What are Transfers?

"Transfers" are images which are applied to a surface by releasing them from a carrier layer.

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(Left: from Letraset's original patent. Right: illustration of the layers in a Letraset transfer.
You can see these in more detail on our page "How Dry Rub-Down Transfers Work".)

Generally, transfers consist of several layers of material:

Some of these layers may be omitted in the less sophisticated methods. Often it is recommended that after applying a transfer, it is varnished for protection; varnish would, in a manner of speaking, form yet another layer.

There are several different methods of achieving the image transfer effect, chiefly among them:

Apart from the variety of different ways to achieve an image transfer, there are also a number of processes which are commonly grouped with, or mistaken for, transfers. This article will attempt to discuss each one briefly.

In particular, it is important to note that:


So for disambiguation, later on this page are some very short topics which should clear up any confusion:

Rounding off this first page, here's an interesting ad placed by Letraset once upon a time in a trade magazine:

To get a really good overview of how transfers work & what they're all about, we recommend you read through all the pages in this article. If you like, you can follow the links that appear in each section to view the other related pages, but we recommend that instead you wait until the end of this main page — where you will find all the links together in one handy group.

Waterslide Transfers: Temporary Tattoos

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(Left: Letraset Super Heroes Tattooze. Right: 1960s Temporary Tattoos.)

Temporary tattoos, otherwise known as "tattooze", are a form of waterslide transfers in which licking the skin is the usual method of applying moisture. They are the simplest and cheapest form, and do not require sliding away the carrier layer, which can simply be lifted off. This is more or less just a method of wetting ink so that it will leave an imprint wherever you stick it. Potato printing uses much the same idea, so this method is presumably prehistoric. Temporary tattoos, because they are so cheap to produce, are a staple of the confectionery industry, where they are commonly sold in sealed packets along with a piece of chewing gum.

• See our Temporary Tattoos page, including "How to Apply a Vintage 1960s Temporary Tattoo" →

True Waterslide Transfers

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(Left: waterslide drinking glass transfers. Right: car window "bullet-hole" transfers.)

True waterslide transfers are more sophisticated, since they are designed to last longer; the image is protected by a tough transparent layer, which means that the carrier layer can be most safely removed by sliding it off the image when the carrier layer adhesive has dissolved sufficiently. This is the oldest true image transfer technology, dating back at least to the lithography boom of the 1860s. Among other uses, waterslide transfers are commonly used to apply markings to model kits and other curved surfaces, where they are the most suitable form of transfer, since the method of application is unlikely to damage the surface. They are also very popular for use on windows & mirrors.

• See our page demonstrating "How to Apply a Waterslide Model Kit Transfer" →

• See our page "Waterslide Transfers Applied to Drinking Glasses" (Plus Golly Transfers) →

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(Left: Letraset's Type Lettering System in packet. Right: Sheet 42Q 'Tradition'.)

Letraset themselves used waterslide transfer technology in their patent "Type Lettering System". This was replaced by their own invention, dry rub-down transfers, for Instant Lettering from 1961 to present.

• See our page on "The Letraset Type Lettering System" →

• See our page demonstrating "How to Apply Vintage 1959 Letraset Waterslide Lettering" →

• See our page on Letraset's dry rub-down "Instant Lettering" →

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Heat & Iron-On Transfers

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(Left: Duplex Hot Sponge Transfers. Right: Charlie's Angels Iron-On Tee-shirt transfer.)

Heat transfers tend to be more durable than waterslide transfers, so they are used where permanence is a priority and where the application of heat will not cause a problem.

A very popular type of heat transfer is the iron-on transfer, where the heat is applied by a press or a domestic iron. This is common for applying transfers to fabrics or clothing, especially tee-shirts.

For hot iron transfer pens & pencils, see the section Embroidery Transfers below.

• See our page on Heat Transfers, including "How to Apply a Vintage 1970s Iron-On Transfer" →

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Dry Rub-down Transfers

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(Top left: Letraset Instant Lettering. Others: a variety of Letraset transfers.)

Known by a variety of different names, including "rub-on", "rub-off", and so forth, dry rub-down transfers were invented by Letraset in 1959 and involve the principle of applying pressure to the plastic carrier layer by means of a stylus (typically a pencil or ball-point pen). The carrier layer adhesive is a wax whose hold is weakened as the plastic is distorted by the pressure, while the surface adhesive keeps the image intact and in situ. A piece of waxy tissue paper protects the surface adhesive from sticking inappropriately before the transfer is ready to be applied, so the first step in the application of a dry rub-down transfer is to move this tissue aside so that it is clear of the designated transfer, while still protecting any other transfers which may remain on the same transfer sheet.

