Have you ever found an interesting photo online and wanted it to be on a shirt? Maybe you want to make an unofficial band tee or put your favorite meme on a pillow.
If you want to print a photo on textiles or blanks, you need to start sublimation printing.
So what is sublimation printing? Keep reading to find out more.
Sublimation printing is a printing technique that uses dyes and heat to transfer an image onto a compatible material. The ink has a phase change from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid state altogether. This gas infuses your material to make the image appear.
You get full color and permanent prints on your object. The images will not peel or crack, and they are flat. The ink embeds into the material, so it does not add any thickness or texture.
Since sublimation skips the liquid step, you do not have to wait for the ink to dry. Sublimation printing is compatible with many materials. Plus, it is a relatively clean and simple process, making it perfect for designers looking to create graphic prints quickly.
What Materials Can You Use with Sublimation Printing?
While you can’t sublimate everything, there are plenty of materials that work. The item that you use is called a sublimation blank. Sublimation blanks have a poly-coating that reacts with the ink and heat to create a permanent image.
The most common material is polyester or polyester-blend fabric. You can do an all-over design or print the image in one location. Choose a light-colored fabric with at least 75% polyester. More polyester will result in a brighter print. If you want a vintage look, you can choose a lower polyester blend.
You can sublimate on canvas as well as long as it has polyester (these are sometimes used in canvas art prints, however the more common approach is inkjet or giclee). Other sublimation blanks include:
- Plastics with glass transition temperatures below 400°F (sometime used with acrylic photo prints).
- Metal (to create Metal Photo Prints, among other items).
You might be able to print on Nylon 6, but you should test it first at lower heating temperatures to see the outcome before committing.
What Printer Can You Use for Sublimation?
You cannot use all printers for sublimation printing. This process requires sublimation dyes to print on transfer paper. The thermal technology in most printers will bake the dye into the paper and make transferring to the sublimation blank difficult.
The ideal printers use piezo technology. These rely on the piezoelectric effect that generates a voltage on the surface of piezoelectric crystals through deformation.
This step elastically deforms the printing nozzle, which then applies a high pressure on the dye to eject a droplet of ink. Then, the printer reverses the voltage’s polarity to stop the ink from flowing.
Operating a piezo printer in the shear mode will use less energy and rely on pressure waves to draw out ink, making it more economical than bend mode.
You can buy a printer designed for sublimation printing or convert a different piezo printer into one. For instance, you can use an Epson Ecotank printer for sublimation printing by removing the original cartridges and replacing them with sublimation ink.
Looking for an art printer? Check out our guides on the Best Printers for Art Prints.
How to Sublimate
Sublimation printing is a relatively simple process. All you have to do is get the right supplies, make a design, and start printing.
Gather Your Supplies
First, you need to get a heat source. Depending on the material you want to sublimate, you can choose between a convection oven, mug press, heat press, or EasyPress.
The convection oven works well for 3D objects, while the mug press primarily works with round surfaces. Keep in mind that you will not be able to cook with this oven after using it for sublimation printing.
A heat press and EasyPress both work with flat objects. The one you choose depends on your skill and what else you want to do with the press.
The other items you will need include:
- Sublimation transfer paper
- Protective butcher paper
- Lint roller or microfiber cloth
- Protective pad, rubber mat, or Nomex pad
- Foam roller
- Heat-resistant gloves
- Sublimation ink
- Sublimation blank
- Heat-resistant tape
- Piezo printer
Design for Sublimation
Make sure you get the correct computer software for designing. You can use Canva, Cricut Design Space, PhotoShop, BeFunky, or any other photo editing or digital design program.
Now, pick a sublimation blank. It can be a shirt, mug, puzzle, blanket, mousepad, or anything else you want with a poly-coating.
Figure out where you want the image. You can have the print repeated all over the object or choose to keep it in one spot.
If you have text, ensure you set it up in your printing or photo-editing software to print the image in a horizontally flipped manner.
Put the paper settings on matte or plain paper and choose the best output quality.
Print on the Transfer Paper
Next, check that your piezo printer has enough ink. Load the transfer paper with the blank side upward. Most sublimation papers have words on the bottom to help you differentiate the two.
Print the picture. The image will have a faded appearance upon printing. Don’t worry! The heat will bring out the full color.
Use the Heat Source
Take your heat source and preheat it to a constant high temperature of around 400°F. Your transfer paper should state the temperature and duration of the heating.
Lay down your protective pad and cover it with butcher paper or a mat, depending on the sublimation blank. Check the packaging for any instructions.
Place the blank on top of the mat and align the transfer paper in the correct spot. Secure it with heat-resistant tape. Set more protective paper on top of the transfer paper and lay your press on the system. Hold it in place with medium pressure.
If you’re using a convection oven, put it inside for the recommended time.
While wearing heat-resistant gloves, remove the item from the heat source and take off the paper. Let your item cool and enjoy!
Pros and Cons of Sublimation Printing
Sublimation printing has its advantages and disadvantages.
- Freedom to design whatever you like
- Permanent colors that won’t fade, crack, or peel
- Suitable production cycle for small batch orders and designs with many applications and variations
- Many compatible objects
- Expensive and exclusive tooling
- Only works on polyester and poly-coated materials
Final Thoughts: What Is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing is an excellent technique to create unique designs on countless poly-coated objects. It requires special dyes, printers, and a heat source, but the results will last permanently. Consider trying out sublimation printing to step up your craft game!