what is sublimation printing

What Is Sublimation Printing (The Ultimate Guide)

Are you new to dye sublimation and want to learn “What is sublimation printing and how it works?”

Sublimation printing is a digital printing process that enables you to imprint full-color images onto products that have a polymer surface. Heat and pressure are applied to the substrate and the printed image, on dye sublimation paper, infusing the ink through sublimation to the substrate or fabric.

I first learned about sublimation printing when I was traveling in New Orleans many years ago. I stumbled across beautiful vibrant full-color souvenirs made out of metal. The individual selling the vast array of products stated it was dye sublimation.

This was the first time I heard about the subject and wanted to learn more about it and how it worked.

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Sublimation printing is becoming an increasingly popular option for printing designs on to surfaces like wood, metal, glass, t-shirts, and even concrete. Anyone can start sublimation printing to produce clear images without some of the challenges and costs associated with screen printing or heat transfers.

Dye sublimation printing at first may sound complicated and expensive because of the terminology. However, with today’s technology, it has become easier and more popular with businesses and hobbyists for creating unique products, with rich vibrant full-color images on almost any surface.

How Does Sublimation Work?

Sublimation printing relies on a chemical process called sublimation. Sublimation occurs when an ink (dye) solid changes from a liquid directly into a gas. This is different from the more common process of a solid changing first into a liquid and then to a gas.

Sublimation printing is also called dye sublimation, as the dye (ink) is the material that sublimates. The print method uses a special type of ink to print a design on a specially designed dye sublimation paper. 

The paper is then placed on top of the substrate you plan to print on. The paper and the material to be printed are placed in a heat press. 

Heat transforms the ink into a gas, which then fuses with the surface of the substrate (or fabric) to create a permanent print. The resulting design feels smooth and looks like it actually embedded into the surface.

Dye sublimation is less prone to fading because it is embedded in the material instead of laying on top of it.

What Is Sublimation Used for?

Printers are starting to use sublimation printing more often for shorter runs on T-shirts, coffee mugs, metal artwork, and other promotional products. Compared to screen printing and heat transfer techniques, sublimation printing produces sharper high-resolution images. 

With today’s technology of CNC Machines, individuals can get even more creative by combing full-color Dye Sublimation with products they created from DXF files for CNC Lasers, plasma cutters, and routers. By combing these technologies it can turn the same old mundane item into a coveted piece of art, professional prototype, or another unique personalized item or gift.

Commercial decorators that produce promotional products often use sublimation printing for smaller print runs. Sublimation is quicker to set up and print lower volume pieces compared to screen printing and also produces better results. 

Small and large businesses as well as DIY crafter’s also use sublimation printing because it doesn’t cost a whole lot to get started.

People can buy the required equipment for sublimation printing and get set up pretty quickly and start producing products from home or business.

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Is Sublimation Printing Hard to Do?

Sublimation printing is not difficult if you have the right equipment and supplies. If you know how to print a document using a computer or tablet, and are willing to learn the software basics of setting up your artwork you can do sublimation printing.

To get started with DIY sublimation printing, ensure you use the right printer. – You can convert an inkjet printer for sublimation printing, by simply changing the ink and paper.

Heat Press Pressure and Temperature

Using a heat press is also relatively easy. Depending on the type of material, you adjust the press time, temperature, and pressure. 

The heat press has a timer and pressure adjustment that you set according to the type of material or substrate you are sublimating. The average press time is 45 to 60 seconds. The temperature range varies depending on the material, but you typically need a temperature range of 360 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (182-204 C°.)

After setting the pressure on the heat press, you add your substrate and printed sheet on top of the substrate to be sublimated. All artwork printed with inkjet sublimation ink must be printed on sublimation paper for professional results.

