So you bought a heat press and want to get started using it to decorate t-shirts. But where can you get cool designs to press onto the tees? You can buy custom-made or ready-made transfers, but you can also easily learn how to make your own screenprint transfers!
Making a screen print transfer requires printing a design onto a special kind of release or transfer paper. Depending on the type of screen print transfer, a variety of inks and paper types will work best. Sublimation transfers use disperse dye ink, screenprints use plastisol ink, and DTF transfers use pigment inks.
In this article, you will learn how screenprint transfers work. You’ll find out what supplies and equipment you need to make these transfers. Finally, you’ll discover six methods for making your own screenprint transfers!
- What is a Screen Print Transfer?
- What Are Screen Transfers Made Of?
- How to Make Your Own Screen Print Transfers: 6 Methods
- How Long Do Screen Print Transfers Last?
- Can You Press Screen Print Transfers?
- What Printer Do I Need to Make Transfers?
- What is the Best Transfer Paper for Screen Printing?
- Should You Make Your Own Screen Print Transfers?
- How to Make Screen Print Transfers to Sell
What is a Screen Print Transfer?
Screenprint transfers are designs in reverse printed onto a kind of release or transfer paper. After placing the paper ink side down on the receiving surface, such as a t-shirt, an application of high heat causes the ink to transfer from the paper to the fabric.
You can use several different kinds of screenprint transfers. One of the most popular is to screen print a design onto transfer paper using plastisol ink. Another popular method of creating this print transfer is to use disperse dyes to create a sublimation print.
In most ways, you create a print transfer exactly as you would design and create the print if you made it straight onto the t-shirt or other surface. But the benefit of using a transfer is that you can make a lot of that one design at once and save them for later use. You can also sell them to apply the transfer to whatever surface they want later on!
What Are Screen Transfers Made Of?
Screen transfers are made out of a printed design on transfer or release paper. The type of paper and ink used is crucial as it determines what kind of final print you will get and how well the design will transfer from the paper to the final surface. Of course, the quality of your design can also make a big difference.
When making a screen transfer, you begin with the design. You can create a design in many ways, ranging from using professional graphic design software to cutting out a stencil on a Cricut to simply hand-painting a design. Using a computer design program gives you the easiest and most accurate way to create lettering, logos, or edit images.
Once you have the design, you will use several different techniques to print it onto your transfer paper–you can find more details on each process in the next section of this article!
But every type of transfer needs two things during this process: transfer paper and ink. Let’s take a quick look at different types of paper and ink.
Transfer paper typically comes in either a hot or cold peel. Hot peel means that you can safely remove the transfer paper after using heat to adhere the ink to the fabric right away. Cold peel means that you need to allow everything to cool down before removing the paper.
- For screenprint transfers, your best option of paper is hot peel plastisol transfer paper. You can find dozens of different brands selling this. The key is to look for plastisol transfer paper, not inkjet or sublimation paper.
- For sublimation transfers, you will want to make sure you find sublimation transfer paper. You can also find this option in both hot and cold peel.
- Finally, for DTF transfer, you will want to use DTF transfer sheets that look more like a thin film.
Another key factor in creating a print transfer is using the right printer and ink.
- For screenprint transfers, you can use a simple mesh screen and plastisol ink or a more professional printer that comes with racks to hold screens in various colors. Screenprints are made one color at a time, so you need a screen for each color you plan to use.
- For sublimation transfers, you can use either a special sublimation printer or an inkjet printer with sublimation ink installed. You print these designs out just as you would print onto regular copy paper. Sublimation ink is a kind of disperse dye that bonds with synthetic fabrics like polyester when exposed to heat.
- For DTF or DTG transfers, you do need a special DTG printer. It uses water-based ink that soaks beyond the surface of the fabric to form permanent prints.
How to Make Your Own Screen Print Transfers: 6 Methods
You can use various techniques to create a print transfer, including using mesh screens and by-hand screenprinting, using computer graphics and sublimation dyes, or using a Cricut with several different types of ink.
1. Screen Print/Silk Screening
You make a screen print or plastisol heat transfer by pressing ink through a stencil on a screen. Setting up the screens to create a screen print transfer takes some work, but the great thing about this process is that you can use the tools and set up to make dozens or hundreds of transfer sheets! You can then let the transfer sheets dry and apply them to t-shirts much later on.
