How To Use Heat Transfer Paper
Heat Transfer Paper: What It Is & How To Use It
HTP. aka Heat Transfer Paper.
Drop that into your next crafting conversation for some instant street-cred. In this article, we’ll discuss how to use heat transfer paper and why it’s such a handy tool for decorating blank apparel and accessories.
HTP is awesome because it allows you to use a standard, common desktop printer to print a multicolored design that can then be applied to blank apparel (or blank accessories). That means you can decorate blank t-shirts, sweatshirts, aprons, or bags with a special photograph, illustration, graphic (or other digital image). Don’t stop there! When you harness the power and skill of decorating blanks with HTP, you can reproduce digital art onto any of the awesome blanks on Press Hall. Using HTP is such an easy technique; it opens up so many possibilities for you to get creative.
The other big plus with HTP is that it’s inexpensive and doesn’t require a special machine. Just your regular ol’ printer. With hardly any costs involved, decorating with HTP makes a great technique for beginner apparel decorators.
Gather these items to decorate blank apparel with HTP:
- A desktop inkjet or laser printer
- A heat source such as a heat press or standard steam iron
- A pack of HTP (heat transfer paper)
- A clean sheet of parchment paper
- Blank apparel or blank accessory
Ready? Of course you are. Let’s get into it.
What Is Heat Transfer Paper?
Okay, so what exactly is HTP? It’s magical paper spun from rainbows and pixie dust. Sike! just kidding. Actually, HTP is polymer and pigment but that’s just not as fun as saying rainbows and pixie dust. Basically, HTP is made up of special fibers that give apparel decorators the ability to apply multicolor designs on printed paper onto fabric, using heat.
Heat transfer paper works best on blank apparel made up of cotton, polyester, spandex, rayon, or other similar materials. Even better, HTP works on both light and dark colored blanks! How do you load HTP into the printer? Good question, easy answer: HTP loads directly into your printer like regular ‘ol paper and can be purchased in standard 8 ½ x 11 or 11 x 17 sheets.
The only thing that can get a bit confusing here is matching the paper to your printer. You need inkjet HTP for inkjet printers and laser HTP for laser printers. That’s a big deal. It’s easy to confuse the two when purchasing, so take an extra second or two to read the product descriptions carefully. It would suck to get this little detail wrong.
How To Use Heat Transfer Paper?
1: Choose Your Fabric
When choosing fabric to decorate with heat transfer paper, you obviously want something that will last. There’s no point in putting all of this work in, for something to fade, peel or crack. To get the most bang-for-buck, use 100% cotton, 100% polyester, spandex, and poly/cotton blends for HTP. Cotton, specifically, will have really good results here. If you can, go with ring-spun cotton which is considered the best. (It has fewer stray fibers and impurities which means your HTP will stick to that thing like white on rice.)
The type of fabric you use will also determine how long you apply heat to the HTP. With cotton, you’ll need higher heat for 25 to 30 seconds. Synthetic materials like polyester, rayon, and spandex only require 10 seconds of lower heat to get the job done. You want to watch out here; it’s easy to apply heat for too long on synthetics by mistake. We’ve all burnt stuff before. Popcorn. Meat. Bridges, with that boss who we don’t talk about anymore. We don’t want any of that here.
When choosing the fabric, keep in mind what the project is for. If it’s a cooking apron, it’ll be getting washed a whole lot. A decorative cushion, maybe with the words “I don’t see the point of decorative cushions.”? That’ll probably only get cleaned a couple of times a year.
A good rule of thumb is that images put on with HTP will hold up for about 25 to 30 washing and drying cycles before they begin to crack and fade. If durability is super important, you may want to consider using heat transfer vinyl (HTV) instead of heat transfer paper.
2: Select the Right Transfer Paper
Okay, so remember when we said that you can use HTP on both light colors or dark colors? That’s totally true and it’s part of why we love this process. But there are two different kinds of heat transfer paper! One for the light blanks and one for the dark blanks, so it’s really, really important to pick the right one for your project. You want our advice? Get both. It’s like having M&Ms and Skittles in the pantry - you don’t know which one you’re going to feel like on the day! And you know what? We don’t blame you. Both answers are the right answers.
You are going to fall in love HTP and do a whole bunch of these projects. Why not just make sure you have both options, just in case?
Light heat transfer paper is where you want to be if you’re using white, or other light-colored blanks. Inks used in these papers are translucent which means they’ll only show up on light-colored fabrics. Images printed on light materials, using light HTP, will give you the best image quality. Bright, clear and sharp.
When using light HTP, always remember to mirror or reverse your image so it presents the right way when printed. Unless you’re customizing a sweater to mimic an ambulance. And you plan on running behind people making ambulance noises. No? Okay. Then mirror it.
If you don’t, the image will look backward on the fabric. Use your printer settings to easily mirror the image before printing, or follow the instructions that come with the HTP.
Dark heat transfer paper is best with dark-colored blanks, because the ink is opaque. That prevents the color of the fabric from bleeding through your image. With this paper, the ink is printed in a white background that blocks the color of the fabrics from showing through. Which means when using dark HTP, you don’t have to mirror the design.
3: Pick Your Heat Source
You’ve got a couple of options when choosing the best heat source for your HTP project. If you’re just getting into this, a small heat press or a steam iron is totally fine and will do the job just fine.
Handheld Heat Press.
