Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Utah, you’ve probably heard that a process called DTF is revolutionizing the sign and graphics industry. Many people are converting from older screen and digital garment decoration processes to adopt direct-to-film printing. Others who haven’t yet made the leap are weighing their options and asking questions. In our ongoing efforts to help buyers make good decisions about sign equipment, we’ve created this DTF FAQ. Here you’ll find answers to the most frequently asked questions about converting to DTF printing for apparel. Perhaps the answers to your questions can be found below. 

Overview: What is DTF?

For some readers, the first question about DTF is: "What the heck is it?" Fair enough. Let’s start there. Once we’ve laid the groundwork and clarified what direct-to-film printing means, we’ll dive into the DTF FAQs.

DTF is an amalgamation of old and new garment decoration technologies. It  combines the ease-of-application of old-fashioned plastisol transfers with the custom printing capabilities of direct-to-garment, aka DTG, printers. 

In short, DTF is an apparel decoration process in which custom images are printed with an inkjet printer on a specially coated film. The ink is then coated with white or black adhesive powder, and the powder is cured by heat, which fuses the powder and ink. The film is then placed on apparel in a heat press and pressed to the garment. Once cooled, the film is removed and the printed image remains on the garment. The applied transfer is soft, durable, and stretchable. Please click here for a step-by-step pictorial guide to the DTF process.


Now that we have a basic understanding of the direct-to-film process, let’s jump right into the FAQs. These are the most frequently asked questions our customers have posed when considering a DTF printer purchase. 

Can DTF printers print on other media, such as HTV or vinyl?
Generally, the answer is no. Most DTF printers are engineered specifically for printing on the specially-coated film for which DTF is named. However, the Roland BY-20, which is based on a printer-cutter, can also be used to print (and cut) solvent-printable heat transfer film. 

What is the purpose of the powder?
The powder that is applied to DTF prints serves the same purposes as adhesive paper in two-step, white toner transfer printers, or pre-treatments used on cotton shirts in DTG printers. It helps bind the ink to the apparel. Since most DTF powder is white, it also adds a blocking layer that prevents the color of the decorated apparel from showing through the ink. This produces a transfer that is vivid and colorful, even on black fabric.

What makes the powder stick?
The powder is an adhesive that is activated by heat. Technically speaking, it’s an endothermic reaction. When a certain temperature is reached, the powder melts into the ink forming a permanent bond. Then, when it’s heated again on the heat press, that same reaction occurs and binds the powder and ink to the fabric. 

How long does it take to cure?
Most DTF powder requires a curing time of two minutes, at 120° C (250°F). For sheets with large images and/or a lot of ink coverage, it may be necessary to open the cover, rotate the page 180 degrees, and then cure for another 2 minutes.

Does it work on hard surfaces?
Sadly, no. As good as DTF is, it can’t do everything. Direct-to-Fil printing is great for decorating apparel. But - like DTG - it’s a one-trick pony. The film and powder process are only supported for use on textiles. This includes cotton, Polyester, cotton-poly blends, and tri-blends, but it does not include mugs, ceramic tiles, or metals. These are applications best handled through dye sublimation, vinyl, or laser transfer. 

What accessories do I need?
In addition to a dedicated DTF printer using textile pigment ink, you’ll need a few essentials to make the magic happen. The bare essentials are a heat station to cure the powder and a heat press to apply the film to fabric. In addition to these indispensable items, a fume extractor is highly recommended. 

To maximize efficiency, high-volume shirt shops replace the curing station with an automated shaker that applies powder to the film, shakes it off, and cures the prints all in a sealed, conveyor belt. For best results, choose one like the UNINET Shaker 14 or Slim Shaker that includes an attachment vent for the fume extractor. 

How does DTF compare with other garment processes?
This has been the most frequently-asked question about DTF over the last few years. The short answer is, ‘it depends’. DTF has different sets of advantages and drawbacks depending on the benchmark. Its main advantages are simplicity, cost, and comfort. The process is easy to master, the equipment and operating costs are low, and the transfers are stretchable enough to please most end users. 

 See the bullet list below for a simplified overview of how DTF stacks up against some popular garment decoration techniques.

  • Compared to DTG, DTF’s main advantages are speed and versatility. You don’t have to pre-treat the shirts, and you can decorate a wider variety of textiles.
  • Compared to laser transfer, DTF’s main advantages are simplicity, feel, and cost. The process is much simpler, the transfers stretch more, and the per-shirt cost is much lower.
  • Compared to HTV, DFT’s advantage is simplicity. DTF is a no-weed process, so creating complex transfers eliminates the sometimes time-consuming or frustrating steps of weeding HTV and masking the film before application. 
  • Compared to dye sublimation, DTF’s main advantages are opacity and versatility. The use of white ink and powder creates opaque color transfers that block the color of the fabric. This enables decorating dark and colored garments, as well as cotton and blended fabrics.

This doesn’t mean DTF has no drawbacks. In each of the matchups above, there are comparative advantages for the other techniques. Some are more versatile, more sustainable, or require lower maintenance. For a deeper dive into how DTF stacks up,  check out our comprehensive UniNet DTF 1000 Advantages & Disadvantages article.

Is DTF Right for You?

This is the proverbial $64,000 question. Adjusted for inflation, it’s the $735,000 question in today’s dollars.* Anyway, this is the most important question. And it’s a question only you can answer. But we can help. We’ve talked mostly about DTF’s advantages. Let’s get real and discuss a few important caveats.

Daily Maintenance: Most DTF printers use CMYK plus white ink. Any inkjet printer with white ink requires regular maintenance to prevent the titanium Dioxide in the ink from settling. Lack of regular maintenance can cause problems as mild as faded transfers to clogged print heads. If you can’t commit to running the printer daily and cleaning it weekly, consider other options.

Ventilation: The adhesive powder that is the secret sauce of DTF emits fumes during curing that may be hazardous to your health.** These must be properly vented. If you plan to setup a DTF printer in a home, school, or office environment, buy a good fume extractor and change the filters regularly

Textiles Only: DTF can’t be used to decorate hard surfaces like ceramics and metals. It can’t be used to print banners or decals.  If these kinds of promotional items are a vital part of your business, sublimation or HTV might be a better choice. DTF has revolutionized the sign and garment industry like no other technology in recent memory. It offers a unique set of benefits and advantages. It’s easy to do, economical, and produces vividly colored, stretchable transfers. It offers a unique set of advantages - and some disadvantages - compared to the most popular garment decoration techniques in the market. It’s still fairly new, so there are lots of questions about this disruptive technology. We hope this DTF FAQ article has addressed all of yours. If not, feel free to Contact Us to continue the conversation.


More DTF Blog Resources:
UniNet DTF1000 Advantages &  Disadvantages
The DTF Process: Step by Step Tutorial
T-Shirt Printing Options Under $5,000

____________________________________________________________ * *The $64,000 Question was a popular game show on TV during the 1950s.

Please Note: This equipment requires a well-ventilated area with a filtration system.  When working with DTF products and processes, use appropriate personal protective equipment since fumes might be harmful.