Introduction: DIY Ceramic Decals From Your Laser Printer (Update: and Magnetic Tape)
What are ceramic decals?
Ceramic decals are a system that allows you to transfer designs from a transfer media to ceramic pieces. In fact, there is a whole school of decorative design based around transfers called "Transferware." You can buy commercial ceramic transfers to add to your ceramic creations, but where is the fun in that?
In this instructable, we will make DIY ceramic transfers using an old laser printer, waterslide decal paper, and your own (or commercially made) ceramics. Additionally, we will experiment with other iron-containing materials such as audio and videotape.
You will need some specific supplies for this project.
1. A monochromatic laser printer that uses iron oxide-based toner.
2. A computer to design and send the project to the printer. If you are using your own hand-drawn art, you may need a scanner or camera to import into your computer.
3. Waterslide decal paper for laser printers. Make sure it says it is specifically designed for laser printers, not inkjet printers.
4. Ceramics to apply the transfers onto. It can be your own glazed ceramics or commercial ceramics.
5. A kiln or access to a kiln to fire your projects and make your designs permanent.
Step 1: Concept
Monochromatic laser printers and some copiers use a type of toner that is heavy in iron oxide (ground up magnetite). It is what makes the black of a laser printer print and is used because of its electrostatic properties. Other plastic ingredients are added to fuse the black toner together and form the image on a piece of paper.
The same iron oxide can be used to color ceramic glazes. When selectively put on a piece of glazed ceramic, it can form an image. That means that whatever image you can print out on your printer can be permanently embedded into the glaze of a piece of ceramic.
To get the printed image to the ceramic glaze, you can simply glue the paper on the ceramic piece, but an easier and more accurate way to transfer your design is to use waterslide decal paper. This is a special paper that allows a thin film with your design to be placed directly on your ceramic piece with the help of water. Hence the name, "water-slide."
Once your water-slide decal is dry, you fire the piece to permanently embed your design into the glaze.
The finished piece will have the design rendered in a reddish-brown or sepia color. The piece will be food-safe if you are transferring your design to a working piece.
Other ferromagnetic materials can be used as well. See the later step where I use audio and videotape in a similar manner.
Step 2: Pick Your Printer
If you are the person who likes to hold on to old tech, you are in luck! Newer printers use a toner formulation that does not have enough iron oxide to work with the technique. Also, don't bother with inkjet printers since they normally use carbon black instead of iron oxide for the printer pigment.
Before settling on a printer, here are some things to consider:
1. The toner needs to be at least 30% iron oxide (higher the better). To figure this out, go to the printer website and search for the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or simply the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Besides a lot of fascinating data on what to do if you somehow swallow the toner, it will also give the toner composition. Look for "iron oxide," "magnetite," or "ferrite." HP and Canon printers are well known for their high iron oxide content, but still, look up the MSDS to be sure.
2. Make sure it is a monochrome (black and white) printer. Color laser printers have to use a different pigment composition due to the color technology. Even if you print your design totally in black from a color laser printer, it will not work.
3. Make sure you can still order toner for the printer. Some old printers are workhorses and will work far past their usefulness, but if you can't buy a new toner cartridge, you are left with a heavy paperweight. Don't be afraid of "compatible" cartridges. They will generally have the same toner formula as the OEM cartridge and are much cheaper. So, if your OEM cartridge works, the knock off brand will most likely work as well.
4. Make sure your printer will work with your computer. Mixing old and new technologies have its hazards. My, used HP Laserjet 1160 I bought specifically for this project would not work through USB with my Windows 10 laptop no matter what driver I loaded. I finally got it to work with a converter cable that plugged into the printer's parallel printer port. It added a lot of frustration and some extra expense to the printer purchase.
5. Your printer choice does not have to be an old printer. They still make monochrome laser printers with high iron toner. The HP LaserJet Pro M15w is a reasonably new printer that uses the 48A cartridge that has 55% iron oxide. It will cost you more than a vintage laser printer, but you may save in frustration.
Step 3: Pick Your Ceramic
This technique works best on glazed ceramic material. You can actually use these transfers on greenware or bisque ware, but I think they work best on glazed ceramics.
