Heat Transfer Printer: How it Works and the Best Heat Transfer Printers

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I think we all sometimes like to justify the purchase of a new gadget, and one of the favorite justifications for working artists and crafters is that our new _____ (fill in the blank… printer, graphics tablet, pencil set, espresso machine etc.) will pay for itself in no time. More espresso, faster work, more productivity, more billable work per hour – within 7,000 hours or so this Nuova Simonelli will pay for itself!

But the topic of this article – heat transfer printers and the best heat transfer supplies – really is like that. The beauty and quality of heat transfer products, made correctly on the right heat transfer printing equipment, will ensure that they are a hit, and the investment in even the best heat transfer equipment is actually quite low.

On top of it all, the printers I will recommend here are not just the best for heat transfer, but the best printers for artists and crafters in general – great for heat transfer prints, for beautiful and long-lasting fine art and portfolio prints, for working prints and for any other purpose. In fact, pretty much all of the stuff you need for heat transfer printing, as described here, can be really useful and nice to have for lots of other projects, and it is all invaluable to any working commercial or fine artist, and even art students and beginners.

What is a Heat Transfer Printer?

Heat transfer printing is a method of printing artworks, logos, words or designs onto cloth – usually t-shirts, but not necessarily – using a normal inkjet printer. 

You simply print your words and/or images onto a special heat transfer paper and then use an iron or heat press to transfer it onto cloth. Yep, it really is pretty much that simple!

What Do You Need for Heat Transfer Printing?

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There seems to be some confusion about this elsewhere on the internet, so let me clear up this question right at the outset – yes and no. Does that help?

You will need a normal computer and a normal inkjet printer to make the print, but again you do need a special paper to print onto, and either a nice handheld iron or a basic heat press to make the transfer. 

If you already have the printer (and essentially any inkjet will do – though not always with the best results), then your start-up costs are really low, but you may want to consider a bit of an upgrade to a printer which will offer higher quality and make the whole thing work better – and especially a printer which works well with pigment-based inks, which are water- and fade-resistant.

You can also consider getting a heat press, which does make things easier, and a Cricut, which can really set your work apart – and anyway, a Cricut is a super-cool gadget which does so many things, and will, I’m sure, pay for itself in no time!

What Special Equipment Do You Need for Heat Transfer Printing?

But seriously, let’s talk about each of these items separately, and consider how they all come together to make the complete heat transfer setup, and allow you to make the very best heat transfer prints and products.

We’ll consider the following:

  • What Is the Best InkJet Heat Transfer Printer?
  • What Is the Best Ink for Heat Transfer Printer?
  • What Is the Heat Transfer Paper?
  • What Is the Best Iron or Heat Press for Heat Transfer Printing?
  • What Is the Best Fabric for Heat Transfer Printing?
  • What Is the Best Trimmer/Cutter for Heat Transfer Printer?

What are The Specs of the Best Heat Transfer Printer?

Although you can use almost any normal printer for heat transfer printing – inkjet or laser, small or large, low or high quality – we are going to focus on good inkjet printers at various price points. 

Laser printers can be nice, but I’ve seen and heard too many horror stories about special heat transfer paper activating with the laser printer’s normal heat-fusing process and jamming, even destroying, the printer. 

Anyway, I actually prefer the results I get from the best inkjet printers, and they are much more popular with artists overall.

There are also other types of printing processes you might hear about, like direct-to-fabric printers and sublimation printing, and they will accomplish the same kinds of results. 

Sublimation printing has the, to me at least, deal-breaking drawback that it only really works well with polyester fabrics, and anyway it can be a substantially more expensive process – both initial setup and running costs over time. 

And direct-to-fabric printers can be fiendishly expensive, and are really more suitable for larger operations and full commercial ventures.

So, we come back to heat transfer, which can give you really beautiful printing on cloth and allow you to make really high quality and very marketable products – long lasting, fully washable and fade and run resistant – and so we come back also to the inkjet printer. 

You will find that a couple of things are extremely nice to have in an inkjet printer for heat transfer, and in fact if you have had even the slightest notion of upgrading your current printer this might be the perfect time, considering that the features to look for in the best printer for heat transfer are also what you need in the best printer for artists in general.

Specifically, having these things in your new printer can make a really big difference to the quality and durability of heat transfer products, the beauty of the prints themselves and the ease of the overall process:

  • Larger Format Printing – specifically, wider than 11 inches
  • Great Color Printing, usually with more color cartridges (our recommended printers have between 6- and 11-color systems)
  • Pigment-Based Ink (all of our recommendations except for the least expensive one come standard with pigment-based cartridges)
  • High Resolution
  • Generally high quality in materials and construction and good reliability

Large format printing is easy enough to understand, as you can make larger graphics and have more flexibility in design, and so of course are better colors and higher resolution – higher quality printing, with bold and saturated colors, clean lines and fine details, will make any t-shirt really pop, and will make all of your art prints look better too.

And though many sites and how-tos recommend basically any kind of printer ink, and even seem to confuse dye-based ink printers and pigment-based printers, this is actually a very important distinction. 

