Sublimation for Beginners: Step-by-Step Tutorial!
You have seen people wearing beautiful designs on their t-shirts, carrying some bags with funky designs, or photos of coffee mugs with not-so-traditional designs, etc., but wonder where they got those merchandise from?
What if I tell you it’s easy to get such prints on the material of your choice at home? They have used the technique of Sublimation printing to create those. Sublimation for crafts has become very popular in the last couple of years.
Now comes the question, what is sublimation printing?
Sublimation printing is printing on suitable material (with a high polyester count). The dye transforms directly from a solid form into a gaseous state using high heat to print on the surface with excellent quality.
How does Sublimation Work?
The print is transferred onto the paper using a sublimation or converted inkjet printer. The paper is exposed to high heat in a heat press, where the image is transferred onto the desired surface. In this step, the ink moves from a solid state into a gaseous state.
High heat in the heat press causes the pores of the material to open, and the ink infuses itself into the surface fibers. After removing the heat, the opened pores close, and the ink solidifies onto the desired surface.
How can you start with Sublimation Printing
To start with sublimation printing, you will require
- Sublimation Ink
- A high-heat source
- Sublimation paper
- Sublimation-compatible surfaces like Fabrics, Polymers, Ceramics, Wood, and Metal.
100% polyester is the best fabric for sublimation. That said, cotton blends with polyester are also used for sublimation. Alternately applying sublimation coating on the material does the trick.
Supplies Required for Sublimation
Sublimation ink is a water-based dye ink that is insoluble and resembles pigment ink. It is used with a range of dyes. Larger-sized layout printers and desktop computers use water-soluble inks.
Large-head printers like XAAR, Konica, Spectra, etc., use solvent sublimation ink, while piezoelectric printers use aqueous sublimation ink.
Sublimation ink doesn’t clog printhead easily. Prints made using sublimation colors are consistent and do not fade quickly.
How does Sublimation Ink Work?
The sublimation printer transforms the dyes into a gaseous form, diffuses, and permeates onto the printing surface, creating a photo-quality print.
After one rolling of one color finishes, the roller resets for the next color. Then the next color is printed. The process repeats for all the colors.
In the end, a final pass is made over the image with a substrate for a glossy lamination look.
The mirrored image is printed on heat-resistant sublimation paper. The image is transferred onto the fabric using a heat press at a temperature between 180⁰C to 210⁰C.
Sublimation Inks Comparison
- Hiipoo Ink
Hiipoo inks are long-lasting, water-based sublimation ink with superior gradient and texture. These inks are known for their intense and vibrant colors. These inks have color reduction and anti-clog properties, making them ideal for professional and personal use.
The refill bottles of Hiipoo ink fit right into the Epson EcoTank printers, making the refilling easier and spill-proof.
They are compatible with ET or Epson EcoTank series, Stylus series, and Workforce or WF series printers.
- Cosmos Ink
Among the sublimation inks in the market, Cosmos Ink is a new player. They have ink refills bottles (plug-n-play) and also a package for Epson workforce models that includes corresponding needles and syringes required for refilling cartridges
An advantage of this ink is that it doesn’t need a printer color profile. However, if required, you will get access to a wider color gamut via email upon confirmation of the order directly placed with the company.
This ink is compatible with Epson Ecotank printers, Epson workforce printers, and Sawgrass printers.
- Printers Jack
Printers Jack is an old player in the market. Triple-layer filter technology used to make the ink lends it bright and vivid colors and smooth texture. It has UV protection making it a durable ink.
Refilling is rather easy with the upgraded nozzle. The auto-stop feature of the nozzle prevents mess and spillage during refilling.
This ink is suitable for all Epson ET series printers. One of the pros of this ink is ICC-free printing.
Hippo ink and Cosmos ink are very popular in the sublimation community. Our vote, however, goes in favor of Hippo Ink.
Sublimation Ink Colors
There are four to eight colors available in sublimation ink. The commonly available ones include Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMYK). The other colors available are light versions of the four primary colors like light cyan, light magenta, light black, light light black.
Hippo ink and Cosmos ink are very popular in the sublimation community. Our vote, however, goes in favor of Cosmos Ink.
Sublimation paper is specially made for sublimation printing, using a paper substrate with a special coating on the paper to hold sublimation ink. The layer on the paper is made with 35% silica and 5% binder, depending on the paper’s dry weight.
