How to: Water Transfer Printing

    by Brittanie Sterner

    About the Author

    Writing professionally since 2009, Brittanie Sterner has been published in print and online versions of Boston's Weekly Dig, as well as in small poetry journals. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in writing and publishing from Emerson College.


    A type of graphic printing used by large manufacturers for products like interior car trim and hunting equipment, commercial water transfer printing is a lengthy, involved process that can be simplified and done at home on a smaller scale. DIY versions produce excellent results in altering three-dimensional items with new decorative patterns. While patterns are primarily used for vehicles and sporting goods, the options are nearly endless, as custom print decals can be made for anything you'd like to create.

    Things You'll Need

    • Water-slide decal image
    • Rubber spatula or sponge
    • Urethane clear coat paint or fixative resin
    • Dipping tank (optional)
    • Ink activator (optional)
    • Epoxy primer (optional)

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    Use a water slide decal for small and simple projects. Choose the decal from an assortment of printed patterns, including camouflage, metal, wood grain or carbon fiber. Order them from several water transfer printing supply companies, such as Liquid Print, since most of them are made of a special polyvinyl alcohol film that can only be bought from these suppliers.

    Wet the decal and place it onto the desired spot. Work with wet fingers and use a sponge or rubber spatula to carefully spread the decal onto the surface. Leave the decal there a few minutes until it becomes dry. Peel off the backing and spray the image with a fixative resin, or clear coat urethane, to make sure it stays intact.

    Make or purchase a dipping tank when working with larger objects and more complex projects, so you can submerge the entire surface (it goes unsaid that objects harmed by water cannot be printed with the water transfer technique). This method is closer to the one used by professional services, and will cost a bit more money. Buy the tank from Liquid Print or other supply sites, which sell tanks of varying sizes and prices, and includes timers and heaters for the water. Use a drum similar to ones used in the newspaper-printing process if making your own tank. Heat the water separately for a homemade tank, unless you build a heater into the drum.

    Thoroughly clean the surface before entering a large-scale printing process, removing dirt and grease so the adhesion works properly. Sand down the surface if it's uneven, or if there's an extremely glossy finish on it. Use an electric sander or sandpaper, depending on the size of the object and the material you're working with.

    Paint or spray-paint a coat of epoxy primer onto the surface to prep the object for printing and ensure excellent adhesion. Heat the water to 87 or 88 degrees Fahrenheit, and lay the film decal on the surface of the water. Once the film begins to dissolve into the water, spray it with an ink activator to soften it, so it sticks to the surface of the dipped object. Submerge the object into the tank entirely -- or, whichever part you are printing, since any submerged part will pick up the loosened decal ink. Dip it slowly into the water, then pull it out to dry and spray it with a urethane clear coat.

    • If purchasing a tank, consult supplier companies for the best kind of tank for your projects.
    • Don't dip anything until you've checked with the manufacturer that it won't be damaged by water.
    • Wear a mask if working in an enclosed space with any of the sprayed or painted-on chemicals.

    Photo Credits

    • Grüne Wasser / Water image by Nazar Chabara from