Flashy Finishes

Heat Printing with Foil

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.

Heat printing with foil is immensely popular. Look at any shirt in a retail store that contains a foil print and, odds are, it was heat printed. In most cases the adhesive or plastisol base has been screen printed to the garment, but the finishing step is foil applied with a heat press.

Actually there are many ways to foil a T-shirt with a heat press. Each has pros and cons. 

In addition to the screen printed foil receptive, there are also new no-trim transfer papers to create a foil print receptive. Another way is to cut an adhesive with a vinyl cutter, weed away the excess and use it as a foil receptive. Or, utilize a screen printed adhesive transfer as the base. 

With this many choices, it’s important to select the right foil method for the job, so an understanding of each process is critical. Here is a short and sweet breakdown of each.


The traditional screen printed foil method is best for high runs. It requires all of the setup procedures of screen printing including burning a screen (and later, reclaiming it) and so on, so these costs must be amortized over the number of units produced. This equates to lower costs as the volume goes up. This particular process is limited by platen size.

Best for low- to mid-size runs, laser transfer paper foil allows for personalization. This new method is limited by sheet size, however, fine detail is possible. Another great option that makes personalization possible is through the use of CAD-cut adhesive foil. The process does require weeding, but is a great option for simpler graphics. With no minimums, these result in a very soft product so long as the adhesive is cut thin.

Finally, the option of screen printing adhesive for transfer foil only requires a heat press. This is ideal for mid- to higher-quantities and can be committed to garments on demand to reduce decorated inventory. Once you determine which foil process works best for the scenario, the fun begins. Now, let’s explore various techniques that can be achieved with foil.

1. Bright foil finish

Perhaps the most popular way to use foil is in a single-color tone with a bright mirror-like finish. To achieve this finish, simply heat press a single color of foil, as is, over the top of your preferred foil receptive. For this bright finish, apply the foil in one step; do not press it a second time.

2. Luster foil finish

This effect appears almost embedded into the garment with a low-luster finish. To complete, add a second application step. Cover the foil design with Kraft Paper or a Teflon sheet and heat for an additional five to 10 seconds.

3. Distressed foil finish

Since foil only adheres to the print receptive areas with which it makes contact, it’s easy to distress a graphic. Crumple up the foil prior to positioning and then heat press. All of the wrinkled void areas will create a distressed pattern.

4. Multicolor foil effect

To create a two-tone foil effect, add another step onto the distressed finish method. Take a clean piece of foil in a complementing color and lay it on top of the distressed graphic. All of the areas where foil is not present, but foil receptive is, will become the second color. This technique can create visually interesting effects for a relatively small cost increase.

5. Foil on clear gel

Print receptives such as gels or adhesive can achieve some neat effects. Hover the heat press platen over the top of the print receptive to melt it or to make it tacky. Next, take a piece of foil, crumble it up and dab it on the design. Mix and match different colors for really unique finishes.

6. Pattern or inlay foil technique

To create cool patterns, use an off-print technique with foil receptive onto a scrap garment. When applying the initial color of foil to the off print, a patterned template is made. Lay the foil template on top of the intended design. Only the area where foil is left on the sheet will adhere during pressing. Next, take a second color of solid foil and place it on top. After pressed, only the empty areas on the design (those that aren’t covered with foil) will adhere, creating a perfectly registered pattern.

7. Four color process foil shimmer

The last technique with foil harnesses the concept of using a clear foil product on top of a four-color process print. Adding digital transfer papers that are compatible as a foil receptive product, advanced, photo-realistic graphics can easily be upgraded with a shimmer effect.

Shine on

With all of the decoration styles achievable with foil, high fashion, retail-ready designs are only a heat press away. Whether running 100,000 garments for a retail rack or one garment for a soccer mom, foil can be extremely profitable. Use these techniques to jump start your endeavors.