sublimation ink

What Is Sublimation Ink? From Basics To Best Practices

Sublimation is a printing method popular for polyester-type substrates. However, the printing method requires a different kind of ink called sublimation ink. So, what exactly is sublimation ink?

Sublimation ink is a specialized ink used for sublimation printing. It contains special chemicals that adhere to sublimation paper. When heated, the dye in the ink changes from solid to gas, embedding itself into the print material for a lasting image.

Paints and colored pencils

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This article will discuss sublimation ink in detail, including how it differs from other printer inks and how it works. We will also answer other questions people often have about printing and sublimation inks.

What Is Sublimation Ink and How Does It Work? 

Sublimation ink is a dye-based ink used in sublimation printing. Hobbyists and commercial businesses print this special ink onto sublimation paper, before placing on a print surface and applying heat and pressure. The heat causes the ink to change from a solid to a gas. Once heat and pressure are applied, the ink fuses with the materials on the surface.

Commonly, sublimation ink consists of the following materials:

  • 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

However, the formulation may be different depending on the manufacturer.

Sublimation ink is used in a process called ‘sublimation printing.’

  • First, the ink prints onto a special paper called sublimation paper.
  • The printer then places the paper face down onto the shirt or other surface.
  • When he applies heat and pressure, the ink gasifies and infuses into the surface.
  • The process of turning a solid into a gas without first turning it into liquid is called subliming or sublimation.  

What Are Other Types Of Ink For Printers?

In general, liquid printer inks are either dye-based or pigment-based. Dye-based inks can be sublimation ink or regular inkjet printer ink. High-end photo printers commonly use pigment inks.

Dye-based inks include ingredients such as solvents, dyes, resins, and varnishes. The formulas usually also need other additives such as drying agents, waxes, and lubricants to enhance finishing and protect the printhead. 

Depending on the mixture of materials, a dye-based ink can be your common inkjet printer ink or sublimation ink. Aside from dye-based ink, you have pigment-based ink. Formulas for pigment inks include colored pigments mixed with water, oil, resins, and waxes. 

Both inks have their strengths and weaknesses and perform best when used correctly. 

close-up shot of a CMYK ink cartridges for a color printer shallow depth of field

Dye vs. Pigment vs. Sublimation Ink

Regular dye printer ink costs the least but may offer the lowest print quality. Pigment-based ink costs more but also lasts much longer. Sublimation ink may cost more than dye ink. Still, it can transfer itself to a polyester-based surface with heat and pressure. 

Ink TypeStrengthWeakness
Dye-Based InkLow-cost, Long lastingDissolves in water, Longer dry time, Fades fast under the sun
Pigment-Based InkFades slow under the sun, Water ResistantLighter color, Cost
Sublimation InkTransferableRequires Special Paper
Pros and Cons of Different Inks

Dye Ink: Pros

Low Cost. Of all inks here, regular dye ink costs the least, measuring cost by volume. Regular dye ink also does not consume a lot of ink per print compared to pigment ink. Experts recommend Inkjet printers for home use because they use less expensive dye-based ink. 

Longevity. Once printed on paper, the print usually stays for an extended period. The reason is that the ink is absorbed into the paper and hence becomes part of the paper. 

Dye Ink: Cons

Dissolves With Water. However, the biggest weakness of dye ink is its tendency to dissolve when coming into contact with water. This problem shows when printed documents develop smudges and become hard to read when exposed to water. This happens because dye-based ink uses deionized water as a solvent in its formulation, unlike pigment ink, which uses different elements. As a result, pigment-based ink is water-resistant.  

Sublimation ink does not suffer from this problem despite being dye-based. This is because sublimation paper holds the ink well.

Longer Dry Time. When printed out, you often notice that the paper or the print area feels slightly damp. This is because dye-based inks dry more slowly compared to pigment ink.  As a result, this may make printing with dye-based inks harder and less convenient compared to using a pigment printer. 

Weak UV Resistance. Dye-based ink does not hold up to the sun as well as pigment-based ink. If similar prints from dye-based and pigment-based ink are placed under the sun, the print from dye-based ink will fade earlier. 

Bottles of Ink

Pigment Ink: Pros

UV-Resistant. Pigment ink tends to perform better over the long term when used outdoors. This means if you expose prints with pigment and dye ink under the sun for a long time, the one with the pigment ink will hold its vibrancy and richness better. In fact, pigment-based ink may be able to resist fading for up to 200 years, a fact that made pigment ink popular with photo printers. 

Water Resistant. Pigment inks are water-resistant, unlike dye inks. This means you do not have to be concerned about smudges or smears on your print. 

Pigment Ink: Cons

Cost. Pigment inks are more expensive than dye inks. As a result, most low-cost inkjet printers use dye-based inks, while more expensive photo printers tend to use pigment ink. 

Pigment-based printers also tend to require more cartridges. Common inkjet printers that use dye inks often require only CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) cartridges. Pigment-based printers may use additional cartridges such as MKB (Matte Key/Black) or GY (Gray). This pushes up the cost of pigment-based printer inks. 

Lighter Color. Pigment-based ink tends to produce lighter color. However, the black ink is ‘truer’ to pure black compared to dye-based ink. However, a lighter color may be preferred for some printing, so this may not be a complete weakness for pigment ink. 

