What is DTF, and how does it work?
We’re talking about direct-to-film printing, of course… get your mind out of the gutter 😏
You're probably wondering:
- How DTF printing works
- What you need to get started
- If it’s the right printing method for you
If so, you’re in luck! This article answers all those questions (and more).
Let’s dive in.
What is DTF (Direct to Film) Printing?
DTF printing is a printing method that puts your designs on a specialized film transfer.
Once you’ve prepared the transfer with an adhesive, you can use a heat press or oven to permanently adhere it to shirts, bags, and other items.
That’s the simple overview. Before we get into the full DTF printing process, let’s look at everything you need to get started.
What Do You Need for DTF Printing?
It’s not complicated to start your own DTF printing hobby or side hustle. Here’s what DTF printing requires:
You can use any design software to make the actual design, like Illustrator, Photoshop, Affinity Designer, and more.
A program that converts your vector designs into bitmap designs and optimizes them for printing. It stands for raster image processor.
Use a specialized DTF printer or convert a regular inkjet printer for DTF printing.
These inks produce impressive colors on DTF transfers and don’t crack when your film gets stretched during regular use. DTF dyes print in CMYK and white for full-color designs that show up beautifully on both light and dark fabrics.
This is the film you’ll print your designs on.
DTF Curing Powder
After you print and before the ink dries, you sprinkle this powder over the design and bake it so it “cures” into an adhesive. This makes the film adhere to your object of choice.
An oven makes it easy to cure the DTF powder onto your designs. You can attach an optional air purifier to remove toxic fumes created during this process. You can also use a heat press instead of an oven.
Heat presses can cure your DTF powder and press designs onto your shirt.
You can also use a DTF oven instead of a heat press.
DTF Printing creates a lot of fumes and bad stuff you don’t want to breathe in. Make sure to use an air purifier, have proper eye and face protection on at all times, and keep the room well-ventilated.
Now you know what you need to start printing, but how do you actually print DTF designs? Let’s break down the process step by step.
How Does DTF Printing Work?
Here’s the DTF process from start to finish.
Step #1 - Print Your Design
You’ll need a DTF printer with DTF ink (or a printer modified to work with DTF ink). And you’ll need a design created in your design software of choice.
First, you’ll print your design with the DTF printer onto specialized film.
Step #2 - Add Curing Powder and Cure
Before the DTF print dries, you’ll apply DTF curing powder on top of the design and apply heat. The powder will turn into an adhesive, so the film will stick to the object you’re customizing.
(Some DTF printers include an automatic powder shaker to make things easier.)
After this step, your film is ready to transfer whenever you want. You can store it for later or even sell it as a product if you’d like.
Step #3 - Affix Film
Finally, you’ll use an oven or heat press to transfer the design onto an item of choice.
This can be tricky. You can start by following the instructions on your specific brand of film and experiment from there.
Caution: Make sure you use an oven only for DTF printing, as it creates toxic fumes. We recommend attaching an air purifier to your DTF oven to keep fumes at bay.
Now, you’re probably wondering, what do these designs look like when they’re done?
Here are some examples to inspire you:
Examples of DTF-Printed Designs
Here’s a country-themed print from @rbatransfers on Instagram:
See the whole process of creating this Buzz Lightyear t-shirt from @angelbdesigns_ on Instagram:
And peep this crisp, pink design from @polylush:
So why choose DTF printing over other methods?
Benefits of DTF Printing
- You’re not limited to polyester. Unlike sublimation printing, which works with polyester substrates, direct-to-film printing works well on all kinds of natural and synthetic fabrics, including cotton, nylon, leather, and more.
- Designs show up on any color background. DTF transfers show up in full color, even on the darkest surfaces, because they can include white pigment.
- Designs last a looooong time. Direct-to-film prints are stretchy and durable, so they’re with you for the long haul, even after hundreds of trips through the laundry.
- DTF saves you time. There’s no need to pretreat your fabric like with DTG printing or other methods.
- It’s easy to get started. Even if it’s your very first time, you can figure it out.
Okay, okay, you’re thinking. Now what are the downsides?
Downsides of DTF Printing
- DTF transfers lay on top of your material, so there’s a shiny, plasticky feel when you touch the print.
- You’ve got to keep the curing powder in a cool environment, as heat will cause it to cure prematurely.
- The process creates toxic fumes, so you need to use proper safety equipment.
