Getting started with sublimation doesn’t have to be a daunting process. For home crafters or people eyeing side income, the basic sublimation supplies are the same, it’s just a matter of how many and how large you want your projects to be.
To help get you started on your sublimation journey, we’ve created a basic checklist of what’s important to have on hand, and what is a helpful addition to make your projects easier. We’ve also included links to other helpful articles. These will help you research different equipment and materials, and learn more about the sublimation process.
Here is a running list of sublimation supplies you should consider when you’re getting started.
We’ve written an extensive review of our top picks for sublimation printer here. In a nutshell, you can get either a purpose-built sublimation printer or try converting an Epson inkjet for the job.
The role of the printer is to get your digital artwork onto a transfer sheet. Then it can be pressed onto your blank. Sublimation printers use inkjet printheads, and what makes them specially suited for making sublimation prints is that they don’t use heat for ink dispersion. Epson printers are the best example of “cold printhead technology” that sublimation enthusiasts look for. (This style of printer is broadly referred to as having Piezo printheads).
The most popular purpose-built desktop sublimation printers among home users are the Sawgrass SG500/SG1000 and the Epson SureColor F170. These printers offer specialized ink management software and Sawgrass even goes a step further to offer a design platform similar to Cricut Design Space.
Converting a home inkjet to sublimation requires swapping the regular ink out for sublimation ink. Epson is the most popular for conversion, and their line of Ecotank printers are the easiest to convert. They are cheaper than purpose built sublimation printers. However, loading them with dye-sublimation ink voids the warranty and you will not be able to get technical support through Epson.
What sublimation ink you use will depend on your printer. If you are using a purpose-built printer like a Sawgrass SG500 or an Epson Surecolor F170, ink is included in the purchase, and our recommendation is to stick with the branded ink from the manufacturer.
If you have a converted Epson for sublimation printing, you have more ink choices available. There are many third party ink suppliers making sublimation ink (and cartridges) specifically for Epson printers. The benefit of these sublimation inks is that they are generally cheaper than Epson or Sawgrass ink. But using them in any printer for sublimation (purpose-built or not) will void the warranty.
Four very popular brands of third party sublimation ink are Cosmos Ink, Cobra Ink, Printers Jack and Hiipoo. We recommend Cosmos because they are focused on ink for Epson EcoTank and Workforce printers. They also have a lot of helpful videos and they also have a huge FaceBook group that offers community support.
Sublimation paper is a specially formulated paper for sublimation ink. It has a “good” side for receiving the ink that is coated and designed to hold the ink in a dry state on the surface. When heat is applied, the ink particles are released as gas for infusion into the base material.
Several different companies sell sublimation paper, and while most paper performs well on hard and soft blanks, some papers are designed for one or the other.
Not sure where to start? Try the WALASub paper from Heat Transfer Warehouse. It’s inexpensive, comes in all common desktops sizes and it maintains true color fidelity. Other popular brands include Beaver Paper, A-Sub and Sawgrass.
In a pinch, you can use plain copy paper for sublimation. It will both hold and release the ink when pressed. But, copy paper may not give true colors when you press it, and it will not release as much of the sublimation ink into the blank as specialized sublimation paper.
A sublimation blank is whatever object you want your design imprinted on. Common blanks include t-shirts, mugs, banners and coasters.
A wide range of materials (blanks) can be printed using sublimation inks, provided they meet 2 criteria:
- they are made of polyester or coated with polymer
- the material is heat resistant (to at least 350-400oF)
Since sublimation involves binding of sublimation ink particles to synthetic polymers, fabric must be at least 60% polyester in order to retain the dye. The higher the polyester content, the better the color quality.
Ceramics like mugs, coasters, or tiles must have a special polymer coating, so you can only use blanks specifically sold as sublimation blanks.
Most sublimation blanks are white or light colored, so they don’t throw off the sublimation ink colors. Any garment you sublimate on should be white (preferable) or light colored.
