Can you use a regular printer for sublimation?

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It depends on the printer. The only printers commonly converted to sublimation are Epson inkjets.

The key to sublimation is dye-sublimation ink, which contains heat-activated pigments. These pigments turn from solid to gas when heat-pressed and bind to a polyester or poly-coated substrate like a T-shirt, mug, or tumbler.

So, what printers can use this type of ink? This article will describe the type of printer – and specific brands and models – that can be used for sublimation.

Can you use sublimation ink in a normal printer?

Making sublimation heat transfers requires an inkjet printer, but because sublimation ink is activated when heated, it requires a printer with printheads that don’t use heat to deposit ink.

Most popular brands of inkjet printer use thermal printheads, which use heat to bubble and spray the ink – you’ve probably noticed how warm freshly printed pages can be. If you try to use a normal inkjet printer with sublimation ink, you will sublimate in the printhead, discoloring and/or releasing the ink instead of transferring it correctly to paper.

The type of printhead that is compatible with sublimation ink is known as a Piezo printhead, which does ‘cold’ printing by dispersing ink via pressure. Epson and Brother are the main home printer brands that use Piezo printheads.

Can you use sublimation paper in a regular printer?

Sublimation paper in a regular printer won’t wreck your printer, but you can’t use it to print an image to sublimate without sublimation ink. Sublimation ink, not sublimation paper, is the key – you can even print sublimation ink onto plain copy paper and use it for heat transfer.

The feature that makes sublimation paper special is its ability to release the sublimation pigments as the image is heat-pressed, nothing more. Sublimation paper won’t make regular ink heat-transferable.

Confusingly, there is a special type of paper called heat transfer paper that you can print on using a standard inkjet or even laser printer to create an image for heat pressing. Instead of infusing the ink into the blank, heat transfer paper lays ink down on top of a film which is pressed onto the garment (which doesn’t need to be polyester or light colored). This is not sublimation, and this is not sublimation paper.

What does it mean to convert a printer to sublimation?

The easiest way to “convert” a regular, Piezo printhead, printer to sublimation ink is to buy a new printer and ONLY fill it with sublimation ink from day one.

If you switch from one ink type (or brand) to another, you must fully flush the print heads and tubing, wasting a ton of ink and filling your waste tank (or for the cheapest printers, your waste ink pads) prematurely. Unless you pay next to nothing for an old printer, it’s generally not worth the hassle and ink costs to convert it to sublimation. There are people who convert higher-end, wide format printers for this purpose, but they are not beginners.

If you use any ink other than the original manufacturer’s ink in your printer, you will void your warranty.

What Epson printers can you use for sublimation?

The simplest answer is: almost any of them. Epson printers have patented Micro Piezo printheads, which makes them suitable for a wide range of different types of ink (dye, solvent, pigment ink, sublimation ink). Epson makes 3 main types of printers that you could use:

  • purpose-built sublimation printers
  • EcoTank printers
  • cartridge-based printers

Epson sublimation printers

image of an Epson Surecolor F170 sublimation printer
the Epson SureColor F170

As we discuss in our review of best sublimation printers, Epson does make purpose-built printers specifically for sublimation. The relevant Epson SureColor printers are:

  • SureColor F170:
    • entry-level, 8.5″ max print width (MSRP $399)
  • SureColor F570/F570SE
    • small business-friendly, 24″ max print width (MSRP $2700-$2900)
  • SureColor F6370, F7200, F9470/9470H, F10070/F10070H
    • commercial and industrial printing, 44″/64″/76″ max print width (MSRP $8500-$105,000)

At $100 less than a Sawgrass SG500, the F170 is the lowest-priced sublimation printer on the market. It comes with a set of 140 ml CMYK inks, a 1 year unit exchange warranty and free phone support. If you want technical support and warranty coverage, we think the F170 is the best deal for a desktop purpose-built sublimation printer.

If lower starter costs matter most to you, Epson also makes the most popular printer for home users to convert: the EcoTank 2800.

Epson EcoTank printers to convert to sublimation

Epson calls their supertank printers (no cartridges) EcoTanks. There is a wide selection of different EcoTanks for home and business users, so I’m going to break it down into categories with sublimation in mind. The main things to consider are:

  • the size and quality of print you can produce
  • extra features you might want to use
  • maintenance
image of an Epson Ecotank ET2800 printer
Epson EcoTank ET-2800
image of an Epson Ecotank ET15000 printer
Epson EcoTank ET-15000

Cheapest EcoTank for sublimation conversion

The number one Epson used for sublimation by home crafters is the ET-2800, replacing the discontinued ET-2720. The ET-2800 is essentially the 2720 with a textured front panel. It is the cheapest of the Epson EcoTanks but it’s enough to get you started making sublimation prints.

The ET-2800 series print to a maximum of 8.5″ wide and includes:

  • Epson EcoTank ET-2800
  • ET-2803 – identical to the 2800 but sold at specific retailers like Target and Walmart
  • ET-2850 – identical to the 2800 but adds 2-sided printing

The ET-2800, 2803 and 2850 are the only EcoTanks that use ink pads rather than a tank (“maintenance box”) to collect waste ink.

If you have to run numerous maintenance cycles, print frequently, or do a lot of borderless printing, you may fill your waste ink pads quickly. The printer will give you an error message stating that components (the saturated ink pads) have reached the “end of service life” and you will be forced to either junk your printer or have it serviced at an authorized dealer at considerable expense. If you don’t plan on doing a lot of sublimation as a hobbyist, maintenance probably won’t end up being a problem.

