Do you ever wonder how printed merchandise gets made? The answer is sublimation printing. What is sublimation printing? Sublimation printing is a popular way to transfer designs from sublimation paper onto fabric or similar materials. This is done by adding pressure and heat of about 350-400 degrees.
Let’s go back to science class and review how sublimation works. When you use a sublimation printer, the solid particles of the ink are transformed into a gaseous state. It’s a cost-effective way of customizing products that you intend to use or sell. People at home find a lot of use for this machine, as well as companies.
Sublimation printers churn out high-quality products, and they’re pretty affordable. Because of these two characteristics, sales for sublimation printers have skyrocketed. Naturally, there is a learning curve when using a sublimation printer, but don’t worry. There are plenty of tutorials and written guides like this one all over the web.
If you’re curious about how sublimation printing works, I’m going to cover all that in this guide. It’s essential to use these machines properly; otherwise, you’ll end up with a bunch of wasted fabric with creases or ghosting patterns. If you don’t print the right way, that’s time and money wasted.
As a general rule, you should always test out your designs before doing it in bulk. You’ll have to get more familiar with this type of printer to make the most use out of it. After some needed experimentation, you’ll soon be an expert and be printing a lot of cool stuff in no time.
How It Works
So what does the sublimation printing process entail? First, you have to pick a design. You can either make it yourself or pay someone to make it for you. Keep in mind that images can be copyrighted, so don’t go printing images you don’t own.
Next, you’re going to print out that design onto sublimation paper. This is a special paper, and you can’t substitute it for anything else; otherwise, it won’t work.
After you’re done with that, you’re going to transfer the design onto the fabric of your choice by using either a heat press or an oven. When you go the oven route, you will have to apply pressure for the designs to come out.
Once the ink and fabric meld together wholly, the ink is going to stay on the fabric much longer and clearer compared to other printing methods. The reason why heat is applied is so that the fabric’s “pores” open up to take in ink. Pressure is used to cool the ink down, making it solid again.
When you release the press or take your product out of the oven, you’ll see that the ink stays vibrant on the product for a long time. As you can see, it’s a relatively simple process and can be done at home for cheap. It’s a good thing that there are compact versions of sublimation printers that we can take advantage of now.
If you want to create truly unique items or you want to sell merch, this process is an excellent way to go. It’s a great avenue to stay creative and to earn a little extra income while doing so.
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Dye Sublimation Staples
There are a couple of things you can’t do without if you decide to start printing designs with a sublimation printer, the obvious one being the printer itself. It has to be a printer that takes sublimation ink cartridges.
Next, you need to invest in a good heat press to transfer designs onto fabrics, so that’s clothing and possibly tote bags. If you want to transfer designs onto ceramic objects, you will need a clamp and a press.
You have to consider what types of materials you will be printing on because not everything is compatible with sublimation printing. Next, you will need transfer paper, sometimes called sublimation or copy paper. Lastly, you might want to invest in a raster image editing software to color correct your chosen designs. That’s about it, so you’re good to go.
What kind of materials can I print on?
If you want to start a printing business, build a merch store, or simply create unique stuff, it’s vital that you know what materials you can print on. If you print on non-compatible things, it will be a waste of time and money. For your reference, here are the materials you can use:
- Polycotton textile
- Polyester-coated aluminum
- Polyester-blend fabric
- Polymer-coated plastic
- Polymer-coated metal
As you can see, the two significant compatible materials are polyester and ceramic. So if you’re thinking of making printing clothes and flatware, sublimation printing is the best way to go. It’s actually ideal for clothing because you can put multiple designs with a sublimation printer, compared to traditional printing, where you can usually only put one design per garment.
Now, here’s how using a sublimation printer can go awry. It’s difficult to print blocky patterned designs meant to go all over a garment. There is a chance of “ghosting” and inconsistent coloring. Sometimes, I also come across white streaking on my prints, which is annoying.
So what materials absolutely won’t work with sublimation printing? Well, you can cross off 100% cotton materials or any other natural materials, for that matter. Why? Raw materials usually don’t have the “pores” required for the ink to seep into. If you’re looking to work with natural materials, you’d be better off going the digital printing route.
