A Comprehensive Comparison of Inkjet vs. Laser Heat Transfer Paper
There are many ways to decorate a garment such as screen printing, dye-sublimation, and heat transfer vinyl. Another method is by using heat transfer paper. This involves printing a design or photo onto a sheet of specialty paper and then pressing it onto a garment. Let’s compare inkjet vs. laser heat transfer paper!
Printing T-shirts with heat transfer paper is one of the easiest and most versatile printing methods on the market. Additionally, it also carries one of the lowest startup costs. In fact, many print shops have gotten their start with just a desktop printer and transfer paper.
Inkjet vs. Laser Heat Transfer Paper
There are two different kinds of heat transfer paper – inkjet vs. laser heat transfer paper. While they share some similarities, they have a lot of differences including what printer you need. Learn the differences including what products you can print on, the durability, the feel of the image, and more.
What is Heat Transfer Paper? How Does it Work?
In short, heat transfer paper is a specialty paper that transfers designs printed on it onto different substrates with heat. The process itself is quite simple. It involves printing an image on a sheet of heat transfer paper, placing it onto a substrate, then pressing it with a heat press.
With any heat transfer paper, you will follow these basic steps to create a custom garment with heat transfer paper:
- Create/select design on your computer
- Send design to printer, print on heat transfer paper
- Place printed heat transfer paper on t-shirt/garment
- Using a heat press, apply heat and pressure
- Peel paper off garment & enjoy your custom t-shirt
One of the great benefits of heat transfer paper is that most papers – inkjet and laser – can be applied to cotton, polyester, and blended fabrics. This is a notable difference from dye-sublimation printing, which only works on polyester and direct-to-garment printing, which only works on cotton. There are transfer papers for both dark and light-colored garments, while processes like dye-sublimation only work on light-colored fabrics.
How Are Inkjet and Laser Transfer Papers Different?
What are the differences between inkjet and laser heat transfer papers? As we know, both laser and inkjet papers are applied in fundamentally the same way. They can both be used on a variety of fabrics types and garment colors. But these papers are not as similar as they may seem..
1. They Require Different Printers
Perhaps the most obvious difference between inkjet and laser heat transfer paper is that they require different printers to print onto the heat transfer paper. Like their names suggest, you need an inkjet printer to print on inkjet heat transfer paper and a laser printer to print on laser heat transfer paper – they are not cross-compatible.
However, what even is an “inkjet” printer or a “laser printer”? Let’s take a moment to go over these.
When you go to an electronics store and shop for a new printer for your home or work, you’ll find that there are two different kinds – inkjet and laser. Each printer uses its own method of taking a digital image from your computer and printing it onto a sheet of paper.
Inkjet printers, like their name suggests, create printed images by spraying microscopic droplets of liquid ink onto paper. Inkjets have been around since the 1950s and are the most popular home desktop printers due in large part to their low upfront cost. In fact, you can often find these printers for as low as $50 at your local electronics retailer. However, inkjet printers are often more expensive to own than laser in the long run due to the high cost of ink.
On the other hand, laser printers create printed images by melting a dry toner powder onto a sheet of paper – there is no liquid ink involved. Laser printers are often what you will find in an office environment because toner, unlike ink, lasts a very long time – you can get thousands of prints out of a single toner cartridge. Laser printers typically cost more initially, however they often pay themselves off in the long run because you aren’t buying new cartridges of ink frequently. Additionally, with laser printers, you never have to worry about the toner drying up like the ink in inkjet printers.
White Toner Laser Printers
Some of the newest and most exciting white toner laser printer lines are the OKI Data white toner printers such as the C711WT, the Pro8432WT, and the Pro9541WT. While most laser printers are designed to print large volumes of documents in offices, OKI white toner printers were created specifically for garment and product decoration. Their most standout feature is their white toner technology, which allows for the printing of photo-quality transfers onto both light and dark garments as well as cotton, polyester, and blended fabrics.
2. Laser Transfer Papers are Self-Weeding, Inkjet Papers are Not
If you are browsing heat transfer papers or learning about the process, you will hear the term “self-weeding.” When a paper is self-weeding, it means that you do not have to cut or trim the unprinted areas of the transfer paper. This is a huge benefit because it not only saves you a lot of time and energy, but it also allows you to print intricate designs where cutting/trimming would not be feasible.
Inkjet Papers Not Available with Self-Weeding
As of today, there are no inkjet transfer papers on the market that are self-weeding. Instead, you will have to cut/trim around your printed design before applying it to your garment – either with scissors or a vinyl cutter. This is because inkjet papers for dark garments are made of a white opaque material, similar to a white-colored vinyl, meaning that any unprinted areas that you do not trim away will show up as a white border. An example of this type of paper is the popular 3G Jet Opaque inkjet heat transfer paper.
To illustrate this, imagine coloring a picture on a regular piece of copy paper and taping it to a T-shirt. Without any trimming, that is how your design will look on a T-shirt. And if you’re wondering why inkjet papers for darks are made of this white opaque material, it’s because inkjet printers use a set of translucent CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). Without the white backing, if you tried to print on a dark T-shirt with CMYK inks, your transfer would be invisible.
