A fun fact, the invention of sublimation can be traced back to the late 1950’s, when a French researcher named Noël De Plasse was able to color textile with sublimation, when working for a textile company called Lanière de Roubaix. According to some, already before that there was a lot of experimenting with dyes and heat going on. When in the 1970’s printers were developed that could use these dyes, dye-sublimation printing as we know it was born. So, now we know Dye-sublimation is one of the oldest techniques for transferring on garments and other products, but what exactly is Dye-Sublimation? How does it work? What are the pros and cons? And what do you need to start with this interesting transfer technique? We tell you all you must know in this article.
What is dye sublimation
Not every process where a digital print is transferred onto a substrate is sublimation. So, what exactly is sublimation then? The term sublimation comes from physics and means the direct transition from a solid material into a gas, without reaching the usual state of fluidity that sits in between. For example: On a nice winter’s day, the canal is frozen and the sun shines on the ice. This causes the ice to evaporate into mist, without first melting into water. That is sublimation. But what has that to do with printing and transfers?
Dye-sublimation works kind off the same: Small, solid particles of dye evaporate into vapors (=sublimation). “But ink is not solid!” we hear you say. That is correct off course, but what is left on the sublimation paper after printing are the solid dye pigment particles. The liquid of the ink at that point has evaporated.
It is these solid particles that transform directly into vapors once heated on the heat press and that have the properties to bond to polyester really well. When polyester is contacted with the dye-vapors the pigments enter into the polyester, coloring the surface of it. Combine this with the fact that polyester opens it pores when being heated, and you have a very good recipe to color polyester or a polyester product.
How does sublimation work
In sublimation printing, sublimation inks are used and printed onto coated, heat-resistant sheets of paper through a special sublimation printer. Color management is vital with the Dye-Sublimation printing process and often overlooked. The thing is this: A standard printer driver is programmed to give the best possible printing-result on the paper that is printed on. And that makes sense, normally.
However, with sublimation, the color pigments do not show their real colors until they are heated. The colors you see on paper change significantly during the transfer process. This means that the print must be made in such a CMYK composition on the paper, that the end result on the product shows the correct colors, not on the paper. This is done with color management and color profiles. Sawgrass came up with a brilliant solution for this: The Sawgrass Print Manager, which takes care of the color management without any hassle, specialist software or difficult settings.
After printing the paper is then placed on a heat press along with the substrate to be sublimated. The Ink transitions from solid to a gas state without going through the liquid stage, binding with the polyester receptor. The heat press process applies temperature and a bit of pressure to transfer the sublimation dyes from the paper into the polyester substrate.
So basically, dye-sublimation printing is a digital printing technology using full color artwork with polyester and polyester coated substrates. Dye-sublimation can be used for soft substrates such as apparel, soft signage, banners and flags, or hard surface items such as glass, plastics, metals including cell phone covers, plaques, coffee mugs, provided these have a polyester coating. The result is a permanent, high resolution, full color print. Because the dyes are infused into the fabric or hard substrate, the prints will not peel, crack, or fade under normal use.
Megan from Sawgrass explains in this video how the sublimation process works, and you can also clearly see that sublimation impregnates into the polyester coating of the product, which ensures a high-gloss effect.
When do you choose Sublimation printing
When the substrate you print is white and has a polyester coating or is made from white polyester, you can choose sublimation. Either the polyester product or the polyester coating must be white as the pigments requires a white background to retain their brightness en color. The result will be a very durable print with bright, beautiful colors and on all products bar polyester fabric, a high gloss finish.
In this YouTube Playlist from Sawgrass Ink you can see several videos about sublimating products. This way you get a good impression of how it works and how easy it is.
What are the pros and cons
- Low investment.
- High gloss finish on all products bar fabric.
- Professional, high quality result.
- Very good washability on polyester fabrics.
- Easy handling with basically only one transfer paper for all products.
- Product must be polyester or have a polyester coating.
- Product must be withstand ca. 190°C / 374°F under pressure for about 60 seconds or more.
- Limited possibilities as non-polyester products cannot be transferred on.
- If you like a matte finish instead of the glossy finish, that’s not possible.
- The printer is dedicated for sublimation prints only and cannot be used for plain paper use.
What products can be sublimated
As mentioned earlier, the product you want to sublimate with a print, must either have a white polyester coating, or be made from white polyester. Also, it must be able to withstand some pressure and relative high temperature for a considerable time of around 1 minute.
Well known products for sublimation are:
You can sublimate onto textiles and fabrics made of 100% polyester in the color white. Nowadays there are many apparel suppliers that have 100% polyester T-shirts that look and feel like cotton. So just as nice to wear as cotton, and also suitable for a high quality sublimation personalization. For printing on non-polyester and/or colored textiles you can work with an intermediate carrier, such as the sublimation flex and the sublimation flock. You sublimate your design on the sublimation Flex or sublimation Flock, cut it by hand or with a compatible cutter and then you press the sublimation flex or flock with the design on it onto your garment of choice.