While sublimation printing is relatively easy, beginners may occasionally run into a few problems with the heat press. Here are a few:

Tips for Getting Better Sublimation Results

  • Use a lint roller on garments or fabric and thoroughly clean hard surfaces to ensure the best sublimation results.
  • Try to create a completely flat surface for printing when sublimating on fabrics.
  • Pre-press shirts and other garments
  • Always check and follow the pressure and temperature setting instructions from the manufacturer

Before placing a garment or other substrate on the heat press, using a lint roller or microfiber cloth helps remove small pieces of hair and debris. Anything left behind will block the transfer of ink and leave a white spot. 

Some products also have buttons or other obstructions that may interfere with the ink transfer. You need a smooth surface to ensure that the ink is distributed correctly. Buttons, zippers, and thick seams may keep some ink from transferring.

If possible, try to position clothing so that obstructions are out of the way of the heat press. If you cannot achieve a smooth surface, try placing a thin foam pad under the shirt. 

After arranging the shirt, pre-press it to remove any wrinkles. Pre-pressing the garment may not be necessary for 100% polyester material. On the other hand, cotton blends hold more moisture which can prevent the sublimation print from transferring correctly.

It would help if you also remembered to check the pressure and temperature settings for the material you are working with. Be especially careful when changing fabrics or substrates.

For example, you may need to use different settings if you switch from 100% polyester material to a 50/50 cotton/polyester blend. Or for instance when sublimating on hard surfaces, switching from wood to metal.

On hard substrates like wood or metal, smaller pieces will take less time than bigger pieces. Always check manufacturers’ specs when sublimating on pre-coated blanks.

What Are the Advantages of Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing offers a wide range of advantages over other printing methods:

  • Superior level of detail
  • Sharp lines and edges
  • Permanent results
  • Smooth touch designs
  • Cost-effective for small-batch orders
  • Rich vibrant colors

Sublimation printing provides a superior level of detail, especially when using a dedicated dye sublimation printer. A printer specifically designed for sublimation printing, rather than a regular printer converted with sublimation inks, produces high-quality prints with increased resolution.

The dye sublimation process simply provides clearer images. You get clear printing with clean, sharp lines and edges and a reduced risk of a fuzzy image.

Longevity is another benefit of dye sublimation. Compared to other printing methods, sublimation prints should last a lifetime – or if on a garment, when a garment wears out. Unlike heat transfers and screen prints, dye sublimation does not create a raised surface.

The resulting design is smooth to the touch because the ink fuses with the polymer surface or fibers instead of sitting directly on the surface.

Sublimation printing can also be cost-effective for some commercial printing. If you plan on selling or adding printed art or decorating the final piece you make, dye sublimation often saves money on small production runs. It also allows you to remain flexible, as you can easily print new designs. This applies to hard substrates or fabrics.

What Are the Disadvantages of Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation is easy and offers lasting results, but it also comes with a few potential disadvantages:

  • A smaller selection of fabrics as they must have enough polyester
  • A heat press is necessary 
  • Sublimation inks are transparent so work best on light-colored materials
  • Hard substrates need a polymer surface
  • Best for a shorter run or smaller quantities

Dye sublimation works best on polyester materials or surfaces with polyester or polymer coatings. You cannot print designs directly onto cotton, silk, and other fabrics. 

Sublimation printing also requires a heat press. Because most people would need to buy a heat press, in the short term, sublimation printing is not the least expensive way to print images. However in my opinion gives superior results for little money invested.

Jobs turn out the best when sublimating on white or light-colored materials and substrates. Because of the way the sublimation inks are transparent and fuse with the surface, a design printed on darker surfaces will either not be as vibrant or not show at all. There is also no white ink for sublimation printing.

What Types of Products Can You Sublimate on?

Any type of hard surface that has a polymer coating or fabrics that have at least 50% polyester can be sublimated. There are many types of manufacturers that produce polymer-coated products for the sublimation industry. A polymer coating can also be applied manually to items not already coated.

Polyester is a type of synthetic polymer, which is a term often used to describe plastics. Some companies also make products specifically for sublimation printing. These products are often called “blanks.”

