Hydrodipping 101

Style counts, and sometimes all it takes to jazz up the product of a 3D-printer is a 2D printer and a how-to guide on hydrographic printing.

Hydrographic printing, sometimes called hydrodipping, is a process for transferring graphics onto complex-shaped objects in one simple step. A design is printed on a special film which is then floated on the surface of a tank of water. The object to be decorated is carefully dipped into the water right through the film and the design wraps around all the nooks and crannies in one step.

The video tutorial below details the steps to hydrographic printing and outlines how easy the method has become with the availability of water transfer films for inkjet printers. The film is polyvinyl acetate, which is essentially white glue and hence quite soluble in water. The film dissolves and leaves the ink floating on the surface, ready for dipping.

The video lists quite a few tips for optimizing the process for 3D-printed parts and should let you decorate your parts quickly and easily. And once you master the basics, you might want to look at mathematically warping your design to hydrodip complex surfaces.

Thanks to the delightfully named [Random Noise from the Abyss] for the tip.

34 thoughts on “Hydrodipping 101

    1. Yes, brands like Quooker sell taps that will dispense boiling water. I have always regarded it as a practice that could lead to serious hurt, but it is a popular upgrade for better than average equipped kitchens.

  1. Anybody know where to buy the dipping paper? None of the links or how-tos give any sources, and my searches only come up with “water-slide” transfer paper, otherwise known as decals.

      1. Thanks, looks like a good source! Although the process as described on this site seems a bit more complicated than the one on Adafruit, and calls for more chemicals, which they say are required for a successful transfer.

    1. The process is surprisingly robust. I come from a background where black polypropylene parts are shot, then hydro-dipped with a leaf/camo pattern. Said parts are then installed onto RTVs and ATVs. They see a surprising amount of abuse, and still maintain as well as a eurethane decal.

      I will say though, precision and this process are not easy. The attempts to bake in an edge line were….better left forgotten. If you have some slop, and patience, the process is fairly painless and can add a lot of color. Just don’t expect precision.

    1. The video in the post is just regular hydrographic printing, which has been around for decades.

      The video you’re linking is a method for distorting the image to match the shape of the object, which is not featured in the post.

  2. Wait. He says it smells like Elmers glue. Why shouldn’t I build a scraper system that applies micro teensy tiny layers of wood glue on a piece of paper? Oh yes I know, still working on the Mira clone (working title Miro) and 3d printed headphones and a 4/4 violin. I need to create a hackspace to hire minions who finish stuff for me.
    So about the paper and separating the wood glue layer from the paper… how about coating cheap photo paper or some glossy magazines?

    1. It would also be possible to take gelatine and crosslink it with formaldehyde. This way the gelatine behaves more like a polymere and loses it’s water-soluble properties. BTW with this method you can even create a material that is hardly distinguishable from ordinary PP or ABS packages/cases/etc. And it stays biodegradable. Much faster then PLA.

    2. PVA (regular white glue) glue peels cleanly off of printable transparency sheets.

      You can spread it with a “metering rod”, which is a metal bar wrapped in small diameter wire.


      So you can make your own waterslide decals/hydrographics.

      Or for quick and small application just print right on the transparency put a little super glue on the item you want the graphics on and press the ink side of the transparency down before the glue dries. When you peel off the transparency it tends to get stretched so you can only use it a few times but the resulting transfer is nearly instant and if you used a laser printer it’s waterproof.

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