You make screenprint transfer sheets in much the same way as you make any screen print design, with a few minor modifications. The biggest difference is that you will want to add an adhesion powder that helps the plastisol ink stick to the transfer paper.
- Make a mirrored design using a Cricut, a hand-cut stencil, or a graphic design software program. For really professional-grade screen print transfers, you will probably want to make a stencil using a light emulsion process on your screen (you can find details on this in the next section). For a simpler design, you can make a physical stencil using your Cricut or a hand-cut piece of cardstock.
- You need the design stencil in reverse because you will flip the transfer upside down to apply it to your shirt!
- The easiest screenprint transfers use just one color because you have to layer one color at a time using separate screens and stencils for this kind of printing.
- Secure the stencil to your mesh screen. For transfer prints, you typically want a fine mesh screen of about 150 thin thread mesh.
- Next, you can either dust the transfer paper with adhesion powder or save this step and dust the finished print with adhesion powder.
- Spread the plastisol ink over the stencil using an angle of 75°. Make sure you use a thin, smooth layer of ink to not leak under the stencil.
- If you have a professional press, set up the transfer paper below the screen and press them together. If you have plain screens that you have set up by hand, carefully align the inked screen over the paper.
- Remove the stencil and flash cure the transfer paper using 180 to 260℉.
In some cases, you may want to try mixing the adhesive powder into the plastisol ink rather than dusting the paper with the powder. This creates a thicker ink with a raised design on the transfer paper.
2. Plastisol Transfer
A plastisol transfer is a piece of transfer paper with a screen printed design on it. You use a heat press to transfer the plastisol ink to the surface of a fabric t-shirt. You can use the basic steps in the previous section to create a simple, one-color plastisol transfer. If you would like to make a more advanced type of transfer, follow these steps to create a more complex design using an emulsion stencil.
- In a dark room, follow the instructions on the package to mix up the sensitizer and photo emulsion in the proper quantities. Typically, you will also add a certain amount of water to this mixture.
- With the screen facing up, pour your emulsion mixture across the bottom edge of the screen, and then use a squeegee to drag it in a smooth coating over the surface of the whole screen. Turn the screen so that you can see the inside of the screen and do this again, fitting your squeegee inside the wooden slats of the frame to spread the emulsion.
- Let the screen dry totally in a dry, dark place for at least 8 hours.
- Next, you need to prep your image for the stencil screen. You can do simple designs using a Cricut or any other cut-out, but for advanced work, you will want a design program that offers color separation. You can make a separate stencil for each color in the image and create a screen for each color.
- Print your design onto a transparency sheet. Or print one sheet for each color layer if you plan to make a multi-colored print transfer.
- With your design ready and the emulsion screen dry, you can set up the light exposure. To do this, set up a bright bulb, at least 150W, inside a metal reflector. Place this light a foot away from where you plan to place the screen.
- Place the transparency upside down on the backside of the screen so that it looks correct from the inside of the screen. Put a piece of glass or acrylic over the transparency (the glass insert from a large picture frame works well).
- Turn on the light and expose the screen for 45 minutes to an hour.
- Finally, take the screen to a sink and spray cold water over it. You should see your design start to show up on the screen!
- Let the rinsed screen dry totally before using it to screenprint with plastisol ink onto transfer sheets.
- If you made a multi-colored design, you would need to repeat all of the steps for each color layer/stencil screen you make.
3. Full-Color Transfers
The easiest ways to create full-color transfers are to use a sublimation printer or a DTG printer. Both processes come with some pros and cons. You can create full-color images using screen printing, but only by using color-separating software and then creating a light emulsion stencil for each of the colors.
The biggest advantage to choosing a sublimation transfer for a full-color design is that you can print out colors using the digital CMYK model using a sublimation printer. Your printer will mix up all the colors and shades to recreate a photo for you if you use sublimation printing!
You can easily apply sublimation transfers to any synthetic fabric or a hard surface treated with a synthetic coating. Plus, it’s pretty easy to create full-color sublimation transfer prints.
The biggest downside to sublimation transfers is that they will only work on polyester t-shirts. You cannot use them on cotton. You also need to own a sublimation printer. You have to make sure you use sublimation transfer paper and the right sublimation dyes that can evaporate and bond with polyester fibers.
DTG printers cost a lot, and unfortunately, they remain the best way to print DTG/DTF transfers. These printers use a water-soluble ink designed to soak into the fabric rather than just sitting on its surface.
