Water transfer printing, also known as hydrographics, is a painting method that transfers printed 2D designs onto the surface of 3D objects, using water. 

Although you may still want to go to a professional for your expensive items, there’s no reason why you can’t try water transfer printing at home. 

man water transfer printing at home
(Credit: Trailblazer Films)

From car accessories to shoes to Playstations, here’s how you can do water transfer printing at home!

Intro to Water Transfer Printing

Do you have anything that would look cooler with a custom design?  Are you thinking camo, carbon fiber, or some other pattern?  Wouldn’t it be awesome to simply “print” it onto a 3D object like an engine cover, your car’s rims, or a gun? 

Water transfer printing allows you to do exactly that.  This revolutionary painting technique emerged from Japan in the 1980s.  It was readily embraced by car enthusiasts around the world for its incredible ability to coat car parts with custom designs that would be hard or impossible to paint otherwise.  

Sure, you can get a vinyl skin to put on your object, but these are difficult to stick to places that are not flat or are hard to reach.  No matter how careful you are, vinyl will leave a less-than-perfect finish marked by air bubbles, and is prone to ripping, tearing, and damage. Skins are not a long-term solution. 

Water transfer printing with hydrographic film instead allows easy and precise application of printed designs onto virtually any object, with infinite customization. The finish on hydro dipped items, properly done, is robust and resistant to wear and tear for years to come.  

How Does Water Transfer Printing Work? 

There are a number of ways to hydro dip. One of the most popular and viral methods is the spray paint method, in which spray paint is simply applied to the surface of water for items to be dipped through. 

RELATED: What is Hydro Dipping? Introduction, How To, and Project Ideas

In water transfer printing, on the other hand, a thin sheet containing printed ink known as a hydrographic film is laid on the water rather than straight paint.  An activator is applied to the film and the object is dipped through.

Water transfer printing is unique in that the design is printed beforehand and then transferred to the item using standing water.  By actually printing the film, complex and consistent designs can be achieved which could not be painted easily.  This allows for precise application and professional, repeatable results. 

Water transfer printing can be used on a variety of surfaces including wood, metal, plastic, ceramics, and more.  

professional water transfer printing car rim
(Credit: HGarts)

Can I Do Water Transfer Printing at Home?

Yes! All you need is film, activator, and a tub of water. Alternatively, can begin water transfer printing at home using a readymade kit (See suggestions below). 

Water transfer printing doesn’t require any previous skill or experience with hydro dipping, and supplies are quite affordable.  The core process is laying hydrographic film onto water and immersing the object — the print then transfers onto the object. 

Create enough space to move around and find a container large enough to submerge your object.  You can do this indoors or outdoors, but maximum ventilation is key because part of the process involves aerosols, so a confined space might harm you.  Whichever you choose, make sure the film is kept away from direct sunlight, heat, moisture, in a cool and dry place until it’s ready to be used. 

The object needs time to sit and dry between stages.  It also needs to be washed at the end so you want to have access to a washing area.

You may already have some primer, clear coat, and an extra tub or bucket lying around your house or garage.  Take a look at the next section to understand what supplies you necessary, and then check off all the items on the checklist before you begin. 

The Supplies 

Water transfer printing primarily involves 5 components: primer, basecoat, printed hydrographic film, activator, and finish.

Primer

As with any painting process, all objects need to be cleaned before primer.  Depending on the material (wood, plastic, metal), the object may need to be sanded and smoothed.  Once ready, a primer (usually epoxy based) is applied to the object.  The primer or undercoat will allow the basecoat paint to stick well. 

Base Coat 

The base coat or top coat is a layer of paint that covers the entire surface to be printed.  It is usually white so as to allow all the colors of the design to be visible.  With basic knowledge of color theory, base coat colors can be played with.  For example, tan base coats are commonly used for camouflage prints because white would appear glaring. 

Hydrographic Film

The film is a PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) sheet, which is a clear, water-soluble, synthetic.  The design is printed onto the sheet by gravure printing.  Rotogravure/gravure is an intaglio printing technique in which a surface is cut into to form the desired image (intaglio), and here it is a cylinder that is the surface.  The cylinder rotates against another cylinder and prints designs onto the material in between.  The material here is a PVA film, and designs of any complexity are printable.  

While gravure printing is used to produce a certain design in bulk, for the advanced home user digital printing is possible.  In fact any design can be printed onto blank hydrographic film using a standard inkjet printer with its stock inks

Activator

The activator is a chemical (usually a mixture of xylene and methyl acetate) that softens the film allowing the inks to float on the water.  It’s also activated as the binding agent, ensuring adhesion of the ink to the immersed object.  Spraying the right amount of activator evenly is crucial as too much or too little will mess up the transfer. 

Finish / Top Coat

Once the object is out of water, it is allowed to dry, and then sprayed with a clear coat.  This may be either glossy or matte according to preference.  It seals the design in and protects it from all kinds of damage. 

engine covers after water transfer printing
(Credit: @undergroundtuningtx)

The Steps 

Before you begin, check that you have:

  • Your item to dip
  • Suitable container
  • Masking tape and precision cutter (if you plan to cover any parts of your item)
  • All-surface primer or primer suited to the surface material of your object 
  • White color paint for base coat
  • Glossy or matte clear coat
  • Warm water
  • Activator and hydrographic film

1) Primer, Base Coat, and Tape

Clean your object thoroughly if it isn’t brand new.  If it’s a wooden or metal object, make sure it’s as even and smooth as possible.  Apply primer, let it dry, then apply a base coat of paint, again, let it dry.  If the quantity of primer isn’t right, it will affect the base coat. 