• See our page demonstrating "How to Apply Letraset Dry Rub-Down Transfers" →

• See our page showing "How Dry Rub-Down Transfers Work" →

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Instant Pictures & Action Transfers

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(A selection of Letraset Action Transfers.)

These are Letraset's dry rub-down transfers intended for children. "Instant Pictures" was the original title used from 1964, but since this could have caused confusion with Polaroid's camera system the name was dropped in favour of "Action Transfers" in 1969. In terms of technology, they are exactly the same as Letraset's other dry rub-down transfers (see immediately above), but I've included them separately for the benefit of anyone coming to this article looking for a definition.

• See practically any page of this website; why not start with the "Browse" page? →

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Topps Magic Rub-Offs, Hasbro Rub-Ons, & Trans-Action

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(Left: Topps 1966 Baseball Rub-Offs. Right: Trans-Action D-Day Wargame.)

Borderline infringing Letraset's patent on dry rub-down transfers, for many years Hasbro were able to promote their own less-sophisticated technology with relative impunity. Essentially a method of smearing surfaces with smudges of pre-printed ink, these had some success in the US for several years, & now they have their own naive retro charm.

The Topps confectionery company first used this technique way back in 1961, & it has to be said in their favour that they beat Letraset to the use of colour in children's dry rub-down transfers by four years.

In the UK, a company called Trans-Action had a brief fling with patent infringement around 1975, using much the same idea.

• See our page "Topps Rub-Offs, Hasbro Rub-Ons, & Trans-Action" →

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Methfix Transfers


(Slater's Plastikard Methfix Transfers application instructions.)

There are several variations on the use of water as a solvent; shown here in passing is the "Methfix" version, which uses a strong solution of methylated spirits in water.

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(A selection of décalcomanies.)

The word "decal" is short for "decalcomania" (from the French, "décalcomanie"; "décalquer" is the French verb 'to trace'). It originally referred to the craze for plastering surfaces with waterslide transfers, but nowadays more commonly (albeit incorrectly) a decal means a sticker.

• See our page "Some Lovely Décalcomanies" →

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(Left: puffy stickers from Japan. Right: Letraset Action Stickers.)

Whereas a transfer applies an image to a surface by first holding the image to a carrier layer, stickers are the simpler and less elegant solution of supplying images with the adhesive already applied. So all you have to do is peel a sticker off its protective backing, and stick it where you want it. Most stickers are made of vinyl, although some use paper or other materials. Usually stickers are printed against a white background, so unless the cutting is accurate, you get a white border around the image; however, sometimes they're printed on transparent vinyl, in which case the edges are less obvious. There is a certain amount of confusion between transfers and stickers, but you can usually distinguish between them easily enough by looking for the opaque border or background which tells you it's a sticker. Dry rub-down transfers have a transparent background, and with waterslides, temporary tattoos, and heat slide transfers, the obvious clue is that you are looking at the reverse of the image — usually through a sheet of tissue.

Puffy Stickers are stickers which are puffy.

Laser Stickers are stickers which are… hmmm. (I'll get back to you.)

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(Left: pre-spaced vinyl lettering. Right: Letrasign packets.)

Vinyl lettering in the form of stickers can be pre-aligned on the backing paper to ensure the individual characters are correctly spaced when applied. Letraset's own system for this is called Letrasign.

• See our Stickers page, featuring "How to Apply a Sticker" (& many other treats) →

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Stick'N'Lift — ColorForms — Fuzzy-Felt

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(Left: Letraset Stick'N'Lift. Right: Simplay pieces.)

Neither transfers nor stickers (since no adhesive is required), Stick'N'Lift are flexible pieces of vinyl which can be stuck on a background by electrostatic attraction. Since this force is very weak, they can be easily removed & stuck down again, making it simple to reposition them, to play simple games, or to compose animations.

ColorForms are a simple variety of Stick'N'Lift.

• See our "Stick'N'Lift" page →

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(Left: Simplay pieces. Right: Fuzzy-Felt "Pets".)

The same principle can be applied using magnetism rather than electrostatic force; fridge magnets and so forth can be printed as thin, flexible strips, giving the same effect as Stick'N'Lift with the added benefit of easy sliding. Fuzzy-Felt relies on the tendency of felt pieces to stick together, an idea culminating in Velcro-backed images.

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(Left: Fuzzy-Felt "Farm". Right: British Airways Skydentikit.)

And of course, following this train of thought a little further, you can just use glue, tape or pins to stick images to a background; not to mention good old reliable gravity. CAUTION: please be careful, when using gravity to apply images, not to become trapped on the surface of the planet yourself.