Choosing the Right Sublimation Paper
Sublimation paper between 90 to 120 GSM is recommended for printing. Lower GSM makes smooth printing difficult, and higher humidity affects printing quality.
To choose a sublimation paper, consider the following factors:
- Ink Capacity: When printing with higher ink quantity, opt for a heavier paper to absorb all the moisture ensuring the paper doesn’t curl and wrap.
- Ink Pattern: If you are printing a complex artwork with both heavy and light ink input, opt for 110 GSM or heavier paper to avoid curling and shifting the paper after pressing.
- Roll-to-Roll or Roll-to-Sheet: High-capacity production, ink utilization, capacity, and heat preference contribute to deciding roll-to-roll or roll-to-sheet options.
- Print Speed: Lightweight papers work best for fast printing, while heavy-weight papers are recommended for slow printing.
- Working Humidity: 80 GSM papers work well in low humidity, as the paper doesn’t shrink or the print side will not hunch up. In humidity above 70%, 110 to 120 GSM papers work the best. The higher GSM papers become soft, and the stiffness reduces, making it perfect for printing.
Sublimation papers brands include TruePix (for Sawgrass) and A-Sub (for Epson).
What Can You Sublimate On?
Although sublimation printing is primarily on fabrics, it is used on surfaces with a special polyester coating. A sublimation-favorable coating is applied to materials like ceramics, wood, metals, etc.
100% Polyester is by far the best fabric for sublimation printing. Blend fabrics with 50% polyester content are required.
Nylon spandex and lycra work well too. For nylon sublimation, temperatures range between 165⁰C to 170⁰C.
Natural fabrics like cotton do not absorb sublimation ink as expected, hence are avoided. If the cotton fabrics absorb some ink, they fade away faster after a wash or two.
If you must sublimate on cotton, you can print the design on sublimation paper and place a heat transfer vinyl sheet on the cotton fabric. The sublimation printing process will infuse the ink into the fibers of the fabric.
Cotton and polyester blends can work, but the colors soon fade away. Alternatively, you can sublimate on cotton fabric with a special sublimation coating.
You can’t sublimate on 100% Rayon fabric. Rayon fabric starts to weaken when it is heated above 150⁰C and begins to melt and become sticky when the temperature increases beyond 150⁰C. Like cotton, a blend of rayon and polyester or polyester coating is used for sublimation printing.
Although both natural and synthetic polymers can be used for sublimation printing, synthetic polymers work the best. Polymers like Teflon and Nylon work well. Sublimation printing is often done on objects like keychains, and beer can cooler sleeves, etc.
Acrylic absorbs dye very well, hence is one of the best materials for sublimation. It has high polymer content making 100% sublimation transfers possible.
Ceramic is heat resistant, thereby making it a perfect candidate for sublimation. After the sublimation ink is well dried, the ceramics can be used in the microwave and dishwasher without causing any harm to sublimation prints; hence you can sublimate on ceramic mugs, vases, and tiles.
Sublimation can’t be carried out directly on a wooden surface. After coating the wood with a polymer coating, you can use it for sublimation transfers; however, make sure you let the polymer paint cure before printing on it.
Like wood, polymer coating will have to be applied to sublimate on metal surfaces. The coating absorbs the ink and makes it last. The only downside of metal sublimation is getting the right color match.
When you sublimate on fabric, a cutting device, a knife, a rotary blade, or a Cricut machine is required. Some cutting products come with multiple options to suit all cutting requirements.
A Cricut machine is a clever digital die-cutting device that cuts materials like paper, vinyl, cardstock, wood, fabric, leather, and cork.
Connect the Cricut machine either to your smartphone or your computer. Download Cricut-compatible software called ‘Design Space’ to edit and adapt self-created or downloaded designs.
Once the design is ready, load the material into the Cricut machine. The cutting blade in the machine moves over the material and cuts the fabric as desired.
A heat press is required to transfer the design from sublimation paper onto the material you want to sublimate on.
There are different types of heat presses available:
- Calendar Heat Press
Opt for a calendar heat press if you are sublimating on larger, softer materials like fabrics. Since this press is bigger, large-sized banners are printed with this press.
- Small Heat Press
A small heat press is a correct option when small handheld objects are to be sublimated. It is ideal for small kitchen items, key chains, mugs, etc.
- Flatbed Heat Press
A flatbed heat press is ideal for floor tiles and home decor artifacts. It is a versatile press and can also be used for printing on clothes.
