How to Choose the Best Heat Applied Transfer for Custom Printing

When you are creating custom apparel, which method or methods do you use? There are so many ways to decorate shirts and other apparel, such as screen printing, embroidery, heat transfers, DTG, and sublimation, just to name a few. Do you use a variety of these or stick with one way? Heat transfers are the fastest and easiest way to decorate custom apparel. But even then, there are a lot of different types of heat transfers, so how do you choose the best heat applied transfer?

To start off, no matter which type of heat transfer you are going to use, you will need a heat press for all heat transfer applications.

Some will argue this point and I will concur in the case if you are making shirts as a hobby. If you are decorating “one-off’s” (a.k.a. – printing one or two shirts at a time) as a hobby or to make a gift for family members, you could probably get away with an iron and using your ink jet printer at home to print your own transfers.

But that’s not what we’re talking about right now. If you are going to be decorating apparel at a professional level as a business, an iron and ink jet transfers aren’t going to cut it.

[Related Content: Cricut EasyPress vs Heat Press]


First: How to Choose a Heat Press

You definitely need a solid heat press that you can rely on with confidence to apply your heat transfers. You also need heat transfers that will withstand multiple washes and still have a high quality print.

Before we dive in and talk about transfers, I want to point out that not all heat presses are created equal. If you want to succeed in your apparel business, you will want to do you research when it comes to purchasing a heat press.

heat press for heat applied transfers

Think of this one piece of equipment as an investment in your business. The cost of a quality heat press is really not all that much more when you think about it.

If you skimp on a heat press now, it could come back to bite you later. One bad returned order from a customer could cost you the difference of that better press in the first place. Not to mention that you may lose customers due to inadequate apparel decoration.

Just do yourself a favor and save yourself the embarrassment, headaches, and rework of trying to make up the ground you lost with a bad heat press.

[Related Content: Why You Need to Spend More Than $300 for a Heat Press]

Ok, I will get off the soap box and continue with how to choose the right heat transfer for your job.


Types of Heat Transfers

Like I mentioned above, there are several types of heat transfers to choose from to decorate custom t-shirts and apparel. Your options include heat transfer vinyl (or HTV for short), sublimation transfers, rhinestone transfers, and screen printed transfers.

Each of them have their own place. Before we look into which type of transfer to choose, let’s briefly cover what each type is.

Let’s start with sublimation transfers. Besides your heat press, sublimation transfers would also require you to buy a special printer to print your transfers.

Just like heat presses, these printers have a range in prices – anywhere from hundreds of dollars up to thousands of dollars.

Simply put, sublimation is a type of printing method that involves turning inks into a gas state. Your design actually becomes part of the fabric instead of having an ink laying on top of the fabric. You won’t feel the design at all.

Sublimation printing allows full color artwork. However, because of the process, sublimation transfers apply to 100% white polyester. This will limit your apparel choices.

Another type of heat transfer used that is a popular choice is vinyl. Along with sublimation transfers, vinyl transfers will require an additional equipment purchase – a cutter.

You can buy vinyl in rolls and feed it through your cutter. In this decorating choice, you are not working with inks, but instead, a layer of thin vinyl. When heat applied, it feels very similar to a screen printed plastisol ink.

To use your cutter, you first enter your design into a software tool in your computer. Instead of “printing” your design out from a printer, your cutter will cut the design out from your vinyl roll.

This may require a little more learning on how to use this software and equipment, but lots of people do it.

After the design is cut into your vinyl, you will then need to “weed” out the excess vinyl, leaving only your design left. Now you can heat apply your design. Stahls offers a wide variety of rolled vinyl goods.

The other type of heat transfer, besides vinyl, that is most commonly used, is the screen printed transfer. This is probably the most widely used choice in heat printing.

Screen printed transfers use the same process as direct screen printing. It is actual screen printing, but instead of directly printing onto a shirt, it is printed onto a special release paper. This is the transfer that you use to heat apply to blank apparel.

Screen printed transfers offer the same durability as regular screen printing.

Vinyl and screen printed transfers are the most common forms of heat applied transfers. Looking at these types, we will focus on how to choose the best heat applied transfer for your printing job at hand.


How to Choose the Best Heat Applied Transfer for Each Job

In any given case, there is rarely a one-size fits all solution. The same goes for heat applied transfers.