You can use this technique on your own ceramics but I chose to use commercially available 4x4 inch tiles that I got at the "Re-Store" (the Habitat for Humanity resale store). They have thousands of tiles from hundreds of old projects. You can also go to any home store and buy tiles in small quantities for less than a dollar each. I chose small tiles to use as coasters or just a small display piece. Also, I have a tiny kiln so that is the only thing that I can fit in it.
When you are choosing your material, keep these things in mind:
1. Use light-colored glazed materials. The transfer design will render in a sepia to rust color to brown so that on a light-colored background works best. You can use colored glaze if it is light. Darker glazes can work but the design will not be that distinct.
2. Use glossy glazes. A gloss glaze has more flux in it and will absorb the design better. Matt glazes will work, but the design does not get absorbed into the glaze as much. It is still permanent but tends to sit on top of the glaze.
3. Every glaze and clay body combination will react differently to this technique. Even tiles from the same manufacturer will react differently. Sometimes the design is lighter, sometimes darker. Like everything else, experimentation is the key to get to a combination that works for you.
4. Textured glazes will work, but since they do not have the flux of glossy glazes, the design will sit on top like matt glazes. However, if the texture is so extreme that it will interfere with the decal, you may get breaks in your design.
5. A thick glaze works best. With a thick glaze layer, the design will be absorbed and covered with a layer of glaze giving the design a depth and saturation you don't get with thinner glazes. The 4X4 bathroom tiles I used for this experiment have a relatively thin glaze layer but worked well enough. Coffee cups and other dishware are ideal since they usually have a thick glaze layer to withstand the abuse of everyday use.
Step 4: Design and Print Your Decal
1. Use any software you are comfortable with to design your transfer decal. The decal is a "what you see is what you get" sort of thing so there is no need to mirror text or anything. I used Inkscape since it is free and perfectly suited for the project.
2. Your final image will be monochrome so if your image has any color to it you need to desaturate it. Your printer will do that automatically and turn your image into shades of gray. Just printing off a raster image can work, but the shades of gray get lost and muddy in the final, fired image. A better way to go is to vectorize the image to turn it into pure, high contrast, black and white. Inkscape has a "trace bitmap" tool lurking in the "Path" pulldown menu that does this well (shift+alt+B for the Inkscape fanboys). It offers many different techniques and settings you can adjust, but the generic "auto trace" works in 90% of the cases. If you really want to use a continuous tone image, run it through a "halftone" filter. That will work much better when the image is transferred to the ceramic glaze.
3. Once you have a nice high contrast image, just compose it the way you want it to appear on the decal. I draw a box the size of my tile to arrange things in so I won't go over or under in the size department. Once I get everything to my satisfaction, I delete the box so it won't end up on the decal.
4. For economy sake, you should fill up the page with images that you might use in the future since the waterslide decal paper isn't cheap and it really can't go back into the printer after you start cutting out the decals.
5. There is no great trick in printing except making sure the correct side of the waterslide paper is printed on. The correct side is the shiny side. If you accidentally print on the wrong side, just run it through again in the correct orientation. Running the paper through multiple times does not hurt it in any way. I use the maximum resolution the printer is capable of to get the sharpest print.
6. For those working with old printers, I've encountered a problem printing a full page of intricate vector graphics. Probably a little too much information for the old printer to handle. To make it work, I switched the option in the driver from "send as vector" to "send as raster." This decreases the workload on the printer and allows a clean print. Doing this does not affect the quality of the image in any way as far as I can tell.
Step 5: Apply Your Decal
1. Once you have your design printed out, cut off any excess white space to decrease the friction when you remove the decal. Leave about .25 inches around your design. This step is really optional if you do not want to bother, but it does make it a little easier to position the decal.
2. Soak your decal. Place the decal face down in a pan of water to get saturated. When you put it in, the decal will curl up tightly and then slowly relax over a minute or so. When it is fully relaxed, it should be ready to apply to your piece.
3. Lubricate the surface of your ceramic with some water before you apply the decal. Put the decal on the surface face up and adjust the position to your satisfaction. Once in place, use one hand to hold the decal in place while slowly removing the backing paper. Try to keep everything parallel to avoid getting bubbles under the decal. It sounds a lot harder than it is. Once you do it once or twice, you are an expert.
