Midnight Eng imageTitle: "Terrific Toner Techniques"
Published: May/Jun 1992
Author: Don Lancaster

Toner is the magic powder used to create the final hard copy images in today's copiers and PostScript laser printers. Until recently, it was absurd to even suggest that toner could ever be "as good as" real printer's ink. Or as cheap, versatile, durable, or colorful.

But so much has happened to toner in the last few weeks that ink at long last should be getting an honest run for its money. And opening up plenty of exciting new midnight engineering opportunities in the process.

Brand new opportunities that now include high quality photos; genuine raised thermography; easy printed circuit prototypes; better durability; exciting low tech decals that now let you magically water transfer toner onto anything; custom rubber stamps; and iron-on fabric toners for use on T-shirts and gimmie caps.

So, I thought it might be a good time to review just what is coming down in the explosively expanding world of toners. We might start with the obvious question of...


Traditional toner is mostly an inert and finely ground polyethylene plastic to which some carefully formulated additives of carbon (for color and electrical conductivity), iron oxides (for the magnetic transfers); triboelectrics (for electrostatic transfer); anti-caking agents (for free flow); and lubricants (for longer drum and fuser life) have been added.

You can also think of toner as a wonderfully magnetic mixture of black stuff, hot glue and etch resist. You can look at the black stuff, use your hot glue to selectively grab and bond other materials (such as thermography powder or hot stamp foils), or use the etch resist to eat holes in circuit board conductors or artistic engravings.


Sometimes hindsight can make even the most stunning breakthroughs rather obvious. A new product called the Toner Transfer System from Frank Miller of Pulsar is absolutely astonishing in what it does and how well it does it. In one swell foop, this one unique product simultaneously lets you make real decals and solve those printed circuit board transfer problems. You can now put accurate toner images on virtually anything.

Start with a six mil stable paper substrate that's half the thickness of traditional decal backings. Apply a magic coating of high tech sugar water. The coating is (a) water soluble; (b) a fairly decent glue; and (c) high temperature resistant. Then sell it for two bucks a sheet retail. [Now at $1.50/sheet!]

You can use the Toner Transfer System either for "cold" or for a "hot" transfer. For a cold ferinstance, print your frontwards image onto the toner transfer system. Then spray on some clear covering glop. Either lacquer for a temporary transfer or clear epoxy or urethane for something more permanent and durable. l cut your image out, leaviing a margin. Next, model railroader decal style, put the image into water until the glop softens. And then slide the toner image onto anything you like, again letting the glop harden and act as an adhesive. Note that your overspray is holding the toner image intact while this happens. Full color results from a Canon copier look especially impressive. Stunning even.

For a hot transfer, print your backwards image onto the TTS paper, and then iron or heat press the toner onto your final substrate or trophy or whatever. Then soak the whole works in water for about two minutes till the backing sheet floats off. Only a modest amount of heat and pressure are needed for most uses.

Either way, you now have the ability to take a toner image and move it onto virtually anything. What new uses can you come up with here?


Fundamentals of the Direct Toner method for doing printed circuit boards were covered back in Obligant Opportunist #9. There, we found that properly transferred toner makes an excellent etch resist. Which meant that you could, in theory, make high quality printed circuit boards in minutes for pennies without any darkroom.

Until recently, the key problem lay in the suitable transfer material. One early product was the TEC-200 film from Meadow Lake. This was simply a film with a slick surface. The image was supposed to weakly stick to the transfer film add then strongly stick to your circuit board. While it sort of worked some of the time, many found (and still do find) the film disappointing.

A month ago, a greatly improved product appeared called PCBF-1000 film from Techniks, Inc. This product did a much better job, especially when transferred by a Kroy Color or other powered heat roller machine, onto a clean board.

But the big problem of differential sticking remains. The odds of toner falling off the film or failing to transfer to the copper remains high, leading to non-uniform results.

The hot mode of the water decal Toner Transfer System from Pulsar solves the differential transfer problem in spades. Your toner first tightly sticks to the film. After an ironing or other heat transfer is also tightly sticks to the circuit board. A water soak then dissolves the backing film away from the circuit board, leaving all of the toner on the copper. And more water removes any trace of potential etch contaminants. The stuff really works great.

It seems to me that is new Pulsar product finally "turns the corner" on the direct toner pc method, making it rediculously cheaper and vastly simpler than most of the conventional printed circuit processes.