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Direct Printing on Rigid Substrates

Paul Green has been in product development for direct-to-garment printers for almost two decades. After hours, he is a fine artist. His artwork can be seen in group art shows around Southern California.

As direct-to-substrate printer technology grows, so do its possibilities. Since it’s no secret that the more services one can offer with existing capabilities, the greater the potential customer base, consider what creating prints on wood, metal, glass and many other surfaces with a direct printer could do for business. 

The critical step in printing on different substrates is making the surface inkjet-receptive with an inkjet-receptive (IR) coating, while a protective clear coat will protect the final product and add a high luster finish. Another very important factor is using a direct printer that allows the user to adjust ink flow volume. The application itself is quite easy and the results are amazing. Let’s take a look at how to expand the media capabilities of your trusty garment printer. The tools that will be necessary include:

• Inkjet-receptive coating in clear and matte white (there are several brands in the marketplace)
• Foam brushes of assorted sizes
• Solvent-based or acrylic clear coat spray with UV protection
• Masking tape
• A flat-surfaced wood, glass or metal substrate on which to print

Step 1: Coating the surface

For the purpose of this example, we will print onto the lid of a wooden box handbag. Keep in mind this process is the same for all printing on glass, wood, metal, etc.

The first step in this process is to coat the surface that will be printed. Pour some of the coating into a small, clean bowl or container wide enough for the foam brush you’re using.

For this example, we will be using the matte white inkjet-receptive coating. Use clear IR coating if printing on glass or metal and don’t want to have a white background.

We will remove the lid from the box to allow better clearance for the print head. (If printing on something thick, such as the box lid in this example, be sure to mask its sides with tape to keep the IR coating or ink off the sides.)

Once the coating has dried, it is a good idea to apply a second coat to make sure it is fully covered. Brush in one direction and try to get the coating as smooth as possible.

Step 2: Graphic set up

Now we’ll print the graphic onto the coated lid of the wooden box. For this example, the graphic is a full bleed print. In this case, the graphic should run just a little larger to overrun the edge and ensure full coverage.

Before adjusting the table height of the printer, tape a sheet of paper onto the print table. Print the graphic onto the paper using a lightweight ink drop size. This printed paper will serve as a template to help place the print precisely onto the target surface.

Step 3: Print

To make sure the target surface stays in position, add a few small pieces of tape to the edges. Of course, this may not be necessary if the printable item is heavy enough—for example, when printing on glass. 

At this point, be sure there is a safe print-head clearance—the last thing you need is a head strike against wood, glass or metal. 

And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for… press print!

Step 4: Clear coating

The final process in this application is to clear coat and protect your print. It is important to do this in a well-ventilated area. The best coating to use is a solvent spray that adds UV protection, but an acrylic clear coat spray that can be found at most art supply or hardware stores is also acceptable. Keep in mind that a solvent-based clear coat will be the best for making the print waterproof, as the ink, inkjet-receptive coating and acrylic clear coat are all water-based.

Apply the clear coat evenly over the print; always start with a light coating.

Let the first coat dry for about 15 minutes, then apply a second coat.

Do not rush this process; thin, even coats will provide the best results.

Once the clear coat is dry, reattach the lid and the print job is complete.

Think beyond the boundaries of soft substrates in terms of direct printing. Once you realize direct-to-garment printers are more accurately direct-to-substrate printers, the real potential for profit will also become clear.