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What is sublimation printing?
In a nutshell, sublimation is a type of heat transfer that is often applied to t-shirts and garments, but which can also be applied to many other substrates
It’s one of the best ways to create t shirt designs with multiple colors. It is quite different from using a product like heat transfer vinyl, because you are able to print more intricate, detailed, and colorful images.
The dye sublimation process starts by printing a design (with sublimation ink) onto transfer paper. This design is then applied to the substrate using a heat press machine.
The term ‘sublimation’ refers to the chemical process that occurs when something turns from a solid state into a gas, without first becoming a liquid. A common example is dry ice, which changes from a solid to a gas at temperatures of −109.3 °F.
Therefore, in dye sublimation, the ‘solid’ inks on the transfer paper are converted to gas and transferred to your substrate. This happens when heat and pressure is applied over time (with a heat press).
Here is an intro to sublimation printing from Conde.
What Can You Sublimate?
Sublimation inks can only bond to synthetic fibers and coatings. For clothing, this means polyester, while other blanks for sublimation are polymer coated products. Dark colored substrates are also no good for sublimation inks.
Cotton t shirts cannot be used for sublimation, and fabrics really need to be at least 80% polyester (some nylons are also suitable) for a vibrant transfer.
There is a new product called Siser EasySubli which does allow you to print on cotton and dark fabrics. However, this is only because you are printing sublimation ink onto an HTV, and then pressing the HTV to your garment.
Here is an idea of what you can print on with sublimation transfers:
Ceramic Photo Tiles
Tags & Necklaces
What Do You Need For Sublimation Printing?
There are four basic items you need to get started:
convert an inkjet printer into a sublimation printer
get a printer designed for sublimation
If you watched the video above, you will have heard that you cannot use printers which heat the ink up to get it onto the paper. Only printers that “vibrate” the ink out of the cartridge and onto the transfer paper are able to be used.
As a general rule, you cannot use HP, Canon, and many other printers for sublimation printing. Epson, Ricoh, and SawGrass printers are suitable, and are the best printers for starting out in dye sublimation.
2. Sublimation Ink & CISS
Most regular printers (ie. non-sublimation) will come with pigment ink cartridges, so if you’re wanting to do sublimation transfers you are going to need to pick up sublimation ink.
You can use sublimation ink cartridges, or you can install a CISS. A CISS (continuous ink supply system) is an external container for sublimation ink which attaches via tubes into your inkjet printer.
A CISS keeps you from running out of ink too quickly, means you can buy ink cheaper, and makes refills a lot easier.
As with the printers, you can check out our full CISS guide here and consider the top CISS & ink solutions.
3. Sublimation Paper
In order to create your sublimation transfers, you also need sublimation paper. This paper is specially designed to be printed on with sublimation ink, and pressed to complete the transfer.
You can get sublimation paper for Epson and other inkjet printers, and you can get better sublimation paper (such as TexPrint) for higher quality transfers. A-Sub transfer paper is very good for any inkjet printer with sublimation ink.
4. Heat Press Machine
And finally, our favorite piece of equipment, a heat press!
Most heat press machines are suitable for sublimation, but some are better than others.
Sublimation transfers need to be pressed at a temperature of 400 degrees F for 45-55 seconds. You will need to check your ink and paper manufacturer for their specifications.
I hope this has served to tell you a little more about what sublimation is and how you can get started.
Things feel very complicated when you first start learning about it, but that’s the same with anything. There is a lot of choice when it comes to printers, inks and everything else – we didn’t even mention t shirt design programs. Please leave any comments below.