This tool is an affordable heat source that comes in various sizes and from different brands. It’s handy to have a wide range of sizes as it opens up the materials you can use to show off your printed design/image/phrase/photo etc.. The 6”x7”, for example, is a perfectly-sized tool for decorating a tote bag, or baby clothes. If you want to work on a larger “canvas” (like a beach towel), 12”x10” size heat press makes all the difference. Handheld heat presses come with a temperature gauge and a timer to tell you exactly when to relieve the pressure. Follow the simple instructions and you’re golden.
Clamshell Heat Press.
If you’ve been doing this a while, or if you just want to level up your crafting, the clamshell press is very cool. The design of these involves a top plate and a bottom plate (yup, just like a clamshell). These close onto the fabric. Quite a few clamshell machines are semi-automatic, which means you can take out the guesswork of this process by programming the temperature and time of pressure. The plates on small clamshell machines are 9” x 12” or 12” x 14”, which will fit pretty much anything you print on a desktop printer. Medium machines are generally 15” x 15” and large ones go up to 40” x 64”.
Standard Steam Iron.
There are a lot of irons out there. Like, a lot. Use the instructions included with your brand of HTP to help gauge the amount of heat and pressure needed. You may have to experiment with yours to nail down the best amount of heating and the pressure required. A good way of doing this is to practice on some old fabric until you’re confident. You might burn the paper or the fabric (or both) but that’s no biggie if you’re doing it on old stuff. Once you get the hang of it, move on to the main act.
4: Choose the Right Printer
Laser and inkjet printers work best for heat transfer paper. No special ink is required. Good news. So you can print using whatever ink or toner your printer uses. Remember though guys, the key thing to know is that the HTP you buy must match your printer — inkjet paper for inkjet printers and laser paper for laser printers. Check the packaging to make sure you get the right one.
Once you have the right type, load the printer and be sure to print on the wax-coated side. Most brands will have red or blue boxes or other markings on the non-print side to make it clear which side you don’t want to print on.
Some leading desktop printer brands include:
Popular HTP brands, for both light and dark fabrics include:
- Neenah Paper
5: Prepare to Print
Before you have a stab at printing onto HTP, we suggest printing a copy of your image on regular paper first. This will give you the chance to fix and tweak any possible resolution problems.
Now, set the dots per inch (DPI) setting for your printer at the lowest quality, or no more than 200 DPI. DPI determines the amount of ink the printer will use for your transfer. With regular paper, you need a higher DPI to get the best resolution but HTP doesn’t require as much ink to look good. So setting the DPI no higher than 200 saves ink and ensures a final quality product whether you’re using an inkjet or laser printer.
If your printer doesn’t allow you to set the exact DPI, you can set the printer to the lowest print quality setting, which is usually listed as “draft” or “text.” If you do want to control the exact DPI, you’ll need to use image software such as Adobe Photoshop.
6: Print Your Image on the HTP
As mentioned earlier (you were paying attention, right?!) when using light HTP, you must mirror or reverse your image so that it shows the right way when printed. If you don’t, the image will look backwards on the blank apparel (or accessory). You might get away with this if there are no letters or numbers but we recommend getting in the habit of mirroring it. To mirror the image, use the printer settings or download a free version of basic image editing software. With dark heat transfer paper, you don’t need to reverse the image.
Remember to always print on the wax-coated side of the paper. Like we said above, most HTP brands mark the non-printing side with a pattern to make it easier for you to see which side you’ll be printing on.
After printing, you’ll cut out the design using scissors. If you have a cutting machine (like a Cricut), set up your design in it’s Design Space and select “print then cut”. You can leave a narrow border (about 1/8 inch) around the edge of the image. If you leave too much border, the film from the heat transfer paper will show up in the final product.
7: Use Heat to Apply the Design to Your Blank
Regardless of your heat source, when using light HTP, you’ll need to weed it and lay the paper image side down. With dark HTP, you can go ahead and place the image face up on the fabric. You don’t need any weeding here. Once your image is set on the fabric, place a piece of silicone paper over the top of it. Most brands include this silicone layer when you buy the paper. If it’s not included, you can use parchment paper instead.
For most heat presses, you’ll set the temperature to 375 degrees. However, the exact heat and time may vary depending on your type of heat source and brand of heat transfer paper you’re using, so follow the instructions from the HTP manufacturer.
Apply the printed design to your blank by following these steps:
- When using a heat press, apply heat for 5-10 seconds to warm and press the fabric. If you’re using a standard iron, turn off the steam function and let it pre-heat on high for about five minutes before warming the fabric.
- Place the image on the fabric and apply heat for 25-30 seconds with a heat press. An iron will require at least 60 seconds of firm pressure evenly applied to each part of the image.
- Remove heat and immediately peel off the image backing while it’s still hot.
- Stretch and smooth the fabric to flatten the image to keep it from peeling back.
- The final step is to cover the image with parchment paper or the silicone paper that comes with the HTP. Then apply heat for about 10 seconds with a heat press or 30 seconds with an iron. This last step is really important with t-shirts and sweatshirts, because it will protect the garment during wash and drying cycles (making it last longer). You can reuse silicone or parchment paper multiple times.
There you have it. You’re ready to use heat transfer paper to bring all of those ideas bouncing around in your head into reality. Experiment with different brands of HTP, as well as different heat sources. Test out a variety of blank apparel colors and fabric blends until you find the combination that works best for you. It may take a little bit of time and some fine-tuning but that’s all part of the process. Enjoy it. Have fun. Practice on your old t-shirts or other fabrics until you’re ready for your first masterpiece. And then get out there and smash it. You’ve got this!