- 3D Vacuum Heat Press
For smaller objects with edges and irregular shapes, a 3D vacuum heat press is ideal. This press is for sublimating on uneven surfaces.
Different heat presses have variances in time and temperature. There is a difference of a couple of degrees of temperature it is set at and the actual temperature.
Most materials have an average time and temperature of around 200⁰C for 50-60 seconds. If you use a lower temperature to get vibrant colors, press for a longer time, i.e. around 120-130 seconds.
Sublimation Protective Sheet
While sublimating, the sublimation ink turns into vapor, which tends to blow out onto nearby areas. Hence, protective sheets like uncoated butcher paper should be used. The inexpensive option is to use white copy paper. Do NOT use Teflon sheets, freezer paper, parchment paper, or wax paper.
Sublimation blanks are surfaces made of polyester or a surface with a sublimation coating. This surface allows the ink to sink into and retains the ink on the surface. The blanks are also known as substrates.
Software Required for Sublimation Printing
You can create and/or edit your design for sublimation printing using sublimation software.
How to Choose Software for Sublimation Printing?
- Opt for software equipped with raster and vector graphic editing tools. While raster images use thousands of tiny pixels, equations are used in vector images to create images. Automatic resizing and editing is easier in vector images and lettering.
- Sublimation software provides intuitive design tools to make precise images and photo editing capabilities for creating professional-looking pictures and lettering.
- Choose a sublimation software with inbuilt International Color Consortium (ICC) profiles. An image created with ICC profile color coding has a universal understanding of the colors in the picture. It helps anyone using the image to get clarity of both input and output given by the computer and printer.
Which Software is compatible with Sublimation Printing?
- Adobe Illustrator
The Illustrator Suite of Adobe is an expensive, feature-rich software that comes well-equipped with vector graphics and raster images.
Using this software could initially be overwhelming; however, millions of tutorials can help learn graphic design.
The high subscription fee and having to buy a bundle of products together is the downside of this software. Before investing, you can always try it and use its 7 days free trial version.
It is also a part of Adobe Illustrator’s design suite and is considered the best design tool for working on photos or images
Not only is editing photos easy, but creating and customizing digital designs is also easy with Photoshop. There are many plug-ins and add-ons which enrich the Photoshop experience.
It edits only raster images. It doesn’t come with vector design capabilities.
Next to Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop comes Coreldraw, with its vast built-in library of designs, images, and fonts to get you started. The capability of customizing the design interface in CorelDraw makes it easier for a beginner.
Also read: Free sublimation designs – Top 7 sources.
In CorelDraw, you can download and edit as many as 48 different kinds of files.
The price point and lack of editing capabilities make Adobe variants more popular.
- Google Docs
Yes, yes you read it right. Google Docs finds a place in the plethora of free software available for sublimation printing.
When you are a newbie, Google Docs is less overwhelming than full-fledged photo editing software. You can get your hands dirty by doing basic editing on images you have on your system or downloaded from the internet.
A positive of using Google Docs is its compatibility with multiple sublimation printers, both specialized sublimation printers and printers converted into sublimation printers.
Canva is considered a tool for designing social media posts or for school-going kids. In reality, it is a feature-rich tool for sublimation print designing.
Being web-based, you can create your design or modify free designs instantly. It is incredibly intuitive with a short learning curve.
The flip side of Canva is that it’s not as comprehensive as tools from Adobe; hence, not everything you want will be available. It has a Pro version which you can try at a small price and subscribe to if it meets your requirements.
- Silhouette Studio
Silhouette Studio has a free version that is perfect for beginners. It can be used both for graphic design and as layout software.
Although you can’t design an image from scratch, it is robust software with several patterns and images. You can modify a pre-made artwork in Silhouette Studio. It works well for Print and Cut.
You can upgrade the software at a one-time cost to unlock additional features.
Printer Required for Sublimation Printing
When one has a printer, a commonly asked question is, “can I use my printer for sublimation printing?”
Yes, if you have an inkjet printer, you can convert it into a sublimation printer.
No, you can’t sublimate with regular inkjet printing ink and/or regular paper. You need special sublimation ink and sublimation paper.
Opt for a purpose-built sublimation printer if you’re looking for better quality. It comes with a cost. If you want to try sublimation on a budget, you can convert your inkjet desktop printer into a sublimation printer. This process costs less, but the quality isn’t the best
The most popular choice for converting a printer into a sublimation printer is the Epson EcoTank printer.