Other Epson EcoTanks

These are the current EcoTanks that print up to 8.5″ wide, listing additional features distinguishing the models from each other:

  • ET-3830/3850 (faster color printing, larger paper tray capacity, larger control screen and added ethernet connectivity)
    • these have maintenance boxes ($10 replacement cost) instead of waste ink pads
  • ET-4850 (added fax functionality)
  • Ecotank Pro 5100 series, 5800 series (higher capacity printers for offices with autofeed features)

All of these printers have maintenance boxes ($10 replacement cost) for collecting waste ink. So, if you plan on doing a lot of sublimation, or if you end up having to run a lot of maintenance cycles, one of these printers may end up being a better value for you than the ET-2800.

Photo printing EcoTanks

Photo printing EcoTanks have 6 color sets instead of 4, and they include photo black and grey inks. These printers produce superior print quality when used with their original inks as intended, but this print quality is not guaranteed when you are using third party sublimation ink.

Wide format EcoTanks

  • ET15000 is the basic EcoTank for 4 color A3 and A3+ size printing.
  • Ecotank Pro series ET 16600/16650 for wide format prints (up to 13 x 19″) with auto document feeder that can feed up to 50 sheets of super tabloid sized sheets

If you are interested in being able to make larger sublimation prints, the ET-15000 offers standard 11″ x 17″ printing and can print up to 13″ x 19″ when using a rear feed bypass tray. The unfortunate thing is that finding an ET-15000 these days can be tricky, and they are often not in stock at major retailers.

Epson cartridge printers for sublimation

Although it has worked well for many people in the past, we don’t recommend converting any new cartridge-based printer for sublimation.

Epson has some excellent printers that use cartridges, particularly their WorkForce printers. The WF-7310, for example, can print 13″ x 19″ for a bargain price of $200, and comes with Epson’s DURABrite pigment ink. I have recommended this printer before for making stickers, decals, and really any other print & cut application. But I don’t recommend it for converting to sublimation for 3 main reasons:

  • you can’t use the cartridges included with the printer – you will have to purchase an entirely new cartridge from your 3rd party ink seller
  • printer cartridges use chips to prevent the use of 3rd party cartridges, you will have to get a cloned chip which may or may not work
  • some corporations have gotten in the habit of remotely disabling printers suspected of using non-OEM ink

Epson itself offers a warning on its page titled “No Third Party Ink Cartridges“:

HAL 9000 warns you about using 3rd party ink in a non-OEM printer cartridge
I wouldn’t add third party ink, Dave

Your printer was designed to work only with genuine Epson ink cartridges, therefore some [firmware] updates may affect the functionality of third party ink.”

In other words, Epson can brick your printer for using 3rd party ink cartridges, so don’t do it.

I love WorkForce printers, but they are no longer suitable for conversion to sublimation, imo. If you want a wider-format Epson to convert to sublimation, I recommend the EcoTank ET-15000.

Can you convert Brother printers for sublimation?

Like Epson, Brother printers use Piezo print heads, so theoretically you can load them with sublimation ink.

The problem is that third party sublimation ink retailers (like Cosmos Ink, Cobra Ink, Printers Jack, etc.) don’t make cartridges or ink specifically for Brother printers. This makes getting correct color profiles very difficult and up to the user to figure out, so you could end up just wasting time, ink, paper, and your sanity in addition to voiding your Brother warranty.

Brother has a popular “INKvestment” printer line that purports to be a “supertank” style of printer. If you are tempted to be a MacGyver and try to convert an INKvestment for sublimation, beware – these printers actually require cartridges that then fill an internal tank that is not directly accessible to the user. Our advice: don’t bother with Brother.

Can HP printers be used for sublimation?

None that you’ve got lying around! You can’t convert any HP home or office printer to sublimation because they all use thermal printheads.

However, HP does have the ‘Stitch’ line of commercial dye-sublimation printers. These printers ONLY use HP sublimation ink because it is specially formulated to work with thermal printheads. You read that right: HP is using thermal print heads with their own dye-sub ink. If you’ve got $7,000 or more to spend on an HP sublimation printer, here are your options:

  • HP Stitch S300
    • 64″ wide format printing, MSRP was $15,000 but now listed for ~$7,000 some places (I think it’s being discontinued, because HP doesn’t list the S300 on their site)
  • HP Stitch S500
    • 64″ wide format printing, MSRP $25,000 (but you can get it for ~$19,000 with an HP rebate)
  • HP Stitch S1000
    • 126″ wide format printing, MSRP $180,000

Can you use Canon printers for sublimation?

No, you cannot convert Canon printers for sublimation. Canon does have printers used for creating photo prints and printing directly on ID cards that they call “dye-sublimation printers”, but they sublimate inside the printer. A home version of this is the Canon Selphy, which cannot be used to create sublimation ink heat transfers for garments, etc.

Final thoughts

So, there you have it. “Conversion” to sublimation is as simple as buying an Epson EcoTank inkjet and filling it with sublimation ink. If you’re a typical beginner, you’ll probably choose an ET-2800 or if you want a larger format, an ET-15000.

If tech support and a replacement warranty matter to you, the SureColor F170 is the best deal for a purpose-built sublimation printer.

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