We are surrounded by decorated wearables. Go to any mall or anywhere else you're in a crowd and notice all the business advertising, social slang, tour t-shirts, and other "merch" that you see in crowds.

Laser transfer is a hot commodity in garment decoration. It’s popularity comes from its versatility. What can you customize with laser transfer?

Most people start with garments, but that’s missing a lot of options. They know they can decorate anything from light and dark garments to wood and metal signs, ceramic mugs, stainless steel tumblers, and many other items. Basically, if an item can handle heat, pressure, and fit in a heat press, there’s probably a way to customize it. 

Laser Transfer vs. Sublimation

Laser transfers can open the door for your business for customization of stainless tumblers and ceramic mugs.

We all know that dye sublimation has been around for many years. It's ol' faithful. But there are downsides to sublimation.

If you are sublimating garments, they must be 100% polyester in white or light colors. Sublimation won't show up on dark colors, and even some light colors are going to have a color shift. This is a big limitation in the fashion world, which is why many sublimators focus on hard surface decoration.

There are thousands of hard surfaces that can be sublimated, and this is the main profit center for many decorators. But there are some downsides here too. If you are trying to sublimate a plate, cup, or other hard surface items, it must have a polymer coating. The ink won’t dye the surface without the polymer coating. Because of this, sublimation blanks tend to cost more than un-coated items. And since sublimation if a direct transfer using CMYK ink, the items have to be white or in the grayscale. Black, red, or blue blanks won’t support vivid, correct color.

Laser Transfer Printing Advantages

There is a lot of versatility in laser transfer printing. It can be used on all different types of fabric, including, 100 % cotton, 100 % polyester, cotton-poly blends, and others. And if your laser transfer printer has white toner, you can also customize light and dark-colored garments. You can find a number of laser transfer media here

Laser transfer has advantages in hard surface decoration, too. The range of things you can customize is pretty broad. You can use metal, wood, ceramic and much more. Plus, there is no need for the polymer coating. In fact, polymer-coated items don’t work quite as well. The coating can interfere with the toner and produce inconsistent transfers. This means you don’t have to buy specially coated items for your laser transfer printer. You can run down to the local Dollar Store and pick up some un-coated mugs. And if you’re using a white toner printer, those mugs can be white, black, blue, whatever. That gives you more creative options and lower costs. Sell them for cheaper and make a bigger profit. It’s a no brainer to give hard surface laser transfer paper a try.

What Hard Surfaces Can You Use?

Hard surface after a laser transfer

There are limits to everything, and laser transfers are no exception. There are many compatible hard surfaces, including plates, mugs, tumblers, chalkboards, and much more. As I mentioned, if a surface can handle temperatures up to 400°F and fit in your heat-press, there is probably a way to customize it.

But there are some things to note. Material such as corrugated plastic signs cannot be pressed because they will not handle the necessary temperature. They will melt in your press and cause more damage. Just stick with sign vinyl for your yard signs.

Customized drinkware is very popular and profitable. One of the best uses for laser transfer in this segment is customizing stainless steel tumblers, like Yetis and Yukons. Just like the dollar store mugs, you can get these just about anywhere. Of course, you’ll need a mug press like the EnduraPRESS MP5 or GeoKnight DK3 full mug press. Or you could get a mug attachment like the Geo Knight Full Wrap Mug Attachmenr for Digital Combo Heat Press or Silverbolt 1620CSM Clamshell Heat Press and Mug Attachment.  

The key to successful tumbler transfers is to try to use cylindrical tumblers, or use a mug press that has a conical fitting. This gives you even pressure around the mug. Consistent pressure is essential for good laser transfers. This goes for both garments and hard surfaces.

Speaking of hard surfaces and pressure, we did some experimenting and found the same is true with wood and metal sign blanks. We went to our local hobby and dollar stores and grabbed some different signs and substrates to test. We ran into some issues and learned tricks along the way.

One of our metal sign blanks had edges that wrapped around behind the back. This caused some headaches while we were pressing because the center of the sign would bow inward and cause inconsistent transfers. We added a Nomex pad to support the center of the blank and positioned the transfer paper in the middle and that fixed the problem. The other sign was flat and thin but had twine inserted for hanging. The twine caused a similar problem, so we snipped it. Problem solved. The theme of pressing hard surfaces is flat blanks work best. If it's not flat, you’ll have pressure variances and those can cause heartache.

iColor Laser Transfer Premium Package

The iColor Premium Package includes the iColor 650, bundled with the SilverBolt 1620SA premium heat press. The 1620SA includes an advanced 6.5” control panel and digital pressure display, and up to 10 custom presets. Check out all iColor packages and products

Helpful Hints

  • Always use the correct media type in your printer driver or RIP software.
  • The recommended time and temperature settings will vary depending on your item. For instance, book covers can be pressed in 50 seconds. Glass and crystal takes up to 3 minutes.
  • When pressing flat items like sign blanks, ALWAYS use a swing-away heat press like the EnduraPRESS C16 Clamshell Heat Press. (Clamshell presses are not recommended for use with self-weeding laser transfer paper.)

Now that those are out of the way, here are the recommended steps for decorating hard surfaces.

  • Set your heat press to 285 – 360°F, depending on your chosen material. You may want to test on your own before you start your first job. Also, calibrate your heat press to make sure the displayed platen temperature is correct. Wrong temperatures can cause bad transfers. We sell the Geo Knight IR Thermometer that is great for testing heat presses.
  • Pull your graphics into your laser transfer printer's design or RIP software. Make sure you chose the correct paper size for your design. You can ‘gang’ small images and print multiple copies on one sheet of paper. This saves time and money. Remember to print the image in reverse.
  • While waiting for the press to reach the set temperature, place your item in the press to check the pressure. Most items will call for medium to high pressure. We used some kraft paper under our item, plus a Nomex pad for some items to fill negative space and produce even pressure across the surface. Once you find the pressure you want, remove the blank, being mindful of the possibility that it may be warm to the touch. For some items like metal and ceramic blanks, heat-resistant gloves are recommended.
  • Always use a silicon heat conductive pad! The pad assists with even distribution of heat and supports even coating of toner on the item.
  • Place your print toner-side down on the item you are customizing. Try to place the tape so that it’s only on the edges of the paper and not over any printed areas. Heat tape over the printed areas of the paper can interfere with the toner transfer.
  • Place your item on your heat-press as you did before. Press for the recommended time and temperature. We pressed our metal hobby store sign blanks at 320° F, for about 45-50 seconds.
  • Remove the item from the press and peel warm or cold. Most hard surfaces, including metals, should be peeled cold. Leather, stainless steel, CDs, and ceramics should be peeled warm or hot. Check the instruction sheet for guidance. Most cold peel items can be immersed in water to cool faster and ease the removal of the transfer paper.
  • Tip: if your transfer didn’t come out the way you wanted, don’t throw the item away! Take some acetone (aka nail polish remover), and some fabric or paper towels, wipe the toner away and try again. Not all substrates can be reused this way, but most can.

Now you are ready to expand the envelope and use your laser transfer printer to decorate hard surfaces! This can be a boom in your business for personalizing coffee mugs, tumblers, wood signs, metal signs, books, awards, and so much more. Also remember, if you don't get it just right the first time, it's okay. Check the temperature to make sure your heat press is calibrated. And experiment with ways to produce strong, consistent pressure. We went through several test runs with our items before we got them dialed in. It's a learning experience that will help your business in the end. Gather some hard surface items in need of nifty graphics, and have fun creating new, profitable products for your laser transfer business.