4. Once you remove the backing paper make sure the decal has not shifted out of place. If it has, you should be able to move the decal back in place easily.
5. Inspect your handiwork for any bubbles. If you see any, use a mini squeegee or the edge of a 3x5 card to work them to the edge of the decal. Bubbles will cause breaks in your design if you leave them under the decal.
6. Once everything looks good, set the piece aside to dry. It will take a day or two to fully dry but you can speed that up to 10-15 minutes if you use a 230 degree F oven. I like to use my repurposed food dehydrator for this drying phase (if your piece fits in the dehydrator trays that is).
7. Flat surfaces like the tiles I'm using are ideal for the waterslide decals. It gets a little more challenging applying the decal to a textured or shaped surface. However, it can be done if you use a wet paintbrush to push the decal into the texture. The key thing to remember is that the decal has to be in contact with the surface for the design to be transferred.
8. On rare occasions, you might notice some cloudiness where the decal clear space was. It is theorized that this is caused by minerals in your tap water interacting with the glaze. If you encounter this, switch your decal soaking water to deionized (distilled) water.
Step 6: Fire Your Ceramic Piece
1. There is no great trick to firing your work. You should use whatever the glaze schedule for the glaze that is already on the ceramic piece. So, if you have a low fire glaze, a cone 06 glaze schedule should be sufficient to set your design into the glaze. However, experimentation is your friend here. You might try a higher temperature or lower and see what kind of effects it has on your piece. Since I'm using cheap tile here, I had no problem experimenting, but get your technique down pat before you try this on your one-of-a-kind masterpiece!
2. For my commercial tiles, I've settled on a fast Cone 05 glaze schedule. Since I have an electric kiln, I followed the schedule I found here. Since I have a PID type kiln controller, I had to translate the schedule into PID speak. So my program goes:
C01 80 (ambient start temp in Fahrenheit)
T01 165 (minutes to get to next temp)
C02 1641 (next temp)
T02 75 (minutes to get to next temp)
C03 1891 (next temp)
T03 -121 (stop code - crash cool)
3. Since this is a glaze program, load your kiln appropriately. Use kiln furniture to ensure the glazed surfaces are separated (otherwise they will fuse together). Since my tiles are only glazed on one surface, I could just creatively stack them with some fiber spacers to keep them off the heating elements. Just make sure they don't fall due to the thermal stresses (don't ask how I know).
4. The program takes about 4 hours and will need another hour and a half before you can unload the kiln. Needless to say, be careful since the tiles retain heat well. However, once the temp is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you can handle them without gloves.
5. Enjoy your newly decal-ed ceramics.
Step 7: Practical Exercise - Coffee Cups
So, there are only so many coasters and personalized tiles you can use so I thought I would try this technique on a few funky looking coffee cups I found at the thrift shop. However, you can use plain white coffee mugs from the dollar store as well. Cups and plates work well since they have a nice thick glaze coating to stand up to the rigors of daily use and washing.
1. After cleaning the cups, I measured the area where the decoration will go. I could have used a tape measure but didn't have one.
2. I drew a box on Inkscape and made my Futurama based design.
3. Applying the design to the cups was tricky due to the shape of the walls of the cup. With a little manipulation, I was able to apply the 2D design to the 3D cup.
4. Since my kiln is so small, I had to fire the cups one at a time. I used my standard Cone 04 schedule which seemed just fine for the glaze type on the cup.
Step 8: Other Experiments
I mentioned before that the decals could be put on bisque ware so I tried that with the unglazed reverse of the tiles I already had. It was not a satisfactory experience for me, but other people have used this technique to great effect. I thought I would share what I learned.
1. The textured surface (the back is patterned to increase the surface area for the cement) was difficult to get the waterslide decal onto. With the fly graphic, you can see whole chunks that did not get transferred to the bisque after firing.
2. Red clay body did hold the design well enough. Since both the clay body and the design were due to iron content, I thought it wouldn't be so distinct.
3. I coated the bisque with three coats of low fire clear glaze and re-fired the tiles. The design on the white bisque faded considerably. It leads me to think that multiple trips through the kiln are not good for the transferred design.
