Imaging With Decals

Written by: Ernie Ziegler - May 2009

You have a heat press, a printer with special inks/toners and you present yourself to your customers as a sublimator/decorator. A sort of wizard of black magic, who can press custom images/designs and photos onto various substrates.


That's just great; but when was the last time that you imaged an orb? 

A substrate that's to thick to fit between your press platens?

A candle, without creating a melted waxy mess? 

A substrate with a major convex/concave surface, such as a pet urn? 

A coffee or travel mug without a mug press or wraps? 

A plate without a puck?


All the foregoing and more is possible by combining the output of a laser printer (oil-less fuser type) with OEM wax toners, and a transfer paper that  provides you with images in the form of water slide decals.

For the past few months I have been printing water slide decals and testing imaging them on several different substrates; ceramics/ porcelain, candles, metal and polysub travel mugs. This article details my procedures for acquiring, printing and applying the decals to these substrates.

Here you will also find:

Some personal notes of helpful process nuances often called "tricks of the trade" as they relate to each of the substrates tested.

My conclusions.

Some photos of the finished products.

Lastly a few marketing tips that have worked for me.



Decal Transfer paper is available in three forms. I have been using 6880 which is made for laser printers that use wax based toners. The other papers are 5374  made for laser printer/copiers using fuser oil and 5618 made for imaging glass.   All of these are Copy Cal papers.

Magic Touch also has a decal paper that is the same cost as the Copy Cal.  However, my testing indicates that the Magic Touch decals are less fragile than the Copy Cal decals and yield excellent results.

The decal paper is attached to a carrier sheet via a water soluble mucilage.

The decal is separated from the carrier sheet by soaking in warm water to loosen the mucilage and then sliding it off of the carrier sheet.

Decal colors do not change hue and intensity after curing; the way sublimation transfers do after pressing. In other words the color of the printed uncured decals are the same as the oven cured image on the final product.

Decals are an excellent media for imaging multidimensional substrates.

Decals allow imaging of products without investments in a heat press, pucks, wraps, heat tape, felt, rubber pads or expensive coated substrates.

NOTES: These decals do not meet the standards for being "FOOD SAFE". Please be sure to advise your customers of this fact.

It is best to start with small size images when first trying out decals, then progress to larger sizes as your skill in applying them increases.


All substrates tested (ceramic, porcelain, metal, and Polysub mugs) produced very crisp, vivid images after oven curing.

Candles produced the same vivid, crisp images sans the oven curing.

Decals provide you with a very viable media which allows the imaging of less costly, and uniquely shaped substrates; without the large investment in hardware and accessories required by sublimation, while providing very saleable products.










Acquire and print the images/designs.

Cut out the decals.

Apply to substrate.

Allow applied decals to dry.

Cure in oven.


You create the images you want to print just as you always have for sublimation. By scanning, use of clip art or drawing using a tablet.

When printing your images DO NOT mirror them.

Use the MP tray.

Set "paper selection" to THICK.

NOTE: When creating a new image or printing to test on a new substrate; I find it helpful and cost effective to print the images out on a sheet of standard paper. This allows checking the fit and positioning of the image, on the substrate, prior to printing on the expensive decal paper.


I have found that the most efficient work setup for me is as follows: Sitting at a table with a clear work area approximately 30" x 48".

Directly in front of me I place a cotton towel for my work surface.

Immediately to my right the vessel of warm water; water depth about one-half inch.

Front/center/right my cut out decals.

Direct center unimaged substrate pieces.

Front/center/left a roll of paper towels.

Immediately to my left the imaged substrates.



Trim all decals as closely as possible.

Place the decal in the vessel of warm water. Water for wetting the decals can be taken straight from the hot water tap and should be between 85/95 degrees. When the decal is immersed in the water it will curl up and then in a few seconds it will flatten out. It is at this point the decal is ready to be safely slid from the carrier sheet onto the substrate.

Apply the decal to the substrate by sliding it from the carrier sheet onto the substrate. Blot carefully with a paper towel or spnge, to remove excess water. Fold a clean sheet of paper towel to a size that just covers the image and press straight down to blot. Using the now dampened paper towel apply light pressure to the center of the decal and work outward in all directions to force out excess water from under the decal and smooth it out. Do a final overall blot of the decal.

