Sublimation is a popular hobby and has helped many others build successful businesses. Commonly, sublimation is done on t-shirts or polyester-based fabric. However, how about plastic? Can you sublimate on plastic?
You can sublimate on specific types of plastic that can withstand the heat press. However, some plastics require fiberglass reinforcement or alternative methods like Heat Transfer Vinyl to ensure a successful sublimation process.
This article discusses if you can sublimate plastic and what types of plastic can be sublimable. We also discuss if you can sublimate indirectly to plastic using a medium such as HTV sheets.
What Are The Types Of Plastic?
Plastics refers to a wide range of polymeric, petroleum-based materials. The world’s most popular types of plastics include Acrylic (PMMA), Polycarbonate (PC), Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS).
Before we even discuss if you can sublimate to plastics, do understand that plastics come in many types, attributes, and performances. So, let’s learn about these plastics first.
Acrylic or Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA):
Acrylic is a transparent thermoplastic used instead of glass because it is lighter and does not break as easily.
Most of the time, acrylic sheets are used to make things like acrylic mirrors and plexiglass. Acrylic is proven to be 17 times stronger than glass and simpler to work with and process.
Polycarbonate is a good engineering plastic because it is strong, stable, and clear. It is as clear as glass but is 250 times stronger.
Polycarbonate is also 30 times stronger than acrylic. Polycarbonate plastic is used in many things, like, sports equipment, DVDs, sunglasses, outdoor gear, and more.
Polyethylene is recognized as the most common plastic on Earth, and it can be made in different densities (low, mid, high, and ultra-high.)
The denser they are, the tougher and less formable they become. As a result, PE plastics can be used in so many ways. Shopping plastic bags, pipes, snowboards, boats, and even bone implants can be made with PE.
PP is a type of thermoplastic polymer and the second most common synthetic plastic made in the world.
Polypropylene plastic is strong, flexible, heat resistant, acid resistant, and cheap. They are used to make lab equipment, car parts, medical devices, and outdoor gear, just to name a few things.
By the way, if you’re wondering whether the sublimation ink you’re using for plastics can also be used for regular printing, the answer might surprise you. To find out, check out our article on whether you can use sublimation ink for regular printing.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET):
PET is the fourth most common type of plastic worldwide. Polyethylene Terephthalate is easy to recycle and does not react badly with organic materials or water.
It is almost impossible to break, and its strength-to-weight ratio is impressive. PET plastics include polyester.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC):
PVC can be made to be either stiff or flexible, which makes it the third most-produced plastic in the world.
You can add phthalates to either make it harder or softer. Pipes, doors, and furniture can be made from hard PVC, while soft PVC can be used to make clothes, vinyl sheets, wire insulation, and more.
ABS is strong, flexible, shiny, easy to work with, and can withstand hitting. ABS plastic sheeting is usually used in the auto and refrigeration industries.
Still, it can also be found in boxes, protective headgear, luggage, and children’s toys. For example, LEGO brick toys are made from ABS plastics.
If you’re getting into sublimation, why stop at plastics? Ever thought about sublimating on something harder like concrete? Discover the possibilities by reading our article on whether you can sublimate on concrete.
Can You Sublimate On Plastic?
Plastics are essentially polymeric materials, which means they all can technically be sublimated. However, the practical consideration would be their heat tolerance. This is because sublimation introduces a lot of heat, sometimes up to 400° (204°C).
As such, if the plastic cannot handle such temperature, it may melt. If the plastic melts under the heat press, the plastic is definitely non-sublimable.
Speaking of printers, you might be asking, “Can I use any printer for this?” Good question! If you’re curious to know if you can use just any printer for sublimation, we’ve got you covered.
Heat-Tolerance Of Plastic Material
With these plastics, you may consider using less heat on the heat press and press longer. But sublimation results may not be nice.
Therefore, concluding if any plastic types can be sublimable may involve looking at their melting temperature instead.