The periods in between the stages (i.e. the drying time) is extremely important and should be adjusted to the weather and temperature conditions of your environment.  Tape any parts of the object you don’t want ink on.  If desired, attach a makeshift handle to the object using tape to hold on to while dipping. 

2) Water

While professionals use huge tanks with heaters to hydro dip, you can use any container that is wide and deep enough for your film’s dimensions and for your object to be dipped.  If the film is smaller than the dimensions of the container, you can use tape to block it from floating away.  Remember that the temperature of the water needs to be warm, between 75-90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

3) Laying the Hydrographic Film

Ensure you have good quality hydrographic film that isn’t flimsy, crumpled, or curved at the edges.  Lay it out atop the warm water in the container, and place a line of tape on the water if need be.  Make sure the printed side is facedown on the water, not the other way around. 

man water dipping item through film in backyard
For small objects you can cut the film accordingly instead of using the whole sheet for just one dip (Credit: LordDraconical

4) Activator

Once the film is on the water, wait for a minute and spray the activator.  This will help the film dissolve and activate the binding agents of the inks.  Carefully spray an even coat of the right amount (according to the directions on the activator).  

5) Immersion

Lower your prepared object into the water slowly and steadily.  Start at a 45 degree angle and submerge it gently.  If you immerse too quickly, the water will get agitated and the print will not be applied to the object smoothly.  Once fully dipped, clear the surface of ink and remove your item. 

professional about to dip rifle through camp film
Note how a larger tank is simply sealed off with a line of tape to prevent the dissolved film from spreading out of its boundary. (Credit: Auto Urban)

6) Washing

Once you’ve taken it out of the water, wash the object using warm water again.  At home, a medium pressure shower head or garden hose will do the job.  Rinse until all extra paint is washed off. Let it dry.

7) Sealing

When the object is dry, spray a clear coat.  Do this in layers with a waiting time of approximately 10 minutes between layers.  Then leave the object to dry for a couple of hours or days depending on conditions.  Do not use the object before it completely dries. 

Extra Tips

  • Store hydrographic film in a cool, and dry place to avoid heat and moisture from damaging it.  Signs of damaged hydrographic film are curved edges, crumpled surface, etc. 
  • DE-GREASE. Do not let the grease from your hands get on the prepared object before dipping.  It has to be grease free for smooth adhesion of the print.  Always use gloves throughout the process. 
  • While professionals use semi automatic pressure controlled sprayers to spray primer, base coat, activator, and finish, at home you can use spray cans for all these steps.  Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect because manual control of spraying exactly the correct amount takes practice. 
  • Apart from disposable gloves, always use a mask.  Aerosols of all kinds are toxic and dangerous to breathe in. 
  • Disassemble electronic gadgets, guns, and similar objects. Hydro dip only the outer casing. 

Now you’re all ready to begin water transfer printing at home!  

Supply Suggestions for Beginners

You can begin water transfer printing at home by buying pre-designed printed films and a can of activator separately, or together in a kit. You can also use blank film to print your own designs.

1. Oil Slick KIT by Southern Hydrographics 

A great starter kit, it includes one 1m (38”) x 50cm (19”) rolled sheet of film printed with a rainbow-hued oil spill, and a 6oz can of activator (brand: Hydrovator).  This is a great way to start water transfer printing for around twenty bucks.  

These kits by Southern Hydrographics are ideal for beginners as they come with instructions, and exactly the right quantities of everything needed for your first try.

If you wish to buy activator and film separately, you can go with Southern Hydrographics trusted Hydro-Printing Activator and your choice of film. A film assortment pack is a great choice if you’re looking to practice and you’re not too picky about your first designs. 

2. Desert Hunting Camouflage (Premium Print) by DipDemon

This military camouflage design is perfect for guns and outdoor hunting equipment.  The recommended base coat is a light tan, so take your hydrographics abilities up a notch and try a base color other than white.  This film is larger than the above options, measuring 2m (79”) x 50cm (19”) and so it costs a bit more.  

3. 6+ Random Patterns (Single Roll) by DipDemon

Feeling adventurous?  Try ordering this single roll of film containing six or more (flames, skulls etc) designs selected at random (no choice available).  It’s made of unused leftover material and is a huge roll at 4m (157”) x 50cm (19”).  This is great for a beginner to experiment with using several small objects.  Trial and error is the best way to learn and perfect water transfer printing. 

4. FULL KIT – primer + basecoat + hydrographic film + activator + clear coat + extras!

This kit comes with everything and is ideal for automotive parts but you can try it on anything. It includes 1 linear metre of film and 6oz cans of primer, base coat in white, activator, and gloss clear coat, plus gloves, scratch pad, and instructions. 

5. Prep and finish:

water transfer printed ps4 controller
(Credit: @hydragamingcustoms)

Conclusion

Great! That’s it, go ahead and start enjoying water transfer printing at home.  Don’t forget to pick up other essential components such as gloves, mask, tape, and a container for water along. 

Remember that practice makes perfect, and you’ll be a water transfer printing pro in no time!

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