Introduction: Custom T-Shirts With Heat Press Vinyl

Picture of Custom T-Shirts With Heat Press Vinyl

There exists specific vinyl that can be used to create your own custom t-shirts! I've loved this material ever since it found its way to our makerspace, so I wanted to share how to make your own custom shirts with a heat press (sort of like a giant iron that can go to really high temperatures and provides even heat and pressure over a surface) and heat press vinyl.

Heat printing, also known as heat transfer printing, is the process of applying heat-applied materials to various items (i.e., substrates) with a heat press. Heat-applied materials contain a heat-sensitive adhesive on one side; when heat is applied by a heat press to the material, the material adheres to the substrate to which it is being applied. The end result is a decorated garment.

Step 1: Equipment

Picture of Equipment

Creating custom t-shirts with heat press vinyl primarily requires some sort of heat press (in our case, the The MAXX Heat Press by Stahls'), heat press vinyl of course, and a vinyl cutter (we use the Roland G-24). Heat Press Vinyl is just a type of material that is sold by multiple different suppliers with different material specifications, so watch out for exactly what temperatures they should be run at and for how long.

To be more specific, if you were to choose from Stahls' assortment of CAD-Cut Heat Press Vinyl, you'd want to double check their User Guide to see the temperature and time specs.

Three key components to consider when decorating with a heat press are: time, temperature, and pressure.

  • Time: The amount of time, in seconds, that heat must be applied to the design/garment.
  • Temperature: The optimal degree at which the design will adhere to the garment.
  • Pressure: The amount of downward force needed when heat applying.

Step 2: Choose Your Design!

Picture of Choose Your Design!

I wanted to make a "Keep Calm and ..." shirt for one of our staff members in our makerspace, so students would know to ask him for assistance if they needed it. As such, I image-traced a picture of his face, then included the Keep Calm text with the words "Keep Calm and Ask Gary".

Important! The file must be reversed so that it’s a mirror image of the original design. This is because of the way CAD heat transfer film is manufactured and shipped (think of it as upside-down vinyl). To do this, highlight your design and right click, then select Transform -> Reflect in Adobe Illustrator (or find Object -> Transform -> Reflect at the top of the window). Then, adjust your colors to suit your vinyl cutter (in our case, we use black vector outlines).

In the Reflect Dialog Box, make sure Vertical is selected and Angle is set to 90 degrees. Press OK to confirm the transformation. (It’s also a good idea to select Preview to double check that you are mirroring the image correctly.)

Step 3: Vinyl Cut and Weed

Picture of Vinyl Cut and Weed

Once your design has been cut on the vinyl cutter, you'll have to weed your design. This is a the process of removing the excess vinyl that is not part of your final decal, and isolating your cut. Heat Press Vinyl is thicker than normal, so it's actually pretty easy to do this step without extra tools!

Step 4: Heat Press

Picture of Heat Press

Then you'll want to follow the material specs, and set your heat press to the correct desired temperature (say, 320 F) and time (say, 15 secs). You pull down the handle and allow the heat to transfer the heat press vinyl onto the material of the shirt, then release and allow it to cool before you try to remove the plastic covering.

Here are some helpful videos if you need more information!

Step 5: Done!

Picture of Done!

Viola! You have a custom t-shirt. Lots of really cool designs are possible and the heat press and vinyl cutter allow you the freedom to create entirely original designs of your own! Good luck, and please let me know if you have any questions.

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Bio: Mechanical Engineering Student at UC Berkeley
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