What Is Dye Sublimation? Info On Inks, Printers, Papers & Presses

Dye sublimation is an easy and effective method of transferring your creative designs onto t-shirts. It is quite different from using heat transfer vinyl because you are able to print more intricate and detailed images, with more colors, than you can cutting vinyl in a cutting machine.


The dye-sub process involves printing an image from a suitable printer, using sublimation ink onto transfer paper, and then heat pressing it onto your garment.



How Does It Work?


Sublimation is the term for 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, dye sublimation is when the ‘solid’ inks on the transfer paper are converted to gas and transferred to fabric (or another suitable surface). This can take place under heat and pressure in a heat press machine.


However, having said that, it was discovered later on after giving this process the name ‘dye sublimation,’ that some liquefying of the ink does take place – meaning it’s not true sublimation. But the name has carried on.



What Can You Sublimate Onto?


Sublimation inks can only bond to man-made fibers and coatings like polyester and other polymer coated products. This means cotton t-shirts are out. Fabrics need to be at least 80% polyester (some nylons are also suitable).


When it comes to ceramics such as mugs, plates or tiles, these will have a polymer coating applied to them so that they are sublimatable.


Here are some items from Amazon you can use in dye sublimation:


What Do You Need To Begin?


There are four basic items you need to get started:

  1. An inkjet, laser or dye sublimation printer 
  2. Sublimation ink and CISS (Continuous Ink Supply System)
  3. Transfer paper
  4. A heat press


We’ll give further details on each of these below, but we will have more extensive articles coming soon. This post is meant to serve as an overview.


#1 Printer


There are a couple of different types of printers that you can use for sublimation printing: inkjet and dye sub printers. But, only specific brands or models will be suitable.


If you watched the video from Conde Systems 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 onto the transfer paper are able to be used.


As a rule, you cannot use HP, Canon, or most other printers, for that matter. Epson or Ricoh printers are the best printers for starting out in dye sublimation.  


Inkjet Printers


Here are some examples of suitable inkjet printers on Amazon for dye sublimation:


#2 Sublimation Ink & CISS (Continuous Ink Supply System)


Most printers will come with pigment ink cartridges, so if you’re wanting to do dye sublimation transfers you are obviously going to need to pick up sublimation ink.


Continuous Ink Supply Systems (CISS) are a set up external to your printer. These systems feed the ink to your printer head and are easy to fill up.


Cobra Ink is the authority in this area. They sell CISS and sublimation ink.


Examples of ink systems on Amazon:


Examples of sublimation ink:


#3 Transfer Paper


In order to sublimate, you also need the appropriate transfer paper.





#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. Most 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.


There are cheap heat press machines and there are the far better, but more expensive, American made heat press machines.


Here are a few of my favorite cheap machines:


And a couple of mid-range machines:


And if you’re wanting to sublimate mugs, you’ll either need to get a multifunction heat press or something like the Geo Knight DK3 Mug Press.




If you’ve managed to get through all that you’ll understand that this is very much a brief overview. Things get complicated very quickly when you first start learning about dye sublimation. There is a lot of choice when it comes to printers, inks and everything else – we didn’t even mention computer design programs!


I hope this serves to give you some general guidelines until we have more exhaustive material up, and we’ll link to some further external resources below.


Further Resources


Conde Systems YouTube channel has some of the best sublimation information you’ll find.


T-shirtforums.com has archived discussions on everything to do with the industry. If you can’t find the answer to your question then sign up and ask it yourself.


The Silhouette School Blog also has more valuable resources for dye sublimation.


Thanks for reading!


(Please note: This post contains affiliate links. Read our full disclosure policy here.)


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.