Points to Remember While Buying a Sublimation Printer
Before you zero upon a sublimation printer, you will have to find answers to some questions like:
- What is the size of the items that you are going to print?
- Is the image a full-color graphic?
- Will you use the printer for high-definition photographs?
- The number of ink colors required in the picture.
- Printing speed and cost
Recommended Sublimation Printer
We recommend the Sawgrass SG-500 printer. It has the fastest printing speed at 45 seconds. The beauty of this printer is its auto maintenance, plug-and-play feature, and 2-year warranty and support.
Sawgrass SG-500 printer has free one-on-one onboarding support.
It comes with sublimation Ink Cartridges in Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black colors. While the starter kit comes with 20ml, the standard kit is 31ml. The colors of the prints printed with Sawgrass printer are true to their color.
Sawgrass Creative Studio software is available both for iOS and Windows operating systems. A novice at design software will also find it easy to use Creative Studio without an uphill learning curve. You will not have to work on print alignment or install a color profile using Creative Studio.
Setting Up a new Sublimation Printer
Converting an Inkjet Printer into a Sublimation Printer
Inkjet printers, with Micro Piezo printing heads like Epson Ecotank printers can be used/converted for Sublimation.
How to Convert a New Inkjet Printer?
- Open the top lid of the printer along with the ink tank lid. Now open the cover of each color section.
- Take separate syringes for all the colors and fill them with black, cyan, yellow, and magenta ink.
- Inject the ink into the respective color slot while you monitor the quantity injected to avoid spillage.
- Cover all the lids and plug in the printer.
- The printer will prepare the ink heads.
- Follow the instructions in the manual to connect the printer to the computer.
- In the meanwhile, install the printer software on your computer.
- Run the alignment sequence.
- Install a complimentary ICC profile in the design software for a perfect color match.
- Now your printer is ready for the dye-sublimation printing process.
You may also want to check this detailed guide on the printer conversion process.
Note: Once a printer is converted into a sublimation printer or a purpose-built sublimation printer may only be used for dye sublimation printing.
A Beginners Guide to Sublimation Process Step-by-Step
Preparing for Sublimation Transfers
- Choose a Graphics Program
Choose a graphics program for sublimation prints. If you have a Sawgrass printer, use Sawgrass Creative Studio. You will install Creative Studio on your system. Alternatively, opt for any suitable, comfortable graphics program.
If you buy graphics, you print from Microsoft Word or Microsoft Publisher straightaway.
- Choosing the Right Image
Create an image, download an image, or download and customize the image you want to print. You do not have to be a graphics professional to create an image.
- Mirror the Image
Before printing the image, mirror the image
- Printing the Image
Change the print quality to photo quality. Before you give the print command, confirm the scale size to be 100%. Load the paper and print the image.
- Preparing the Sublimation Blank
The next step is to prepare the sublimation blanks by pre-heating the fabric for 5-10 seconds to remove extra moisture. Let the material cool down, then transfer the image.
- Heat Transfer
Before you start the heat transfer, check the temperature and time mentioned on the sublimation blanks. Use firm pressure and do not move the press during this stage. Remove the heat press and let the material cool down.
- Remove Parchment and Sublimation Paper
Once everything has cooled down, remove the parchment and sublimation paper, and your material is ready.
Cooling and Removing the Transfer Paper
Checking the transfer removal instructions before you start the transfer process is necessary.
Some products are Hot Peel, where the transfer paper is removed quickly. However, if it’s a cool peel, let the transfer paper cool before removing it.
Cleaning and Maintaining Sublimation Equipment
- Cleaning the nozzle head regularly prevents the ink from drying up and choking. In some printers, the cleaning is an automatic process; in others, it’s a manual process.
- Sublimation ink is easily affected by humidity. To maintain optimal temperature, have an air exhaust or indoor moisture controller installed in the workshop.
- Dust affects sublimation print quality; hence take the necessary precautions to prevent dust accumulation in the workshop.
- While refilling the cartridges, after filling every small amount of ink, shake the cartridge to remove any air bubbles in the cartridge.
- Applying grease to belt positions on both sides of the sublimation printer once a month keeps the printer working smoothly.
Maintaining Sublimated Products
- Use a clean microfiber cloth along with ethanol for regularly cleaning sublimated products.