- The printing process is a bit complicated, as you need specialized RIP software (which prepares your design for printing) to get the best output.
Every printing method has pros and cons. Wondering how DTF stacks up to other methods? Keep reading for a full comparison with all the other methods out there 👇
DTF Printing Alternatives
Here are the top alternatives to direct-to-film that you can consider:
- Sublimation printing
- DTG (direct-to-garment) printing
- Heat transfer vinyl
- White toner printing
- Screen printing
We’ve weighed the pros and cons of each one against DTF printing so you can find the right process for your needs.
DTF vs Sublimation Printing
Sublimation printing is similar to direct-to-film in that you print your designs onto a special transfer sheet.
But… the transfer process is totally different. Applying heat to your sublimation transfer instantly transforms the dyes into a gas that embeds itself into the fabric instead of lying on top of the surface.
Pros of Sublimation
- Sublimation printing doesn’t transfer any film onto your garment, which means there’s no plasticky feel. In fact, you can’t feel it at all.
- You don’t need any curing powder to transfer a sublimation design.
Cons of Sublimation
- Sublimation designs don’t use white ink, so they don’t show up on black or very dark fabrics.
- Sublimation only works on polyester-based surfaces or objects with a sublimation coating.
DTF vs DTG (Direct to Garment) Printing
DTG or direct-to-garment printing is a method in which you print ink on top of a garment, like t-shirts or tote bags, rather than on a film transfer.
Pros of DTG Printing
- DTG-printed garments are less likely to crack and peel than DTF-printed ones, though both are durable and will last a long time.
- You don’t need a heat press since there’s nothing to transfer.
Cons of DTG Printing
- You won’t get the same clarity of designs as direct-to-film printing because some of the ink soaks into the fabric, lowering the clarity of the design.
- DTG also doesn’t do well with gradients.
- DTG works best with natural fabrics like linen and cotton, while DTF works with both natural and synthetic materials.
DTF vs Heat Transfer Vinyl
Heat transfer vinyl (HTV) is a type of transfer that uses a vinyl material. The vinyl already has an adhesive background that adheres to your chosen material.
Pros of Heat Transfer Vinyl
- Using vinyl gives you more design options, including shimmery, glittery backgrounds
Cons of Heat Transfer Vinyl
- HTV requires weeding (aka removing all excess paper around the design), which is a time-consuming and sometimes difficult process
DTF vs White Toner Printing
White toner printing is a type of printing that uses sophisticated laser printers to create transfers with CMYK and white ink. During the printing process, a white toner printer applies adhesive to the print so it’s ready to be transferred.
Pros of White Toner Printing
- There are more printer and software choices for white toner transfer printing than for direct-to-film because DTF is a relatively new technology.
- There’s no need for curing powder with this method.
Cons of White Toner Printing
- White toner printers and related equipment can be expensive. It’s better suited for larger businesses.
DTF vs Screen Printing
With screen printing, artists apply ink to a material in layers using stencils and a squeegee.
Pros of Screen Printing
- Screen-printed designs last longer and maintain color and vibrancy longer than DTF designs.
- Screen prints feel soft to the touch, unlike the plastic feel of DTF film.
Cons of Screen Printing
- Screen printing requires a lot of investment to get the right materials and learn how to print correctly.
- You need to prepare stencils for each design, which takes time. It’s not suited for a one-off design but works well for bulk creation.
DTF printing is a great way to customize clothing, bags, and gifts for personal use or to sell as a business.
It’s easy to start and hard to mess up. Designs show up crisp and clean on any color material and last a long time.
We hope this article answered all your questions about DTF printing. Still have a question we didn’t answer? Leave a comment, and we’ll be happy to help!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How much does DTF printing cost?
A DTF printer can cost you $2,000 or more. If you add an oven and all the other materials, expect to pay upwards of $3,000 to get started.
(However, you can save a lot of money by converting your regular printer into a DTF printer.)
Can I use the DTF printing process for plastic or acrylic items?
DTF prints won’t attach to plastic. Instead, you’ll want to try UV DTF printing, which can be attached to hard objects like mugs, keychains, phone cases, and more.
Can you print DTF on a regular printer?
You can use a desktop inkjet printer to print DTF designs, but you’ll need to convert it for DTF printing first. Some printers even have digital settings that allow you to automatically switch over without much customization required.