In choosing which transfer type is best, we will look at a few factors so you will know when to use each type.

Consider these things:

  • Quantity
  • Artwork
  • Amount of colors
  • Fabric content

Quantity – how many shirts are you producing?

One of the first things you will want to consider when choosing a heat transfer type, is how many shirts do you have to decorate. You want to think about this first, because each transfer type has their own benefits for different quantities.

If you are printing less than 5 shirts, you will most likely want to choose vinyl. It won’t take you too long to cut and weed 5 shirts or less.

However, if you are printing at least 5 shirts, it is time to start considering screen printed transfers. This is not a for sure switch over though yet. There are other factors to consider as well.

With quantity, check your costs. Generally, it will be cheaper for you to cut your own designs at less than 5 shirts. With screen printed transfers, there will be minimum purchase quantities. At Transfer Express, you can get a minimum of 6 sheets for screen printed transfers, and 5 sheets for full color UltraColor transfers.

As you increase into larger quantities, usually more than 10, you will definitely want to really start looking at screen printed transfers. The ease of use and fast turnaround will make larger quantities a breeze.

custom kickball shirts

A large order, such as this kickball tournament, is much easier to produce with screen printed transfers.

The 5 to 10 range is an area you will want to compare pricing, among other factors, like artwork.

Artwork – how detailed is your design?

Remember, when using vinyl, not only do you have to cut your design, you also have to weed it. Weeding areas with small detail can be very difficult. You don’t want to accidentally remove part of your design.

Because of this, it can make weeding intricate pieces not only difficult, but also very time consuming.

Also know your cutter. Your machine itself may not even be physically able to cut small detail.

If you have determined that your cutter can cut small detail, also think about the time it will take to cut it. The time it will take to cut a design with lots of detail will be much longer. You have to decide what your time is worth and how long it will take to finish your entire project.

For example, it is not uncommon for schools or organizations to include names within the design. A design, such as this one pictured here, has over 100 small names. If it is even possible to cut, your cutter would have to individually cut each letter.

shirt design listing group of names

Given that there are over 100 names on this shirt, your order size will also most likely be of an equivalent quantity. Screen printed transfers would be the way to go here.

Amount of Colors – how many colors does your design contain?

You’ll also want to consider how many colors will be printed in your design. The more colors, the more you will want to lean towards screen printed transfers.

The reason for this is that screen printed transfers are printed with all of the colors on one transfer sheet. Your application is one step. All the colors apply at once. The registration is already done for you during the printing process.

On the other hand, with vinyl, you have to individually cut the design for each color, weed it, and then heat apply each color at a time. Not only is it a multi-step process, but you now also have the challenge of having to align each of the colors as you apply them.

Again, with a higher quantity, detailed artwork, and more than 1 color, you will probably be better off working with screen printed transfers at this point.

multi color shirt design layout

A shirt design using multiple colors such as this design would help you to decide which transfer type to use.

The other side of the color consideration, is the type of color. Is your artwork spot color or full color? The easiest way to describe the difference is to think of spot colors as you would a coloring book. They are solid areas of color.

The opposite is full color. Think of this like a photograph. There are lots of colors, with shading and gradients.

spot color vs cmyk printing

Depending on the type of coloring you are looking for, would also determine your transfer type. If your artwork is full color, you will need to use a transfer that prints in full color.

Your options here would be a digital print like UltraColor® or CAD-PRINTZ®. UltraColor is one of our transfer types that combines digital printing with screen printing. CAD-PRINTZ is a type of transfer that is digital printing on a vinyl carrier.

If you prefer to go down the vinyl route, you can actually print your own digital transfers on vinyl material, but that would also require an additional special printer to do that.

Fabric Content – what is the apparel made from?

The last piece of the puzzle to consider which transfer type you should use for each heat printing job is to look at the fabric content of the material you will be printing on.

Both vinyl and screen printed transfers have special formulas designed to go on different types of apparel.

Does the shirt you want to print on contain stretchy or heat sensitive materials? This type of information would steer you in the right direction of which transfer type to use.


Choosing the Right Screen Printed Transfer Ink Formula

In the case of screen printed transfers, we offer a variety of ink formulas. If you don’t know the purpose of each formula, it can be very confusing to know which transfer type to choose.

