Digital Decorating:

Heat Transfers: A Viable Screen Printing Alternative

By Brian Burr, Contributing Writer

September 9, 2013

Screen printing is an ever-present topic of conversation among decorated apparel professionals for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps most importantly, this centuries-old technique remains arguably the gold standard in quality and durability for transferring an image to a desired garment. Screen printing is used by both large international distributers and independent startups because over its long history, the process has been proven to deliver crisp, clean images that hold up to repeated wear. However, one of the other factors that keeps screen printing at the forefront of our minds is an unyielding desire by those in the printing industry to find a reliable alternative to the process.

In my work with custom headwear I frequently find myself at odds over deciding which printing technique to use for a given order. It’s a choice that gets more difficult each day, as new processes are developed and refined that challenge the time-tested methods we’ve been using for years.

One such fairly recent development is the emergence of plastisol heat transfers. The process, which combines the best aspects of screen printing with the many advantages of transfers, has opened up a world of options for vibrant, flexible designs that simply would not have been possible or practical in the past. And, while screen printing remains a viable option for many orders, the possibilities for the continued development of plastisol applications are exciting to consider.

What Are Plastisol Heat Transfers?
Heat transfer printing is far from a new concept. Transfers have been used by industry professionals and hobbyists alike for years to apply detailed designs to any number of products. The process is simple, clean, adaptable and repeatable for anyone with a heat press and the desired image already applied to heat transfer paper.

What makes plastisol heat transfers unique is the way in which they are created. Special plastisol ink, a mixture of pigment and suspended PVC plastic, is screen printed onto transfer paper to create the desired image. Unlike traditional heat transfers, which are often produced using commercial inkjet printers, the screen printing process imparts the transfer with all the detail of a direct printing application, but gives end users the flexibility to apply the transfer to the final garment whenever and wherever they want.

Because plastisol transfers must be created using screen printing techniques, they cannot simply be printed like other transfers. Instead, they can be ordered from a manufacturer with the required equipment and experience to produce them. For custom garment distributors, this essentially means outsourcing the elaborate screen printing process, but retaining full control over the final application of the design. This is a best-of-both-worlds solution that has gained a great deal of popularity as the process has become more widely available.

Using heat transfers means custom printing operations can avoid the cost and time required to produce screens. Instead, the transfer manufacturer takes on the responsibility of emulsion coating, film production, screen burning, ink application and screen registration that have so often in the past caused time delays, significant expenses in misprinted orders or other hiccups in the lengthy process.

Additional Design Flexibility
One hurdle that custom clothing distributors have always struggled with is design limitations that come with screen printing. Over the years, I’ve found that top-quality printing on hats using screen printing is only reliable with a maximum of two colors. This limitation stems from the small printing area, the registration difficulties they present and the materials used in the making of many hats and caps.

With plastisol heat transfers, decorators can offer complex, even photographic designs that can be easily transferred in one simple step, resulting in graphics that can be difficult to distinguish from direct printing techniques.

On top of these expanded design options, the unique materials used in creating plastisol transfers also allow for a range of finishes, depending on how the transfer paper is removed from the applied graphic. Essentially, there are three possible application methods: cold peel, hot peel and hot split. Each of these applications relate to how and when the transfer backing paper is removed.

In a cold-peel application, the paper is removed after the garment has had time to cool completely following pressing, leaving the finished image with a glossy appearance. Hot-peel application, on the other hand, requires that the paper be removed immediately after application and results in a softer, matte finish. The hot-split method uses plastisol transfers that have not been applied with any bonding adhesive between the transfer and the garment. Instead, the ink itself melts into the fabric of the hat (or shirt, or other piece of apparel) and forms a lasting bond. The paper is again removed while the transfer is still hot and takes with it a portion of the ink. This leaves behind an even softer print and results in a brushed matte finish.

One final advantage that transfers have over screen printing is the ability to create color gradients. While traditional screen printing allows for either the presence or absence of color, plastisol transfers can be created that allow for a gradual transition between colors. With so many design and finish options, the graphic combination possibilities are nearly endless.

Transfers Help Keep Clients Happy
In our business, the ability to respond to custom requests is paramount. It’s our job to remain agile with regard to our clients’ needs, and heat transfers have become the go-to solution for quick turnaround orders. Low-quantity, complex designs have always been the Achilles heel of screen printers. Because of the tremendous amount of time and work involved in the screen printing process before any ink is even applied, custom apparel distributors are often forced to require higher quantities and longer production times to offset the additional costs.

Now, plastisol heat transfers allow sellers to keep design elements on hand and simply apply them in the proper configuration when ordered. In addition, the ability to order transfers in quantities as low as eight or 10 means that smaller runs can now be created much more efficiently and cost effectively.

Screen printing remains a viable technique for larger, less-complex projects and will continue to have a place in any full-service garment distributor’s business model. In order to meet client needs, it’s important to offer as many options as possible, and each distinct technique results in a product with its own unique look and feel.

However, as new alternatives continue to be refined, it’s vital that sellers remain open to expanding their offerings. Plastisol heat transfers are proving their worth as a viable alternative for a large percentage of modern custom printing needs.

Brian Burr is chief operating officer of in Palm Desert, Calif., which has produced embroidered garments for clientele that includes Google, NASA, MTV and the United States Army. Brian has been involved in every aspect of the embroidery industry for more than 18 years, and has extensive knowledge of embroidery equipment, techniques and the business of custom printing and embroidery. For more information or to comment on this article, email Brian at