heat transfer printing

Sublimation Printing vs. Heat Transfer: Top 6 Differences

Two of the most popular printing methods for clothing are sublimation and heat transfer. Printers like them because they cost less and are easier to perform, than other printing methods. However, sublimation printing vs heat transfer: what is the difference?

Sublimation and heat transfer printing differ in categories like startup cost, durability, application, and many more. Each method requires different types of holding paper and ink. and different printing methods suit different types and fabric colors.

This article will explore each of the printing types, examining their differences, strengths, and weaknesses. It also discusses some common questions you might have about sublimation printing and heat transfer printing.

What is Sublimation Printing?

In the sublimation printing process, a design sublimates to a substrate (print surface) of choice. In the process solid ink turns into gas upon contact with high heat and pressure. The ink gas embeds itself into the print surface.

Sublimation printing uses special ink, commonly referred to as sublimation ink. Check out this 7 essential things about sublimation inks to learn more about them.

The printer applies a design, using the special ink to a specialty paper called sublimation paper.

Then, the printer places the paper with the printed design face down on a substrate (print surface) of choice. The substrate could be a shirt, mug, hat, glass, etc.

The operator then applies heat and pressure to both the substrate and sublimation, usually by using a heat press. (Speaking of heat press, we also recommend checking out this guide on the top heat presses for sublimation printing for further insights)

When both heat and pressure are applied to the solid ink, it immediately turns into gas, like dry ice. The ink gas then escapes the sublimation paper and embeds itself into the surface of the substrate. This generates the ‘printing’ effect, as the ink transfers itself from the sublimation paper into the substrate.

Learn more about what sublimation printing is and how sublimation works.

What is Heat Transfer?

In the heat transfer process, the printer applies a design to a surface using a transfer sheet. The surface is often something made of fabric such as t-shirts. The process involves applying heat and pressure to a transfer sheet that’s on a shirt, so that the vinyl sticks to the surface.

Heat transfer uses regular printer ink, but the printing must be done on a specialized paper, commonly called heat transfer paper.

Once printed, the design needs to be trimmed. The process, called weeding, removes unwanted, unprinted areas.

Similar to with sublimation, you place the heat transfer paper on the print surface, with the printed side facing down, before being placed into a heat press.

The heat and pressure from the heat press activates the ‘glue’ in the transfer paper, making the design stick to the print surface. You then peel off the transfer paper.

Man Designing on Computer next to Heat Press

Sublimation Printing vs. Heat Transfer

Sublimation printing and heat transfer differ in startup costs, print durability, print feel, and materials needed. Each also seems to work better on different types of print surfaces. The key to understanding which method to apply to get the best results shows in this graphic.

Comparison:Sublimation Printing:Heat Transfer:
Startup CostMay be more expensive than heat transferShould be lower than sublimation
Touch FeelSmooth, as ink embeds into the substrateRaised, as an additional layer is added on top of the substrate
DurabilityMore durable than heat transfer. Can last up to hundreds of washes before fadingNot as durable as sublimation. May fade, crack and peel away after many washes
PrintabilityCan only work on polymeric surfaces, such as polyester and acrylicCan work on polymeric or non-polymeric surfaces such as cotton
Background ColorBest used on white or light-colored backgroundsCan be used on any background color
ApplicationsCommonly used to print on polymeric surfaces (polyester, acrylic) and Also used on non-polymeric surfaces (ceramic, wood, metal, etc), with additional sublimation coatingCommonly used to print on cotton

#1. Startup Cost

Both print methods are cost-friendly to beginners, as because neither costs very much to start. However, heat transfer may be more affordable to start than sublimation.

U.S. Currency Used to Build Paper House

This is because for sublimation printing you need to invest in sublimation ink, sublimation paper, and a dedicated sublimation printer. You need a dedicated printer, because you cannot mix regular printer ink with sublimation ink.

Fortunately, you can easily convert any inkjet printer to use sublimation ink, as long as the printhead uses piezoelectric instead of thermal technology. Refer to this guide on using inkjet printer for sublimation to learn more about how you can convert it for sublimation printing.

