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Screen Printing Transfers

Screen Printing Transfers
November 14 2019
I want to teach more screen printers how to screen print transfers properly.  There are two ways to do this, the right way and the okay way which will get you by in a pinch.  The right way will allow for tight multi-color registration and no adhesive powder where it doesn’t belong.  The right way will not leave adhesive residue on your heat press.  However, the okay way works great for one color transfers and doesn’t require special equipment.  Transfers can be produced very quickly with manual or automatic equipment.  Let’s dive into the technology and you can decide what is best for you.

The Right Way

Here is a shopping list for screen printing transfers the right way.  It includes equipment but is vague on supplies as there are so many different types of transfers you can print.  Ink, paper, adhesive, and application combinations can be tricky.  I will get specific later to help you along.
  • Vacuum platen for screen printing flat goods
  • A hot box for paper storage
  • Transfer paper
  • Adhesive powder
  • A plastic container which is wider than the transfer paper you choose
  • Plastisol ink
  • 86 or 110 count screen mesh

For someone who has never printed transfers, that list may look strange.  I am going to explain the need for every one of these items now so you don’t think I am crazy.

  1. A vacuum platen will hold the transfer paper down without the use of adhesives.  It will also allow you to set up masking tape lines to properly align the transfer paper into the same location with every color.  Yes, the paper will come off the press between every single color and "gel” in the dryer.  Many companies manufacture vacuum platens for any press.  Graphic presses can be purchased with the sole purpose of screen printing transfers.  These are one color machines as again, the transfer paper will come off the press between colors.  A multi-color press is unnecessary.
  2. Something as simple as a pizza warmer can be used.  Transfer paper is always sent through the conveyor dryer before ever printing the first color.  This pre-shrinks the paper.  The problem is, the longer the paper sits in your shop, the more moisture it absorbs.  This alters the size and shape.  This also allows adhesive powder to stick to the paper when you want it to only stick to the ink.  I keep the hot box at 130ºF.  Once the paper has been sent through the dryer, I store it in the hot box until I am ready to use it.  This could be hours, days, or weeks.  If you plan on using the paper immediately after pre-shrinking it, you may only need the heat lamps described next.
  3. There are so many different styles of transfer paper.  Too many to list.  Each style of transfer paper will give your print a different look, feel, and application instructions.  There are hot split papers, hot peel, and cold peel.  Hot split transfers are great for a soft, vintage appearance as about half the ink stays on the paper and half is transferred to the fabric.  Hot peel paper releases most, if not all of the ink.  This provides better opacity and bleed resistance.  Cold peel paper releases 100% of the ink and leaves a glossy finish.  Your choice in transfer paper will determine what inks you can use as well as your application instructions.
  4. There are numerous types of adhesive powder.  Each style of adhesive powder will give your transfers a different feel, stretch, bleed resistance, and application instructions.  Adhesive powder is not necessary for all types of transfers but is strongly recommended, especially for rookie transfer printers.
  5. The container will hold your transfer powder and allow you to "dip” the wet transfer into the container.  You will do this in a way that the powder covers the entire wet print and the excess falls back into the container.
  6. Plastisol ink choice is either really important or no big deal depending on the type of transfer you choose to print.  Any ink will work as a cold peel transfer.  Not every ink will be good for a hot split transfer.  Hot peel is hit or miss depending on your methods.  Our basic transfer ink is 380 Series.  This ink will work with all three types of transfers.
  7. Hot split transfers require an 86 count mesh to be successful.  Hot peel and cold peel transfers often work best with 110 count mesh but can be printed with a wide range of mesh counts.

