Find out how direct-to-film (DTF) transfers can step up your decoration strategy.

Bottom Line Up Front: DTF transfers add a whole new world of possibilities for small orders and short turnarounds at your shop. Whether you decide to print them in-house or outsource, they work well on a wide variety of fabrics and other substrates.

What is Direct-to-Film?

Printing direct-to-film transfers involves first printing onto a PET film with a DTF printer. After that, the decorator applies the transfer to a product like a hat, tote bag, T-shirt, or sports jersey. The transfer is applied with the combination of an adhesive powder and heat.

What are the benefits of DTF transfers?

To explore the benefits of DTF transfers, we talked with Mark Heise, owner of Yellow Springer Tees and Promotions. Heise’s shop offers DTF transfers as one of its services, and he’s had good luck with the technology in recent months. Heise shared a few key benefits to the product that he’s noticed.

It’s durable. One major benefit he points to is the durability of the prints with DTF transfers. Heise says he’s printed onto polyester, cotton, cotton/poly blends, even triblends, and they’ve all held up to wash tests. He’s gone one step further, too.

“My daughter and I consistently play tug of war with the design when we’re showing customers,” he says. “It doesn’t split, crack, or peel.”

So unlike screen printing or DTG, if a fabric is pulled and stretched, you won’t see the fibers pushing through the print.

Less printer head clogs. “DTF inks are virtually the same, glycol-based, water-soluble pigment inks as DTG,” says Heise. That said, he points out that DTF inks are runnier than and “you’ll have fewer problems with head clogs.”

Easier maintenance. With larger DTF systems, printers aren’t working in a tight space, making routine maintenance less challenging. “It’s like working under the hood of a semi versus a compact car,” Heise says. “It’s easy to get in and clean things.”

Plus, he points out that most DTF systems use OEM print heads, so it’s not a proprietary technology where it’s hard to find replacement parts.

More product offerings. DTF transfers work with cotton, 100% polyester, and cotton/poly blends, so they’re a versatile transfer for apparel. But they’re also an excellent option for dozens of other products like textured crowlers, water bottles, and hats.

“I just did a whole run of 150 insulated backpacks for a local park,” says Heise. “As long as you can heat it, you can press DTF onto it.”

No pretreatment. Unlike DTG, you don’t need to pretreat garments for DTF transfers, which cuts down the number of steps required to finish the printed apparel or product.

No color restrictions. DTF transfers work well with both light and dark-colored garments, making them perfect for sportswear and athleisure. And speaking of color, you can use the transfers for vibrant, multicolor designs not available on traditional heat transfers.

How does it work?

There are a few key steps involved in transferring the image from the printer to the finished product:

1. Create/prepare the artwork. You’ll want to use an RIP software program with DTF transfer capability and get the ICC profile from the ink manufacturer. This will ensure that the color quality is optimized for the final product.

2. Print the image. After the art is created, the image is printed onto the PET film. You’ll need a DTF printer to print the films. Several models on the market range from smaller desktop models to larger industrial printers for widths up to 24 inches. If you’re a bit more technologically inclined, it’s also possible to modify some DTG printers into a DTF printer.

3. Add adhesive powder. Once the film comes off the printer, the user sprinkles a heat-melt powder over the transfer. This method is done either by hand with a shaker or automated with a machine.

4. Apply heat. With the powder on the film’s surface, the user transfers the film to a heat press. Unlike a traditional heat transfer, this step is different. Instead of closing the press fully, the top platen must hover over the powder and the transfer instead of clamping down. The time and temperature will vary depending on the manufacturer, so you’ll want to check with your supplier.

5. Remove transfer. With this transfer process, some manufacturers, like Polyprint, recommend a cold-peel process (waiting until the film adhered to the shirt has cooled down) to peel the film off the fabric.

What kind of shop needs DTF transfers?

