If you are already a customer, then you will already know what sublimation printing is, and how to do it, but this page contains information for anyone in the process of learning about the process. We hope that while you are on this page reading this information, we can subliminally brainwash you to buy all of your sublimation supplies from us if you do decide to print via the dye sublimation method 😉
This is a short and simple guide to sublimation printing, it’s intended simply to answer the most common questions, and give you a better indication of whether sublimation printing is the right application for you.
The term “Sublimation” is a scientific term which describes the ‘phase transition’ process in which a solid changes into a gas without going through the liquid phase.
Matter usually changes state from a solid into a gas via the liquid phase, with sublimation, we use heat & pressure to turn the substance into a gas directly without going through the liquid state. This is the same process used to create dry ice, and instant coffee granules.
Sublimation printing is where we very cleverly use the sublimation process to dye a substrate (polyester fabrics, or other items with a polymer coating or surface) by turning dyes from a solid, into a gas, and then back into a solid again, while bonding with the polymer molecules present in the substrate or product.
This process is widely used to digitally print onto a wide range of products, including fabrics, garments, mugs & other ceramics, wooden items, metal items, glass products & more.
We print dye based inks onto sublimation paper, which is a special paper which hold the dye in place ready to be released during the sublimation process.
We then lay this printed paper on top (face down) of the polyester fabric or polymer coated product, and heat press it. When the sublimation process occurs, the dye molecules that were a solid held in the sublimation paper, turn directly into a gas and bond with the polymers present in the fabric or the polymer coating on the blank product.
Thus, whatever the image looked like on the paper, it now looks the same (but flipped in reverse) on the product we want to decorate or personalise. We flip the image using software, so it’s printed in reverse and then is the correct way round on the product.
Yes, polyester fabric can be very successfully digitally printed via dye sublimation. It is a very popular process for producing printed polyester fabrics for a wide range of purposes, due to the high quality vibrant print results, and the fact that printing fabric via dye sublimation doesn’t alter the handle of the fabric. There is no difference in the feel, or handle, or the fabric before and after printing.
If you’re looking for a printing firm to produce metres or rolls of digitally printed polyester fabrics, see Digital Printing onto Polyester Fabrics.
The MSDS for Sawgrass Sublimation Inks shows a level of 1, which as can be seen here means ‘Irritation or minor reversible injury possible.’ The flammability rating is 0, and the reactivity rating is 1, which means ‘Materials that are normally stable but can become unstable (self-react) at high temperatures and pressures. Materials may react non-violently with water or undergo hazardous polymerization in the absence of inhibitors.’
Having said that, this relates only to the sublimation inks themselves. The fumes which are likely to flood into the air while heat pressing, are the fumes given off by the blanks or substrates that you are pressing. For example, if you’re pressing mousemats, they stink.
For this reason we always recommend that heat pressing is done in a well ventillated room.
No! There is, confusingly, another kind of printer which is also referred to as a sublimation printer – which should perhaps be called “Dye-Diffusion” printers, but are often referred to as sublimation printers.
If it is a photo printer, sold by a brand associated with photographs – which produces 7×4″ photos for example, then this isn’t the same thing – these are just for printing photos onto paper or card.
Well – Yes and No.
No you can’t – and yes, you can. Confused? You will be…
Just kidding… The real answer is no, you can never actually sublimate onto cotton BUT there are ways in which cotton is made printable via dye sub. One way is by mixing polyester with cotton – but technically that’s not printing onto cotton either, as it’s then Poly cotton (the more polyester in the mix, the more vibrant the image will be).
The other way is by applying a polymer coating to cotton. There are now some specialist fabric manufacturers who professionally coat cotton with a polymer. This isn’t done by spraying or applying some kind of a liquid coat, and to tell you the truth we can’t tell you exactly how it is done, because the people who do this guard the fine details for obvious reasons, but all we’re interested in is that the result is a cotton fabric with a surface that can be sublimated.
No. Sublimation is for white / light substrates only. If you were to put a piece of dark coloured paper into your printer and try to print on to it, you wouldn’t see the images, and it’s the same with sublimation.
The image needs to be darker than the garment or substrate colour, for instance you could sublimate dark text onto a yellow polyester Tshirt, but if you were wanting to sublimate a photo keep in mind that any yellow (ish) colours in the photo would be lost due to the background colour being yellow, and if you were printing onto a pink Tshirt the same would be true of pink (ish) colours.
