What is the difference between a sublimation heat press and a regular heat press?

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It is sometimes confusing when you are trying to understand the terminology of a new hobby or pastime. Diving into heat presses in their many forms presents an opportunity to learn a lot of cool stuff while making your own amazing projects.

One question newcomers ask is “What is the difference between sublimation printers and a regular heat press?”

For the typical user, there is no difference.

Most heat presses are labeled as suitable for pressing heat transfer vinyl (HTV) or sublimation ink. The difference is that sublimation requires a higher heat to transfer to fabric or ceramic than vinyl.

In a nutshell, the sublimation process infuses an ink into the applied material. Vinyl bonds to the top of fabric. Heat and pressure applied to sublimation pigment makes it permeate the fabric, in effect dyeing it permanently. Sublimated garments never lose their vibrant color, even after repeated washes.

Garment sublimation requires higher temperature than HTV. You would set your press between 300 and 325 degrees to press vinyl to cotton, spandex or blends. Sublimation requires temperatures from 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Sublimation pressing also requires a longer press time, depending on the garment type.

Sublimation Requires Special Printers, not Heat Presses

When you are planning sublimation projects, the specialty equipment you need is generally sublimation printers, inks, transfer papers and blanks. There are a range of printers from home to commercial quality that specialize in printing sublimation ink. Garments or other blank items require application via specific transfer paper.

When you are considering a heat press for sublimation projects, the most important factor to consider is size. You want a heat press that matches the page size of the sublimation printer. Simply put, the larger the printer, the larger the heat press. If you have a printer that can print 11 x 17″ or 13 x 19″ paper, you should invest in a 16 x 20″ heat press.

These blank materials, like t-shirts, or coffee mugs, signs, canvas or whatever, need to be either polyester or coated with a special polymer that binds to the sublimation ink. Everyday dollar store items can’t be sublimated without this special coating.

So in summary, there are a lot of differences between using heat transfer vinyl and sublimation ink used to create custom garments and other branded merchandise; the heat press that applies either the vinyl or the sublimation ink is usually fine for either kind of project.

To read our recommendations for the best heat press machines for sublimation or vinyl projects, click here.

11 thoughts on “What is the difference between a sublimation heat press and a regular heat press?”

  1. So any heat press will do regardless of hybrid or sublimation? Only the size of the press is important?

  2. Hi Francine, you’re right, any heat press will work for HTV and sublimation, but the most important consideration is size. If you are doing sublimation, you want a press that will match your largest printed image so you can complete the application in one press. Pressing in sections can overbake your designs, and you risk shifting the transfer which can smudge the ink.

    Thanks for the comment – if you’re in the market for a heat press, check out our reviews: “Best heat press for sublimation” or Best Heat Press machine for making shirts

  3. Hi Jonathan,
    Yes, you can use Cricut brand heat transfer vinyl (Iron-On) with a regular heat press, but I wouldn’t flip it and re-press like Cricut recommends. Cricut brand Iron-On calls for unusually long press times and high temperatures compared to other HTV (Siser, Stahls, ThermoFlex, WALAKut, etc.), so I would definitely test-press any Cricut vinyl before doing a full project with your 6 in 1.

    If you would like to compare the kinds of press times and temps I’m talking about, we have Time and Temperature charts for Cricut, Siser. ThermoFlex (Specialty Materials), and WALAKut HTV in our Resource Library.

    I hope that answers your question; thanks for reading! – Ian

  4. Wow! Thank you so much for this very straight forward concise explanation regarding heat presses. I have a older, never used (2017) Vevor 5 in 1 heat press and wasn’t sure if I could do sublimation with it. using my Cricut infusible ink products. After countless searches and reading numerous repetitive articles you point-blank answered my question of, do I need to buy a new “Sublimation Heat Press”.

  5. Question, I know that all like tacky paper if you have a heat press to avoid ghosting, but why if you are doing sublimation in a Rotary Heat Press, then why you will need the tacky in the paper?

    If is just a double safe line?

  6. Hi Jorge,

    You’re right that tacky paper is generally used for flat heat presses to avoid ghosting, and there’s no need to use that in a rotary heat press. I’m not an expert in large-scale industrial uses, but I know that there are people who prefer using tacky paper with a rotary heat press for sublimating on stretchy/elastic fabrics – and again, you’re right, it is just a safety net to make sure you avoid ghosting and wrinkles. – Ian

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