Digital transfers can be an easy and cost effective way to decorate garments using many tools you’ve probably already got in your shop!

Adding digital transfers to your shop’s offerings could help you expand your product lineup and accept even the smallest print jobs while still turning a profit.

How Digital Transfers Work

With digital transfers, you print a reverse image of your graphic onto special heat transfer paper via a computer printer. The transfer is placed on top of a substrate and applied with a heat press to form a permanent bond. Unlike plastisol transfers — in which plastisol ink is screen printed onto heat transfer paper and partially cured — a digital transfer is created quickly through the computer printer (that’s where the “digital” comes in). There are a couple of different ways you can print these:

  • You can print your transfers using traditional inks like you find in your computer printer. When you apply the transfer, these inks will not penetrate the surface of your substrate. They rely on special polymers within the transfer paper to create a bond with the substrate’s surface. When heated, the paper’s polymers attach to the substrate’s fibers, essentially trapping the image between the polymer and the substrate to transfer the image. These types of transfers can be used on light or dark substrates, with special paper being used to create an underbase for more vibrant images on dark substrates. If there’s a downside to these transfers, it’s that portions of the paper without an image must be “weeded out”, or the polymers will bond to the substrate in the negative space, creating a hazy look.
  • In contrast to more traditional inks and dyes, sublimation dyes rely on the extreme heat of the press to turn the dye into a gas, allowing the dye to bond directly with the fibers of the substrate. However, this bond can only happen on polyester and certain other synthetic fabrics. That means you can only use transfers created with sublimation dyes on synthetic substrates or substrates that have been specially treated to receive sublimation dyes. The images generated by sublimation dyes tend to be less vibrant and are best suited for white or light-colored substrates. On the positive side, however, sublimation dyes tend to be more durable because the dye itself has bonded with the substrate.

The Tools You Need to Create Digital Transfers

One of the biggest benefits to adding digital transfer services to your print shop is that it requires a relatively low investment in equipment and supplies. In fact, you might already have the majority of the equipment you require, such as your computer printer and heat press. The equipment needed for digital transfers includes:

  • Printer. You’ll of course need a printer to generate your digital images for heat transfers. Generally, any type of printer will work. There’s much debate about whether an inkjet or laser printer is best for digital transfers, with nearly equal amounts of printers lining up on both sides of the debate. Inkjets produce clearer images with less pixelation and cost less up front. With an inkjet printer, colors reproduce easily with good saturation. On the flip side, a laser printer can churn out digital images quickly. Laser printers cost more up front, but laser transfer paper and inks are cheaper.
  • Transfer paper. Digital transfers require specialty transfer paper for the job. You’ll have to purchase transfer paper that is designed for your type of printer. There is inkjet heat transfer paper and laser heat transfer paper. They cannot be used interchangeably.
  • Ink or toner. If you choose to rely on traditional inks for digital transfers, you need only the ink or toner designed for your printer. In this case, you can use your printer for regular paper printing jobs as well as for digital transfers. If you prefer sublimation, you’ll have to purchase specialty inks and toners designed for heat transfer sublimation. If you choose sublimation, you’ll likely want a printer dedicated to printing digital transfers in your shop.
  • Heat press. To make digital transfers a regular arm of your business, you’ll need a heat press. While you might be able to get by with ironing inkjet transfers onto a garment, a heat press provides the heat and pressure you need to apply transfers evenly, thoroughly and quickly.
  • Substrates. You have to select the right substrates for your digital heat transfers. With traditional inks, you can print on nearly any fabric surface. Because sublimation requires synthetic fiber for the ink to bond with, you must choose synthetic garments or substrates that have been specially treated or designed for sublimation heat transfers.

What You Can Do with Digital Transfers

Once you commit to adding digital transfers to your operation, your printing options are seemingly endless. With surface colorants, you can do small-batch or single prints of any image on garments, tote bags, mouse pads and more, and you can lay down images on curved surfaces that tend to be difficult to print, like baseball or trucker hats. With sublimation, you can print for almost any novelty item, as suppliers offer a huge variety of substrates that have been specially treated to receive sublimation transfers. Those items include water bottles, coffee mugs, keychains, dog tags and much, much more.

In the end, expanding your garment decoration business to include digital transfers can help you increase orders and revenue. That’s because, with digital transfers, you can accept small-batch orders that you otherwise would have turned down because they’re not profitable on a screen printing press, and you can offer novelty items that attract new customers and provide existing customers with a lineup of additional product options.