4. The design on the dark clay body survived better, but the contrast was lower with the gloss glaze.
Step 9: Resources
Obviously, I didn't invent this technique. Here are some places that document experiences from other people that I have learned from.
Just a note about the images I used for these experiments. They are not my artwork. I had them on my hard drive for years. I collected them on the internet over the years because I thought they were cool. If I used your artwork, please let me know, I can take it down or give you attribution. Thanks.
Step 10: Further Experiments - Magnetic Tape
This technique of adding iron-rich media to color glazed ceramics pieces got me thinking about what other common materials could be used in a similar manner. Through my experience of a misspent youth, I knew most magnetic tapes had iron content that may be able to similarly color glazed ceramics. I took a more systematic approach to this idea and tried various tapes on various types of glazed tile. The results were....interesting. Some combinations produced the expected result and some were total failures. If you want to use this technique, some experimentation is in order before you dedicate it to one-of-a-kind pieces.
- First of all, you have to obtain some magnetic tape. Cassette tapes, videotapes, magnetic computer media all have iron-based magnetic coatings that may work. Cassette tapes are abundant at thrift shops and have the added advantage that different formulas have the potential of giving you different colors. For example, chrome oxide tapes (CrO2) give you a green color (chromium green).
- Disassemble your tape housing. Usually, this means unscrewing a few screws to get at the magnetic tape. For tapes that are glued or electronically sealed, simply break them apart or just unravel the tape from the cassette. Just keep track of what side the magnetic media is on since you will want that to go against the glaze.
- Attach the tape (magnetic side down) to your glazed ceramic. Since the tape isn't adhesive, you will need to glue it in place. I used simple white school glue diluted with water to adhere the tape to the surface of the glaze.
- Dry the glue by waiting an hour or so or use a warm oven or a dehydrator to dry the glue faster.
- Finally, fire the piece with a glaze fire program appropriate to the glaze on the piece.
- Pray to the kiln gods. It probably won't hurt and it will use up nervous energy.
The results were mixed. I tried three types of tape and one type of computer media on a variety of glazed tiles. All the tapes had components that would color the tile, but a complicating factor was the tape base that would disintegrate in different ways in the heat of the kiln. Some would burn away slowly and leave the oxide coating intact and some would melt, shrink and leave voids in the design. Some glazes accepted the oxides and some did not. Below is my summary of the types I tried by tape type.
Videotape has mixed success. The magnetic coating easily colored the tiles, but the base disintegrated in unexpected ways. At best, it provided a crackly textured design that was integrated into the glaze. At worst, it left only a vestige of where the tape was attached and the rest was in crumbles on the bottom of the kiln.
- On the semi-glossy tile, the videotape left a medium brown design with small voids.
- On a glossy tile, the tape left a deep brown design with larger voids (than the semi-gloss).
- On a glossy decorative tile, it was the same as the bathroom tile.
- On typical bathroom tile, the tape left dark brown to black lacy vestiges of a design.
Basic Ferric Tape.
A cheap audio cassette tape was the best performer. Whatever base it was on, it left generally clean lines...like pinstriping on a car.
- On the semi-gloss tile, it left a clean sepia...almost yellow line.
- On the glossy tile, it left a clean chocolatey brown line.
- On the typical bathroom tile, the tape left a dark brown line.
- On a glossy decorative tile, similar to the bathroom tile but with a few voids.
Chrome Oxide Audio Tape.
- On the semi-gloss tile, it left a clean "forest green" line.
- On the glossy tile, it left a poorly integrated, avocado green line.
- On the typical bathroom tile, the tape left a pale avocado green line with small voids.
- On a glossy decorative tile, similar to the bathroom tile but with a few voids.
3.5 Inch Floppy Disc Media.
This did not work at all. The heavy base shrank up in the kiln and left crumbles on the floor of the kiln. My tiles were verticle in the kiln, so a flat piece may have retained the pigment, but it would be in an unpredictable shape. The falling magnetic media contaminated an unrelated glazing project (tooth-shaped object in the photos) in the same firing. It seemed that it produced a dark reddish-brown to black design.
Tips and Tricks.
