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7 Things You Need To Know About Sublimation Ink

In sublimation printing, many people know that they must use sublimation ink to perform the printing before transferring it to the print surface. However, few people know about the properties and uses of sublimation ink because they don’t often find this type of ink. Here are the 7 things you need to know about sublimation ink:

  1. Sublimation Ink Is Not Regular Inkjet Ink
  2. Sublimation Ink Can Only Be Used with Sublimation Paper
  3. Sublimation Ink Can Be Genuine or Third-Party
  4. Sublimation Ink Can Work on Dye-Sublimation or Regular Inkjet Printer
  5. Genuine Sublimation Ink May Work Better with Its Printer
  6. Sublimation Ink May Come in Cartridges or Bottles
  7. Sublimation Ink May Come in More Than CMYK Colors

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#1. Sublimation Ink Is Not Regular Inkjet Ink

Sublimation ink has a different formula than regular inkjet ink. This means each performs, reacts, and produces a different print quality. This also means you should not try to use it interchangeably because you may not get the print quality you desire.

Sublimation ink formulas combine and blend dyes, pigments, or chemicals differently than regular inkjet printer ink. Typically, we see the following formulation:

  • Vinyl chloride-vinyl acetate copolymer
  • Polymeric amide
  • 2-methoxy-1-methyl ethyl acetate
  • N-butyl acetate
  • Butan-2-OL
  • Petroleum distillate
  • Disperse and/or solvent dyes
  • Propylene glycol

Ink manufacturers use slightly different formulas, so each sublimation ink delivers slightly different results.

Differences Between Sublimation and Regular Ink
Feature:Sublimation Ink:Regular Inkjet Ink:
Reaction to HeatBecomes gasStays stable
Absorption in PaperDoes not absorbAbsorbs into regular copier paper
Print QualitySlightly translucentMore solid

Some of the differences between regular ink and sublimation ink include:

  • Sublimation ink becomes gas when coming into contact with heat, while regular inkjet ink stays stable.
  • Regular inkjet ink absorbs into regular copier paper, while sublimation ink does not absorb.
  • Sublimation ink produces a slightly translucent printing quality, while regular ink produces a more solid print quality.

This means you may not want to use regular inkjet and sublimation ink interchangeably. If one runs out on your printer, you should not simply use the other ink. This may result in unsatisfactory print quality, and you may waste your ink or stain your printer.

For example, suppose you print sublimation ink on paper. Then, the ink will not absorb into the paper but just stay on top of the paper. This means if you touch the printed areas, the ink smears. If the sublimation ink comes into contact with water, it might also smear.

To learn more, read this guide about the necessity of sublimation ink for sublimation papers.

#2. Sublimation Ink Can Only Be Used on Sublimation Paper

Sublimation ink has different properties, so it is unsuitable for use with regular copier paper use. This is because it cannot be absorbed by the paper and might easily smear if printed. Sublimation ink is commonly printed on sublimation papers, which have a special silica-based coating to hold onto sublimation ink temporarily.

Operating a Wide Format Sublimation Printer

Sublimation ink is engineered and formulated for sublimation use. The properties, performance, and reaction differ from regular inkjet paper. Primarily, sublimation ink cannot be printed on sublimation paper.

Regular copier paper cannot absorb and keep the ink on the paper. This is because sublimation ink’s final destination differs from the regular inkjet ink – it should end up on the substrate of choice and not a piece of paper.

However, many substrates usually cannot fit into a printer. For example, suppose you intend to sublimate on a t-shirt. In that case, you cannot just fit the t-shirt into a regular dye-sublimation printer and have sublimation ink printed on it directly.

Temporary Medium Needed

This means you need a temporary medium to first take on the sublimation ink from the printer before transferring it onto the substrate. In comes the sublimation paper.

Sublimation paper differs from regular copier paper in thickness. Regular copier paper usually is around 70-80GSM (gram per square inch).

Sublimation papers tend to be heavier, about 110-130GSM. Thicker papers are sturdy and hold up better to the pressure and heat from the heat press.

You also get fewer creases with thicker papers, and creases can ruin your sublimation results.

Sublimation paper also usually has one of the sides coated with a special silica layer. This layer holds on to the sublimation ink temporarily when the printer prints the design. Sublimation paper holds on to the ink until you sublimate to your final substrate using a heat press.

Sublimation ink and paper are designed to work together and cannot be used with anything regular. That means sublimation ink cannot work with regular paper, nor can sublimation paper with regular ink.

Regular inkjet ink will simply fail to be absorbed by sublimation paper. This will cause the ink to easily smear when contacting things such as your hands or water. For more insights, read the sublimation printer vs. inkjet printer guide.