We spent some time digging up information about the melting temperature of the major types of plastics we commonly see.
|Acrylic or Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA)||428-482°F (220-250°C)|
|Polycarbonate (PC)||536-608°F (280-320°C)|
|Polyethylene (PE)||410-518°F (210-270°C)|
|Polypropylene (PP)||392-536°F (200-280°C)|
|Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)||500-536°F (260-280°C)|
|Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)||338-374°F (170-190°C)|
|Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS)||473-509°F (245-265°C)|
Assuming a sublimation temperature of 400°F (204°C), this means you may be able to sublimate on plastics such as Acrylic, Polycarbonate, Polyethylene, Polyethylene Terephthalate, and Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene.
This is because the melting temperature of these plastics is higher than 400°F, which means when you place them under a heat press, they may not melt.
PET plastics seem to be very heat resistant, which explains why polyester fabric seems to be a good material for sublimation.
PVC plastic and some variations of PP plastic may not be sublimable, as they may melt under the heat press.
However, do understand that plastics may have variations in their formulation, even if they belong to the same family of plastics. As such, you may still want to be careful and test before attempting to sublimate directly to them.
Another thing to think about is that although these plastics may not melt, they may become soft and moldable. After you sublimate them, you may want to leave them for a while to cool down and regain their hardness before handling them. This prevents you from deforming the plastic.
What Are The Things To Know About Sublimating On Plastic?
When sublimating to plastic, it’s important to understand that plastics may have variations despite being in the same family. You should always test before sublimating. The plastic piece may become soft under heat, and indirect sublimation, such as using HTV sheets, maybe a good alternative.
When sublimating to plastic, always remember some of these points to ensure a good result:
Not All Plastics Are The Same:
Plastics may generally be broken into several major types. However, understand that each plastic type may have different plastics. For example, PE plastic may come in four major variations: low, mid, high, and ultra-high density.
This means they may have different molding temperatures and also melting temperatures. You should not assume all plastic types to have the same temperature.
Always Test Before You Sublimate:
This means you should always test before you perform any sublimation on plastics. This is to ensure you are capable of using the right temperature during sublimation without over-softening or melting the plastic.
When testing, ensure to place backing papers such as parchment paper on both sides of the plastic piece, just in case it melts. If it does melt, at least the plastic melted on the paper, and not your heat press plates. They may spare you hours of scrubbing and scraping.
Heat May Soften The Plastics:
Another thing to think of when sublimating to plastics is that although you may not melt the plastic, you probably may soften it. This is because plastics do become soft and malleable when heated up.
This means if you are sublimating on something, you want to let it be on its own for a while to cool down and regain its rigidity before you handle it. This prevents you from deforming the plastic piece.
Heated Plastics May Burn:
Plastics, when subjected to a lot of heat, may absorb it and become hot themselves. This means there is a likelihood that, unlike other substrates, plastics may become too hot to handle after being sublimated.
This means you may want to consider slipping on a pair of gloves when sublimating plastics to avoid them from burning your hands. You may also consider leaving it on the heat press for a while to cool down and regain rigidity before handling it.
Remember, you don’t have to stick to just plastics for sublimation. How about nylon? If you’re interested in broadening your sublimation range, check out our post on whether you can sublimate on nylon.
Consider Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV):
Finally, if you are worried about applying too much heat to your plastic piece, consider using HTV sheets. HTV sheets are essentially a piece of soft plastic that takes in sublimation ink on one side, and the other contains adhesive.
You may sublimate your designs on the HTV and then use the heat press at a lower temperature to adhere the film to your plastic piece.
HTV only requires a heat press temperature of around 260 ℉ to 315 ℉ (130 ℃ to 160 ℃), which is lower than direct sublimation. Lower temperatures may be safer for your plastic pieces, preventing them from melting or becoming too soft.
Learn more about sublimating on HTV.
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