What is Sublimation: Getting Started with Dye Sublimation Printing

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One of the most popular techniques in crafting today is dye sublimation. Chances are you’ve heard of it, but you may be asking yourself “what is sublimation?” or “how do I get started with sublimation printing?”. Today I’m going to answer those questions and explain how dye sublimation printing works, share information about dye sublimation printers, and tell you what products you need to get started using the sublimation printing process and sublimation heat transfer.

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Overview

Sublimation is the chemical process of turning a solid into a gas. While the term may be new to you, the process has actually been around since 1957, but only in recent years has it become popular with home crafters.

Dye sublimation printing is different from traditional printing, such as that done with an inkjet or laser printer, and requires specialized tools and supplies. The process of dye sublimation printing requires a:

  • sublimation printer, using
  • sublimation inks, printed on
  • sublimation paper.

Once a design is printed onto transfer paper, it is heat-applied to material that is formulated to accept sublimation ink. The heat helps release the ink from the printed page and turns it into a gas. The heat also opens the pores of the material, so that the ink gas infuses into the material. Once the material is cooled, the pores close and the ink actually becomes embedded into the material, unlike heat transfer vinyl, screen printing transfers, or other printing methods that are applied only to the surface.

Basic Supplies

The basic supplies you need to get started with dye sublimation printing are:

What is sublimation?

Process

No matter what the project, the process follows roughly the same basic steps:

  1. Use design software to create a design.
  2. Print the design.
  3. Place the design onto the substrate and secure with adhesive spray or high-temperature tape.
  4. Cover the design (both top and bottom) with protective paper to prevent off-gassing of the ink.
  5. Apply heat using a heat press or convection oven to transfer the ink from the printed page to the substrate.

Exceptions to the Rule:
Sublimating without a Sublimation Printer

Although the majority of sublimation projects require specially printed designs, there are a couple of ways to sublimate without a printer:

Artesprix sublimation markers

Use code SUBLIMATION to save 10% at Artesprix.com when you use this link.

  • In addition to their own line of thermal markers, Cricut’s Infusible Ink Transfer Sheets are another way to create sublimation designs without a special printer. These infusible ink sheets are simply a full-page pattern that has been printed using sublimation inks. Text and/or shapes are then cut from the pattern by hand, or with the use of a digital cutting machine, and heat-applied to the garment or other material.

Now let’s discuss the basics of sublimation printing in more detail.

Design Software

Any software that allows you to create or import graphics that can then be sent to a printer will work for sublimation printing. I use Silhouette Studio as my primary design software, but other popular applications include:

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Corel DRAW
  • Affinity Photo
  • Affinity Designer
  • GIMP
  • Sawgrass Creative Studio
  • Canva

Sublimation Printers

The most important thing to remember about dye sublimation printing is that you need a dedicated printer that is used ONLY for sublimation. You cannot switch back and forth between sublimation inks and regular inks in the same printer.

There are several different brands of sublimation printers on the market and choosing which one is right for you will depend on your specific needs and whether you plan to make sublimation a part of your business model or if you’ll be doing it just as a hobby. These printers come in a wide range of sizes, from desktop to large format, priced anywhere from hundreds of dollars to several thousand dollars.

In order to keep the ink from drying out and clogging the print nozzles, you’ll need to print from your sublimation printer on a regular basis. Just printing out one small line of black text each week will help prevent clogging and extend the life of your printer.

Sawgrass Sublimation Printers

One of the most well-known brands of desktop sublimation printers (and the one I personally own) is Sawgrass. I chose the Sawgrass because I knew I would not be printing in large volume and there would be weeks that I didn’t print at all. Sawgrass printers have an automatic self-maintenance feature that keeps the print nozzles from getting clogged between uses, which was a key factor in my decision of which brand to purchase.

Sawgrass desktop printers come in two models:

Sawgrass SG500

The main difference in the two is the size of the print you can create. The maximum size for an SG500 is 8.5 inches x 14 inches. The SG1000 can print up to 11 inches x 17 inches using the standard tray, or 13 inches x 19 inches with the optional bypass tray.

Converting a Standard Printer

Another option is to convert a standard printer to a sublimation printer. Not all printers can be converted, but the brand that’s most popular for conversion is Epson. I don’t have personal experience with this other than to say I have friends that have done it and are very pleased…and I have an equal number of friends who have converted a printer and had nothing but headaches because of it. I recommend that you do thorough research before you decide to go this route.

Sublimation Ink

As with sublimation printers, there is a wide variety of ink brands, types, and prices to choose from. Most of the time, the best results are achieved by using the brand of ink that matches the brand of your printer. But just as there are generic brands of ink that can be used with standard inkjet printing, there are off-brands of ink that can be used with a sublimation printer. Again, do your research before choosing this option.