#3. Sublimation Ink Can Be Genuine or Third-Party

Like regular ink, sublimation ink can come as genuine or third-party ink. Companies that make sublimation printers have their own proprietary sublimation ink formulation. We consider these inks genuine inks. Some outside companies also produce compatible sublimation inks called third-party inks.

Interest in sublimation has increased worldwide as more and more people turn to sublimation as a hobby.

Some also turn to sublimation as a way to start a business, custom printing things such as t-shirts or metal pieces for their clients. Some printer makers recognize the growth of the sublimation market and so decide to make printers that cater to these people.

Popular sublimation printer makers include Epson, Sawgrass, Lexmark, Brothers, and many more. These printers, called dye-sublimation printers, are designed to work specifically with sublimation ink.

These printer makers also produce simple ink sets for use on these printers, which customers can also purchase separately when they run out of it.

Depending on the configuration of the printer, these inks come in either cartridges or refillable bottles. For example, Epson’s own sublimation ink is called T49M, which differs from its other ink formulation, such as the DURAbrite, or Claria.

These inks qualify as genuine inks because they come from the original printer maker. Experts usually agree that these genuine inks perform the best with their corresponding printers. Aside from Epson, printer makers such as Sawgrass make their own proprietary blend of sublimation ink.

Cost Differences

Despite the better performance, one of the issues with these genuine sublimation inks is the cost. They usually cost more than third-party inks, and if you approach sublimation as a hobby or a small business, you may not like spending more money just to get these inks.

Outside companies have noticed the cost problem with genuine inks and have stepped in to help. They basically formulate and produce sublimation inks compatible with specific printers. Still, the printer companies do not validate the ink formulations.

We call these sublimation inks third-party inks. Third-party ink may be cheaper than genuine ink, as printer makers like to sell their own inks at a high margin or profit.

However, with so many third-party ink makers, the standards and quality may differ vastly between them. This means you may need to be prepared to spend some money to test a few brands until you find one you like.

Aside from that, before using third-party sublimation ink, check on the warranty coverage, particularly if you have a sublimation printer that’s still within the warranty period.

This is because using a non-genuine sublimation ink may void warranties on some sublimation printers. Some popular third-party sublimation ink makers include Hiipoo, Printers Jack, A-Sub, Koala, and many more. You can usually find these third-party sublimation inks on places such as Amazon.

#4. Genuine Sublimation Ink May Work Better With Its Printer

For the best print results, always use genuine ink with its corresponding printer brand. The manufacturer’s own ink formula works best with the printer, guaranteeing you the best print result. Third-party links may try to save on the ingredients or not work well with the printer, resulting in unsatisfactory print quality.

Printer Printing a Photograph

Generally, suppose you are looking for the best possible print results. In that case, you want to ensure that you use the highest quality materials and tools. This means the best printer, the best paper, and the best sublimation ink.

This means you want to use genuine sublimation ink that corresponds with your printer. If you look at your dye-sublimation printer, generally, these printers recommend a corresponding genuine sublimation ink to use with it.

For example, Epson’s dye-sublimation printers, such as the Epson SureColor F170 may recommend using Epson T49M sublimation ink. A Sawgrass SG500 dye-sublimation printer may recommend using its proprietary Sublijet sublimation ink.

These inks are formulated especially for use with these printer models. Who knows the best formulation for these printers, if not the printer makers themselves?

This means genuine sublimation ink will always work better than third-party ink. You will get the best print quality, although you may have to contend with issues such as a higher price for the ink, and it may be harder to source these inks.

For example, a set of genuine Sublijet HD sublimation ink cartridges for Sawgrass printers may cost around $300. A third-party cartridge at a similar ink volume may cost around $100.

#5. Sublimation Ink Can Work On Dye-Sublimation or Some Regular Inkjet Printer

Sublimation ink can work with dye-sublimation printers and some regular inkjet printers. Specifically, sublimation ink can work with inkjet printers that use piezoelectric printhead technology. If you have the right regular inkjet printer, you can convert it into a sublimation printer.

Refilling Sublimation Ink Tanks.

Sublimation ink has different formulations and properties than regular inkjet printer ink, but because of its liquid base it still works with regular inkjet printers. This fact results in many people simply converting their old inkjet printers and using sublimation ink with them.

This allows the old printer to perform sublimation printing. People like this option because they can start exploring sublimation at a lower cost.

A brand-new dye-sublimation printer can be expensive. Should you purchase one and no longer enjoy sublimation, you get stuck with a printer that cannot do much beyond sublimation printing. With a regular inkjet printer, you can convert it for sublimation printing. Here’s a guide about whether you can use an inkjet printer for sublimation. Refer to it for further information.

If you are no longer keen to do sublimation, you simply remove the ink and then use it for regular printing again.