Sublimation Heat Presses
When you start looking up heat presses online, you’ll find there is a whole range of them – from home use to commercial models. Think of what you’re going to print on. Naturally, the size of the press you should get depends on what those objects are. I suggest you get the Super Deal Pro 5 if you’re looking for one with a wide range of uses.
If you only intend to use it for t-shirt designs, you could choose the Promo Heat Swing-Away Sublimation Heat Transfer Press. If you’re still unsure about which one to get, I recommend you watch a couple of these machines in action. There are plenty of videos on YouTube demonstrating their uses.
When it comes to buying the printer itself, please read online reviews. In this day and age, I love that we can learn from each others’ experiences. In general, if you want one to use at home, you don’t need a printer that has all the bells and whistles.
A lightweight multifunctional one could tick off all the things on your requirement list. Because this purchase can potentially make you money anyway, you could think of it as an investment.
Right off the bat, the heat press is what’s going to cost you the most money. However, there simply is no sublimation printing process without it. You always need the heat and the pressure to create new merchandise.
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The Best Sublimation Printers
Since you’ve reached this point, the next natural question would be: what is the best sublimation printer? I took the liberty of listing down my favorite finds. As always, when you make a purchase, you should try to know everything about the machine. I took most of the research work for you, so you should be fine.
The following printers come in a variety of options within a wide range of prices. I suggest you check out each one and thoroughly read their reviews. Anyway, here are the top 5 sublimation printers out on the market today. Take your pick!
Sawgrass Virtuoso SG500
The SG500 is considered an entry-level device but a solid choice for those looking to go the commercial route and those who want to use it at home. What I like about the SG500 is its option to change the speed and quality of printing.
For high-quality, detailed printing, it allows for 1200 DPI (dots per inch). That’s pretty impressive for a device with such a small footprint. When used with sublimation paper, you can pretty much transfer any design, however complex, on the compatible materials I listed above.
So how much is this baby going to cost? Of course, it depends on where you buy it from. If we’re talking range, then it’s between $500-$600. Out of the box, you can make prints on 8 ½ by 14” copy paper. If that won’t cut it for you, you can always go for the Sawgrass SG800, which can make prints up to 13 by 19” in size. Keep in mind that it will cost you $1,500 extra.
Is it worth it? Yes, it is. This is my favorite dye sublimation printer on the market, and it’s famous for a reason. It can make high-quality prints at fast speeds and garnered positive reviews all over the web. If you find the cost intimidating, consider it a good investment.
This model is a beast, weighing in at around 26 lbs. The CP-D70DW isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing sublimation printer out there, but it is undoubtedly one of the most reliable. I would say it’s more suited to people who intend to use a printer commercially.
It’s trendy for photo booths used in gatherings. My main complaint about the CP-D70DW is its lack of memory card slots and controls. To use it, it always has to be hooked up to a computer. Keep this in mind if you’re on the lookout for a wireless sublimation printer.
Yes, it has that one major shortcoming, but this device makes up for speed and the quality of the images it can produce. It takes approximately 8.4 seconds for it to complete a 6 by 4” print. While there is a compromise, there is also an advantage to owning this machine. Sure, it’s not exactly built for design, but it makes up for it in functionality.
EPSON Stylus C88+
The Stylus C88+ is just the right size for home use. What sets this printer apart from the others is that its scratch and water-resistant features. I can’t say the same thing about most printers in this price range. With the capacity of printing 19 pages per minute, it certainly isn’t lacking in the performance department.
It can hold up to 140 sheets and has an automated printing function too. I also like that it’s not limited to one kind of ink type. EPSON has been around for many years, and it’s a well-known brand. It looks like they’ve knocked it out of the park once again with this model.
I also want to point out how cost-effective the Stylus C88+ is. It has an individual tank system, so you can take out a cartridge that’s low on ink while still using the rest. This is such an advantage because this method is not possible on most other printers. Best of all, it’s not that expensive, and it always somehow makes it on the list of the top sublimation lists out there.