Sublimation Ink: Pros

Transferable. Sublimation ink is transferable to another polyester-based surface when printed on a sublimation paper. You just need some heat and pressure to complete the process. Sublimation inks, so sublimation printing. In the process, someone first prints the design onto sublimation paper and then transfers it to shirts, mugs, cups, and napkins. 

Sublimation Ink: Cons

Requires Special Paper. Sublimation inks might be dye-based, but they don’t print well on regular paper. The process requires a special holding paper to hold the ink before transferring the design to the final print surface. 

These unique holding papers are often called sublimation papers, which cost several times what regular paper costs. Hence, sublimation papers and inks are often used by creative printers looking to print on more than just paper. 

To get a detailed understanding of sublimation ink, check out this guide on what types of inks are used in sublimation printing.

Can sublimation ink be used to print on everything?

Sublimation ink can only be used to print directly on sublimation papers. However, the ink can also be transferred to another polyester-based surface with the help of heat and pressure.

When printing from a printer using sublimation ink, you need to use a special holding paper. You cannot use regular copy paper, as the sublimation ink will not hold on well enough to the paper, and the print quality will suffer.

They call these unique holding papers sublimation papers. They are widely available in print shops and places such as Amazon. 

Printer with Special Paper

Once you have printed designs on a sublimation paper, you may only transfer the design to a polyester-based surface. You might not be able to transfer the design to many surfaces, such as ceramic or cotton.

For example, suppose you sublimate on cotton. It will look great at first, as cotton is an excellent absorbing material and may temporarily hold the sublimation ink well.

But once you expose the cotton cloth to water, the ink will dissolve and smear. This is because the chemical process that bonds sublimation ink to the surface can only work with polyester. 

However, many creative printers can find ways around this by first sublimating on a vinyl transfer sheet before heat transferring the vinyl to the non-polyester surface.

We have detailed guides that explain sublimation printing on unique surfaces. Take a look to learn more:

Is Sublimation Printing Similar To Regular Inkjet Printing?

Sublimation printing and inkjet printing are different. Sublimation printing uses different ink and paper compared to regular inkjet printing. Not all inkjet printers can perform sublimation printing.

You can do sublimation printing and regular inkjet printing on an inkjet printer. However, not all inkjet printers can perform sublimation printing. 

This is because there are two significant technologies that inkjet printers use – thermal and Piezo. Thermal inkjet printers use heat to turn ink into bubbles before sending it to the print head to be placed on paper. Piezo inkjet printers use vibration to send ink to the printhead instead.

Sublimation ink is sensitive to heat, making thermal inkjet printers unsuitable. The heat generated by the printhead may affect the ink’s performance, and print quality may suffer. Therefore, you may want to check with your salesperson when purchasing an inkjet printer for sublimation. 

To perform sublimation printing, you also will need sublimation ink and sublimation paper. Using sublimation paper gives you a stable surface to hold onto the sublimation ink. A sublimation paper will also make transferring your design to your final surface easier. 

What Printer Is Best For Sublimation Ink?

Both sublimation and inkjet printers are commonly used to print using sublimation ink. You may need to consider factors such as budget and production volume when deciding between a sublimation printer or an inkjet printer converted for sublimation. 

Most people considering sublimation are either hobbyists wanting to do some art project or individuals who want to start a small printing business.

If you belong to either category, you may be better off purchasing an inkjet printer and then converting it to sublimation printing. You replace the ink with sublimation ink and purchase sublimation paper for this process. 

However, suppose you own a printing business and regularly print and process a large amount of polyester-based substrate such as shirts, mugs, caps, etc.

In that case, you could consider a sublimation printer because it prints faster and makes less of a mess than having an inkjet printer converted for sublimation printing. 

Aside from sublimation and inkjet printers, you may also perform sublimation printing on a laser printer. However, you may need to consider its strengths and weaknesses as well. 

Ink Jet Printer

How To Set Up An Inkjet Printer To Use Sublimation Ink?

To set up an inkjet printer for sublimation printing, you can substitute regular printer ink with sublimation ink. You also need to prepare a sublimation paper. To simplify the setup process, it is best to use a brand-new inkjet printer with external tanks. 

Consider a brand-new inkjet printer with an external tank, such as the Epson EcoTank ET2720. If you plan to convert another inkjet printer, ensure that it uses piezo technology instead of thermal. Check with your salesperson on this matter if you are unsure. 

A brand-new printer does not have ink inside its tank and cartridges. This means that you do not run the risk of mixing your sublimation ink with regular ink.

Despite coming from the same dye-based ink, you should never mix regular ink and sublimation ink together, as it will affect print quality. Your print result will not look good on paper or on sublimation paper. 

Before turning on the printer, fill up the external tank with the sublimation ink. Make sure you are adding the right ink color to the right tank during the process. Fill up to ¾ of the tank with the ink. Once turned on, allow the printer some time to get set.

Most printers with the external tank will start drawing ink from the external tanks to fill up the tubes and internal cartridges. If the ink level in the external tank has dropped too low, consider adding more ink to top it up. 

Learn more about how to convert an inkjet printer for sublimation printing.

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