How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Frequent question about finishing your stompbox: painting, etching, clearcoating, lettering, etc...

How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby astrobass » 02 May 2013, 01:40

Hi. Very frustrated. Cannot make this work.

I've read a few tutorials. It's described as very similar to the toner transfer trick to put an etching mask onto a copper clad board. Except it just doesn't work.

Here's what I've tried:
At first I was using this semi-gloss Kodak photo paper that I had laying around from a few years ago. I sanded down the enclosure with 220 grit sandpaper.

My sanding technique is to go across the enclosure at a 45 degree angle one way, then do it the opposite way, then side to side across, then side to side up and down the length of it.

I'm printing using a laser printer, at 600 DPI. I've tried with the iron on max heat for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, and 20 minutes. Couldn't get more than 40% of the toner to transfer under any circumstances.

Today I picked up a 3 pack of metal sandpaper (coarse, medium, fine) and some 320 grit waterproof. I did the sanding technique described above starting with the coarse, working all the way up to the 320 grit, which I used under running water. Then I tried some Epson Ultra Premium Glossy photo paper (http://www.staples.ca/en/Epson-Ultra-Premium-Photo-Paper-8-1-2-inch-x-11-inch/product_740898_2-CA_1_20001) and this time? Even less stuck.

I am at a loss.

Has anyone had success transferring a toner mask to aluminum, and can you list the specific products and methods you used? A lot of the resources I've found reference outdated products that are no longer available.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby astrobass » 02 May 2013, 01:43

I should say also that I've had reasonably good results transferring onto copper clad boards, so it's not like I'm just an idiot or something.

Well I guess I could still be an idiot but at least I can get toner onto copper without any issues.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby fuzzfiend » 02 May 2013, 04:48

If you're using something like a Hammond cast aluminum box, be aware that the top isn't perfectly flat- the box is slightly concave. As such, the iron won't press the image into the center of the box as well as at the edges, and the pressure is important for getting the toner to stick to the box. You might try using a sanding block with a coarser grit to get the box surface flat before sanding it smooth.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby .Mike » 02 May 2013, 05:10

If you are not getting good transfer, I would suspect either not enough heat (the toner won't stick if the enclosure does not get hot enough), or a non-flat surface (either the iron or the enclosure).

1. Sand the enclosure flat. Use an actual sanding block, not your hand or a chunk of wood. I start with a low grit, like 80-100. Just because it looks flat doesn't mean it is flat, so I draw all over the top of the enclosure with a marker, and take a pass or two with the sanding block. If 100% of the marker is not gone, the box is not flat.

2. Sand the enclosure smooth. Once it is flat, sanding it smooth is fast and easy. I work my way up in grit, using the sanding block to make sure I keep the top flat. I usually stop at 400 grit, since I have had trouble with getting toner to stick if the box is too smooth.

3. Clean the enclosure. I use liquid dish soap, and then dry it. I then use acetone to remove anything that could possibly ruin the transfer.

4. Make the toner transfer. I use this paper, available at Dollar Tree stores. 8 sheets for $1. A lot of people have used, and had success, with that paper. It works great. I quarter them, and end up with 32 transfer sheets capable of doing 1590BBs. I use a Samsung laser printer, and it works great. Toner Saver off, maximum toner, etc.

5. Transfer. Preheat the iron as hot as it goes. I find a block of wood that fits inside the enclosure, but is just a bit thicker than the enclosure. The idea is to sandwich the transfer surface between the wood and the iron, so as to not put pressure only on the edges. I put the transfer image down, put on a small piece of printer paper, and then the iron. I let it sit for about a minute with a bit of pressure, to make sure the transfer starts to stick. I then move the iron back and forth with pressure for one minute in each direction. At that point, the transfer is usually pretty well stuck. I remove the sheet of paper, and use the tip of the iron for a minute in each direction, just to be sure everything has been transferred.

6. Remove the paper. Some people just peel the paper right off, but I haven't had much luck doing that. After letting the enclosure cool, I soak it in room temperature water. Once the paper begins to absorb a bit of water, you can speed the process along by using your thumb to cut through the coating on the back of the paper,allowing more water in. Remove all the paper with your thumb, toothpicks, bamboo skewers... it is pretty durable.

Good luck!

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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby CodeMonk » 02 May 2013, 05:59

The enclosure is acting like a heatsink.
In addition to .Mike's suggestions, I would recommend using a toaster oven (dedicated to pedals, is good for baking after painting as well, but NEVER EVER use for food again) to preheat the enclosure.
200F should probably do it.
That's high enough to heat it up and low enough that you can also use that block of wood (increased mass to help it stay hot longer), without it smoking things up.

