DTF vs sublimation

DTF vs sublimation printing: what’s the difference?

DTF (Direct To Film) and sublimation are two different printing methods, each with its own advantages and specific use cases. While DTF printing involves using special film to transfer via a heat press, sublimation takes advantage of specialized sublimation ink.

We pit DTF vs sublimation and look into the basics around these methods, highlighting key factors such as printing processes, fabric compatibility, color vibrancy, durability, design capabilities, and application areas.

Key takeaways:

DTF (Direct-to-Film) is a printing technique that involves printing images directly onto a film using specialized inkjet printers. Sublimation printing, on the other hand, uses heat to transfer ink from a solid to a gas state, which then binds with the fibers of a substrate to create a permanent image. While both techniques are used for printing, DTF involves direct printing onto a film while sublimation printing uses a heat transfer process.

What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing is a technique that uses ink-absorbent paper to draw the design and then transfer it to the substrate using heat. Unlike other printing techniques, the ink chemically bonds with the substrate and becomes a part of it. So the texture appears much smoother, and the design doesn’t feel patchy. To get started you simply need the best sublimation printer.

What is DTF printing (Direct-to-film)?

DTF doesn’t use ink-absorbent paper and instead uses a PET sheet (polyethylene terephthalate) for printing. After that, coat the sheet with adhesive powder and then cure it. Then you can press the design on the substrate using a heat press. You require a special DTF printer and a curing oven to melt the adhesive. 

But the result of DTF prints looks exceptionally eye-catching. Since it uses an adhesive to stick the design to the substrate, the area feels thicker to the touch. 

So now you have a quick introduction to both printing techniques today. Both methods have their merits and flaws. To understand it, let’s compare them based on the following factors:

Also read: Sublimation vs HTV (Heat transfer Vinyl)

DTF vs sublimation printing

Below we compare the various differences and use cases for both DTF and sublimation printing. while sublimation is far more accessible and affordable, DTF also has its advantages.

Required equipment

For Sublimation:

You will need a sublimation printer or an inkjet printer converted into a sublimation printer with a DIY method to save upfront costs.

You will also require the best sublimation paper and ink and a heat press to transfer the design to the substrate. You might need essential sublimation and heat press items such as a Teflon sheet, butcher paper, scissors, and heat-resistant tape. 

For DTF printing:

It requires a special inkjet printer called a “DTF” printer. After printing the design on the PET sheet, you will need an adhesive powder and a curing oven to melt the powder and prepare it for the heat press.

In addition to that, you will need white ink along with CMYK inks and PET sheets. After that, a heat press will come into the picture and transfer the design from the sheet to the substrate.

All the essential supplies for sublimation printing remain the same as in DTF printing.

So, DTF requires more items than sublimation printing and will consume more workspace because you have a massive printer and curing oven apart from your heat press and computer.

Startup Cost

An entry-level sublimation printer will set you back at least $400-$500. However, you can avoid this by converting an inkjet printer to a sublimation printer for half the cost.

Also read: Learn how to convert inkjet printers to sublimation.

The best sublimation ink retails for $30-$40, and sublimation paper retails for almost the same price.

So, you must invest at least $500 for a brand-new kit or $250-350 for a converted sublimation kit. We will not factor in the cost of a heat press because it is common to both printing techniques.

DTF printing is not for the faint-hearted. A brand new DTF printer can start from $3000. The curing oven ranges from $500-1200 for the automatic shaker ones. So you are already looking at a $3500-4000 investment.

On top of that, you need CMYK and white ink, which will cost about $60-70 per one-liter bottle. 

The PET sheets will cost you $40 for a pack of 100, or you can buy the sheet rolls to save some money. A pack of 1KG/35.3 oz adhesive powder will set you back $30-40. So the final startup cost for DTF comes to $4000 and more. 

Sublimation printing is much cheaper than DTF (eight times more affordable). So, you will need many more items and a substantial initial investment to start DTF printing.

