Digital Decorating:

Transfers Plus Screen Printing Yield Great Results on Darks

August 8, 2012

For the past 25 years, I have helped garment decorators choose various processes for embellishing garments with heat transfer and screen printing processes. During this time, I have had the unique opportunity to watch these methods evolve and become more efficient.

In the heat transfers category, new digital transfer technologies have been very popular — including inkjet, sublimation, color laser copier (CLC) and color laser printer (CLP) transfer technology. There are several digital transfers that provide a great way to print on dark-colored garments, but some customers don’t like the feel of them after they are applied, nor do they like the rectangular border that is left behind from the transfer paper.

I recently was introduced to a new process that combines screen printing and digital transfers to produce a full-color, opaque digital transfer without the outline around the design. How did they do that? I recently traveled to The Paper Ranch, Oklahoma City, Okla., to see this new process and the results for myself.

Two Process Combined

For the screen printing portion of this process, a film positive of the artwork should be printed on vellum paper. Nick Buettner of The Paper Ranch advises using CorelDraw, Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to create artwork. “All of these programs will output the image and film perfectly,” he says.

The key to eliminating the aforementioned rectangle around the design is a mask that is created by the art software. With a vector graphic, you simply copy it and make it completely black in color for the mask, which is your film. When you have a raster graphic it is a bit more complicated, but still not very difficult. First, you trace the graphic and then delete the background. Next, convert the image to solid black because it is a vector image. Since original graphic did not change, the output will look the same. The mask is only the white or clear backer that is screen printed during the process.

Since this is a laser process, only laser printers will work. According to Buettner, several brands work well, but decorators should consult their manufacturers to confirm their models will work with this process. For the screen printing portion of this process, most laser printers will print on vellum as well. For the printing the transfers, Buettner recommends using a special Arjo Wiggins transfer paper that is designed to print on both sides, as well as release toner and backer onto the garment.

When printing the topcoat adhesive backer onto the digital transfer, it is suggested that you use a 305-390 screen mesh. The adhesive backer can be air dried, but because of the time involved, Buettner recommends using a commercial conveyor dryer when doing high-volume production.

After the backer is printed on the back of the transfer, an adhesive powder is applied. “I recommend that anyone trying this process should use the adhesive powder that is sold with the backer,” Buettner says. “The granular size of the powder will affect the transfer’s hand, as well as the time and temperature required for curing.”

After applying the transfer with a heat press, the result is a bright, soft transfer that, when laundered, will hold up to the standards of a regular screen printed design or transfer, according to Buettner. It works on any fabric that can withstand the heat required for final application.

Following is the step-by-step process showing exactly how the transfer was produced and applied.

Digital full-color transfers have now taken a quantum leap into being a very viable method for long-run multi-color prints on dark-colored garments. For screen printers, this process provides an easy way to eliminate printing multiple film positives, exposing multiple screens and sending transfer paper through the dryer for each color printed. 

If you are not a screen printer and you are intrigued by this process, the required equipment involves a minimal investment. However, you should seek training, which is available from many equipment manufacturers, screen printing supply houses and at Imprinted Sportswear Shows in multiple locations across the country.

James Ortolani has more than 25 years experience in the decorated apparel industry, specializing in hands-on direct screen printing and heat transfer production. He has worked for many industry suppliers, and currently serves as national sales manager for Hix Corp. For more information or to comment on this article, e-mail James at