Digital Transfer Paper Basics

We’re agreed that, when it comes to putting a colorful design on a T-shirt, there’s nothing that beats screen printing. Right? Once that’s said, though, there are all kinds of other things that need to be said: Screens, for one. A press, for another. Hours, days or weeks to get those things organized on the production floor and then, of course, a job of sufficient volume to justify all this front-end investment in time, equipment, labor, art, materials and training.

So let’s try it again. Nothing beats screen printing, right? It depends. . . .

Right paper, right printer

In their search for the most cost-effective and market-satisfying means of decorating a T-shirt—within the scope of available resources—embellishers and non-embellishers alike have turned to the ease and economy of digital heat transfers. While art, a computer and output device, and a decent heat press are certainly important, at the very heart of the heat transfer is heat-transfer paper.

It is this paper that enables the digital embellisher to decorate T-shirts—along with mousepads, coffee mugs, signage and a nearly unlimited range of other substrates—using standard office printers and copiers loaded with standard office inks and toners.

Simple . . . to a point. The key is using the right digital-transfer paper in the right printer or copier. For starters, according to our sources, a significant difference between laser and inkjet output is the fact that, while serviceable inkjet printers may be purchased cheaply, their output is significantly slower than the more expensive laser. In this end of the market, though—one significantly populated by start-ups, established embellishers seeking to capture additional niches, and those in search of a quick-turn solution for low-volume jobs—slow output is more than made up for by lower initial investment. Thus, despite the fact that inkjet ink is also more expensive per-print than laser toner, inkjet technology—and the paper designed for its output—is more prevalent in our industry than its laser counterpart.

According to Drew Fields of Next Wave Media Solutions, inkjet digital-transfer paper incorporates a coating that, when transferred, is designed to keep the media on the substrate: “There’s a film on the paper. The ink lays down on the film, the transfer goes on the shirt, and the ink is sandwiched between the film and the fabric.” It is this coating that enables the ink, once on the garment, to withstand the physical rigors of normal wear, along with a reasonable number of washes. The extent to which it succeeds in this task is a function of the paper’s quality. Fields indicates that, within inkjet transfer papers, there is a range of very low quality up to very good quality. For the sake of comparison, his company offers a trial pack of its non-film inkjet paper, along with an embellished shirt, in order for users to see what a transferred image should look like.

“Almost all papers will perform well digitally, at least to a B-plus level,” says Gerry Rector of Neenah Papers, Technical Products. “But then you have to talk about a lot more of the little details.”

According to our sources, these little details include such things as the availability of training, service and support from the given paper supplier. “Each paper company has different things that differentiate them from their competition,” says Theresa Brish of Powerful Papers. “If somebody’s using another supplier’s paper, they may like our support better, or our technical knowledge. We sell certain papers that our competitors also sell. It’s not a secret. But we each have a different focus, and that’s where the customer needs to decide who’s going to give them the best support, because we all pretty much keep the same prices.”


In fact, the inaccurate conveyance of information—specifically, what paper to use for what type of work, output from what type of printer or copier—is perhaps the leading cause of difficulty with digital transfers, particularly among newcomers. Ironically, it happens that much of the confusion comes from outside our industry, from copier reps who don’t take into consideration the uses to which their products may be put, and which papers are likely to be applied to those uses.

“In many cases,” Brisch explains, “the most frustrating part is before they even get started. They’ll buy an expensive copier and the copier rep assumes that any paper will run through it. But there are certain models out there that you cannot run anything but plain paper through. We get many of them, after they’ve been damaged. We try to turn them around, help them with a low-cost way to get the right printer and, hopefully, make them happy.”

Next, says Fields, is the time-honored tendency to not read and follow directions—encouraged, perhaps, by the otherwise gentle learning curve inherent with digital transfers. “Aside from their image quality not being good because they’re not controlling their image as well as they should in the computer, they’re just not following the instructions. Part of that is, how forgiving is the paper? Certain papers have a range that they’ll work well in; some papers have a more narrow area of operation, less forgiving. Is the heat off? Or the pressure off? The whole transfer process is paper, heat, ink and pressure. Are they following the recommended settings?” Fields also cautions against skimping when it comes to a quality heat press. “If they get into cheaper and cheaper heat presses, where they can’t necessarily control the pressure, that’s probably where more black eyes are going to happen. If there’s no gauge, they’re just screwing down a handle. If you use a quality paper and you know the ink’s right, but the results still aren’t there, there’s just something off in the way you’re transferring it.”

Rector adds that even such things as paper orientation and basic printer/copier maintenance are often at the root of problems. “They want to know, ‘Which side of the paper do I print on?’ The back side you don’t print on is usually marked with stripes or some other method. Those stripes mean that’s the side you iron on, not the side you print on. Still, people will occasionally call and ask, ‘How do I get the stripe out of the picture I just did?’ Or, ‘Suddenly all of my reds look pink. Why is that?’ Did they check the red ink in their printer?”

Trust reputation

The bottom line appears to be that quality ingredients in the digital-heat-transfer recipe are readily available. The user, though, must be sufficiently diligent to not necessarily settle for the first answer, but get a second and third opinion when shopping for an output device. And, finally, when it comes down to which transfer paper to use, says Rector: “Trust reputation. When you can’t afford to be wrong, because your image is depending on it, you go ahead and make the decision to buy a better paper. Yes, you can probably find something that will work, some of the time, most of the time. But if you put the transfer on something that you’ve spent a lot of time making, or has your identity on it, you don’t want to use just anything. You want something that you know will work, and you know it will work every time.”