You can also use a laser printer to perform sublimation printing. However, a laser printer and sublimation toners cost much more. To learn more, read the difference between sublimation printer and laser printer.

Heat transfer printing does not require specialized ink or a printer, meaning it might have a lower startup cost than sublimation printing. To perform heat transfer printing, you only need specialized papers, commonly called heat transfer sheets.

Both printing methods require the use of a heat press, to facilitate the final stage of the printing process – where the designs meet the print surface.

#2. Touch Feel

Compared to heat transfer, sublimation printing has a smoother feel on the substrate. Because sublimation ink actually embeds itself into the fibers of the print surface, there is no additional layering on the print surface.

Heat transfer printing adds a layer of design to the substrate, which means you may feel changes in surface texture when touching it.

As a result, you often see sublimation printing applied on clothing items that require a more thorough printing, for example, jerseys. If you apply a heat transfer to a jersey, it will result in too much layering. So, the clothing may no longer feel comfortable when worn.

However, this does not mean heat transfer printing is not as good as sublimation printing, because it has its own strength that sublimation cannot match.

#3. Durability

Sublimated clothing tends to last longer, being able to withstand hundreds of washings before fading. Sublimation stands up to washing because the ink becomes part of the fabric rather than sitting on its surface.

On the other hand, with a heat transfer, an additional layer of vinyl sits atop the fabric’s surface. Frequent washes often result in the colors fading, or the vinyl layer cracking and peeling away.

#4. Printability

At this point, you may think that sublimation is so much better than heat transfer. However, the heat transfer method remains popular for several reasons.

People like heat transfer because it works on many fabric types while, sublimation can only be done on polyester clothing. A large percentage of clothing in the market is cotton-based, which makes heat transfer very popular to print on them.

Sublimation does not work on cotton or non-polymeric surfaces, because the sublimation ink requires the presence of polymeric elements with which to embed. An attempt to sublimate on cotton may first reveal a great result. Still, the design will fade and smear as soon as it comes in contact with water.

#5. Background Color

Heat transfer printing is much more flexible when it comes to the background color. You can pretty much heat transfer any designs to print surfaces of any color without losing brightness and clarity. It works because the designs were first printed on a transfer sheet, which often has a white background.

The design, including the white background, then transfers to the print surface. This creates an additional layer on top of the print surface, meaning the design will not absorb any of the colors from the surface material.

If you compare this to sublimation printing, the sublimation ink embeds into the fibers of the print surface. This means sublimated designs will be influenced by the background color of the print surface.

As a result, sublimation printing works best on white background, which will not affect the clarity, intensity, and brightness of the sublimation ink.

#6. Applications

When commercial printers create custom printed items, they often use sublimation rather than heat transfer. They may employ heat transfer printing for cotton garments and do sublimation printing on everything else.

These surfaces are non-polymeric, which means sublimation will not work directly with these materials.

As a result, you may see these materials come with a polymeric coating to allow sublimation to work on them.

Suppliers offer these products with sublimation coating calling them sublimation blanks. You can also purchase your own sublimation coating solutions you can manually apply to any surface.

What Is Better: Sublimation or Heat Transfer?

You get the best sublimation printing results when you print on a polymeric-based substrate, with white background. Heat transfer printing works best done on substrates with a dark background or cotton, where sublimation won’t produce great results.


Sublimation Printer vs Heat Press

Sublimation printing works best on a polymeric print surface with a white background, because sublimation ink only can embed itself into surfaces with polymeric materials. Meanwhile, the white background will not affect the color and brightness of the sublimated design.

Sublimation printing can also work fine on other surfaces if a sublimation coating can be applied – ceramic, metal, wood, concrete, glass, etc.

Results look great because sublimation does not add a layer on top of the substrate, meaning you get a smoother and longer-lasting print result. Remember to ensure a white background for best results.

However, heat transfer works better than sublimation when it comes to substrates made of non-polymeric surfaces or when the background color is darker. Heat transfer works best on cotton and other non-polymeric clothing.

The designs applied using a heat transfer don’t change color due to the color of the substrate.

