Image courtesy Stahls'

How to Grow Your Digital Transfer Business

Steven Jackson is the Product Manager of Digital Technologies at STAHLS'. As a veteran in the apparel industry, Steven has developed an in-depth knowledge of the heat-applied graphic process and trends. He also has previously developed a one-of-a-kind hands-on workshop for the Roland VersaCAMM and was the site administrator for MyVersaCAMM.com, a site that regularly hosts chat sessions on with topics covering the gamut of the apparel industry including digital decoration, heat-applied graphics, sign making and social networking. 

Digital transfers are a great alternative for shops that don’t offer screen printing or for those that offer smaller quantities with quick turnaround. You can get started for a relatively low investment and upgrade your equipment as you build your business. Here, I offer an overview of the four types of digital transfers.

INKJET TRANSFERS

Inkjet transfers are created using water-based inks, and the image is printed in reverse on clear media for white garments. To use inkjet transfers, you need a printer, transfer paper, inkjet inks, and a heat press. A cutter with an optical eye is optional.

Light-colored shirts are printed with a clear transfer paper. Because inkjet inks are translucent, printing on a colored shirt results in some color shift. For example, if you print green ink on a yellow shirt, it will look blueish.

Dark shirts use an opaque transfer paper, and the design is printed on a white underbase. Unless the paper is self-weeding, you must cut out these transfers to prevent a white edge around the design’s perimeter.

Inkjet transfers adhere to cotton, polyester, and blends. Examples include apparel, tote bags, and backpacks. These transfers don’t adhere to hard goods, such as mugs and plaques.

Entering this market takes a low capital investment, depending on the equipment you need to buy. An inkjet printer costs as little as $150 and a heat press is priced as low as $400. It’s possible to start cranking out transfers for less than $1,000. However, starting low can impact quality, versatility, and labor. If you want to print on dark garments or produce intricate lettering or graphics, you may want to purchase a cutter, which generally starts around $400, but an optical eye cutter costs $800 or more.

Keep in mind that the hand of inkjet transfers tends to be heavier with a papery feel. Durability is also a problem. Inkjet transfers may show wear after only 15 washes, depending on how they’re washed. For the most part, inkjet transfers are best suited for low-volume orders and applications where the garment will not be subjected to frequent laundering or abrasive use.

LASER TRANSFERS

Similar to inkjet transfers, laser transfers use a laser printer, off-the-shelf toner, and specialty laser transfer paper. The image is printed in reverse and applied to fabric with a heat press.

For proper fusion, you need a laser printer specifically designed for printing transfers, and the drum roll and toner should be compatible, as well. You also need a heat press. Again, a cutter isn’t necessary, but if used, it should have optical eye registration.

These transfers can be applied to a variety of fabrics, including cotton and cotton/polyester. However, they’re not suitable for hard goods or substrates. Like inkjet papers, laser transfer papers are available for light or dark garments in a range of quality levels. Light-colored garments require clear paper, and dark-colored garments need opaque paper.

Self-weeding papers are available, as well. This paper pulls away only the design from the carrier sheet, so there’s no white box around the design. With the right setup, self-weeding papers are easier to work with because you can print the transfer, flip it over, and press it onto the shirt. After pulling up the carrier sheet, only the design is left.

These printers often start at $1,000 and require an investment in initial setup and testing. Typically, startup costs are $800 and up. Laser printing produces a smoother, better-looking transfer print with a softer hand than inkjet transfers; however, laser transfers still have a papery feel and lack the softness and washability of other transfers.

Laser transfers are a good option if you already have the right printer or the budget to buy a new laser printer, which can also be used for regular paper. Durability is slightly better than inkjet transfers, but this type of transfer generally falls into the same application categories.

DYE SUBLIMATION

With dye sublimation, a mirror image is printed onto paper with a dry sublimation ink, and the heat transforms the ink from a solid to gas, which is trapped in the polyester, becoming permanently embedded into the polyester receiver. You need a dye sublimation printer, sublimation inks, specialty paper, and heat press. No cutter is necessary.

Sublimation transfers are compatible with substrates that have polyester content or coating. On garments, the inks are captured only in the polyester fibers, so the vibrancy direct correlates to the polyester content. Because sublimation inks are translucent, sublimation transfers work on white or light colors. Sublimation also works on hard goods.

You can get started with a printer and ink for about $400. With another $400 for the heat press and a negligible amount for paper, sublimation starts for less than $1,000.

With sublimation, there is virtually no hand, and it offers a range of vibrant colors. Sublimation is easy to work with and offers washability as well as color for the life of the garment.

Because sublimation colors are based on the whiteness of the substrate, there can be consistency issues when printing on items of different shades of white. Some sublimation printers and inks require daily maintenance to prevent dry out and clogging.

Dye sublimation is a level up from inkjet and laser transfers in terms of quality, and it offers the potential for expansion into new products and markets. It also works on performance fabrics.There are hundreds of polyester-coated products available on the market, many of which can give a shop an easy entry into promotional products.

PRINTER/CUTTER

In this process, a solvent or eco-solvent inkjet printer prints onto a media that is then cut and weeded. After weeding, a mask is used to lift the transfer off its carrier to apply it to the garment. This is one of today’s most widely used digital processes. You need a printer/cutter, graphics software, a heat press, printing media, and solvent or eco-solvent ink.

These transfers can be created for nearly any type of garment or fabric by using different media. Transfers can be made for cotton, polyester, polyester/cotton blends, nylon, Lycra, performance wear, dye-sublimated apparel, neoprene, leather, and more. There are roughly a 1,000 different types of media available. For fabrics alone, there are more than 20.

Printers start at a 20" width and go up from there. The most popular sizes for apparel are 30" and 54". You can purchase an all-in-one printer/cutter or a standalone inkjet printer and cutter with an optical eye.

Prices start around $8,000 for the 20" printer, and graphics software ranges from $500 to $600. The cost of eco-solvent inks depends on the size of the printer, but a 220-mL cartridge is around $70. The media cost depends on the type of substrate. It’s possible to get started for less than $10,000, but you could easily invest $30,000. Buyer’s regret comes most often from not buying a larger-width printer.

Printer/cutter transfers are a jump up from other digital processes in terms of versatility. With respect to garments, durability and colorfastness of the media are based on standards for the garment. A typical rating is 50-plus washes for most shirts.

Breathability and hand can be issues because it’s vinyl. Thin films provide a softer hand; however, the hand may still be too heavy for an all-over print. The process is also more involved and time consuming. You have to set up the graphic for printing and cutting, and then send it through RIP software. However, once it’s set up, this process is the most amenable to higher-volume capacities than the others.

This process is typically better suited to an intermediate to advanced decorating operation. It takes some research for a shop at any level to realize a significant return on investment, but the potential is there. A printer/cutter can be used for orders ranging from one to 2,000 or more pieces.

In today’s economy, diversification is a basic survival principle. For many shops, digital transfers offer a great way to capture more sales from existing customers and to expand into new markets. Consider these options when choosing which type is the best fit for your business.