Laser transfer printing onto dark garments is done using a transfer paper which has a white background, so you’re printing onto a white and transferring this onto a dark garment. There are dark sublimation transfer papers on the market, but these are simply sublimation transfer sheets that can be sublimated, so you would be sublimating the transfer sheet, but this would be transferred to the garment (heat sealed), rather than the garment being directly sublimated with the image.
All sorts! You can print onto white or light coloured polyester fabrics, or items made from the same, plus there is a huge range of sublimation blanks available.
Some of the products have a polymer coated surface, for instance this is the case with mugs & other ceramics, wooden blanks & glass blanks. Some products have a polyester fabric or polymer surface which is applied to the item rather than a coating, and some blanks are polymer materials. Also there are a number of products (including smart phone and tablet cases, key rings, keepsake boxes and more) in which a metal insert is sublimated and then fixed to the product.
Just to give you a few ideas of the kinds of products that can be printed via dye sublimation: Mugs, wooden jigsaw puzzles, glass photo frames, key rings, fridge magnets, travel mugs, compact mirrors, pet bows, garments, flip-flops, tea towels, sports towels, cushions, aprons, baby bibs, bottle openers, phone cases, coasters, lamp shades, napkins, table mats, scarves, pillow cases, glass cutting boards & lots more!
1: You will need a printer with dye sublimation inks.
2: You will need a flat heat press for sublimating flat items. You may find this guide helpful: Heat Presses Guide. Choosing The Best Heat Transfer Press Machine for You
4: Consumables. You will need sublimation paper & heat resistant tape. You can use a teflon sheet to protect your heat platen, or you can use greaseproof paper / baking paper or any kind of paper really. We sell our sublimation printers including inks, and once they run out you will need replacement sublimation ink.
In theory if you had a Ricoh printer for which dye sublimation cartridges are available (such as an SG3110DN or GXE3300N) or an Epson printer running a CSS continuous inks system or refillable cartridges, then you could us this printer. We advise against it though. Simply because the printer is one of the cheapest parts of the setup (with small format printing anyway), so it really doesn’t make sense to risk wasting time faffing about purging inks & so on to save a very small sum of money. For example, with the Ricoh SG3110 DN setup, you’re getting the printer for under £70.
Unfortunately not. This is question we are sometimes asked by folk who have done iron on transfers in the past, however sublimation is different to iron on transfers. You need a continuous even heat and pressure to be applied simultaneously to the entire surface area, therefore you will need a heat transfer press.
If you are looking to start a business (or add to an existing business) creating personalised or own-design products, then dye sublimation is a fantastic process to use.
The set up cost is incredibly low for a business with such potential, the profit margins can be very healthy (depending on your market of course which will dictate your selling prices) there are no qualifications or any particular experience required, and it is a very simple process to learn.
You can sublimate on white, and light coloured polyester garments or specially made sublimation garments. You can’t dye sub onto dark garments, or 100% cotton T-shirts.
What this means is that someone using dye sub only, is restricted when it coms to garments. You are restricted in terms of garment colours, and in terms of garment types.
For this reason, if your business is mainly about Tshirts, hoodies & other garments, we would recommend that you consider other processes including Sun Angel or other laser transfer systems, vinyl transfers, screen printing, direct to garment, or embroidery.
That being said – most of the above processes also require a heat press, and as well as the press, all you will need for dye sub is a dye sublimation printer & inks like the Ricoh A4 setup which is only around £300 including VAT, and having a dye sub setup would allow you to hugely widen your product range. So even if you start out just focusing on garments, you may decide to add sublimation printing to your repertoire for a fairly small investment.
All you need is software to create your design or edit your images, such as Photoshop or Corel Draw, other than that you can either use the Sawgrass Powerdriver, or just the standard print driver.
Powerdriver is a really great (and free for anyone using Sawgrass inks) bit of software which works as your print driver and adds some really cool sublimation specific stuff to your driver. That is, instead of just having the options of number of pages to print, quality settings etc, you have the option to select the type of product you are printing, the sublimation paper you’re using, and other neat tools and features including a simple tick box to flip your images in reverse. (OK you can just flip your image in your design software, but it’s handy to be able to set powerdriver to automatically do it for you, and once you have this box ticked you can forget about it).
Sawgrass own the patent on sublimation ink for inkjet printers. At the time of writing, the only Sawgrass brands for small format sublimation are Sublijet, Visijet or ArTainium UV+. If you are offered another brand of sublimation ink (especially if it is much cheaper) then it is probably a non licensed imported ink that you are being offered.