Is there a catch? Kind of. With this printer, you can’t have wireless connectivity, and you can’t print on ceramics. It’s also not the fastest when it comes to producing a large number of prints at a time. So if you’re planning to print solely on fabrics, this is an excellent fit for you. If you also plan on printing mugs and other surfaces, you would have to buy a separate mug press.
EPSON Wireless Inkjet All-In-One WF-2630
Whew, that’s a mouthful. Despite its complicated title, it’s still one of the best sublimation printers you can buy right now. On the machine itself, you can adjust the printing resolution to print clear and crisp images onto mugs and t-shirts.
It’s relatively fast, and it also has ECO features, which makes the machine use 70% less power than average. This model isn’t considered a high-end device, so it’s a bonus that it has wireless connectivity because most printers don’t even have that capability.
If you’re concerned about the quality of the images it produces, it holds its own by having a color depth of 48-bit. Considering that this is a budget-friendly option, it still churns out pretty impressive prints with a max resolution of 5760 x 1440, 9600 dpi.
Sounds good to be true, right? Well, the only downside to this printer is that it only takes EPSON cartridges. Yes, you’ll lose some flexibility, but these cartridges are pretty affordable. It just means you can’t use cheaper non-branded alternatives.
Epson Workforce WF-7710
The Workforce WF-7710 is pretty cool because it has a 4.3-inch touchscreen control panel. It can print on all sorts of fabrics, and it doesn’t use a lot of power. This model has a whopping 250-sheet tray, perfect for making large batches of prints all at once.
What’s really impressive about the Workforce WF-7710 is its ability to make borderless prints. It’s much easier to get the hang of than others that require a bit of practice. All in all, I can’t complain because it can make 11 by 17” prints, which is not bad for its size.
What don’t I like about this model? Its speed, or its lack thereof. It’ll take a while to finish, especially if you’re working in batches. I can forgive this because of its prints’ quality, but it’s not so ideal in a commercial setting. If you only intend to use a sublimation printer to make small batches of prints, this shouldn’t be a problem at all.
Helpful Tips You Can Use When Making Prints On Clothes And Ceramics Through Sublimation
Sublimation Paper Alternatives
If you don’t have sublimation paper at hand, you can usually substitute it with a matte or copy paper. Just go through the process you with the sublimation paper, and you should have very similar results. I wish I had known this sooner because the sublimation paper is quite pricey.
If you want to print on a mug or something similar, you can also use these paper alternatives. Just remember to use mug clamps to apply adequate pressure. It’s a different process with every kind of object. With mugs, you will have to put them in the oven at approximately 350 degrees for the print to stick.
Coating The Substrate With Polyester
Applying a thin layer of polyester coating on substrates will make your prints even more vibrant when using heat. Polyester works well with sublimation because it allows the ink to be fully absorbed into the material. That’s why, as I mentioned above, sublimation printing only works on polyester and synthetic materials. When working with ceramics, make sure that you get a sublimation blank to spare yourself the trouble of coating.
Using Heat-Resistant Tape
When holding a substrate in place or making sure that the ink is localized, it’s best to use heat-resistant tape. Just make sure you don’t obstruct the design because it will damage it and make your prints turn out wonky. Just fasten the tape along the edges to avoid damaging the design.
Preventing Washed-Out Or Blurry Prints
Applying heat and pressure takes time. If you try to hasten the process, you’ll find that the ink won’t adhere to the material properly. If you’re giving it enough time and are still getting weak results, you might have to do some adjusting. Applying more heat, pressure, and tape could be necessary to produce better quality prints. It does take some trial and error sometimes.
Minimizing Print Errors
One valuable trick I should have learned sooner is to print images bigger than the object that is to be printed on. If you work with smaller prints, you don’t have much room for error, and you leave unsightly spaces. When there is too much black space, one tends to notice the mistakes right away.
The Pros And Cons Of Sublimation Printing
Like with any other printing method, sublimation printing comes with its advantages and disadvantages. We’ll tackle them all here in the following section.