If you have a professional set-up or plan to launch a small business, you can easily use a DTG printer to print full-color designs onto transfer paper.
Follow these steps to create a sublimation transfer print:
- Begin by prepping a digital design. You can use a photo, lettering, or anything else you want! Make sure you either mirror the image or flip it horizontally before printing.
- Put the sublimation transfer paper into the printer with the papery side facing up and the writing side facing down.
- Print out your design. It will look paler than your digital design but don’t worry about that!
- And that’s it! You do need a heat press to apply the transfer to a t-shirt later on, but making the actual sublimation transfer requires hardly any work!
4. Iron-On Transfers
Iron-on transfers work quite differently from other types of print transfers because you permanently adhere the transfer itself to the shirt using a heat-activated adhesive on its backing. Unlike all other transfers, you don’t use heat to apply the ink and then peel away the transfer paper!
The big benefit of this kind of transfer is that it provides a backing behind the ink. This means that you can use dark-colored t-shirts without worrying about the colors fading into the shirt! You do not have to mirror your design when you print it onto an iron-on transfer because you will apply the iron-on ink side facing up.
You can use plastisol inks and screen-printing methods to create designs on iron-on transfers. You can also use a DTG printer on iron-on transfers. You can also sublimate onto certain types of heat transfer vinyl, but you have to make sure the HTV contains polyester for that process to work.
5. Cricut Transfers
You can use a Cricut to make a stencil to use during the screen printing process to make heat transfer designs. You can use any electronic cutting device, but the Cricut brand remains one of the most popular out there and comes with handy design software called Design Space that you can use to make and mirror your stencil design.
To make a screen print transfer using a Cricut:
- Start in Design Space by creating a digital image that you want to print. Typically, you will use just one color as it takes a lot of work to make multiple stencils for separate screen print colors.
- Mirror the design so that it will cut out in reverse. Design Space offers a handy “mirror” button that will do this for you.
- Send the file to your Cricut and cut out the design using regular adhesive vinyl.
- Before you peel the vinyl off the cutting mat, weed away the positive space of your design. You want to keep the negative space so that the ink can fill in the actual design later on!
- After the weeding, carefully peel up the vinyl stencil. Remove the adhesive backing and place it sticky-side down on your mesh screen. Use your squeegee to smooth over the vinyl and make sure no air bubbles got stuck in it!
- You can also use transfer tape around the vinyl edges for extra security.
- From this point on, you use your stencil-prepared screen just as you would for any screen print process! You will smooth plastisol ink over the surface of the stencil using a squeegee, forcing the ink to go through your design and onto the transfer paper beneath.
6. DTF Transfer
DTF stands for direct-to-fabric or direct-to-film, but these transfers often get called DTG, or direct to garment, as well. This is a bit confusing because when you print on a transfer, you aren’t actually printing directly to the garment! But the process of creating a DTG/DTF transfer works in pretty much the same way as using this printing method straight onto a t-shirt.
So, what is a DTF transfer? It’s a sheet of transfer film with a mirrored design printed onto it using a DTG printer. You can apply the printed design to the final surface, such as a t-shirt, using a heat press.
The great thing about this process is that you can apply this transfer film onto many different types of surfaces, including cotton, polyester, and even leather!
Aside from the fact that you need either a DTG or direct-to-film printer to make this kind of print transfer, it’s a pretty simple process!
- You can buy DTG film in either sheets or rolls. You will need to start by cutting out a piece that will fit your printer.
- Prep your digital design. You can use full-color images such as photos quite easily.
- Print out the image, and then print a white layer over top of this. If you have an actual DTF printer, the software will do this for you all at once, so you do not have to print on the film twice.
- Next, carefully sift hot melt powder for DTG transfers over the design while the ink remains damp. This adhesive powder will allow your transfer film to stick to the fabric later on.
- Cure the adhesive powder and ink by using a heat press at 350℉ for two minutes.
- Now you have a finished transfer film! To attach it to a garment, you will use a heat press set to 284℉ for 15 minutes and then do a cold peel by allowing the film to cool entirely before peeling it away.
How Long Do Screen Print Transfers Last?
Plastisol transfer prints can last for years so long as you store them in a cool, air-tight container. The ink will not degrade or fade over time under these conditions. You can use them at any point by applying a heat press to seal the ink onto the final surface.