On the other hand, inkjet papers for light-colored garments are made with a transparent film that you print on – there’s no white opaque backing. When you press the paper to the shirt, this film carries your design onto the T-shirt and permanently adheres to the fabric. The big benefit of these papers is you don’t have a white box around your printed design if left untrimmed. However, the transparent film still has a feel to it, even in the unprinted areas. Because of this, it is still highly encouraged to cut/trim your design – though not necessarily as closely and meticulously as with inkjet transfer paper for darks.
Laser Transfer Papers are Self-Weeding
With laser heat transfer paper printed with an OKI white toner laser printer, you don’t have to worry about any of this! There’s no cutting or trimming because most laser transfer papers are naturally self-weeding. This means that only the printed design transfers to the garment when you press it – there’s no white backing or invisible film that sticks to the garment. The only thing you see, and feel, is the design itself.
These self-weeding transfers are made possible by the OKI white toner laser printers, most of which use a set of CMYWT toners, meaning that they use cyan, magenta, yellow and a white toner, which replaces the black traditionally found in both inkjet and laser printers. In garment decoration, the white toner not only removes the need for a white opaque backing on dark garments, but it also provides the necessary ingredient for printing photo-quality transfers with exceptional gradients on things like skin tones.
**We should note that there are a few laser heat transfer papers on the market that are not self-weeding and are made to be similar to inkjet transfer papers – such as Laser 1 Opaque. If you have a customer that does not require self-weeding capabilities, these papers are generally less expensive than their self-weeding counterparts and can save you a few dollars.
3. Laser Transfer Papers Have a Softer Hand/Feel than Inkjet
In general, laser transfers have a softer “hand” than inkjet. “Hand” refers to the feel of the garment after it has been pressed. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that the opaque transfer papers for dark garments are fairly thick and heavy, and the larger your transfer is, the more noticeable this will be when you’re wearing it. Secondly, with inkjet papers, any untrimmed area still has a texture and feel to it – while only the printed areas on laser transfers have a feel.
The third and final reason laser transfers have a better feel is the ability to rasterize your design using a RIP software such as FOREVER TransferRIP. In garment decoration, rasterization is the process of placing small holes in the negative areas of your design. This makes your transfer much softer to the touch while also making it more breathable and durable. This process is available to you when printing with your OKI white toner printer and does not work with inkjet printers.
4. Rasterized Laser Transfers are More Durable & Have Greater Washability
One of the most common questions about heat transfer paper is “how many washes can I get out of it?” For both inkjet and laser transfers, the rule of thumb is around 25 washes before fading/cracking occurs.
When caring for your printed garments properly (i.e. washing with the garment inside out in cold water with mild detergent), inkjet and laser transfers have essentially the same durability. However, laser transfers have one big advantage in that they can also be rasterized using a RIP software. By placing tiny holes in your design, water can more easily pass through the fabric during laundering, which greatly improves the transfer’s durability. In fact, rasterized transfers can be washed up to 40 times.
5. Laser Transfers Can Also Go on Hard Surfaces
Want to print more than custom T-shirts? With an OKI white toner printer and laser heat transfer paper, you can not only transfer designs onto T-shirts and fabrics, but you can also transfer onto hard surfaces including ceramic, glass, aluminum, tile, wood and more. This opens the doors to a wide range of products that you can customize including drinkware like mugs and pint glasses, signs, coasters, and a whole lot more.
One of the best things about it, too, is that you don’t need to use products with a special coating like you would with dye-sublimation. You can just as easily pick up a wooden sign from the dollar store and print on it with laser heat transfer paper. This process is not available to inkjet heat transfer papers, which only work on fabrics.
Laser and Inkjet Heat Transfer Paper Start Up Costs
While this article no doubt skews heavily in favor of laser, there is one main reason why you would want to choose inkjet over laser for garment decoration – and that’s startup cost.
While the cost of laser heat transfer printers has certainly come down in the last decade and is a highly affordable and profitable way for small businesses to make and sell custom products, inkjet still has a considerably lower startup cost.
You can pick up an inkjet printer for heat transfer for around $200. By comparison, a white toner laser printer designed for garment decoration will start around $3000.
However, in addition to all the reasons we’ve discussed that illustrate how laser is a better, more versatile process for garment decoration, it is important to consider maintenance costs. With inkjet, ink costs add up over time, inks can dry up (and if they do, this can ruin the printer), and inkjet printers generally require more maintenance than laser printers.
However, not just any inkjet printer will work – you need one with pigment-based ink. There are many other printers that use dye-based inks which will wash out of your garments. Nonetheless, inkjet can be a better starting place if you are getting started with a limited budget.
Recapping the Differences: Inkjet vs. Laser Heat Transfer
Inkjet Heat Transfer
Laser Heat Transfer
Transfers on darks are thick, heavy. Transfers on lights are better but not as good as laser. Unprinted areas have a feel unless trimmed.
Soft, light hand/feel on most papers. Unprinted areas have no feel.
Designs Can Be Rasterized for Better Feel, Washability
Designs Can Go Directly on Dark Garments
No, require an opaque layer.
Fabrics That Can Be Printed On
Cotton, Polyester, Blends
Cotton, Polyester, Blends
Can Print on Hard Surfaces
Yes, including ceramic, wood, metal, tile, etc.
We hope you find this guide on inkjet vs. laser heat transfer printing useful! It’s an exciting time to join the garment decoration industry which has seen enormous growth in recent years.
It’s never been easier and more affordable to start making and selling your own garments! With an OKI system, you can print stunning, vibrant garments and products including ceramic mugs, wooden signs, coasters and more.
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