- A few things I tried didn't work out so well. Crossing the tapes did not yield great results. My attempt at a green and brown tartan was a very weird disaster (see photos). Stick with single layers for a more predictable result.
- Different audiotape formulas produced different colors. The chromium oxide tape I used produced green. I'd expect a cobalt doped tape to produce blue (ish) color, but I don't have any to experiment with. There is a whole spectrum of tape formulas to try.
- Thinner is better. Longer tapes (like C120) have thinner bases and "probably" will lead to less distortion and fewer voids when they burn off in the kiln.
- Semi-gloss tiles seem to accept the pigment the best but the glossy tiles worked well with the basic ferric tape. As always, test before you commit.
- The tape is inherently curly. If you don't cut it close to the edge of the tile, it curls back and leaves an extra dark artifact near the edge. Could be a bug or a feature?
The Way Ahead.
This technique isn't as versatile as the printer technique to color glaze but can have its purpose. I want to complete my experiment by adding different tape types and formulations. I'm particularly interested in trying 8-track tapes and 1/2 inch videotape. It would be nice to have different colors to choose from and I'd like to get my hands on some cobalt doped tapes to play around with. The design is limited to straight lines of different widths and colors so it might be a nice technique to "frame" other designs on the ceramic piece. Crumpled up tape may lead to some interesting textures?
Anyway, it was a fun and potentially useful experiment.
Step 11: Update: Additional Experiments
I've been experimenting with the techniques annotated in this article and wanted to update some of the experiments I mentioned earlier:
1. 8-Track tape. After some hunting around, I finally scored an 8-track tape (Slim Whitman, Songs I Like to Sing) and sacrificed it to see if it would decorate glazed ceramics. The tape was a brown oxide, normal biased tape and performed almost exactly like the cheap cassette tape. It left a reliably brown stripe. The only difference was that it was a thicker line and there were a few small voids. See the thick line on the photo with the old ROTC patch on it.
2. Cobalt-doped tape. I finally got my hands on a cobalt-doped tape formulation. I had high hopes that this would produce a blue stripe and add to the color variations, but after firing, the stripe was disappointingly brown. I should have expected this since it is mostly ferric tape with a little cobalt to improve the performance of the tape. The top and bottom stripe on the photo of the pink tile with a VW Beatle is the cobalt-doped tape formulation.
3. Textured Tiles. I came across these tiles at the Re-Store and decided to try them. The glaze has an overglaze that adds a texture to the tile. This combination took the design well but had a strange mottled effect in areas with large dark areas of the design. I don't know the reason for this effect, but it is a pleasant variation in my Hypnotoad design.
4. Crumpled up tape. I mentioned in the main article that crumpled-up tape may leave an interesting texture. I finally got around to trying this. I took the tape and crumpled it up and glued it to the tile. It left an uninspiring design if you ask me. The tile with the Banksy rat has the result.
5. Rusty steel wool. I was curious if iron in other oxidative states would make a design in the glaze so I put some steel wool and some saltwater onto some tile and sandwiched it with another tile. After the rust had developed, I put them through a glaze cycle in my kiln and the rusty design was accepted into the glaze readily. It left a design that looked like.....rusty steel wool except it was permanently embedded into the glaze of the tile. I successfully added another design over the rusty design. I don't think I'll use this too often since the results just look dirty.
6. Hexagonal decorative tile. I got a box of these tiles at Home Depot on a great sale. However, the glaze formulation did not take the designs printed off my laser printer very well. Any large dark area disintegrated in the kiln and didn't get incorporated into the glaze. However, I noticed that thin lines were easily integrated into the glaze. I changed my tactic and looked for mandala designs that were intricate, but made only of thin lines. These designs integrated easily and made a striking accent tile. I'm not sure what causes this but if your glaze formulation does not seem to accept large areas of toner, you may try line drawings instead.
7. Overglazing. I noticed earlier that using a clear glaze over the already fired design could make the design fade. I'm not sure of the mechanism at play here but it can be used in certain situations to enhance the design. The fading usually occurs in the large dark areas of the design but much less on the edges of the design. Difficult to describe, but look at the photos and you will see the phenomena. The clear overglaze I used was Sax, true flow gloss glaze and I fired at cone 04.
Participated in the