to dab the water, press out air bubbles and wrinkles, and let dry.
Some decal transfers can be baked in a conventional oven to make them more durable. Please consult with your specific paper instructions to see if baking is an acceptable option.
Ask your paper supplier
Keep in mind that you have many options ranging from which type of transfers to use and which substrates to transfer onto. If you have a heat press and a laser printer, you can either use multi-surface laser transfer paper and transfer onto fabric and non-fabric non-wearable products, or you can purchase specific laser-transfer papers, one for fabric and one for non-fabric, and transfer onto fabric and non-fabric non-wearable products. It is recommended to use isopropyl alcohol to assist in the peeling of the multi-surface transfer paper. The specific non-fabric transfer paper, a natural toner-release, peels naturally when the non-fabric substrate reaches room temperature, and no chemical aids are necessary. For both of these types of papers, you will want to have a dense rubber application pad to protect the toner image and the meltable product surface, if applicable.
If you do not have a heat press, you can either use a laser water-decal transfer or an inkjet water-decal transfer. These decals are for decoration and most applications are not dish-washer safe.