If you are thinking about using direct-to-film (DTF) transfer technology in your apparel decorating business, there are a few things you need to know. First of all, not all DTF is created equal. Before we take a deeper dive into the differences when it comes to DTF transfers, let’s learn a little more about them.

What is DTF?

DTF is a new technology that allows users to print designs onto special clear polyester films using digital water-based inks and a powder adhesive coating, which requires curing. After curing, you can then heat press the transfer design directly onto your garment.

If you are familiar with direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, you may be wondering about the pros and cons when compared to DTF. Both options are digital and require no screens or art separation (required with screen printing). When DTG was first introduced to the apparel decoration industry, it was applauded as the ultimate solution, especially for printing multi-color designs and low quantities.

However, many who jumped on the DTG bandwagon soon learned the limitations of the DTG process. DTG printers can have steep learning curves, including a pretreatment process. You are also limited to certain garment types and may have limited placement options on each shirt or item.

With DTF, there is no pretreatment process; you print directly onto film instead of fabric and can print transfers in advance. While there are advantages of DTF over DTG, some things both processes have in common is the high expense, labor-intense artwork prep, and time-consuming learning curve. Neither DTG nor DTF will ever replace direct screen printing, but they are both important digital options to consider.

Currently, there are some DTG press manufacturers offering a conversion option, which would allow you to print DTF transfers. This requires modification of the press, which usually includes a heated vacuum platen for printing DTF transfers. The downside is you have to hand-powder the transfers in a powder tray and then either put them under a heat press in hover mode for a few minutes or use a flash dryer for curing. DTF inks are similar to the inks used for DTG but there are pigment modifications in the DTF inks. Also, if you’re printing on a DTG machine, you must use sheets of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) film instead of rolls.

Comparing DTF to Other Transfers

It may be fairer to compare DTF transfers to other transfer types. For example, DTF is different from using heat transfer vinyl because you don’t need to cut and weed your images. When compared to other types of digital transfers, DTF is usually more cost effective. This is especially true when there are multiple colors in a design and the quantities are low (less than 35 pieces).

From a quality standpoint, DTF transfers have crisp, defined edges and you are able to print floating text and fine lines without a problem. They are a great option for small-quantity orders and can be extremely user friendly.

You get the same type of artwork flexibility — you can print any type of artwork — as you would find with sublimation transfers. The advantage of DTF over sublimation transfers is that you can print on fabrics other than polyester. You can also print on dark or light-colored shirts, instead of being limited to white or light-colored shirts.

How is it Different from Screen Printing?

As mentioned earlier, with DTF, you don’t need to worry about making screens, separating your art by color, or worry about the numbers of colors impacting the cost and difficulty of printing. While screen printing is probably the most inexpensive way to mass-produce T-shirts, you may still experience artwork and garment limitations. You need to be a master screen printer to achieve high-quality results on a consistent basis.

Screen printing also requires a fair amount of space and room for various steps in the process. Many early adopters of DTF are screen printing shops that desire to keep high color, complicated jobs off their screen printing presses.

Sounds Great — Now What?

To recap, DTF transfers have no color limitations. You can print unlimited colors at no additional cost. They are ideal for gradients and shading, as well as fine details with no outline. In addition, they can be heat pressed at lower temperatures, eliminating the dreaded scorch mark when heat pressing. You get a lightweight, soft hand result that adds no additional weight to the garment. DTF prints, when properly made and applied, blend right into the fabric.

What else do you need to know about DTF transfers? This is where we explain how all DTF transfers are not created equal. You’ll understand why when you take a deeper dive into how direct-to-film printing works.

Direct-to-Film Printing Basic Steps

Step 1 – Create your art

If you plan to print your own DTF transfers, prepping the artwork for printing will probably be your biggest hurdle. You need the best possible raster image processor (RIP) software. The purpose of RIP software is that it translates computer files into a matrix of dots that the printer can understand and print. Your RIP software is a crucial part of the process. The way the artwork prints, including print characteristics and color performance of the inks, is highly dependent on the software you use.