After soaking it in water, a toothbrush helps a lot for getting that excess paper off (I use a toothbrush for the paper on my copper clad as well).

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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby astrobass » 02 May 2013, 14:46

Thanks for the detailed replies!

I AM using a Hammond box, and I have been hand sanding. I'll pick up a block tonight and follow the advice here.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby astrobass » 05 May 2013, 02:18

Took the advice here, got great results. Should have used a darker source image, but I didn't really expect to even look this good for a first try, so I'm pretty happy on the whole. Looking forward to using this technique a bunch of different ways.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby BuryMeInSmoke » 26 Aug 2013, 21:37

I know this topic is a little old but thought I'd add this in case anyone is searching through.

Don't forget the toner itself, not all toner and lasers are made alike. From talking to folks making film positives for screen printing Brother lasers are notorious for not putting down a good layer of toner. Also, as a general rule, cheap, non-OEM toner, in any machine, will not work that well.

If your printer also has settings for paper type try playing with those, especially if it has a transparency setting. Laser printers work by giving a static charge to the substrate, powdered toner is attracted to a certain charge, then this is run through a hot roller which fuses the ink to the substrate. The transparency setting usually uses a cooler fuser temperature to stop the transparency sheets melting or distorting in the printer, in turn this means less adhesion of toner to the substrate therefore it will transfer easier.

Another option is to use photoresist, cover the enclosure with photoresist, print your artwork onto transparency (inkjets can be used for this as well and will sometimes produce better positives than lasers) then expose and wash out. This method works but is pretty time consuming and a bit of a PITA. If you mess something up it's a quite a bit of time and work is lost, whereas the toner can easily be removed and redone if you stuff up the transfer. This would only be able to be acid etched as NaOH will breakdown the resist.

Here are a few things I haven't tried but may be worth looking at if you're at your wits end.

The use of vinyl as your substrate. I saw a tutorial where signwriting vinyl was used instead of magazine/photo/glossy/whatever paper. Same deal as most do, print the artwork to a piece of regular print paper, cut a piece of vinyl to the size of the artwork, tightly tape it down and reprint. Then iron on as usual. This works well due to the low adhesion of toner on vinyl. The caveat is that vinyl melting temperature is pretty close to fuser temperature. So again, use the transparency setting for lower fuser temperature and try this at your own risk. If you drop into your local signwriter or digital printer they should be able to supply a meter/few feet for not much, most of this stuff runs about $1-10/meter (610mm wide) here in NZ. The vinyl used in the tutorial was an Oracal Calendered vinyl but I doubt it would make much difference. Get the cheapest stuff, the more expensive stuff generally just has better adhesive, longer life and more formable - not much interest to us.

Doubling up the toner label. Print a blank sheet first (to heat the sheet up and avoid distortion in the prints), reload the still warm blank sheet and print your transfer, reload the sheet and overprint the original. Of course this will require the sheet to be placed in the exact same place in the tray for both prints to line up. If it doesn't work 'out of the box' you could probably make some small jigs to ensure the sheet is in the same place for both passes. The transparency setting may be helpful here as if the sheet runs through too hot you may get too much distortion giving bad registration between passes.

Use a composite black. This is possible on the industrial inkjets with specialised RIP software but I'm not sure if any home lasers will do this. Maybe with a Postscript driver and printing from Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop something like this could be achieved. On the industrial side, usually black/K prints fine if your substrate is white/opaque, if we're printing on a clear material often we'll see that it's still slightly transparent and/or not a true black. In theory you can achieve black with 100% CMY, in practice this usually doesn't work unless your CMY are completely true in colour, it will also lay down too much ink a lot of the time hence the addition of K in 4 colour printers. As far as I'm aware the transfer acts as a resist because really the 'ink' is a thin layer of coloured 'plastic', not necessarily because it's black. For us we want a nice solid layer of 'plastic' to resist the etchant so if you're having problems printing with pure K the addition of a percentage of CMY in your print may be beneficial. The percentages may or may not matter, I'm not sure, but you could try C:M:Y:K - 50% :50%:50%:100% or just go for broke at 100%:100%:100%:100%.

Hope this helps.
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Re: How do I get toner transfered onto aluminum enclosures?

Postby astrobass » 27 Sep 2013, 22:15

You've raised some interesting ideas here. Luckily I no longer need them, but it was interesting to read.

I would say that the most critical steps from my observations are sanding the enclosure and ironing evenly.

If you don't sand the enclosure, don't even bother. Taping down the mask onto the enclosure helps. Using the tip of the iron and really going back and forth across the entire image a few times with good pressure and a hot iron helps a ton. It's just about being thorough.

Also the etch resist marker that Fry's sells in the US is much better than a regular marker. It's not as good as baked on enamel spray paint or nail polish though.
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