Discard the carrier sheet into a waste container away from (under) the work surface.

Set the imaged substrate aside to dry for four hours.

NOTES:  Decals when wet are somewhat delicate and should be handled as gently as possible to avoid wrinkling, folding or tearing. After applying a few to substrates, you will acquire the "feel".

Soak only one decal at a time. Prolonged retention in the water bath liberates to much of the mucilage attaching the decal to the carrier sheet and weakens the decal.

Applying decals to a concave or convex surface requires more care than applying to a flat surface. The decals tend to "wrinkle" and extra care must be employed to smooth them out and remove excess water. Dipping your fingers in water aids the smoothing process. pre-wetting the substrate also helps.

When imaging several pieces of substrate at one sitting be sure to frequently change the water; because after soaking several decals it will become saturated with the mucilage that adheres the decal to the carrier sheet, plus if the water is too cool the mucilage will not loosen enough to allow the decal to separate easily from the carrier sheet.

Be sure the substrate to be imaged is laying flat before you begin sliding the decal from the carrier sheet onto substrate.

Keep the decal and carrier sheet very close to the substrate and as parallel as possible. Being right handed; I grasp the decal with my left hand and slide the carrier sheet out with my right hand.

While wet the decal can be moved (carefully) to position it as desired. DO NOT LIFT to reposition, just slide it.

When imaging opposite sides of a substrate; allow the substrate to sit for 15/20 minutes between each decal being applied. Substrate must then dry for four hours after last decal is applied


Cure the substrate in an oven.

Preheat  your oven to 350 degrees, load the imaged pieces and cure for 15 minutes.

At the end of the curing cycle remove the pieces and set aside to cool.











Obviously candles cannot be post cured.

To preserve the decals I coat them with a dilute solution of Elmers glue applied with a sponge brush. Elmers dries clear.

Pillar candles are the best for imaging, round, square and triangular. I use 3" diameter candles in heights of 3", 6" and 9"

I use one image on a  3" candle, two on a 6" candle (one near the bottom, the other 180 degrees apart near the top) and three (120 degrees apart with one near the bottom one near the top and one in the middle) on a 9" candle

Candles can be further enhanced by the addition of "glitter".

Glitter comes in two forms known as; powdered and glue type. Each has its own unique qualities and application techniques.


Candles imaged to suit "special occasions" (Easter, St Patricks day,  Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays, Weddings or Anniversaries) sell well.

Candle buyers like to know the "burn time". You can obtain this information from your candle supplier.

A short informational "History of Candle Making" sheet set next to your candle display is always welcomed by the novice candle buyer; as is a "Burning Candles Safely" sheet (which you might want to include with each purchase).



Applying decals around the RIM of a plate presents a special problem because of the "arc" involved. I recommend that your design/text be constructed in a manner that allows the decal to be cut into four quarters or 90 degrees of arc for ease of application

Apply the decal to the center of the plate before applying the rim decals.

To cure more plates at one time use the slotted rack that comes with the oven to support the plates in a vertical position.


Plates imaged to suit "special occasions" (Easter, St Patricks day,  Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Birthdays,  Weddings, Anniversaries and especially Commemorative) sell really well.




Decals are especially suited to imaging the concave and convex surfaces encountered when using vases, urns and orb type ornaments.

Less costly uncoated ceramic mugs can be imaged with decals.


Always display your vases with small bunches of flowers (real or artificial)  in them

Image on both sides. Customers like the ability to change moods via the other side image.




Sublimation instructions for these mugs require the use of a (very expensive) "insert" to prevent distortion of the mug during the pressing cycle. My testing has proven that because using decals requires no press or wrap (ergo no pressure being applied) and cures at 350 degrees vs 400 degrees NO INSERT IS NEEDED. A significant saving in not having to buy multiple inserts to cure several mugs at the same time. I make a leap of faith and say that as a result of the travel mug testing; NO INSERTS will be needed for the Polysub coffee mugs.

Mugs, with decals, have survived the dishwasher test.


Quite suitable for badges.









Several suppliers as listed on DSSI


Several suppliers as listed on DSSI


Check internet for wholesale sources




 If you have any questions about the information provided in the article above, click here to e-mail Ernie Ziegler directly.


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