Choosing an Inkjet Printer for Conversion

However, not all regular inkjet printers can work with sublimation ink because the printing technology may be unsuitable. In inkjet printers, piezoelectric and thermal are two major printhead technologies.

Piezoelectric printhead technology uses a vibrating crystal to draw ink from the cartridge and channel it to the nozzle, which in turn will squirt the ink onto the paper surface. Printer brands such as Epson and Brother use this technology.

Thermal print head technology does not use vibration. Instead, like the name, it uses heat. The heat expands the ink, which then helps push it into the printhead nozzle, injecting the ink onto the paper surface. Brands such as Canon and HP printers tend to use thermal technology more.

Sublimation ink doesn’t work well with printers with the thermal printhead. The heat used may destabilize sublimation ink, resulting in poor print results. Sublimation ink turns into gas when coming into contact with heat, which means the ink may not be channeled well into the printhead nozzle.

If you intend to perform your regular inkjet printer for sublimation, check with your user manual or support to see if the printer runs on a thermal or piezoelectric printhead technology.

As a general rule, Epson and Brother printers use piezoelectric, while Canon and HP use thermal. However, be sure to check before performing any conversion work.

How to Convert a Printer

If you intend to perform the conversion work, you simply remove any old ink from your inkjet printer and then fill it with sublimation ink.

You then perform deep printhead cleaning to remove any residual old ink and prime the printhead with sublimation ink. You might also have to adjust your computer’s color profiles and paper thickness settings.

Your printer will also use only sublimation paper once converted for sublimation printing.

#6. Sublimation Ink May Come In Cartridges or Bottles

Sublimation ink comes in formats such as cartridges and bottles because sublimation printers use different ink systems. You also refill them in different ways. Cartridges usually cost more than bottles, but you will find them easier and less messy to refill.

Similar to regular ink, sublimation printers also come in multiple ink management systems. For example, some printers may use cartridge-style management systems for inks, while some, such as Brother, may like to use ribbons.

Catering to demands for low-cost printing, some printer makers have also introduced external tank systems to manage their inks. These printers do not have cartridges. Instead, they have ink tanks that keep a larger amount of ink you draw from when printing.

Dye-sublimation printers also caught on to what was happening and started making printers with these ink management systems.

Some converted inkjet printers also have cartridge or tank-based ink management systems.

For example, Sawgrass Virtuoso SG500 uses a cartridge-based ink management system. In contrast, Epson SureColor F170 uses an external ink tank management system.

Some popular regular inkjet printers often change sublimation printing, such as Epson EcoTank ET-2720, also use an external ink tank.

Pros and Cons for Ink Management Systems
Ink Management System:Pros:Cons:
CartridgesEasy to replace, no messMore expensive (includes the cost of cartridge and plastic casing)
Ink TanksCheaper ink, cost-effective in the long runMessy, risk of spills and stains

There are upsides and downsides to each of the ink management systems. For cartridges, usually, you can easily replace them when it’s time.

You simply open up the cartridge holder on your printer, remove the cartridges, replace them with new ones, close the printer back, and prime the printer. You are also not physically dealing with ink, which means you will not create a mess. This may be important if you have butterfingers.

However, cartridges may be more expensive since when you buy them, you are also buying the cartridges and the plastic containers that come with them.

With ink tanks, you usually buy refill inks in bottles. You refill by pouring the ink into the ink tank. You may also use a syringe to draw the ink from the refill bottles and inject the ink into the ink tanks.

Many people find this more difficult and messier, because they work directly with ink. Ink may stain or, worse, spill over and ruin your working space. The upside, however, is that ink bottles tend to be cheaper since you simply pay for the ink. The bottles cost much less than the cartridges.

As a result, when shopping for a sublimation printer, you may also want to consider the ink management systems and decide which style suits your needs better.

#7. Sublimation Ink May Come In More Than CMYK Colors

Sublimation ink usually comes in CMYK color configurations (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black), similar to regular inkjet inks. However, advanced sublimation printers may have more ink colors to improve print quality. Usually, for regular sublimation, a CMYK ink configuration should be enough.

Refillable Sublimation Ink Tanks

Common sublimation printers for home or small business use tend to come in a set of four color shades: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black. The industry often shortens this to CMYK.

This means common sublimation printers use ink configurations similar to regular inkjet printers. However, more advanced sublimation printers may use more than four. Some use six, eight, and industrial-grade sublimation printers may use even more.

Printers use the additional ink color to improve the final print result and produce higher quality. This may be important for industrial-grade sublimation printers, when they may work on products such as paintings or carpets. These products often require a much higher print quality.

However, a CMYK ink color combination is often enough for common home or small businesses to perform the required tasks.

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