Let’s break it down.

Quantity – All of our transfers are sold by the sheet. Our minimum sheet quantity is 6 sheets for screen printed transfers, or 5 sheets for full color UltraColor transfers.

Artwork – Generally speaking, most of our screen printed transfers have the same guidelines when it comes to detail. (There are a few exceptions and tips so your transfers turn out the best they possibly can, which we will cover a little more in each transfer formula.)

Amount of Colors – Our screen printed transfers are all spot color. You can order 1 color, 2 colors, 3, or more. These are priced by the number of sheets, and also by the number of colors.

As mentioned above, UltraColor is a transfer type that has unlimited amount of colors. These transfers are priced by the number of sheets.

So if you are trying to decide which type to go with, how many colors do you have? Is it full color? If your design is 1 or 2 colors, our screen printed transfers will be fine. Once you are getting into 3 colors or more, start comparing UltraColor prices. If your artwork is full color, UltraColor is your option.

Fabric Content – All of our transfers work on cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends just fine. However, depending on what your fabric is, there is a transfer formula optimal for different kinds.

Let’s take a closer look at each ink formula.


The Benefits of Each Screen Printed Transfer

Knowing a little more about each screen printed transfer formula will also help you choose which one is best for you to use in your specific application.

Goof Proof® is our best-selling screen printed transfer type. It is the easiest and fastest to apply in just 4 seconds. This will work on all your basic t-shirts and apparel containing cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends. It’s durable for sports applications, and goes on any color of apparel. It applies at 365ºF.

Hot Split is the softest of the screen printed transfer ink formulas. Because of this, it is great if your shirt is thinner or softer, such as a burnout tee. It applies at 360ºF for 10 seconds. This formula of ink works best when the ink color is darker than the shirt color. We do not recommend neon colors in Hot Split.

Elasti Prints® is the screen printed transfer for heat sensitive polyester because it applies at a low temperature of 300ºF. If your apparel is 100% polyester performance wear that stretches, this transfer is also perfect for this material, because of the stretch and rebound that this formula offers. Since it applies at a low temperature, it is also good for heat sensitive materials like polypropylene bags. Elasti Prints will apply on cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends.

Glitter is a specialty ink that shines and shimmers. It is available in 10 different glitter colors. This transfer formula is best with bold designs for a better glitter effect. It is best to limit the detail with this type of ink.

Another specialty ink that is great for fashion is Pearl Prints™. This ink is available in 6 colors and has a pearlescent metallic look. Also good for cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends, it applies at 340ºF. Only 1 color can be used at a time, although there are 6 colors available.

Puff screen printed transfers do exactly as the name implies – the ink puffs upon application. This ink is great for fashion and spirit wear. It applies to cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends. The puff effect is available in white or black inks only, but can be added to a design with other colors. Smaller detail is not recommended with puff inks because the ink expands and you can lose fine detail, especially in “show-through” text areas.

Our Glow-in-the-Dark ink formula shows up a milky white in daylight, and glows a greenish color in the dark after charging in light. It applies to cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends. Glow-in-the-Dark transfers are only available in the Glow-in-the-Dark ink.

UltraColor® Soft is the full color transfer option. This transfer type combines digital printing with screen printing. It applies at a low temperature of 290ºF and also stretches, which makes this a full color option for heat sensitive, stretchy polyester performance wear. It also applies to cotton, polyester, and cotton/poly blends when you need a colorful transfer besides performance wear.


Heat Applied Transfer Application

The key to a successful decorated shirt lies within the application instructions. Always follow the instructions that come with your transfers.

The instructions do not change based on what you are applying to. In this case, if your apparel is unique, you may need to change the transfer type, not the instructions.

With all of our screen printed transfers, time, temperature, and pressure are important. I can’t stress that enough.

Do not ever use a pillow with screen printed transfers. Unless specified on our instructions, you don’t need an extra cover sheet either. The transfer carrier provides the necessary covering. (If you are doing multiple applications and the ink from a previous application is exposed, this would be an example when you may want to use a cover sheet.)



We hope this guide helps give you an idea of when to use each transfer type and each screen printed transfer formula.

Each heat applied transfer has its benefits. Knowing when to use each one will help you be more productive and more profitable.

Remember: work smarter, not harder.

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