For DTF, you need specialized RIP software that can handle both CMYK and white. Your color profiling, ink levels, droplet sizes, and other factors contributing to an optimized print result are all impacted by your DTF printing software. Color profiling is one of the biggest issues — you will have to invest a lot of time in replicating your customer’s exact colors.

Step 2 – Printing your image in color and white

First, you must print your entire image in CMYK on the PET film. PET films are different than those used in screen printing. Keep in mind that there are many different quality levels when it comes to PET films. There are also options such as gloss or matte, available in both hot and cold peel.

After printing the CMYK layer, you print white. White is usually printed behind the entire image in order for the process to work. White ink is designed to receive the adhesive powder that is outlined in the next step. Your image must be a mirror-image of the actual image that needs to appear on the fabric.

Step 3 – Powdering

This step is the application of hot-melt powder on the film that has the printed image on it. There are different grades of DTF adhesive powder, which is normally specified in microns. The powder is applied uniformly when the print is wet, and the excess powder needs to be removed carefully. Commercial and quality-conscious printers use an automatic powder shaker, since it is imperative to ensure the powder is evenly spread all over the printed surface on the film. Different powders offer different performance characteristics and have a strong correlation to fabric compatibility, feel, flexibility, and durability of the finished print.

Step 3 – Curing the powder

After applying the powder, it must be melted or cured. This can be done in various ways. Commercial DTF printers use a curing oven or dryer. Smaller print operations may use a heat press. Curing is an essential step of preparing the transfer so that it can be stacked, shipped, and prepared for proper heat application.

Step 4 – Heat press onto garment

When you are ready to print your shirts, use a heat press to apply. Many DTF transfers can be applied at 300-350 F for a range of 10-20 seconds. Some transfers offer temperature applications as low as 280-290 F for 12 seconds using medium pressure. With some DTF transfers, you can remove the film immediately after heat application, creating a fast, single step result.

What Impacts Quality the Most?

As many people who dove into the world of DTG printing realized, it’s not as easy as it seems to get picture-perfect results. Let’s review the biggest things to look out for if you are considering buying or printing your own DTF transfers.

  1. Artwork Prep and Color Matching: Getting the artwork right is the most important step in any type of printing process, but especially for DTF transfers. You need the right software and extensive knowledge in how to prep the artwork for best possible results. This is especially true if you intend to produce the same colors for repeat orders and Pantone color matching. Keep in mind that some DTF printing machines come with lower-quality RIP software, which offer no way to do color management. Make sure your RIP software is powerful enough to provide the color correction and matching your customers will demand.
  1. Quality of Components: The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is often used when it comes to artwork; the same holds true for each element involved in the making of a DTF transfer. You have many choices when it comes to PET films, powder adhesives, and inks. Finding the right combination of film, ink, and powder adhesive is key to the success of your DTF transfer.
  1. Quality of Equipment Used: In addition to quality ingredients, you will also find huge quality differences in the equipment needed to produce DTF transfers. As mentioned, we are seeing some manufacturers offer conversion options. Early adopters of DTF technology will be the first to recognize the importance of high-quality equipment, especially as it relates to consistency of the final product. Having each step in the DTF process controlled with accuracy is important to finished results. For example, registration is crucial, especially when dealing with multiple print heads, because you have to precisely register the white layer.
  1. Additional Factors: There are numerous other factors that play a role in determining the quality of a DTF transfer. You will most likely require a climate-controlled with a specific amount of humidity. Static and humidity levels directly impact quality of your printing. Non-controlled environments heighten the risk of head clogs and inconsistencies in the printing. Control your production environment to ensure consistent, quality results. Proper powder application and curing are key to a successful DTF transfer.

Once a customer sees a properly manufactured and applied DTF transfer, they will be impressed. DTF transfers can be a gateway to expanding your business and saying yes to more orders. However, before you jump into manufacturing them on your own, you may want to try using a professional DTF transfer service provider. As the technology develops there will surely be refined workflows and systems to make it easier for businesses of all sizes and skill.