- Place the hard surface items flat with the coating side up to prevent chipping the coating while cleaning.
- Strong cleaners like acetone, nail varnish, etc. are used for robust cleaning.
Tips and Tricks for Successful Sublimation
Best Practices on Sublimation for beginners
- Measure precisely the image and the item you are sublimating on.
- Check the heat press temperature to ensure under-printing or scorching of the project.
- Secure your sublimation paper to the blank to prevent it from moving using heat-resistant tape or an adhesive spray.
- Since the sublimation inks come in CMYK colors, create CMYK images or CMYK-safe RGB to see the vibrant on-screen colors translate into vibrant print too.
- Save files in PNG format.
Tricks to Improve Sublimation transfers Quality
- 100% Polyester fabrics give the best and most vivid colors for dye sublimation. Most importantly, sublimation transfers will last the longest on polyester too.
- Choose a sublimation blank, where it is mentioned as ‘sublimation blank’ in the description.
- To use a design for sublimation, opt for a PNG image.
- Print out the image but use a blowout paper to capture all the ink that blows out to ensure it doesn’t transfer onto surfaces of the heat press etc. and further ahead onto your next project.
- The sublimation prints may appear dull; however, the transfer will be bright and vivid, as expected.
- Before transferring the image onto the fabric, running a lint remover is a good practice to remove any small particles stuck to the material.
- If you plan to sublimate on hard surfaces, clean them either with alcohol or any permissible cleaner to ensure there are no fingerprints or oils on the surface.
Common Mistakes to Avoid During the Sublimation process
- Not checking the print side of the Sublimation paper. For example: in Epson EcoTank, the print side faces up. There is a watermark on the non-print side of Hiipoo sublimation paper.
- Not checking the ambient temperature for the material being used to sublimate often damages the material.
- Skipping placing parchment paper inside a shirt or a fabric to prevent ink from transferring onto the other side.
- Remove the protective covering on the sublimation blanks, if any.
- A shadow image or second image appears next to the original image when the transfer paper moves while transferring the image.
Troubleshooting Sublimation Issues
- To fix the shadow image, use thermal paper to tape down the hard material substrate to the sublimation paper. While printing on fabrics spray adhesive spray, to keep the paper intact.
- There are multiple reasons why the print is less vibrant than the onscreen image. The first reason could be the wrong side of the paper used for printing. The use of RGB color code in place of CMYK color code gives less vibrant colors.
- Use of Teflon or silicone-treated sheets avoids transferring images onto the new project. While Teflon is entirely reusable, silicone-treated sheets are single-use.
- Clogged print head nozzles lead to streaks of missing lines on the print. Run the head cleaning function of the printer, either manually or automatically to clean the print head nozzles. Low ink levels in the cartridges cause streaks too.
- High temperatures or longer duration of the heat press blur and/or fade images. Reduce the time and temperature to resolve the issue.
Sublimation printing is a chemical process to bond the color dyes with polyester fabric fibers. Screen printing is an ancient technique that uses stencils, thick inks, and a heat source.
In screen printing, also called silk screening, ink makes a new layer on top of the fabric, while in sublimation printing, the ink embeds into the fabric.
Sublimation transfers are done on a polyester-coated surface or sublimation-compatible surfaces. On the other hand, screen printing is done on cotton.
For more colorful designs, sublimation printing is the best bet, and for designs with one or fewer colors, screen printing works fine.
Unlike screen printing, sublimation transfers don’t wash out, crack or peel. It is durable and long-lasting
No, sublimation is not a form of heat transfer vinyl. Sublimation is a dyeing process, while Heat Transfer Vinyl transfers melted plastic-based material onto a project blank.
There are different types of vinyl used for different blanks. The sublimation dyeing process remains the same immaterial of the blank used.
Sublimation on a budget is possible by converting an inkjet printer (either an Epson EcoTank or Epson Workforce printer) into a sublimation printer.
In a brand-new printer, fill in sublimation ink. Buy sublimation paper for legit sublimation. Sublimation Oven is necessary to avoid residual vapors in your cooking oven. A heat press at 400 degrees for 60 seconds or a Cricut Easy press at 360 degrees for 120 seconds will work perfectly for sublimation.
Cricut infusible ink is a type of sublimation ink. You need Infusible Ink Sheets or Infusible Ink Markers to create your design. Use a heat press to press the pattern onto the product, and the ink is infused into the material.