In combination with a mug press, white polyester coated mugs and cups get a beautiful, colorful, shiny print with maximum dishwasher safety as a result. Also, because a high pressure is not required during pressing it is possible to print on the entire surface of the mug from top to bottom if the mug press is set up right. Beware that the quality of the coating plays a huge part in the end result. Often cheap sublimation mugs offer a coating with irregular coating thickness resulting in uneven coloring. Or the coating itself is not dishwasher safe enough and crumbles off after multiple dishwasher cycles. So investing in good quality sublimation mugs pays off.
There are many sheet metal products available which are very suitable for photographs or signage. Off course they must have the polyester coating in order to be printed with sublimation. In the sport trophy industry, there are many polyester coated products available to create beautiful colorful trophy awards.
There are many promotional items that come with a polyester coated metal or heat resistant plastic insert for personalization, or that can be printed on directly thanks to a special coating. You can print mugs, bags, key rings, pillowcases, coasters, puzzles, bottles, mouse pads, aluminum plates, photo panels and much more as all of these products are available with a special sublimation coating.
What do I need to get started
To achieve the best results with sublimation you need several things:
- Dye Sublimation ink
- Heat Press
First you need a sublimation printer to be able to print obviously. Make sure to pay attention to a couple of things when considering buying a sublimation printer:
Make sure the printer comes with good color management for the specific type of sublimation ink that comes with it. If this is not done well getting colors right can be a nightmare.
When you buy a printer and use sublimation ink from a third-party supplier, often the warranty of the printer is void. It is better to make sure the ink and printer are from the same supplier and can be used with the factory warranty still intact.
Suitability of the printer
Has the printer specially been developed for use with sublimation inks or is it basically a plain paper printer that happens to work somehow with dye sublimation ink? As dye-sublimation ink has a completely different composition than normal plain paper ink, this can cause problems, usually with the supply of the ink to the printhead resulting in failing nozzles. If the printer has been specially developed for the use of dye-sublimation ink, you are far less likely to encounter printing problems.
Obviously the ink plays a very important role when sublimating. As the color management is very important, it makes your life considerably easier if the ink, the printer and the color management are all from the same manufacturer. Because when all three are developed by the same company, it is so much easier to get the colors right on the products as these three important aspects of dye-sublimation printing are all matched to each other.
Dye Sublimation Paper
A good sublimation paper is important. There are big differences in the way the top coating of the sublimation paper receives the ink and pigments. The ink should dry as quickly as possible to make sure there is no staining and at the same time the pigments should remain at the surface of the paper as much as possible for the best transfer result.
We advise DyeSubMagic sublimation transfer paper. The DyeSub Magic brand offers a high quality sublimation paper especially developed with decades of experience in this field. It offers the best concurrence with the inks and color management software and gives you trouble free, perfect results every time.
Although sublimation does not require anything special from a heat press, there are a lot of things to consider when buying a heat press. That’s why we have a separate article about choosing a heat press in the Help Center. You can find this article here [LINK] and find out all you need to know to choose the perfect heat press for sublimation or other transfer technology.
Accessories: Teflon sheets
As the transition of the pigments from sublimation paper to the substrate takes place as a gas, it is important to make sure this gas (and the pigments) do not end up in places where you don’t want them. When printing garments for instance, the gas can very easily go straight through the fabric and into the rubber mat of your heat press. Especially when printing multiple items this can become a problem as the pigments in the rubber mat will enter any white polyester you put on top of it. Including the backside of a nice white T-shirt. To prevent this from happening it is advisory to put the product and sublimation transfer always between two sheets of Teflon. On below to prevent the rubber mat getting contaminated and on top to prevent pigments sticking to the heat platen. Teflon is the best material for this as backing paper which is sometimes used can be porous and pigments still get through.
Accessories: Heat Resistant Tape
A sublimation transfer does not stick to the product you are printing. This also means that, when you open the heat press, the transfer easily moves on the product. As the sublimation-process is still going, this usually results in what is called a “ghost image” around the design or less sharpness. This can be prevented by taping the transfer with heat resistant tape. This tape does not melt and does not leave any adhesive marks after pressing.
Accessories: Heat resistant gloves
As sublimation works with relative high temperature of around 190°C / 374°F, removing the product and sublimation paper after pressing can be hard on the fingers. To prevent scorching a pair of heat resistant gloves can make your life a whole lot easier.
Now you know all the basics of Dye-Sublimation printing.
Sublimation is one of the oldest personalization printing systems throughout the world and with good reason. It has it’s limitations, but within these limitations there are many possibilities and the quality of the end product is very high. And combined with the low investment that is required to get started, this gives lots of opportunities for high revenue applications and a quick return on your investment.
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