How to Use Heat-Transfer Papers for Profit

Gerry Rector is the associate marketing director for Alpharetta, Ga.-based Neenah Paper Inc., manufacturer and distributor of a wide range of premium and specialty papers. Additional information may be found at

In today’s tough economic environment, both screen printers and desktop transfer printers are looking for ways to improve their competitive edge. For many, that means fine-tuning the craft and deepening their skills to increase the value and selling opportunity for the products they create. Spending time learning and experimenting with new products and determining how they can best be used to highlight art will result in increased sales.

The market demand for personalized, one-off and small quantities of T-shirts is the right niche for heat transfer. In recent years, new heat-transfer papers targeted for desktop printing have been created that allow more flexibility in art selection and finished product appearance. Using these to improve the appearance and hand of the art will increase sales and profit. But, just like any other art, this takes experience since there is no single product that optimizes all art.

 One-step graphics

When the color and texture of the garment and the selected art allow, the easiest products to use are those that require just one step. In this case, art is printed in mirror image, placed face-down on a garment and pressed. The time, pressure and temperature are dependent on the transfer chemistry and the garment. The chemistry also determines whether the backer sheet is peeled hot or cold. These papers can be cut and trimmed.

Some transfer papers leave only a little hand and polymer, which usually improve with the first wash. Papers with a hot-peel chemistry lift the fiber and may feel slightly rough. A second pressing step with an ironing sheet smoothes the surface. 

Papers that are peeled cold feel smoother but may be slightly heavier in hand. When a “print and press” transfer meets the aesthetic requirements, it is the best choice, since color control is easiest, it requires the least amount of labor and the lowest material costs. These products are often used on promotional products such as bags, tags, puzzles and other products where the polymer in the unprinted area actually adds protection.

To weed or not to weed

Opaque heat-transfer papers contain an opaque layer and either an inkjet or laser print coat. They can be output on a desktop printer with easily managed color control. The images are printed right-reading and registration marks are used to cut the art to the desired shape. The unprinted areas are then weeded from the paper, and the art is moved to the garment and heat pressed face-up. Art that includes letters or numbers can be moved and aligned with transfer tape. 

Opaque heat-transfer papers allow for the widest range of color gradients from very light pastels to intense and over-saturated colors. They can be used for lettering and numbering as well as art and photo reproduction.

Self-weeding papers have recently been introduced for the T-shirt transfer market for both light and dark fabrics. They have improved hand and allow for very intricate details. They do not require a plot cut process, but they aren’t as easy as the transfers that are print and press. One of these products uses laser toner from a copier or laser printer, which is the basis for the self-weeding. In this scenario, the art is printed on the imaging sheet. A second sheet is married to the imaging sheet in a short heat-press application. The imaging sheet, which now has a polymer layer on it, is applied to the garment and then the paper is removed. The art is fully weeded and the transfer is softer in hand. There is no polymer window in the unprinted area. 

Self-weeding papers offer the opportunity for color gradation, but there must be enough color for the toner to provide the weeding feature. A little experience, experimenting and color adjustment are required. Now that self-weeding heat-transfer papers for dark and bright colored fabrics are available, it is possible to take advantage of the higher demand and more profitable dark garment decorating. 

Another self-weeding product is designed to apply white or near white lettering to a dark garment. In some cases, this can replace vinyl lettering and is an excellent choice for one-off and personalized garments. The process can use a monochrome laser printer. Words are printed on the imaging sheet in a dark solid color. The imaging sheet is married to the transfer sheet with a short heat-press application. The image now has a white layer and is applied to the bright or dark garment with a heat press.

Self-weeding products also provide an opportunity to sell art into the craft market as a ready to use transfer. The first step of applying the transfer layer to the image sheet is completed by the artist. The art can then be applied by the crafter. Words, art and images can be applied almost like a transfer decal.

 Size Matters

Larger sized T-shirts and larger printed areas are generally sold at premium prices. Using desktop printing to increase the size of the art is usually as easy as click and drag. The limitation becomes the size of the heat-transfer paper—11" X 17" or 12" X 18" heat-transfer papers and rolls of papers accommodate larger art. Printing larger sizes with inkjet usually requires only printers that accommodate the size. Many laser printers exist that will accommodate the larger paper sizes for printing copier paper but may not have the temperature control to adequately fuse heat-transfer papers. As bigger art is desired, the printer or copier selection is more demanding. There are manufacturers who offer software and hardware that can print cover-weight and heat-transfer papers. Distributors of heat-transfer paper and printers are better equipped than the office supply stores to recommend a printer or copier that will work.

Heat-transfer technology can also be used on synthetic fiber. These breathable and stretchable products can be used on garments such as athletic and performance wear. Beyond these applications, almost any fabric can have a heat transfer applied to it, but dark colors usually require a lower application temperature. This prevents the dyes in synthetic fibers from subliming into the transfer. 

Adding embellishments

There are many heat-transfer papers that can be used with embellishments such as rhinestones, foils and textures. These add to the value of the garment and can increase its value. If the heat transfer will soften with reheating, it is often possible to use it as the adhesive. When reheated, the heat transfer will anchor the embellishment. Other heat transfers require using foils and rhinestones that include an adhesive.

With experience, many decorators combine methods to create unique products. Heat transfer with art hand-drawn with markers results in a unique one-of-a-kind art that sells well, particularly when the artist is observed. Craft markets, fairs and shows are a particularly good place to personalize and allow the buyer to determine colors and details. 

The self-weeding heat-transfer papers for dark fabrics can be combined with sublimation inks for a self-weeded image highlighted with the colors of sublimation ink. For this effect, using a laser printer, art is mirror-image printed on the imaging sheet. The image is then rotated back to normal reading and is printed onto the transfer sheet with a dye sub inkjet printer. The two sheets are married together in the heat press and must be aligned, so registration marks are helpful. This is then transferred to the garment. 

Experimentation and practice on the best colors and most popular art are worth the effort. Commitment to learn more about the processes, the art and the technology of heat transfer will improve sales and kick business up a notch.