What is sublimation printing?

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Sublimation is the transition of a solid directly to a gas without any intermediate liquid state.

So, what is sublimation printing? Sublimation printing involves turning solid ink particles into gas under heat and pressure, and bonding them to a man-made material like polyester or a polymer coating.

In other words, instead of being deposited as a layer on the surface, sublimation inks become part of the material you fuse them with.

There are 2 different types of printers that people refer to as “sublimation printers”:

  1. Inkjet printers that deposit sublimation ink onto transfer paper which is then used as part of a heat transfer process. Sublimation does not occur directly as part of printing.
    • Example: Sawgrass SG500
    • used to decorate clothing, mugs, decor, signage, phone cases, flags, keychains, coasters, etc.
  2. Printers that transfer sublimation dye to a material directly as part of the printing process. These photo printers use ink ribbons or ink paper.
    • Example: Canon Selphy CP1300
    • used to print standard photos and ID cards
    • NOT the kind of sublimation printer used to make heat transfers for clothing, mugs, etc.

The inkjet printers used to create heat transfers using sublimation ink are the only printers we talk about here.

What do you need for sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing requires the following equipment and materials:

visual graphic showing what you need to start sublimation printing projects
  1. Sublimation printer, either:
    • a purpose-built printer like a Sawgrass or an Epson F170
    • OR a printer converted to sublimation ink, like an Epson Eco tank printer
  2. Sublimation ink
  3. Transfer paper
  4. Blank (T-shirt, mug, mousepad, phone case, pillowcase, socks, etc.)
  5. Heat press or sublimation oven
  6. Cover sheet/blowout paper (copy paper, butcher paper, etc.)
  7. Optional: heat resistant tape, for sublimating on objects like mugs

The sublimation printing process

The sublimation printing process is pretty basic and involves 3 main steps:

diagram of the main steps to making a sublimation project
  1. Print your design onto transfer paper
  2. Place your transfer paper and cover sheet (blowout paper) over your blank
  3. Use a heat press (typically set to 400oF) to transfer your image onto your blank. Use special heat presses or sublimation ovens to apply sublimation transfers to mug and tumblers.

Are sublimation and heat transfer the same thing?

No. Although sublimation uses heat transfer, not all heat transfer uses sublimation ink to print onto blanks. Sublimation produces high-quality, full-color graphics that won’t crack, peel, or wash away if you use the proper blanks, but there are other types of heat transfers.

Heat transfer vinyl, or HTV, can also be transferred onto clothing, accessories, and decor using heat and pressure, but it just sticks to the surface of these items using adhesive backing. HTV is widely used and extremely popular, and even comes in printable forms.

Heat transfer paper is a material that can be used to transfer graphics printed with regular inkjet or laser printers. Inkjet and laser printers use different heat transfer papers, and the type you must use also depends on what material you will be transferring to. Unlike sublimation inks, the inkjet or laser dyes transferred using heat transfer paper sit on the surface of the fabric/blank. Heat transfer paper is different from sublimation paper.

What materials can be printed with sublimation printing?

A wide range of materials (blanks) can be printed using sublimation inks, provided they meet 2 criteria:

  1. they are made of polyester or coated with polymer
  2. 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.

There are manufacturers who make coatings for metal, glass, wood, and even fiberglass-reinforced plastic, resulting in blanks of all types including tabletops, basketball hoop backboards, and clocks. Even sublimation-ready flooring! And of course, large-scale sublimation can be done to produce all-over printed fabrics and large signage.

Ceramics like mugs, coasters, or tiles must have a special polymer coating, so you can only use blanks specifically sold as sublimation blanks.

For crafters or smaller-scale sublimation businesses, there are also plenty of possibilities for sublimation blanks. In addition to shirts, sublimation blanks can be found for:

  • mugs
  • tumblers
  • shot glasses
  • mousepads
  • koozies
  • coasters
  • keychains
  • photo panels
  • magnets
  • luggage tags
  • phone cases
  • puzzles
  • flags
  • potholders
  • aprons
  • tote bags
  • socks
  • and many more!

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