What Is Sublimation Coating? (The Ultimate Guide!)

Ever wondered how to get that perfect design on a fabric or hard surface? Well, the secret to that is sublimation coating. So, what exactly is sublimation coating?

Sublimation coating is a transparent, liquid-based material that can be applied to many surfaces to make them sublimable. Once applied and dried, the coating provides a clear, transparent coating of polyester, which can hold onto the design and the surface. 

As a result, with the help of sublimation coating, many surfaces are now sublimable. Sublimation coating can be divided into two distinct types, each with its own way of applying it. 


For Fabric

To prepare the fabric for sublimation, you spray the liquid coating over the surface. Many printers use a sublimation coating to sublimate on non-polyester fabric such as cotton.

Although sublimation coating makes almost all fabric surfaces sublimable, not all will stand up to the heat press.

For example, fabrics such as nylon, lycra, or silk don’t work well. The high temperature and pressure needed during the sublimation process may ruin these fabrics.

So, these fabrics still can’t be used for sublimation, even with sublimation coating applied. 

For Hard Surfaces

Sublimation coatings for hard surfaces often come in three forms.

One is in runny liquid, which you spray on the surface you intend to sublimate on.

Another preparation comes in two different liquids, which you mix to activate the polyester coating, similar to mixing epoxy glue

Some of these sublimation coatings can also be applied using a brush instead of spray for a more evenly coating. This makes many hard surfaces like ceramic, cement, glass, acrylic, plastic, and wood sublimable. To get a good result, you must apply an even layer to ensure a smooth sublimation later. 

In addition to liquid-based coatings, you can opt for a laminated sublimation sheet. Using a laminate sublimation sheet works well, especially if the material you plan to sublimate on is flat and smooth.

Essentially, a laminated sublimation sheet functions as an in-between medium – the bottom side attaches to the surface of the substrate. On the other hand, the top side can bond with sublimation ink, making the substrate ‘printable.’

To apply a laminated sublimation sheet cut the sheet down to the size of the substrate. Then, attach both together using a heat press. (Here’s a guide to the top heat press for sublimation printing). The design can then be sublimated to the substrate on the side with the laminated sheet.

Sublimation Sheet and Printer

If you’re getting your gear ready for sublimation, one thing you can’t overlook is the ink you’ll use. Special sublimation ink is essential to make those designs pop and stick to the surface. Want to know more? Check out our guide on sublimation ink for sublimation papers to learn more.

Pre-Coated Blanks

Aside from manually applying sublimation coating, you may also opt to purchase blank substrates that already have sublimation coating applied.

These pre-sublimation coated blanks make the substrate immediately sublimable, saving you the time you’d spend applying the coating yourself. 

Pre-sublimation-coated blanks come in several forms. Mostly, you get them in either a transparent or white coating.

White coatings create a white background that will help your sublimated designs to stand out. In contrast, the transparent coating allows the original color of the substrate to stand out more.

By now, you’re aware that sublimation works on a variety of surfaces, but have you ever considered concrete? Yep, concrete. If that’s got you interested, don’t miss our post on whether you can sublimate on concrete.

How To Apply Sublimation Coating?

The method of applying sublimation coating depends on your chosen coating: spray-on, mix-and-brush, or laminated sublimation sheet. You can also opt for pre-coated surfaces to avoid having to apply your own sublimation coating. 

YouTube video

Applying Spray-On Sublimation Coating

You will mostly apply a spray-on sublimation coating on cloth materials, so the steps below would use a cotton t-shirt as an example. 

  1. Start by pre-pressing the t-shirt. Place a sheet of parchment or butcher paper at the bottom of the heat press plate. Place the shirt and then another layer of paper at the top. 
  2. Pre-press the shirt at 305°F (150°C) for 30 seconds. This removes creases and moisture that may interfere with the coating process. 
  3. Remove the shirt from the heat press and lay it on a flat surface. 
  4. Shake your sublimation coating for up to 1 minute to ensure an even mix. 
  5. From a distance of about 1 foot (30 cm), spray the coating onto the desired area on the t-shirt. Start with a left-to-right motion, going from top to bottom. 
  6. Repeat the spraying, but use a top-to-bottom motion, going from left to right. 
  7. Set aside for the coating to dry. You may also speed up the process by using a hair dryer and blowing on the t-shirt until the dampness is completely gone. 
  8. Pre-press the t-shirt again, similar to steps 1 and 2, to remove all moisture and creases before sublimating.

Thinking about using your sublimation ink for regular printing, too? Well, you might want to think again. Learn more about why it’s not such a great idea in our article on whether you can use sublimation ink for regular printing.

Applying Mix-and-Brush Sublimation Coating

You will mostly apply a mix-and-brush sublimation coating on a hard surface, so the steps below would take a ceramic mug as an example. 

  1. Start by cleaning the mug. Use isopropyl alcohol and wipe down the mug, to remove any dirt, residue, and oil from the surface. 
  2. Shake both bottles of your sublimation coating for up to one minute to ensure an even mix. You would usually have a bottle of primary liquid and a bottle of activator.
  3. Read up the instructions on the sublimation coating on the ratio when mixing these two, as different manufacturers may have different recommended measurements. 
  4. Pour the primary liquid into a small container with measurement indicators. Pour in the activator based on the recommended measurements from the maker. 
  5. Using a spoon, stir and ensure the mixture is even. Some sublimation coating mixture can emit odors that may make you uncomfortable, so either wear a breathing mask or mix in an open area with good ventilation. 
  6. Using a brush, apply the coating to the mug. Brush on a thin layer each time, going from left to right. Allow the first coat to dry for about 5-10 minutes. 
  7. Repeat the process by brushing from top to bottom. 
  8. Applying a thin area will decrease the likelihood of bleeding, where excess liquid flows towards the bottom of the mug instead of staying on the area it was brushed on. This keeps the mug surface flat. 
  9. While applying the coating, do not apply coating on about 1.5 inches (3.8CM) from the lip of the mug. Sublimation coating is a chemical mixture. Hence it might not be a good idea to apply it to areas where our mouth will frequently contact the mug.
  10. Cure the coating in an oven at 320°F(160°C) for about 20 minutes. 
  11. Allow the mug to cool to room temperature. If the mugs turn slightly yellow from the curing, spray on some hydrogen peroxide to make the mug whiter. 

Applying Laminated Sublimation Sheet

You would probably apply a laminated sublimation sheet on flat, thin surfaces such as a wood board. We will use that as an example. 

  1. Start by cleaning the wood. Use isopropyl alcohol and wipe down the wood board to remove any dirt, residue, and oil from the surface. 
  2. Take out the laminated sublimation sheet and cut it into the shape that fits the wood board. This ensures a great fit. 
  3. If needed, secure the laminated sheet to the wood board with heat-resistant tape.
  4. Preheat your heat press to 380°F (193°C). 
  5. Once ready, Place a sheet of parchment or butcher paper at the bottom of the heat press plate. Place the wood board with the laminated sheet taped in and then another layer of paper at the top. 
  6. Press for 50 seconds. 
  7. Remove the board from the press. Be careful, the wood plate may be very hot at this time. 
  8. If excess laminated sheets are at the edges of the wood board, use a craft knife to cut them away slowly.
  9. Once cooled down to room temperature, your wood board is ready to be sublimated.

What’s next? If you’re new to sublimation, we highly recommend checking out this ultimate guide to sublimation printing that’ll help you understand all the basics.

And once you’ve got the printer and ink sorted, don’t forget about the paper. Head over to this guide on the best sublimation papers to make sure you’re all set for success with sublimation printing.

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