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Whitman "Magic Rub-Off Pictures"

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(Left: Tarzan Magic Rub-Off box lid. Right: two of the Magic Rub-Off cards, before colouring. With thanks to Michael Lester.)

These are shiny sheets of card which are marked with the outlines of pictures in permanent ink. The outlines can be filled in with coloured wax crayons, after which the crayon marks can be rubbed off again and the card reused indefinitely. This is essentially the same principle as Whiteboards & Whiteboard markers. They are mentioned here simply for disambiguation, because the term "rub-off" has also used been used to describe transfers.

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Silly Putty

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(Left: Silly Putty ad from Lois Lane No.52, October 1964. Middle: Silly Putty picking up newspaper ink. Right: Magic Putty "New Transfer Solution".)

"Silly Putty" (now a trademark of Crayola, but also known by many similar names) has, among other unusual properties, the knack of picking up ink from the printed page, allowing it to be transferred to blank paper or other surfaces. This would inevitably result in the image becoming distorted as the putty stretched, but in the eyes of children this would not be a bug so much as a feature.

As printing technology has moved on over the decades, so has the formulation of inks used in printing. Silly Putty used to be quite efficient at transferring residual images, but modern inks have largely undermined the effectiveness of this method.

You can get more-or-less the same effect with adhesive tape, or home-made alternatives to putty. This is not true transfer technology, since what is transferred is not the image itself so much as a ghost or echo of the image; literally a residual image.

In the course of researching this article, I tried various different brands of putty — among them "Original Silly Putty" — on a wide assortment of newspapers & magazines, both contemporary & vintage, including the copy of "Lois Lane No.52, October 1964" which contained the ad shown above. None of them even came close to working, although the ink on the Guardian Weekend magazine did manage to come off all over our hands; just not onto the putty.

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Embroidery Transfers — Transfer Pens & Pencils

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(Embroidery transfer photos kindly provided by Doris and Wilf — eBay Seller 'dorisandwilfs'.)

Sewing or embroidery pattern transfers are sheets of paper through which one can mark with pins or chalk the outlines of a sewing pattern onto fabric. This is a way of tracing out a form, and not an image; therefore it need not be discussed further here.

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(Embroidery transfer photos kindly provided by Rosemary — sewmuchfrippery on Etsy.)

Hot Iron Transfer Pens (or Pencils) are used to achieve the same end; you place tracing paper over the design you wish to embroider, taking care to reverse it one way or another. Then you use the transfer pen or pencil to trace out the design. Next, you use a hot iron to transfer the ink of your tracing onto your fabric, by ironing over the reverse of your tracing paper while it is pinned face down onto the fabric. You can then embroider over the traced-out lines of the pattern, & finally you wash away the ink, leaving just the stitching. Again, this is transferring a design, not an image — but it would be remiss not to mention it here. For further details on ironing technique, see "How to Apply a Vintage 1970s Iron-On Transfer"; for tracing paper technique, see immediately below.

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Tracing Paper:

(Photos to follow eventually…)

Tracing paper is translucent, so it may be placed over artwork whose outlines can then be marked out in pencil. The "image transfer" part of the process comes when the tracing paper is reversed onto the recipient surface; by rubbing over the drawing from the other side of the tracing paper, the graphite from the pencil drawing can be transferred to the surface. This creates at the very least a rough guide for further detailing. Of course, the image has been reversed, & it is only the drawing of the artwork which has been transferred — not the artwork itself. Taking a second tracing of the result will reverse the drawing yet again, bringing it back to the original orientation.


(Photos to follow eventually…)

Pouncing also uses translucent paper. With this technique, the lines of the artwork are gone over with pinpricks rather than pencil. A pounce wheel (a wheel with pins around its circumference, connected to a handle) can be used to speed up the pricking process. The paper is sanded down to remove the excess material pushed through the paper by the pins. Traditionally, a muslin bag full of soot (the pounce bag) is used for the next stage; the paper is placed in position over the recipient surface, & the bag is dabbed over the pinhole outlines so that soot escapes through the pinholes. This leaves a dotted outline on the surface, which can be used as a guide in recreating the original artwork. One major advantage of pouncing is that, having made a paper pattern, it can be used over & over again — which is ideal for repeating patterns or for mass production. Pounce. Pounce pounce pounce. Pounce pounce pounce pounce pounce.

Projection — Camera Obscura — Camera Lucida:

(Photos to follow eventually…)

There are various methods for projecting artwork onto a recipient surface; overhead projection for one. Having been projected, the artwork can be traced over before the projector is switched off. Drawing on the reverse of the screen rather than the front has the advantage of your not getting in the way of the projector, but it will require that the projection should be reversed first. Projection is, needless to say, an aid to drawing rather than a method of transferring an image; you have to create the image for yourself by drawing it.

