Laser versus Inkjet Transfers

Wayne Potter is vice president of marketing development for Air Waves Inc., Lewis Center, Ohio. He has 30-plus years’ experience in the heat transfer and digital imaging market.

During the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, waistcoats and long sleeve shirts were the dress of the day. One-hundred-ninety years would have to pass before the T-shirt would be invented.

Beginning in the late 1960s, as T-shirts became fashionable, standalone garments, they also became walking billboards for artistic and political expression. Based on advertising, every political campaign, no matter the office, needs a campaign shirt. Whether it is a Mayor, Senator or the President, candidates must advertise and sell themselves to the electorate. 

Just as every stumping politician would have you believe, there are differences between they and their opponents, so go the two basic digital heat-transfer paper products. The candidates for consideration are:

1. Electro-photography (laser) technology
2. Heat transfers produced using inkjet printing technology.

Laser history

The challenges for earlier producers of heat transfer paper for color laser copiers (CLC) were many. The process created a challenge in high humidity; the CLC printers/copiers could only overcome a certain amount of ambient humidity and deliver a good image. Too much and you had “humidity lines” in the image. 

Additionally, the paper and coating had to be resistive to the heat developed by the fuser rollers and easily transfer to the substrate. Most of the early CLC heat transfer papers employed a paper with a polymer extrusion or coating to receive the toner and subsequently transfer off. The degree to which the toner attached itself to the polymer was the degree to which it washed. Good adhesion, good washing characteristics. Poor toner adhesion, poor wash characteristics.

As time went on, so did the development of the laser printing process. But the printer engineers threw a big curve ball in one big step by eliminating silicone fuser oil from the fuser process, thus the term oil-less copiers and printers. Transfer paper manufacturers added more coatings to the original polymers to work with the non-oil fuser sections. The fabric transfer paper had to meet two mutually-exclusive properties: high-temperature resistance and easy heat transfer characteristics. There had to be a balance in order to ensure the proper feed through the copier/printer. To date there are still a number of laser heat transfer papers that will not properly feed through the newer generation of machines. 

So here is a caution: ask the manufacturer about the performance of their paper in your machine. If they do not know or serve you with caveats and cautions, tread lightly and find another paper that has been documented for performance in your copier or printer. 

Some copier manufacturers will not support a warranty on a machine that has been damaged from a fuser jam. At the very least, the individual that has to repair the machine will not be your friend for life. Unfortunately, it can be a rather hit-and-miss proposition. Although first generation heat transfer papers will run in most machines that employ fuser oil, they run intermittently in the new breed of oil-less machines, or not at all.

Laser paper expectations

Here’s what you can expect with laser transfer papers:

  • Good Throughput—speed-laser printers and CLC machines are generally faster than their inkjet counterparts; printing CLC/laser heat transfer paper at about one per minute in older machines; faster in newer technology. 
  • Superior Colorfastness—since the laser printing process involves fusing the polymer toner to a polymer film, then melting it to the shirt during transfer, most of the papers of this class have superior wash characteristics. Images will be colorfast for a minimum of 20 washes at 105º F. I have personally observed garments with 100 or more wash cycles with little or no fading. 
  • Soft Hand—the good papers have a thin polymer film and are soft to the touch after application.
  • High-Quality Images—all heat transfer papers in this class are suitable for imaging high-resolution photographs and intricate artwork. 
  • Wide Variety of Uses—laser heat transfer papers can be applied to hard surface items such as tile, mugs, glass and wood.

Keep in mind that laser transfer paper is a polymer film that receives the toner and then melts and makes a mechanical attachment to the fabric. As such, there is an overall polymer film behind the entire image. Generally, it is not objectionable, at the outset. Over time, with some papers on the market, the film tends to yellow. 

There are new papers on the market that deliver a zero background in the un-imaged areas. They are said to be self-weeding (a term taken from the Flex Film business). These papers eliminate the need to trim a finished transfer prior to application and are ideal for full-color graphics, but do not reproduce drop shadows, skin tones, gradients and photographs very well. There are also specialty papers to address trends such as foil that aren’t attainable with inkjet papers. 