All of my recommendations for the best printers for heat transfer printing (except, again, for the inexpensive Canon IP8720) use full pigment-based ink systems, and so you don’t really need to worry, but let’s talk about it a little more anyway.

What Ink Is Best for Heat Transfer Prints?

While there are a lot of different types of inks which people use in inkjet printers, the most basic breakdown is of two types of ink:

  • Dye-Based Inks – water-soluble inks which will bleed in water and fade more quickly
  • Pigment-Based Inks – solid-powder inks which are not water-soluble, offer better color quality and far superior longevity

Dye based inks are standard for most inkjet printers and are definitely aimed more at amateur and casual users, and indeed they look good and will work fine for most art and general printing. 

Pigment based inks, on the other hand, while a little more expensive, have a beauty and depth of color which I don’t see in most dye based inks, and won’t fade either in the sun or over time like their less expensive counterparts will.

Anyway, pigment-based inks won’t dissolve, run or fade in water, which for heat transfer printing onto cloth, like t-shirt and other clothing, make them the clear choice. 

And while you can often find printers with the option of using pigment-based inks, it seems that the print head really should be optimized for these inks, and many printers which normally come with the less expensive dye-based inks have trouble with pigment inks, including clogging and inconsistent printing.

So, before we talk about the rest of the kit, let’s look at a few perfect choices for the best inkjet printer for heat transfer printing, with five great printers which are really ideal for heat transfer printing and pretty much anything else any artist, graphic designer, hobbyist or crafter might want to do.

The Best Inkjet Printers for Heat Transfer Printing in 2021

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There are definitely less expensive printers on the market today, but for a printer that not just claims that it will work with water-fast and fade resistant pigment inks, but actually does work with them, and for really beautiful prints overall, larger format and more flexibility and superior material quality and reliability, it is well worth it to pay a little more.

Canon IP8720 Six Color High-Resolution Color Inkjet Printer

With amazing performance and specifications for a printer in this price range, including super high resolution on documents up to 13×19 inches, the Canon IP8720 not only is the least expensive printer I know which is really suitable for heat transfer printing, but also one of the very best values on the market today – not to mention an overwhelming favorite among artists. 

While the IP8720 does not use full pigment-based inks, the excellent Canon inks are water-resistant and fade-resistant, and the six ink system allows for great color accuracy and range – really unheard of at this price!

Epson Expression Photo HD XP 15000 Wide-Format 6 Ink Color Inkjet Printer

Remarkably affordable for a printer of this quality – with beautiful colors, stunning high resolution printing and superior materials and construction – the Epson Expression Photo XP 15000 has a six-color system of pigment-based inks for not only outstanding color range, accuracy and subtlety, but also colors that are water-proof and washable, sun and fade resistant, and the XP 15000 will print up to 13 by 19 inches. 

Approaching the extraordinary level of performance and overall print quality of the three more expensive printers below, and at a much lower price, the Epson XP 15000 is perfect for superb fine art prints, heat transfer printing and pretty much anything else.

Canon Image ProGraf Pro-300 9 Color Fine Art and Photography Printer

Stunning image print quality on paper up to 13×19 inches make this one of the most popular choices for even professional photographers and commercial artists, and at this price the Canon Pro-300 is an amazing value and easy recommendation for even the most serious amateurs, and a perfect choice for heat transfer printing and any other work. Comes with a complete set of nine pigment-based inks.

Canon Image ProGraf Pro-1000 11 Color Fine Art and Photography Printer

With a full 11-color system of fine pigment based inks, the Canon Pro-1000 offers about the best color range, accuracy and beauty you can get at anywhere near this price, and is noticeably superior to the already amazing Pro-300 above. Heat transfer printing is perfectly served with the Canon ProGraf printers, and the Pro-1000 is overall one of the finest printers I’ve ever used, and highly recommended.

Epson Stylus Photo R2000 Wide-Format Color Inkjet Printer with 8 Pigment Inks

With the best color reproduction I’ve ever experienced this side of super-costly full commercial printers, the Epson Stylus Photo R2000 may seem expensive, but actually represents an astonishing value, and allows serious artists to get into the top level of performance and reliability without breaking the bank. 

With resolution up to 5760×1440, an eight color pigment ink set, a maximum document size of 13×19 inches and superior mechanical registration and precision, the R2000 is extraordinary for heat transfer printing and for anything else.

What Is the Best Heat Transfer Paper?

50 Sheets - 8.5 x 11 Inch

50 Sheets - 8.5 x 11 Inch​

20 Sheets - 8.5 x 11 Inch

50 Sheets - 11 x 17 Inch

50 Sheets - 11 x 17 Inch​

100 Sheets - 11 x 17 Inch

Ooh, I know this one! The best heat transfer paper is, wait for it, heat transfer printing paper!

Yes, it really is that simple, a specially designed thin heat transfer papers with a wax coating which you can make a high quality print on and which allows you to use an iron or heat press to transfer that print onto cloth or other materials. There are, however, a couple of basic considerations:

  • Are you using an inkjet printer? If so, get inkjet heat transfer paper specially optimized for inkjet printers, not laser
  • Are you printing on light or dark fabric? – Black or dark colored fabric requires a special heat transfer paper with a white background, so that lighter colors don’t get lost against the dark fabric, while with light colors or white you can print on a clear heat transfer paper, which is also lighter and softer, with just as good of results.