When purchasing a Sawgrass printer for sublimation, you’ll find there are two choices of ink:

When trying to decide between the two, many people think that if you plan to print on EasySubli paper, you must have EasySubli ink. Or that if you choose EasySubli ink, you can only print on EasySubli paper. This is simply not true (although you will see a slight difference in color depending on which ink you use on which type of substrate).

  • Transfers printed with Sublijet ink can be applied to any sublimation-ready blank or material, including EasySubli material.
  • EasySubli inks are formulated to work best with EasySubli paper but transfers printed with EasySubli inks can be applied to any sublimation-ready blank or material, not just EasySubli paper.

If the majority of your printing will be done on EasySubli paper or for use on cotton or dark fabrics, choose EasySubli ink. If you plan to sublimate on a wide variety of substrates, choose Sublijet.

A third option for the Sawgrass is Chromablast UHD. Chromablast ink is not sublimation ink. It is a special ink for printing on 100% cotton and does not embed into the fabric like sublimation ink does.

IMPORTANT: Once you choose which type of ink to use, it cannot be changed without flushing the entire system. This conversion process uses a lot of ink and will void the printer’s warranty. Also, if the inks accidentally mix during conversion it could cause damage to the printer. In the long run, it is more cost-effective to purchase a separate printer for use with a different kind of ink, rather than change the type of ink used in the printer.

Sublimation Paper

Sublimation paper is a specialty paper coated with a polyester coating designed to hold the ink until it is applied to a substrate. While technically possible to print on plain paper, using this coated paper will give you the best results in your sublimation projects.

My favorite brands of sublimation paper are Beaver Paper’s TexPrint and Johnson Plastics Plus Sublimation Paper. When printing transfers for application on 100% cotton, I use EasySubli paper.

To protect this specially coated paper from heat and moisture, it should be stored in a cool, dark place between uses.

Substrates

Sublimation can be achieved on many different substrates, including:

  • Fabric
  • Ceramic
  • Metal
  • Glass
  • Heat-resistant plastic

However, the process will only be successful when applied to materials formulated to accept sublimation ink. If the pores of the material cannot expand, the ink will not embed into the substrate.

White or light-colored textiles (including acrylic felt), composed of either 100% polyester or a blend with a high polyester content, work best for sublimation. Unless you have a white toner printer, any areas of the design that are white will be left blank when printed, allowing the actual color of the substrate to show through in the finished project.

To add a sublimation design to 100% cotton or dark fabrics, you can either treat the fabric with a polyester spray coating such as DyePress before sublimating, or use a multi-step process that requires first sublimating the design onto a heat transfer material composed of polyester (such as EasySubli paper, white polyester glitter HTV, or white polyester flocked HTV) and then pressing the sublimated design onto the garment.

Hard substrates designed for sublimation have been treated with a polyester coating that will accept the sublimation ink. You can also add your own polyester coating to some untreated hard substrates by applying laminate film or Polycrylic.

Look for the term “sublimation-ready” when purchasing blanks. Some great sources for these materials include:

Heat Sources

A combination of heat and pressure is required to transfer the ink from the printed page to the substrate. For flat objects, you’ll need a heat press. Curved objects, such as mugs or tumblers require a mug press or convection oven.

When using a heat press, strive for consistent, even pressure when pressing the transfer. Either a swing-away or clamshell heat press will work for thin objects like t-shirts, baby bodysuits, or tote bags, but a swing-away press is preferable for thicker objects such as those made of wood, slate, or ceramic. When I’m pressing thicker objects, I use my CraftPro heat press. Although it’s a clamshell press, the floating upper platen provides the necessary even pressure – and I love the slide-out lower platen too!

CraftPro sublimation heat press

To learn more about the different types of heat presses available, and what to consider before purchasing one, check out my post on Choosing the Right Heat Press for You.

The size of the heat press you need depends on what substrates you’re planning to press. Ideally, your heat press will be larger than the largest image you can print with your printer. However, oversized transfers can be printed on multiple pages, pieced together, and sublimated with multiple presses when necessary.

Printed transfers can be applied to a curved object, taped in place, and pressed using a mug press or convection oven. If using an oven, the transfer must also be secured with either a silicone mug wrap, shrink wrap, or masking tape to apply even pressure while heating. (The oven should be dedicated to sublimation and never used for food!)

Additional Supplies

As you venture further into sublimation, here are a few other supplies that are nice to have:

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Conclusion

Dye sublimation printing is a process that takes time to learn. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at it. But it’s also a technique that allows for virtually unlimited creativity.

As the popularity of sublimation continues to grow, we’ll be seeing more and more ways to use it in our crafting projects. I’m excited about the possibilities it allows and I look forward to sharing more ideas with you in future posts. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and join my Facebook group so you don’t miss a single thing!

Until next time,

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