Several CLC/laser products on the market are designed for application to dark fabric. Dark fabric heat-transfer papers can be applied to the garment without trimming, while others can be trimmed in a plotter/cutter with an optical eye. In the latter case, owing to the fact, that the resultant transferred image will not show the white over-all residue. There are two-step fabric opaque materials offered by several producers. They do not image in the copier or printer and involve a secondary application process. Today’s marketplace favors those that can be imaged and applied without this secondary step, however.

On the inkjet scene

While the CLC/laser business was growing at a substantial rate, several inventors were engineering fabric heat transfer paper for imaging in desktop inkjet printers. The first to the market was a paper designed for Canon thermal technology Bubble Jet. It was marketed under the company’s brand and introduced with much fanfare. It is currently still available in big box stationary stores and on Internet commerce sites. When the paper was first introduced, it required the consumer to add vinegar (a weak acid) to help lock up the water-based inkjet dye to avoid bleeding in the wash. 

That problem was soon overcome with the introduction of new papers which had integral chemistry to lock up the dye. Epson’s commercialization of the piezoelectric printers made photorealistic images commonplace. 

The main advantages of inkjet heat transfer papers include:

  • They do not require special ink systems.
  • Inexpensive printers bring the ability to produce a high-quality fabric print to everyone in our industry. 
  • Transfers can be printed using desktop and wide format printers alike.
  • They allow for the reproduction of high-quality images necessary for garment decoration. 

The first generation inkjet heat transfer papers were designed for white and light fabrics. Soon, papers to apply images to dark fabrics came to market. Most of the offerings required imaging the paper in an inkjet printer onto a white film with an inkjet receiver. Then the imaged film is separated from its carrier paper and applied to the fabric. The films were rather thick and brittle, but they allowed you to image a dark shirt utilizing an inkjet printer. 

Today’s films are thinner, less brittle and some can be trimmed in a plotter/cutter and weeded to remove the unwanted background. There are several other papers on the market that do not require trimming and weeding. The process involves imaging two transfers (a color positive and a black laser negative) on different substrates, marrying the images prior to application to the fabric. The negative image provides a blocking for the unwanted background, allowing only the color inkjet image to transfer to the fabric. There are other variants of this two-step process currently being developed. When it comes to speed and ease in production, the laser trim-free products are marginally faster and easier.

Cost comparison

Hardware: Inkjet printers win hands-down when it comes to initial cost. It is not uncommon to find a new printer for less than $50 advertised on many websites, although most of the really inexpensive units only print 8-1/2" X 11", a bit small for producing heat transfers for XL shirts. A good duty cycle inkjet printer like the Ricoh GX 7000 is going to set you back $900 to $1,200 when purchased from a reputable distributor. 

The best contender for laser beyond a full CLC (which you will want to lease because of the cost) is a UNO laser printer designed specifically for heat transfer papers applications. It is a tabloid printer based on the other highly-regarded LED laser print engine that images both fabric and hard surface laser heat transfer papers. 

Consumables: Inkjet papers cost more than laser, and the cost of the inkjet ink can vary widely. Regarding ink, the highest, of course would be the factory inks and the lowest, the OEM refills. I have seen estimates of ink cost of $350 to $500 per year depending on what is imaged. 

Note here that third-party inks may be hazardous to your customers’ heat transfer health. Most paper manufacturers develop their products using original ink cartridges. I have seen numerous cases of poor satiability with third party inks. While you can expect a reduction of 10 to 30 percent in the cost of the ink, your return sales may tip the balance toward the factory inks. Test before you adopt the third party inks. 

Laser toners are clearly more cost-effective for heat transfer imaging. My experience has been that, for some reason, reloaded toners do not exhibit the same washability issues as third-party inkjet inks. Most third-party toner cartridges are less expensive than factory toner. 

Over the years, printer manufacturers have chipped in their cartridges in an effort to ensure consumers use factory inks and toners. That has not been a problem for the reloading services and third-party ink producers, though. Nonetheless, it is something to consider when buying off the Internet.

So there it is. Laser and inkjet both get the job done. Which will win your vote?