Fabric-based sublimation blanks are often made with 100% spun polyester. Common products include T-shirts, tote bags, hats, oven mitts, lunch bags, and neckties. 

Stainless steel tumblers or ceramic mugs are also frequently used for sublimation printing. Look for pre-coated tumblers. The pure-coated polymer surface allows the ink to fuse with the tumbler. A regular heat press used for garments won’t work for tumblers or mugs. You need a special tumbler heat press.

To find out more information on this topic you need to check our article What Can You Sublimate On? You will be quite surprised at what you can do with sublimation. Your imagination only limits you.

Can You Sublimate on Anything?

You can sublimate on almost anything with a polyester or polymer surface, including polyester-spun fabrics and polymer-coated materials and substrates.

Sublimation printing is used for many commercial printing purposes. You can use sublimation to put images on aluminum, glass, fiberboard, and wood.

However, you first must add a polyester coating and need a heat press large enough to fit the product for most applications.

How Much Does It Cost to Start Dye Sublimation Printing?

Depending on what types of products or textiles you want to start sublimation printing on, a basic setup for a dye sublimation printer, a heat press, and all start-up supplies could cost you anywhere from $850.00 – $1,750. You can start by getting a sublimation starter kit or bundle that includes a printer, heat press, supplies, and some sublimation blanks.

15'x15' 8in1 Professional Sublimation Heat Transfer Machine WF-3720 Printer CISS KIT

I suggest before you jump into buying the first bundle or economically priced package you see make sure you do some research first and be sure of the types of items you want to start printing including the size of items. Larger items require a larger printer and heat press.

READ MORE: How Much Do Sublimation Printers Cost?

Sublimation inkjet cartridges cost $60 to $100 or more. Sublimation toner sets start at $250. You can also purchase sublimation ink in bottles, and refill your printer ink tank.

You also need special paper for sublimation printing. Standard paper won’t hold the transfer image. 100 sheets of sublimation paper package may cost $25-$45 depending on size.

You could save money by buying an all-in-one sublimation printer set like the one pictured above. Some less expensive printers cost around $200 but would need sublimation ink and would need to be converted before use.

If you are a little more tech-savvy a cheaper inkjet printer as mentioned that you can convert to sublimation ink printing may work for you. However, if you are not, you may want to consider spending a little more and getting one with easy-to-use software and customer support for setup and printing.

A dedicated sublimation printer, manufactured as such, is more forgiving when it comes to maintenance and oftentimes comes included within easy-to-use software.

Sublimation printing requires a heat press. Inexpensive heat presses start at around $200, while heavy-duty heat presses designed for constant use cost $1,000 or more. You also need some assorted supplies, such as heat-resistant gloves, heat tape, and craft paper. 

What Equipment Do You Need for Dye Sublimation?

Sublimation printing typically involves the use of a sublimation printer as we already mentioned above (on what it costs). If you want to get by even cheaper, you can outsource your sublimation prints and have someone online or even locally print them for you.

dye sublimation paper
Dye Sublimation Paper

Sublimation printers and other sublimation methods also require paper formulated specifically for dye sublimation. Sublimation paper comes in different sizes and weights. Printers typically use heavy paper to print at high speeds to ensure superior color quality. 

Along with a printer, ink, and paper, you need a computer or tablet for editing your design and sending it to the printer. Additional sublimation equipment and supplies include:

  • Heat press
  • Heat transfer tape
  • Safety gloves
  • Adhesive spray
  • Uncoated butcher paper 

A heat press transfers the ink to your chosen material, such as a shirt.

Can You Use a Household Iron for Sublimation Printing?

Avoid using a household iron for sublimation, because there is not enough pressure and heat needed for best results. Sublimation requires evenly distributed pressure across the entire image for a quality transfer. The soleplate on the bottom of the typical household iron has holes and ridges for distributing heat and steam, which can create a blurry image.