Drawing what you see through a window directly onto its glass is the most basic form of projection drawing; however, it will strain your eyes pretty quickly since the subject & the artwork can't both be in focus at the same time (except in the extreme case where the glass is resting directly on the source artwork, which takes us back to tracing paper).

The two main other optical aids to drawing are the Camera Obscura & the Camera Lucida. The former is a room or a box with a hole in it, resulting in an image projected on the wall; essentially a pinhole camera without film. The latter is more viable & interesting (not to mention portable); a combination of lenses, mirrors, & half-silvered mirrors allowing you to view both the subject & the paper on which it is to be drawn at the same time — allowing the artist to trace what they see. You can demonstrate this principle incredibly simply with just a piece of glass; with your subject in front of you, & your paper on your lap, hold the glass flat above the paper & then tilt it 45°, so that you can see not only the subject reflected in it, but also the paper through it. (N.B.: if you can't get to see both, you've probably tilted the glass the WRONG 45°!)

Brass Rubbing — Frottage:

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(Left: "Brass Rubbing", V&A, plate 20. Right: rubbing from a newspaper printing plate.)

Brass Rubbing is the simple technique of placing a sheet of paper over a Church Brass (or any textured but reasonably flat surface) & rubbing it with a chalk or crayon. The drawing medium adheres to the raised surfaces, but not to the recesses; thereby an impression of the surface is made. However, no image is transferred; this is just an impression on paper of a pre-existing image. Frottage is the extension of this principle as an artistic technique, using natural or found objects as a source of texture.

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(Left: demonstration of a Pantograph from Diderot's Dictionary. Right: a contemporary Pantograph.)

A Pantograph is a mechanical device for automatically copying an image while it is being drawn. By adjusting the arms correctly, the copy can be an enlargement, a reduction, or the same size as the source image. In the above left illustration, for example, as the stylus in the centre is moved over the lines of the source artwork, the pen on the right duplicates the movements at an increased scale, enlarging the image. Note that the source image is not itself reproduced; it is the movement of the stylus as it traces (or fails to trace) the outlines of the source image that results in a scaled drawing. Therefore although the pantograph is an excellent drawing aid, judgement & drawing skills are still very much required.


(Pantograph from "Rendering with Pen and Ink" by Robert W. Gill, Thames & Hudson 1973.)

Instructions accompanying the above illustration:

"A pantograph is used for enlarging and reducing of drawings, plans, patterns, etc.
"It is fixed by the screw clamp at point 'A' on the lefthand side of drawing board.
"In order to enlarge a drawing put the cursors 'D' and 'E' at the corresponding marks engraved on the bars, the tracer in point 'B' and the lead point in 'C'. The left hand follows the original drawing with tracer 'B', whilst the right hand puts slight pressure on the lead point in 'C' thus obtaining the enlargement.
"For reduction change tracer from 'B' to 'C' and lead point from 'C' to 'B', and proceed inversely."

Stencils — Rotadraw:

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(Left: typical example of a stencil font. Right: lettering stencil.)

Stencils are sheets with holes or grooves cut out of them; by placing them over the recipient surface & filling the missing lines or areas with graphic medium (e.g. biro ink, paint, or graphite from a pencil), the form of an image will be transferred. Just the form of it, though; this is not a true image transfer technique.

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(Letraset Rotadraw photos kindly provided by Gini Jacques.)

Rotadraw (a technology owned by Letraset at one time) is the idea of a stencil turned into a simple game. Instead of drawing the whole stencil in one go, you rotate the disc & draw each numbered segment in sequence until the image is completed. The one advantage over an ordinary stencil is that whereas stencils cannot let you draw figures within figures, or complete enclosed shapes, using a succession of segments means that complex forms can be produced without the stencil itself falling to bits. (This disadvantage of stencilling is what has led to the characteristic forms of stencil fonts, as illustrated above.)

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Letraset's Other Transfer Products

Letraset didn't only produce their patented dry rub-down transfers, as is shown by this trade advert:


In particular, they mention "Tattooze" (temporary tattoos) & "Iron-Ons". Since those are the two main alternatives to Letraset's own patented dry rub-down transfer technology, this shows they had all options covered.

That's it for this page.

To get a really good overview of how transfers work & what they're about, we recommend you read through all of the other pages in this article. They will repay careful reading!

Here are the links to those "What are Transfers?" article pages again in full:

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Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives — Rosemary — dorisandwilfs — Michael Lester —
Photography by Tom Vinelott at Triplica.com