An excellent heat transfer paper for color inkjet printers, available in both light fabric and dark fabric varieties, is PPD Transfer Paper:

You can use a normal household steam iron to apply your heat transfer print to cloth, although you might want to keep the steam reservoir empty since steam or moisture might cause problems with the fresh printing. 

If that’s the direction you go, you should consider getting one just for this purpose, rather than using your everyday iron. That said, you do not need to spend a lot, and just a basic but high quality clothes iron, like the Sunbeam Steammaster 1400 Watt Non-Stick Iron, would be fine.

On the other hand, there are many advantages to using a heat press, and especially if you are a dedicated crafter or hobbyist and may have other uses for a good print quality (though still inexpensive) heat press, this may be the way to go.

A good hobbyist’s heat press will offer:

  • Precisely Adjustable Temperatures and Pressure Settings
  • Faster Pressing Time
  • Greater Working Area
  • Better, More Consistent and Predictable Results

A heat press is, though, more expensive, but if you can find a good, high quality heat press for a low price I think it would be an excellent investment, and will make your heat transfer products and other arts and crafts projects easier and give better results. 

I recommend the well made and easy to use Fancierstudio 1800 Watt 15×15 Inch Heat Press as the best value, or their Fancierstudio 1800 Watt 16×20 Inch Heat Press for larger designs.

What Is the Best Fabric for Heat Transfer Printing?

For comfort, durability, the ability to take and hold a transfer, and for overall hipness I would always use 100% cotton, and if you are selling your heat transfer t-shirts or other products you will find that customers prefer cotton too, and are always more likely to buy a cotton product over polyester or even cotton/poly blend.

You can find some really nice basic t-shirts to use as blank canvases for your heat transfer designs, which shirts will make the prints look bold and beautiful, will not shrink and will be durable and look great for a long time – a sure way to increase repeat business! I would recommend inexpensive but excellent quality shirts like the classic Fruit of the Loom 100% Cotton Heavy-Duty T-Shirt in a variety of sizes and colors, and coming in a good value six-pack.

What Is the Best Trimmer or Cutter for Heat Transfer Printing?

Our final bit of kit for the complete heat transfer printing setup is an amazing arts and crafts tool, which is incredibly popular with and loved by crafters and DIYers everywhere, and yet is somehow rarely mentioned in relation to heat transfer printing projects – the Cricut computer controlled cutting machines.

Once you have printed your design onto heat transfer paper you should trim the excess paper off, and the closer you come to and follow the design the better. Ragged cutting, too much border or an outline which is markedly different in shape or flow than the printed design itself will always make the end product look poorer.

Now I’m pretty good with a pair of sharp, good quality scissors, but I am not perfect, and even at my best I am often not completely satisfied with my hand-cutting. 

But with a Cricut I can simply transfer my design – that is, the same design I have already printed onto the heat transfer paper – to their app, and the Cricut will perfectly trim the excess paper off automatically, and works with paper up to 11 inches wide – and about a gazillion other materials as well, including thick leather and wood. Still, the precision with even fine materials or thin paper is amazing.

An incredibly cool and useful device, the Cricut Maker will make your heat transfer projects look much better – more attractive and more professional – and the process quicker and easier. It will also do so much more, and may become one of your favorite and most-used tools. I can’t recommend it highly enough, for heat transfer printing and countless other things, and if you need further justification, well, I’m sure it will pay for itself in no time!

For more information on the wonderful Cricut Maker, please check out my article: The Best Sticker Maker and Sticker Printer in 2021

Final Thoughts: Do Heat Transfer Printed Products Sell Well?

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It’s great to try new things, explore new media and new techniques and even take on whole new types of crafting, but even with the excellent value offered by my recommendations above there is still a definite investment in gear – not to mention time and effort. Anyway, we are, or want to be, successful commercial artists, and so naturally we ask a couple of basic questions:

  • Do people actually buy heat transfer t-shirts and other products?
  • Can I make money with heat transfer products?
  • Is heat transfer worth the investment?

If a few factors are in place, the answer is a big yes! In order to actually make money you should have:

  • A marketplace for selling, like Etsy, and/or
  • A well-viewed website or Facebook page
  • The best quality products
  • Beautiful, funny, unique or appealing designs – the more original the better
  • Excellent photographic representations of those products, as well as good verbal descriptions

With all of this in play you can not only have a ton of fun, and make really beautiful stuff, but you can also do quite well with any heat transfer printing products and actually make money with them. At the same time, if you get good gear that is really useful to you in other ways – and, like with a good printer, clearly better print quality than the one you already have – the investment makes good sense in other ways as well.

Thanks so much for reading my latest article – Heat Transfer Printing: How it Works and the Best Heat Transfer Printers & Supplies – and I encourage you to visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for other buyer’s guides, online courses, articles and lots of other resources

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