If you’re a high-volume shop screen printing shirts and hats, it’s probably not as feasible when a customer drops in for those small-scale orders of 10-12 prints. You certainly don’t want to turn customers away. Still, it’s not always as profitable to set up and print that order for the family reunion T-shirts as it would be for the corporate client who wants 150 shirts for the company’s next company softball event. DTF transfers offer a simple solution for those one-off orders so you can still take care of your smaller-volume customers without it being a hindrance to your bottom line and labor costs.

Suppose you’re in the crafting business in marketplaces like Etsy. In that case, DTF transfers are also an economical way to run special-edition printed goods to your store. And, you can test out different designs without having to run a large quantity to make sure the product will sell.

“For the most popular designs in our InkSoft stores, I’ll throw those designs in when I’m doing a print run,” says Heise. “That way, I can cut them up, stockpile them, and store them for future orders.”

Heise points out DTF should be a side option to a printer’s main business, though.

“If you are the person doing only small runs, and maybe you have the occasional large run, DTF is not for you,” he says.

Instead, those businesses can order DTF transfers from companies like Supacolor. Shops can upload their artwork and have printed transfers shipped to them instead of investing in the equipment and technology right away.

Yellow Springer’s success with DTF transfers

If you need real-world insight into how effective DTF transfers are, check out Yellow Springer Tees & Promotions’ website. Heise says he’s been printing hundreds of shirts a day since adding DTF printing to his shop’s services.

Heise offers DTG printing, but he says the business needed another solution for printing small-run orders. Particularly a printing method that worked with garment types for his customers.

“We needed something that would allow us to print on 100 percent polyester,” Heise explains. “My main verticals are non-profits and adventure sports, so polyester was important for us.” 

The shop used sublimation for some polyester prints, but even that technology has its limitations, he points out. 

“With sublimation, you can’t press anything lighter than the substrate,” Heise adds. “And, sometimes you have problems with discoloration with colors like reds, yellows, and neon green.” 

Finding a technology that offered multicolor prints and a wider variety of fabrics was part of his goal. Soon, Heise found precisely what he was looking for.

Discovering DTF Transfers

Heise kept searching for other options to offer customers multicolor print jobs. In late 2020, he started exploring direct-to-film transfer technology. After testing the transfers out on a few different garments, Heise says he was ready to make the jump. In recent months, he’s moved into offering DTF transfers as a regular part of his services. The results, he says, are impressive.

“Every one of my customers, including large parks and rec organizations, love this stuff, and they’re amazed at the results we can get out of it,” he says. “I can print as many colors as I want, and it’s not going to affect the price.”

Heise also points to a job he did for the local fire chief who needed shirts for an upcoming conference. Initially, he asked Yellow Springer for embroidered shirts. The chief soon found out the lettering was way too small for a stitched logo. Heise offered to print DTF transfers instead, and they ended up being the perfect fit for the job.

“He loved them, and his compatriots at the event loved it too,” Heise says. Other attendees had embroidered shirts and commented that the chief’s logo was much crisper and cleaner. 

And while the learning curve isn’t too steep for the technology, Heise says it’s possible to divide and conquer. He mans the printer at his shop, then has other workers cut and press transfers that don’t require as much training.

Always growing

Heise says that since the shop brought on DTF transfers, Yellow Springer has seen impressive growth and promise for the coming months. With just about a month under their belt, he says the business hired two more people to work in the retail shop. Plus, the DTF transfer orders bring in enough revenue that’s more than triple the equipment lease payments.

He says his typical production with DTG was 12 shirts an hour, and with DTF, he can now print 36 shirts an hour, front and back!

The shop also has taken its team sports game to the next level with DTF transfers. He says he no longer needs to feed in team names and numbers like he did with traditional heat transfers with this process.

“I can still use name-drop features in the software to generate names and numbers,” he explains. “The nice thing is now I can take and drop them all onto the screen, then tell the program to nest them.”

“The amount of time it’s saving us is unreal,” Heise says. “I have more time to get out and get more business.”

Have you had success pairing direct-to-film transfers with your InkSoft stores? Contact us to tell us your story.

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