Heat Press Machine
Our best advice for picking a heat press for sublimation is get one that matches the size of your printer. In basic terms this means:
- if your printer can only print 8.5″ wide (letter or legal sized), your best options are 15″ x 15″ presses, but 12″ x 15″ and 9″ x 12″ heat presses will also do
- If your printer can print tabloid or super tabloid sizes (11″ x 17″ or 13″ x 19″), then your minimum heat press size should be 16″ x 20″
In terms of press style, you might prefer a clamshell heat press if you are primarily interested in garment sublimation. This style of press performs best on flat, thin blanks. If you are interested in pressing thick blanks, you might be interested in a swing away style press.
If you are mostly interested in sublimation mugs and tumblers, there are even special mug presses for the job.
All of our best advice and recommendations for selecting a great heat press for sublimation is available here.
Thermal tape and dispenser
Heat resistant tape is a must have for sublimating. You can use this tape to affix your printed design to your base material before you apply heat. The tape will withstand the heat and should not leave adhesive residue behind. You can use it when you are sublimating mugs and tumblers, ceramic coasters, and other metal, wood or polymer-coated blanks.
If you are looking for a more familiar brand name for thermal tape, you can buy Siser thermal tape at Michael’s or Joann. Expect to pay a little more and get a little less. Same goes for Cricut thermal tape.
Low tack adhesive spray
A low tack spray adhesive can be very helpful when you’re sublimating on fabric to make sure your prints don’t move. Give your print a light spray and position it on your base material. Your print should stay fixed to the material during pressing, and you will minimize any chance of residue on your fabric after the press.
An alternative to adhesive spray is Tacky sublimation paper. This style of paper has a heat activated adhesive coating, meaning that when you place your sublimation print on your base material and apply the heat press, the heat activated adhesive will bond to the base, preventing it from shifting when the press opens.
The downside of tacky sublimation paper is that it is generally geared towards large commercial printers. It comes in rolls, and is generally available in 17″ rolls or wider.
Butcher Paper (or kraft paper)
Whenever you are using a heat press for sublimation or HTV, it’s recommended that you use a cover sheet of paper between the upper platen and your project. This sheet is commonly known as blowout paper, but not all kinds of paper work for both HTV and sublimation applications.
It’s important to have a paper cover when sublimating for a couple of reasons. It will keep sublimation ink from bleeding onto your upper platen, and putting it between fabric layers will prevent bleeding there as well.
Parchment paper is handy to have on hand when pressing HTV. It is heat resistant and can be used over and over again. However, parchment is not good for sublimation because it is coated with silicone. Silicone will take up the sublimation dye and potentially ruin your transfer and stain your platen. Teflon sheets, also popular for HTV application, cannot be used for sublimation for the same reason.
Try butcher paper instead. This paper is unlined, heavy kraft paper. It will withstand sublimation temperatures and keep your heat press clean.
Here’s our pick for butcher paper by the roll – YRYM HT White Kraft Butcher Paper Roll – it’s an 18″ wide x 176 ft long roll. It’s very highly rated by sublimators, and it’s white so there will be no color bleedout. It qualifies for free Amazon shipping, although it is not available for Prime delivery.
An infrared thermometer is very handy to have to verify the temperature of your heat press. If you get a cheaper press, it’s good to know for sure if one side of the platen heats differently than the other. You can either make adjustments or seek replacement parts from the manufacturer.
Dye sublimation can be a very cool hobby if you’re into making t-shirts or any number of unique items for gifts or extra income. Before you get started, you should pay attention to every step in the process, because there is a list of specialized items you need to make the hobby work. We have tried to curate a list of high quality suggestions that won’t make your startup costs too crazy, but there is always a potential tradeoff between quality and price.
Our recommendation is to start with the essentials. Trust major brands in the industry and be wary of bargain hunting for supplies from unfamiliar sellers. Join online communities and find out what works for other crafters. The dye-sublimation community is very helpful and newcomers don’t need to be afraid of asking basic questions.