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How To Get Started with Digital Transfers

An easy way to earn more profit is sitting right on your desk. Almost everyone who owns a computer has an inkjet printer—or, thanks to the lower costs of color laser technology, a color laser printer or copier (CLP/CLC). It’s a fact that you can use either of these printers to quickly and easily decorate a wide variety of items including T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, mouse pads, puzzles, note pads, magnetic signs, craft items, temporary tattoos, bumper stickers, cling-on vinyl decals, window signs and more.

All these items make great add-on sales to clients already coming to you for screen-printed or embroidered apparel. Here’s a basic run-down of what you need to know and the supplies you need to get started.

Types of transfers

You can make digital transfers using inkjet printers as well as CLCs/CLPs. The latter are the same in many ways, although laser printers are a bit more finicky about the types of paper they use (more on that later).

Inkjet printers use water-soluble, pigment-based ink, while CLC/Ps use toner. Although CLC/P equipment is considerably more expensive than an inkjet printer, laser transfer paper is about half the cost of inkjet transfer paper.

Transfer advantages

Whether you’re using an inkjet or laser printer, one of the key advantages of digital transfers is that, for a relatively small investment in equipment and supplies, you get the ability to offer customized, full-color, photographic-quality images in short runs.

You can apply these images on a whole range of substrates made from cotton, polyester and even nylon, and the hand is incredibly soft, especially with a laser transfer. While the hand is slightly stiffer than that of screen printing, it does soften more with washing. As far as durability, digital transfers don’t provide quite the life that screen printing does, but it should still be plenty to satisfy customers, with laser transfers offering somewhat better durability than inkjet.

Equipment essentials

For as little as $1,000 to $2,000, you can purchase everything you need to get started, including a heat press and transfer paper. Inkjet printers start at around $100 and can cost $1,600 for a 24-inch desktop Epson, while color laser printers start at around $300 and go to $3,000 and up. Some decorators bypass the equipment purchase altogether by having retailers such as Office Depot output their color-laser transfers.

Some CLC/Ps and inkjet printers are better suited than others for making digital transfers, so check with an industry supplier rather than simply purchasing one off the shelf from a local office-supply store. Epson inkjet printers are the most popular in the decorated-apparel industry, and Hewlett Packard equipment sells well too. Also, desktop inkjet printers are more popular than large-format printers, although choosing the right size for your shop is dictated by your target market. In general, however, the typical decorated-apparel shop will use a desktop-size printer. Large-format is primarily used for signs and banners.

One nice bonus is that whichever type of equipment you purchase, you don’t have to load it with a transfer-specific toner or inkjet ink, which means you can use the device for all its traditional tasks such as paper printing and copying.

In general, inkjet printers provide better color and sharper images, while CLC/P provides better durability and lower-priced paper. Printing speed depends on the particular unit but, in general, laser is faster than inkjet technology.

Types of paper

Inkjet paper usually runs about $21 to $44 for 25 sheets, compared to about $15 for 25 laser-transfer sheets. Suppliers offer a huge range of digital-transfer-paper types, depending on the application. For instance, you can find different types of paper for light-colored soft goods, some with a softer hand and others geared toward image vibrancy. You can also purchase transfer paper made specifically for decorating dark garments and stretchy fabrics such as Lycra Spandex.

No matter the application, though, you’ll need to purchase paper specific to your machinery; in other words, you can’t use inkjet transfer paper in a CLC/P, and likewise, you can’t use CLC/P paper in an inkjet printer. In fact, there’s actually different paper available for color laser copiers versus color laser printers.

It’s important to choose the right type of paper for the job. For instance, if you put the wrong paper in your CLC/P, it could get jammed in the equipment. Even if the ill-chosen paper does make it through the equipment, the results won’t look acceptable. If you tried, for example, to use a paper intended for lights on a dark substrate, the image would look muted. Further, if you put inkjet printer in a CLC/P, the image will wash off quickly.

The bottom line is that choosing the right paper depends first on your output device, then on the type of substrate you’re decorating and, finally, whether the substrate is light or dark.

Some suppliers offer transfer paper as large as 11 X 17 inches. Larger inkjet printers that are not desktop use roll paper, which works great for ganged orders. Even if you’re using single sheets of digital transfer paper rather than rolls, you can still gang multiple designs. You can either trim around the designs by hand or look for a printer that comes with an optic eye cutter, allowing it to cut around the design automatically.

No matter the size of the design, you’ll want to trim around the image to remove excess material. Otherwise, you’ll be able to feel and see the excess on the T-shirt or other substrate.

Time talk

Most transfers take about 30 to 45 seconds to print, and around 15 to 30 seconds to heat seal to the substrate. In all, figure about two minutes of production time per unit, which includes time for loading the item on the press, printing the transfer, applying it, and peeling it off. (Most digital transfers are hot-peel, although some can be peeled hot or cold.) For larger orders, you can speed up production time by printing out one- or two-dozen transfers at a time. Then, while you’re applying those images, you can be printing the next round of transfers.

Transfer troubleshooting

One problem that arises frequently with digital transfers is that a design may bleed after the first wash, especially with inkjet output. One solution is to leave about a quarter of an inch of border around the film rather than trimming right up to the design. This helps seal in the ink fully, thus reducing bleeding. Also, some decorators crank up image resolution (dots-per-inch) excessively high, which saturates the transfer with ink, whether you’re using laser or inkjet. Avoid saturation by maxing out resolution at 720-dpi.

Further, customers should wait at least 24 hours—ideally 48—after you’ve decorated the item before washing it. Finally, tell your customers never to use bleach on the item, to avoid dry-cleaning it, and not to let the shirt sit in the washer or dryer.

By following these simple guidelines, your customers will have vibrant, customized, full-color images that last a long time—which means you’ll have happy customers who keep coming back for more.