For example, suppose you sublimate a rainbow design into a black t-shirt. In that case, you may not see anything since the black color neutralizes the colors from the sublimation ink.

But with heat transfer, you may see everything clearly, as the black background color does not affect the colors on the transfer sheet.

Note that both printing methods require a heat press. This means regardless of which printing method you plan to use, you will need the service of a good, sturdy heat press.

Is Sublimation the Same as Heat Transfer?

Sublimation and heat transfer are not the same, although they have some similarities. Both require specialized holding paper, heat, and pressure to transfer designs to the print surface. They differ in cost, touch feel, durability, etc.  

Sublimation and heat transfer printing both print custom designs on non-paper surfaces. Both printing methods also require the use of specialized holding paper. Sublimation printers use special sublimation paper. Heat transfer printers use heat transfer sheets instead.

Both printing methods also require the use of heat and pressure during the final phase of the printing process to transfer the design from the holding paper to the substrate. Usually, printers use a heat press for this step.

The difference lies in the process in which the designs are transferred. Sublimation involves a more complex chemical reaction, in which the solid ink turns into gas when coming into contact with heat and pressure.

The ink gas then escapes the sublimation paper before embedding itself into the substrate. Heat transfer is more straightforward, where heat causes the vinyl and design on the heat transfer sheet to adhere to the substrate.

Aside from that, they also differ in startup costs, print durability, touch feel, applications, and more, which were discussed in more detail in the section above.

Is Sublimation Printing High Quality?

Sublimation printing provides high quality results, although much depend on factors like materials, print surface background color, and the quality of sublimation ink. Proper application of heat and pressure also helps produce a sharp print.

Sublimation printing works best on polymeric surfaces with a solid white background. Polymeric surfaces include polyester cloths and acrylic.

Other non-polymeric surfaces such as metal, ceramic, glass, wood, or concrete may need an additional layer of sublimation coating before you can sublimate on them.

You need a polymeric surface to ensure the sublimation ink works – it needs polymeric materials with which to react and embed.

Sublimation also works best on a solid white background, because white is a neutral color. The colors of the sublimated designs will not be influenced by the background color. They can reflect the actual color as designed on the computer.

Backgrounds with darker colors may start to affect the sublimated color. A black background color will cause all sublimated colors to disappear. In addition to dark background colors, transparent backgrounds may also not give good results.

Because of the semi-transparent nature of sublimation inks, sublimating on a transparent surface may result in weak, unclear print results. To combat the problem, printers often add a layer of glaze coating to any transparent print surface after sublimation.

You will also need a proper tool for applying heat and pressure to ensure high-quality print results.

Most people use heat presses because they apply even heat and pressure across first the paper and then the substrate. This ensures that the sublimation inks heat to the same temperature.

A heat press also ensures even and tight pressure across the sublimation paper and substrate. This ensures that once the ink turns into gas, it reacts immediately with the substrate instead of flowing elsewhere. Otherwise, the print result might look blurry.

Do I Need A Heat Press For Sublimation?

You will need a heat press for sublimation, because it is the best way to ensure even heat and pressure across the print surface. Without a heat press, you may have a blurry print result, because the ink gas escapes and embeds into the wrong areas of the print surface.


Heat Press

A heat press’s main task is to ensure the proper and even application of heat and pressure to the sublimation paper and substrate.

You usually can control and adjust the temperature of the heat press. This allows you to set the right heat for the sublimation ink, ensuring that the inks are turned into gas and transferred to the substrate.

You should refer to your sublimation ink maker’s instructions to determine the recommended temperature to apply on your heat-press.

The heat press also allows even application of pressure between the sublimation paper and substrate. This ensures that once the solid ink turns into gas, it immediately embeds itself directly into the substrate and not elsewhere. This will help ensure a sharp print result without blurring.

Blurring happens because the ink gas did not embed itself immediately to the print surface.

Most common heat presses are flat, allowing you to press your designs on flat surfaces such as clothing, glass, or metal panels.

However, you may need a rounded heat press for a rounded surface. A rounded heat press works well when you need to sublimate mugs, cups, tumblers, or wine glasses.

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