1. It allows for more creativity.
With sublimation printing, you’re free to customize your designs with ease. All this can be done digitally, so you can fix errors that occur on the device itself. You can change the quality and size of the images without any difficulty. It’s a much quicker process than, let’s say, screen printing or vinyl cutting.
2. It works fast.
Sure, some models work faster than others, but they all go through bulk work reasonably quickly. It’s very convenient to use sublimation printers, especially when you’re up against a deadline, or you constantly need to produce large batches of merchandise.
Because most of the work is digital, it happens at a quick pace, unlike with other methods where human power is required. It just tends to get finicky at times because you have to monitor the heat and pressure. You also have to do quality control to make sure your prints are of consistent quality.
3. The images are clear.
Designs done with sublimation printing tend to be clearer and sharper than other forms of printing. You usually get an impressive amount of DPI and, most importantly, the prints last. You don’t have to worry about the images fading or peeling.
Why? Because in sublimation, the ink is absorbed into the material and not just applied to the surface. So if you print on an item of clothing, it’s not going to fade even if you keep washing it.
1. The compatible materials are limited.
Like I said before, sublimation printing works on polyester, polyester blends, and ceramics, or basically synthetic materials. It also won’t work very well on dark polyester materials. I suggest you only use light color bases to make your prints stand out more.
Ghosting happens when the copy paper changes position during the pressing process. The reason why it’s called ghosting is that you’ll notice a faint haze around your prints. Sublimation paper usually shifts when you don’t apply enough pressure or when it slips on wet ink. To prevent this from happening, make sure your substrate is fixed, and the ink is dry before you start pressing.
3. White Creases
When any moisture is left on the sublimation paper, or you accidentally left the substrate folded, you can get some white creasing on your final product. You’ll most commonly see this error along the seams of a garment. When this happens, your product will essentially be unsellable.
4. It doesn’t print “true” colors all the time
How you designed your print on your computer can vary from how it appears on your printer. Computer monitors usually display in RGB mode, while sublimation printers display in CMYK mode. This causes some color discrepancies sometimes.
To prevent this from happening, you have to make the proper adjustments to your RIP software. It can be frustrating sometimes when you make a design on your computer, and it doesn’t turn out quite right in real life. You’ll just have to accept that it’s difficult to replicate what you see on the computer screen.
The Difference Between Sublimation Printing And Digital Printing
Sublimation printing can only be done on polyester and ceramic materials, while digital printing can be done on silk, cotton, etc. The process of sublimation also involves heat.
How is sublimation printing better? Well, it’s intended for creating high-quality designs that are meant to last. In digital printing, the ink isn’t fully absorbed, so it tends to crack and fade. Most of the time, digital printing is also much more expensive because it uses A LOT of ink.
It’s essential to make the distinction between these two methods because you have to match their capabilities with your chosen products. Each has its own advantages, and there are plenty of devices available for both methods. Once you settle on your needs, it will be easy to choose the right printer for the job.
I hope you got a clear idea of what sublimation printing is and how it works. Now you know everything you need to start making high-quality prints. Sublimation printers are really handy when it comes to creating unique t-shirts and other novelty items, perfect as merch you can sell online.
What I love about sublimation printing is its minimal downtime. I can have an order for a hundred t-shirts at a time and not even worry about it. So even though it’s a rather significant expense, you’ll make your money back in no time.
I also enjoy the freedom of creativity that comes with it. You can pretty much print out what you create on your PC. The discrepancies are very minimal, and the prints last a long time. As far being practical goes, sublimation printing is perhaps the most economical method of printing right now.
The most expensive item you have to buy is a heat press, which you will get a lot of use out of anyway. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to buy a high-quality printer because there are many affordable yet reliable models out there.
Branching out to a product-making business can be lucrative. But just like with any business, there are a lot of considerations. How much time will it take me to make products? How much will I have to pay to power my devices? Who is going to operate these machines and make the designs? How will I sell my products? There’s just a lot to be figured out. But sublimation printing is the economical choice. You can churn out high-quality products that your customers will enjoy, and it won’t take that much time and effort at all.