What is Vinyl Heat Transfer Printing? -The Basics.
By Pete Apo
Heat transfer vinyl printing is one of the most cost-effective and simple ways to create custom-printed products. Most business owners intending to make printed t-shirts or other apparel will most likely start with this process. This method requires only a small investment to get started and requires less technical savvy than other printing methods.
While there are different variations of printing that call for a heat press to transfer images to products, like dye-sublimation printing, this article covers the heat transfer process using a single color vinyl material. Heat transfer vinyl printing, or HTV, uses vinyl polymer that comes on a roll or in flat sheets. It is usually a single color with an heat resistant backing. It can be heated with a heat press or iron. Heat transfer vinyl is cut, weeded and then heat pressed onto fabric.
In this article we will cover the basics of Heat Transfer Vinyl Printing including the printing process, general equipment needed, along with some helpful pros and cons of this printing method.
The Production Process
Although heat press vinyl can be cut by hand and applied by using an ordinary iron, this section will focus on heat transfer production printing found in many commercial print shops. The process starts with creating or converting artwork into vector format using vector software. Since heat press vinyl artwork is pressed onto fabric, it must be flipped on the horizontal axis, making it backwards when cut. The plotter or cutter cuts out the design on the vinyl. An electronic plotter will use a small knife guided by a computer using X and Y axis coordinates to cut complicated designs.
The next step is to remove the parts of the vinyl that are not part of the final design. This process is called “weeding.” With cut vinyl it is often tricky to discern which pieces must remain and which are to be weeded or taken out. Therefore it is critical to reference an image of the design you are weeding, which will help you to remove only the sections that will not be part of the final print. Once the vinyl is cut and weeded it can be positioned on the fabric.
Using the right temperature, pressure and duration of press is critical to the longevity of the print. So make sure that your heat press settings are following the specs given by the vinyl manufacturer. It is also important to note that different types of fabrics will require different temperature, pressure and time. Once you press the vinyl onto the fabric, you can remove the backing material. Depending on the vinyl specs this is either while the material is still hot or only after it has cooled. This is referred to as a “hot” vs. “cold” peel.
The equipment that is needed for the basics of heat transfer vinyl printing are relatively inexpensive when compared to other commonly used printing methods. Only 4 major items are needed to print successfully with this method.
They are listed below:
When purchasing a plotter or cutter, the vendor usually supplies corresponding software capable of creating simple designs or at least turning regular raster images into cut-able designs. Initially it’s not necessary to purchase state-of-the-art vector software, like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, to begin making heat press designs. However if you want to expand in this industry it might be a good investment down the road, especially if you wish to create more complex designs. Most modern print shops use Illustrator or Corel Draw to import, re-size or create a design, then export the design to the plotter software, which reorients the file and sends it to the cutter.
Vinyl Plotter or Cutter
The plotter produces intricately cut designs on all different kinds of vinyl, not only on heat transfer vinyl but also on pressure sensitive vinyl used for sticker and decal production. Plotters come in various sizes with a range of functionality. Some are small desktop versions designed for the hobbyist, while other larger format stand-alone models are intended for medium and large scale production.
Consider the goal and scale of operation when choosing a plotter. The main focus should be on the size of prints you would like to produce. The crucial difference between cutters come down to print width, so decide on the maximum size you need your plotter to handle and make sure to do your research.
Heat Press Machine
There are a huge variety of heat presses on the market, from manual to partly and fully automatic. The two items to be concerned about in a heat press are its temperature and pressure settings. Most machines will have these settings with built in adjustments. It is wise to check, before purchasing, that your machine is capable of performing the pressure and temperature settings that your vinyl specs demand.
If routine, large-scale production will be part of your operation, a timer with a release mechanism will prove essential. The timer automatically releases your press at a specified time, which prevents a garment from being over heated and possibly ruined. Conversely an automatic timer release will also prevent the press from being under heated which results in low print quality and an image that will peel off after a short period of time.
Heat Transfer Vinyl
A wide array of vinyl types are available for all kinds of applications and effects. A good rule of thumb is to purchase heat transfer vinyl standard stock rolls of basic colors for the application you are planning to specialize in. After you get basic colors in stock you can start exploring various other types of vinyl like:
- Stretch vinyl for performance wear
- Glitter heat transfer vinyl
- Holographic and shiny heat transfer vinyl
- Metallic heat transfer vinyl
- Glow-in-the-dark heat transfer vinyl
- Flock heat transfer vinyl
- Shimmery and pearlescent heat transfer vinyl
Benefits of Heat Transfer Vinyl Printing
Relatively inexpensive compared with other forms of apparel printing like screen printing, embroidery, or dye-sublimation printing.
Low minimum quantities are required for most print shops. Typically, you will not be required to purchase a certain minimum quantity of items to place an order. For this reason heat transfer vinyl is widely used for applying names and numbers on team uniforms, where every jersey requires a separate print.
Quick turnaround time is possible for this type of printing because there is minimal setup time.
Cons of Heat Transfer Vinyl Printing
Print longevity is not as long as standard printing methods like screen printing, embroidery or dye-sublimation printing. Even when applied correctly and at the specified temperature, pressure and time, vinyl heat press will eventually crack and peel over time and with repeated washes.
Color limitations is a downside to heat transfer printing because the vinyl is typically applied one color at a time. It is possible to use heat press vinyl to apply multiple colors to a design by stacking several different layers of vinyl together, but this is not standard practice. Multi-layer application requires an experienced heat press technician, and even with the best execution these layers will add significant thickness and stiffness to the final print.
Large quantities are not recommended with this process, because the amount of cutting and weeding involved can be very time consuming and reduce your profit margin through labor costs. Screen printing is usually considered to be a better option for printing large quantities of the same design.
Beginners in the custom printing industry often use heat press as an easy foray into the business. It is relatively affordable, easy to set up, and in a short amount of time you have sell-able products. As a business grows however, other more versatile and reliable methods of printing should be incorporated into a print shop’s production. Most successful print shops have the capacity to produce heat transfer vinyl items and will pair this method with other forms of printing, like screen printing, embroidery or dye sublimation printing.
For instance, a local high school baseball team may request 24 sweatshirts with their team logo on the front, along with each player’s name and number on the back. The shop owner will most likely suggest screen printing the front of the sweatshirt, then adding the individually cut and heat pressed names and numbers on the back. Heat transfer printing lends itself well to one-off prints or items that require a lot of individual customization, but is not typically used for large-scale garment printing.
Pete Apo is the owner of Impact Northwest located outside Eugene, Oregon in Creswell. He has over 17+ years experience in the garment and promotional item printing industry and is founder of the clothing and product line The Rusty Hawaiian. Impact Northwest is a provider of custom screen print, embroidery, dye sublimation and promotional items to Lane County and the surrounding communities.