Okay, with all of that out of the way, we can get on with the actual printing instructions.  The basics are as follows:

  1. Run the transfer paper through the dryer (temperature will be determined by the transfer type you choose).  Immediately place the transfer paper in a hot box or under a heat lamp after it has come out of the dryer.  Keep it there until you are ready to print the paper.
  2. Create tape lines on your vacuum platen if it doesn’t come with tabs.  You need to be able to push the paper down to the bottom tape line and over to the left tape line.  This keeps the paper in the exact same place every time it is loaded and re-loaded onto the platen.
  3. Print the first color.  Transfers are printed in mirror image always.  Send the transfer through the conveyor dryer.  This may be at a low temperature to gel the print or at a higher temperature to fully cure the print.  I will discuss this later.  Regardless, the ink needs to be dry to the touch.
  4. Between colors, keep the transfer under a heat lamp.  This is to prevent the paper from re-absorbing moisture as this will alter the size of the paper, ruining your ability to accurately line up the next colors.  It also prevents the adhesive powder from sticking to the paper where it doesn’t belong.
  5. Register and print your second color.  There are no limits to how many colors a transfer can be.  However, the final color is always a full underbase when you are adding adhesive powder.  Adhesive powder is often used for hot peel and cold peel transfers.  It improves adhesion, bleed resistance, durability, and opacity.  It is always applied to low temperature transfers.  There are many types of adhesive powder.  They all have different properties.  Here is the manual method of applying powder.  Watch Video

Let’s talk about the paper/ink/adhesive/application instructions that will work for you.  I have a few options listed which can get you started.  I know these work.  There are so many more that will work but this is a good starting point.

Hot Split Transfers
  • 380 Series colors and 381 Premium White
  • Any hot split transfer paper
  • No adhesive powder needed
  • Gel the ink in the dryer so it is dry to the touch but reaches less than 240ºF
  • Apply at 375ºF for 9 seconds with firm pressure, peel immediately

Hot Peel Transfers
  • 380 or 388 Series inks, 381 Premium White, or Dream White
  • Soft Peel, Ultrastrip 3000, Ultrastrip 5000, or any other true hot peel paper
  • Coarse Adhesive Powder, ELT Zip Fashion Powder, or ELT Zip Performance Powder
  • Gel the ink in the dryer so it is dry to the touch but reaches less than 240ºF
  • Apply at 350ºF for 12 seconds with firm pressure, peel hot

Cold Peel Transfers
  • Any plastisol ink
  • Any cold peel transfer paper
  • Coarse Adhesive Powder, ELT Zip Fashion Powder, or ELT Zip Performance Powder
  • Gel the ink in the dryer so it is dry to the touch but reaches less than 240ºF
  • Apply at 350ºF for 12 Seconds with firm pressure, peel cold

Low Temperature Cold Peel Transfers
  • Any plastisol ink
  • Any cold peel paper
  • ELT Zip Fashion Powder or ELT Zip Performance Powder
  • Cure the ink in the dryer to the specifications of that particular ink (320ºF for regular ink)
  • Apply at 285ºF for 10 seconds with medium pressure, peel cold

X Transfers
  • ELT, ELT-S, or ELT-X Series inks
  • Soft Peel transfer paper
  • ELT Zip Fashion Powder
  • Cure the ink at 250ºF or above
  • Apply at 300ºF for 8 to 12 seconds with medium pressure, peel immediately

What is the "okay way” to print transfers if you don’t have a vacuum platen, you can adhere the paper to your regular screen printing press.  This will work for one color jobs (although it litters your heat press with adhesive as the platen adhesive sticks to the back of the paper).  Some people can make this work with multi-color transfers.  I do not recommend this ever.  Flashing ink onto paper takes a long time and it often curls the paper.  Additionally, it is hard to control the ink temperature in this situation so you will often over-gel the ink.  This can ruin hot split and hot peel transfers.

Well, that is it for the basics of transfer printing.  It is a lot to take in if you have never done this before.  If you have, I hope some of this information opened your eyes a bit.  As always, let me know if you have any questions for me.


Robb Mears
Director of Product Development


TY (November 15 2019 12:44:00 PM)
Thank you for sharing.

kim - GA
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