Do you ever feel a little envious watching everyone with a sublimation or laser transfer printer selling custom mugs and tumblers? Do you feel left out because you only have a vinyl cutter and a heat press? Cheer up. You can play too. You can decorate mugs with a heat press and some HTV. No printer required. And we have the perfect heat press to punch your ticket to the cool custom mug party without giving up on custom tees. Here’s how to decorate mugs with HTV.

Going Beyond Textiles with HTV.

We should state right up front that heat transfer vinyl or HTV is really not designed for decorating mugs and tumblers. The adhesive and face film are engineered to bond to textiles. Textiles of course are soft and have texture that the adhesive latches onto. This enables the quick removal of the liner in what’s known as hot peel or warm peel process. This is not the case with ceramics or metals, so the process is a little different.

Speaking of ceramics and metals, there are other things beside t-shirts that can be customized with heat transfer film. You can use a good HTV to decorate shoes, tote bags, koozies and more. There are other things people would like to decorate with HTV, but target substrates have to be able to withstand three hundred degree temperatures and a fair amount of pressure. Corrugated plastic sign blanks and magnetic vinyl won’t cut it.

Mugs and tumblers qualify because they can take the heat. And, since there are already mug presses made for decorating them, it’s a pretty easy adaptation. The mug press process usually requires transfer paper as a carrier for sublimation ink or toner from laser printers. That’s still true for photographic color images. But for bold, simple spot color graphics, the right heat transfer film is an option. With the right HTV, you can even produce desirable tactile and visual effects that sublimation can’t match

How to Decorate Mugs & Tumblers with HTV

A plain dollar-store or sublimated mug can be decorated with Logical Color HTV
Both plain dollar-store mugs and polymer-coated sublimation-ready mugs can be decorated with Logical Color HTV

Decorating ceramic mugs and stainless steel tumblers with HTV is almost the same as customizing drinkware with sublimation. You apply the film, tape it to the mug, place it in a mug press, remove the mug, and remove the liner. But there are a few changes. It’s not the same process as decorating a mug with sublimation, and it’s not the same process as applying HTV to fabric. The mashup of HTV and mug press requires a unique set of parameters. Here’s how to decorate mugs with HTV

  • Design and Cut your graphic in Heat transfer film with your vinyl cutter, and weed away the excess.
  • Trim the entire graphic so that the liner fits within the parameters of the mug. For instance, for 110z ceramic mugs, your transfer should be about 3” tall.
  • Preheat the mug press to 330° F
  • Apply the transfer to the outer surface of mug. Secure it with heat transfer tape.
  • Insert the mug in the mug press, and close with firm pressure all around the circumference of the mug.
  • Press for 30 to 45 seconds (more on that below)
  • Remove the mug from the press (this step may require some cotton gloves as the mug will still be toasty).
  • Wait 20 seconds or more! This is not a hot peel process. Then, remove the tape and peel the liner back along the surface of the mug.

Best Heat Transfer Films for Mugs

Logical Color Glittersoft applied to a black un-coated dollar store mug. Allow ample time for the film to cool before removing the liner.
FIG 1: This is a cold peel process. Wait 20 seconds before peeling liner

There may be lots of different HTV products that work for this application. Since this is a non-standard substrate, we wanted to have the best chance of success, so we chose Logical Color WarmPEEL Universal. As the name implies, WarmPEEL Universal is designed to adhere to all kinds of textiles and has a wide range of acceptable temperature ranges. If you’re going to expand the envelope, why not start with the most versatile film?

We used WarmPEEL Universal with the 330°F temperature and pressed it for 30 seconds. Then the 20-second peel time was crucial. Depending on your settings, you may have some minor ‘pitting’ of the face film, but the overall look is pleasing, especially if you choose one of the new Bright Metallic colors.

Speaking of Bright Metallic, as long as we’re pushing boundaries, why not push them clear off the table? Glitter and metallic effects are one of the strengths of HTV that sublimation can’t match. So naturally, we tried the same process with Logical Color GlitterSoft.

We applied red GlitterSoft on a black dollar store mug for an effect that’s pleasing to the eye and hand. The red glitter stands out on the black mug and the texture of the film adds a tangible value to the applied graphic. For GlitterSoft mug transfers, a longer press cycle time is required to set the adhesive. Press for 45 seconds or more at 330°F. Remove from the mug press and wait 30 seconds or more (FIG 1). Peel the liner by rolling it back along the surface. The finished product looks and feels very decorative.

Caveats & Bonuses

White outlines are caused by too much pressure. Cylindrical mugs work best.
FIG 2: White adhesive indicates too much pressure.

Using HTV on mugs has a few downsides relative to sublimation. The applied graphics aren’t dishwasher safe, so the mugs will be have to be hand-washed. Considering the fact that most Yeti tumblers aren’t dishwasher safe either, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Both polymer-coated sublimation mugs and un-coated ‘dollar store’ mugs work. You may find polymer coated mugs and tumbler offer more challenges.

Generally speaking, cylindrical mugs will work better because placing them in a standard mug fitting produces even pressure all around the mug and vertically, along the sides. Putting too much pressure on some HTVs in this application will cause the adhesive to be squeezed out from under the face film. Depending on the color of the mug, this may be quite obvious. It comes out as a white outline around your applied letter or graphics. In the case of a non-cylindrical drinking vessel like a wine tumbler, there is more pressure applied at the widest area. This is where the adhesive issue may show up (FIG 2). For pressing items like this a mug press with a conical fitting would be more appropriate. Set the pressure in the fitting as low as possible. Just enough to hold the mug and HTV firmly in place, but not tight enough to choke the life out of the HTV.

On the upside, coated mugs with some texture like HTX metallic wine tumblers are easier to use. This is because the HTV’s adhesive grips the texture of the mug like the fibers of the fabrics for which it was engineered. Decorating colored wine tumblers with sublimation isn’t ideal because sublimation is a process color application. It works best on white substrates. Sublimating a blue or purple tumbler diminishes the vibrant color of sublimation ink. But applying HTV nullifies that because the film is opaque. So the color of the tumbler doesn’t dilute the color of the applied graphic.

Two Presses In One

The mug attachment makes the SilverBolt 1620-CSM a very versatile heat press
The SilverBolt 1620-CSM is two heat presses in one.

If you’re worrying about having to add a new mug press to a cluttered work space, there’s more good news. You can get both applications from one press. For this test, we used the SilverBOLT 1620CSM with the mug attachment. The 1620-CSM Mug attachment worked great. And when you’re not customizing mugs & tumblers, you can use the shirt press for garden-variety textile applications like graphic tees, league jerseys, koozies, and tote bags. Using the combo maximizes space efficiency in your shop. And, at under $650, it's a great value.

Switching from mugs to shirts and back can be done with the flip of a toggle switch. The switch determines whether the voltage is routed to heat the platen on the shirt press or the heating element on the mug attachment. There are some integrated processes. When you're using the mug press, you start the timer by closing the shirt press. If you want an easy way to calculate the recommended 20-second cooling cycle before removing the HTV release liner, just close the press again and let it count down from 30. At 10 seconds, remove the liner. Easy peasy.

If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines watching others tap into the lucrative drinkware decoration market, but didn’t have a sublimation printer, this is your lucky day. You can play too. If you have a vinyl cutter, a mug press and some Logical Color HTV, you have everything you need. If you don’t have a mug press, you can buy a SilverBolt 1620CSM and decorate mugs, shirts, koozies and more from one versatile, space efficient machine.