You may also get a blurry image if you fail to secure the sublimation paper to your chosen material. 

Use heat transfer tape to attach the paper. Standard invisible tape cannot withstand the heat and may stick to your heat press and sublimation blank. Wear thick gloves to protect your hands from the heat when operating the heat press. Any type of heat-resistant gloves is suitable.

While you don’t need an adhesive spray, it can help keep the fabric in place during the transfer process. You apply the spray to the sublimation paper before positioning it on the fabric. Tape is still needed to secure the paper.

Printers typically use an additional layer of paper to protect imprinting target materials and the heat press from ink bleed. Don’t use parchment paper because its coating holds moisture. Don’t use Teflon sheets that don’t absorb enough moisture.

Use either protective paper designed for sublimation or uncoated butcher paper. You must add one layer of paper on top of the sublimation print paper. Another paper layer goes underneath whatever you are transferring the ink to.

When choosing something to transfer the ink onto, such as T-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, or wood blanks, make sure you have a heat press for that product. For example, if you plan on using sublimation printing on coffee mugs, you will need a mug heat press. A cap heat press is needed for transferring ink onto a hat.

Sublimation Vs Heat Transfer Paper

Sublimation and heat transfer paper both involve the use of heat to transfer designs from special paper to a fabric or another material. Heat transfer paper tends to cost less and is easier for beginners. However, heat transfer paper requires weeding or peeling away of the excess paper where there is no image. Sublimation quality is superior to that of heat transfer paper.

Mug heat press machine. Sublimation process on the ceramic surface

You do not need special printers, ink, or toner for heat transfer. Instead, you can just use a laser printer or inkjet printer and heat transfer paper.

Heat transfer paper is also a little more forgiving when applying heat, which means that you may be able to use a standard household iron rather than a heat press. This method was popular for creating DIY custom T-shirts since the 1970s and 1980s. 

Heat transfer, unlike sublimation printing also works on both cotton and polyester. Sublimation requires at least 50% polyester material and 70% for best results. 

Sublimation printing does typically produce more precise images and offers long-lasting results. The image does not crack or fade, because the ink becomes a permanent part of the fabric.

Along with printing on polyester material, sublimation allows you to add designs to various materials. You can use it on unglazed ceramics, wood, aluminum, and various surfaces with poly-coatings. Heat transfers don’t work on all these surfaces.

Sublimation Versus Screen Printing

The main advantage of screen printing is longer print runs, lowering the cost per piece for higher volume 1 & 2 color designs. Commercial screen printing equipment costs, setup, and learning curve are considerably more than what it takes for sublimation printing. However, you can get inexpensive hobby screen printing kits complete for under $300.

Screen printing involves using a wooden frame with a screen stretched across the top. Inks, light-sensitive emulsions, and a light-sensitive exposure area are also needed for screen printing.

A design is burned via light into an emulsion which is on the screen fabric stretched on the frame. The frame is positioned above the fabric that you want to print onto. Ink is applied and forced through the plastic design template onto the fabric using a squeegee. It basically works like a stencil. You print one color of the design with each screen.

To do sublimation printing all that you really need is a dye sublimation printer and a heat press along with a small number of supplies. Initially, for some hobbyists, the cost of getting started can be a little expensive (compared to hobby screen printing kits). However, designs can be full-color photographic quality, and last longer.

Also, as mentioned earlier you can outsource your color prints to someone else so initially, you can forgo the printer.  Sublimation printing is far less messy, faster to set up and print, and offers superior quality.

Sublimation printing Vs screen printing is two totally different processes and both offer advantages and disadvantages to their technology. If you are wanting to create custom personalized pieces or short-run full-color products with superior quality sublimation printing is the way to go.

On the other hand, if you are just wanting to print 1-color with a higher volume (more pieces per print run) and offer cheaper pricing screen printing may be an option.

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