Sublimation printing is a chemical process of transferring ink from paper to fabric or any other substrate. So, the result binds with the substrate and looks photo-realistic. But the colors don’t pop as well as you expect.

Moreover, you cannot print white color in sublimation, and the choice of substrate color becomes very limited. You can only print on light-colored materials.

Also read: How to sublimate on dark-colored shirt using vinyl

DTF can print white as well as CMYK color combinations. The output is detailed, and the colors appear almost like the input design.

  • You can even observe the finest details in a DTF print. Since it can print white color as well, the color of the substrate doesn’t matter in DTF printing.
  • You can print clear designs on both dark and light-colored items. However, the design doesn’t bind with the substrate and feels like a layer on top when you run your fingers through it. 

So, sublimation is best for photo-realistic designs on light-colored items. But if you want to print vivid and white colors on all color substrates, DTF printing is more suitable. 

Printing process

Sublimation printing is a two-step process.

  • Firstly, you print the designs on the sublimation paper.
  • Then you use a heat press to transfer it to the substrate

No other complex steps or fine details. However, the printing time varies based on the kind of substrate.

In DTF printing, there is an extra step involved.

  • After printing the design on the PET sheet, apply adhesive powder at the back.
  • Then, you place the transfer sheet in the curing oven to melt the powder.
  • Lastly, you press the design on the substrate with the help of a heat press.

So, it becomes a 3-4 step process and a little messy too. You need to shake the excess adhesive powder, which can mess up your workbench. 

Types of materials

Sublimation printing favors polyester and other synthetic fibers as substrates. In contrast, natural fibers and other materials pose a difficulty to sublimate.

You can use a few workarounds, like a laminate sheet or sublimation spray, to print on some materials like canvas. But still, the choice of materials is relatively small in sublimation.

DTF printing works will all types of materials. Be it synthetic fibers, natural fibers, wood, metal, or fiberglass. You can print on it as long as you can place the material in the heat press. Unlike sublimation, the color of the substrate isn’t a concern because DTF uses white color along with CMYK colors.

Design longevity 

Sublimation designs last longer, period. Due to the chemical process, the colors become part of the fabric and appear striking. So they won’t fade faster, even after multiple washes. There is no chance of the design peeling off the material.

DFT printing isn’t a chemical process. The design sits on the top of the fabric and will slowly crack and peel off after multiple washes. Despite the good appearance, DTF isn’t suitable for fabric substrates if you want the design to remain as long as possible. 

Design limitations

DTF printing generally offers more vibrant and opaque colors, especially when dealing with darker fabrics. Direct-to-film printing can also cater to more intricate patterns and designs. While sublimation can in many ways match DTF, it can sometimes fall short with complex, highly-detailed patterns.

DTF vs sublimation: environmental impact

Both methods of printing have their pros and cons, some of which could have an impact on the environment. Both printing methods score quite highly when it comes to ink usage, with DTF printers being extremely ink efficient. While sublimation printing may just fall short, it is still regarded as being quite eco-friendly too. Of course, sublimation printing tends to use less energy in the process than DTF, however, when you add in the additional heat press steps, things can even out.

DTF printing involves using adhesive powders, some of which could be considered a chemical additive and potentially impact the environment. Sublimation printing however doesn’t remotely discharge any additional chemicals. That being said, with sublimation printing if the heat press settings are not optimal, you could easily ruin your print, resulting in a waste of ink, paper, and substrate material.

DTF vs sublimation: which should you choose?

The choice will solely depend on the type of substrate and the industry you want to target. Sublimation is an excellent option if you want to start an apparel customization business (light-colored designs).

It doesn’t have a massive upfront cost, and the barrier to entry is relatively low — a great way to enter the DIY printing industry. You can even leverage some hacks to print on non-favorable substrates like cotton with the help of sublimation spray.

DTF is best if you want to build a printing business and need the absolute best-looking design and the capability to print on any substrate. The process is time-consuming compared to sublimation printing. It will cost a lot, so make up your mind and plan before investing in DTF printing. 

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