To prolong the shelf life of your plastisol transfers, you do need to keep them in something air-tight like large Ziploc bags. You should also find an environment with cool, dry air rather than hot and humid air or damp air.
Also, make sure they do not sit directly under bright light, and definitely do not keep them in direct sunlight!
Can You Press Screen Print Transfers?
You can use a heat press to seal the ink on a screen print transfer onto a shirt or other surface! To do this, follow these simple steps:
- Turn on your heat-press and set the temperature to 325℉ to 350℉, depending on the instructions that come with the transfer sheet packaging.
- Apply the heat press to the shirt, where the design will go briefly to remove wrinkles or moisture from the fabric.
- Set the transfer sheet ink-side down onto the fabric.
- Apply the heat press for five seconds.
- Hot-peel the transfer paper away with great care. If it does not come away easily, use the heat press again for a couple of seconds.
This process works best with a professional or clamshell-style heat press. If you have a small heat press, you will have to push down on it during the five-second heat window to add necessary pressure.
What Printer Do I Need to Make Transfers?You can use several different kinds of printers to make transfers depending on the style of transfer print you want.
For sublimation transfers that you want to use on polyester, you will need a sublimation printer. These do not cost too much though the disperse dyes necessary for sublimation printing can get pricey.
For screen printing, you do not have to have a printer at all! You can work with mesh-covered screens that you build yourself if you prefer. But for a professional set-up, you will want to get a screen print press with arms to hold multiple screens at once.
For DTF/DTG transfers, you will need a DTG printer. These do cost quite a lot. Most of the time, only professionals running large-scale businesses invest in this type of printer.
What is the Best Transfer Paper for Screen Printing?
To create good screen printer transfers, you need to use plastisol transfer paper. You can find many different brands selling this kind of transfer paper, such as Epson, Reich Supply, and Ryonet.
You can order plastisol transfer paper online or find it in many arts and crafts stores. Sometimes office supply stores will have it near the printers as well!
Keep in mind that inkjet transfer paper or other types of transfer paper like sublimation paper or DTF film will not work for screen printing.
Should You Make Your Own Screen Print Transfers?
If you’re trying to decide whether you should make your own screenprint transfers, print directly onto the garments, or order custom transfers, check out his helpful list of pros and cons!
Pros of making screen print transfers:
- You can make a lot of transfers and store them for later use. This means that you can have a popular design on hand if many customers request it at once.
- Also, storing transfers takes up a lot less space than storing folded t-shirts.
- You do not have to spend a lot of money on shirts, hats, or other blanks that could be wasted if no one wants that particular design.
Cons of making screenprint transfers:
- It takes a bit more time than directly printing onto the blank, as you have to repeat some steps.
- You have to know how to screenprint. If you have no experience in this arena, you may find it more cost-effective to custom order transfer prints and then simply apply them to blanks using a heat press.
- You do not see the finished product until the point at which you attach the transfer to the blank. You could end up with a mistake or error in the whole batch of screen print transfers that you made earlier.
How to Make Screen Print Transfers to Sell
The key difference between making screenprint transfers to sell and making them for your own use is that you will generally want to replicate the same design in bulk if you plan to sell the transfers.
One of the great things about selling print transfers, rather than finished shirts, mugs, or baseball caps, is that your startup cost will be much lower! You only have to buy packs of transfer paper rather than buying blank t-shirts, hoodies, or hats.
Plus, depending on your print method, you may also find it easy to use this method to offer custom work to customers. You can simply print the requested design onto a transfer paper and mail it to the customer. The customer then uses a heat press to adhere the design to the item of their choice.
You can make your own screenprint transfers using a simple Cricut stencil on a screen or a fancy DTG printer on DTF film! The basic concept of a print transfer, whichever method you choose, is to apply ink onto a transfer sheet. You can then save that sheet until you want to use a heat press to apply it to a blank t-shirt, hoodie, or another surface.
Popular ways to create print transfers include creations plastisol transfers using traditional screen printing and light emulsion stencils or simple screen printing using a Cricut-cut stencil. You can also create a sublimation print transfer by printing your design onto sublimation paper using a sublimation printer. The other super-popular type of print transfer requires a DTG printer and a special DTF film.
Have you ever made a print transfer? What method did you use? Leave a comment below to let us know!