What is Sublimation Ink – All Types Explained

Are you planning to set up a home-based sublimation business, showing off your creative chops? Or, are you interested in taking your existing sublimation printing setup to a whole new level by taking on some additional DIY projects?

Regardless of your requirements, you should know everything there is about sublimation ink — the key ingredient behind the magic that is sublimation printing.

Sublimation ink or dye-sublimation sublimation ink is the design-specific formulation that actually prints the design of the sublimation paper of choice. This ink, combined with the coating material of the paper, makes it possible to print designs and transfer them to the substrate of choice. 

Key Takeaways

  • For sublimation or any other kind of DIY printing job, you can choose between UV-curable, solvent dye, eco-solvent, or aqueous dye ink variants.
  • Sublimation ink responds to heat and pressure. Once applied, the ink turns into a gas and gets infused with the substrate molecules.
  • Good ink handling practices include storing the same in a cool place and shaking the same before use.

As a self-taught sublimation artist with over five years of experience, I feel that my understanding of sublimation ink will help you unpack this vertical better. I will share everything I know in this article.

By the time you are done reading this, you should be able to plan your projects better, courtesy of an iron-clad understanding of sublimation ink, its types, how it works, and other associated factors. Now let us embark on this colorful journey together. 

Unpacking sublimation printing

Before discussing ink, let us understand what sublimation printing actually is. It is a heat and pressure-driven process to transfer designs from paper to different surfaces like t-shirts, mugs, and more.

The process is relatively straightforward: you print the design onto the right kind of paper using sublimation ink and use heat+pressue to convert the design (solid) into a gaseous substance. 

Related: read our guide on the best sublimation printers of 2023.

The gas then permeates the substrate’s surface, bonding at the molecular level. As seen, the ink happens to be the most important cog in this wheel termed sublimation. And trust me when I say this type of ink isn’t like any other you might have seen or used.

The key component to print: Sublimation Ink

Here comes the star of the sublimation show: the sublimation ink. Just so you know, every type of sublimation ink is a specialized formulation that can turn into a gas from the paper-adhering solid. While the formulation itself is the special thing about sublimation ink, its quick drying feature also separates it from any regular ink.

If you are new to the world of sublimation, it is important to understand that it is the sublimation ink that helps create and print those long-lasting, vibrant, and high-res images on different surfaces. The specialized formulation has the capability of permanently bonding with the substrate at the molecular level. 

Also, the better the ink quality, the fewer cracking, peeling, and fading instances. 

Also read: Difference between Insfusible Ink and Sublimation Ink

Types of Sublimation Ink

Now that you should have some idea about what sublimation ink is, here are the types that you need to know about:

  1. Aqueous dye: This kind of sublimation ink works best with large-format and desktop printers. These ink variants stand out in regard to color durability. The Epson UltraChrome DS is a pretty good example. Aqueous dye ink usually costs $40 to $200 per liter. Like any other ink type, you need to purchase the cartridges separately, at $20-$100 per cartridge.
  1. Eco-solvent dye: This ink type is a popular and a more environment-friendly substitute to traditional solvent-specific inks. They are useful if you have plans to print signage, banners, and other similar products. Coming to the options, the Eco-Sol Max 3 is quite a popular pick. The eco-solvent variant can cost anywhere between $70 and $300, with each cartridge costing anywhere between $40 and $180. 
  1. UV-curable dye: In case you are interested in specialized light-responsive prints that come with excellent chemical resistance, UV-curable options make sense. You can use them with wood, acrylic, and even metal. The Multisolve IRF4 is a popular choice. UV-curable variants cost between $100 and $400 per liter, and the prices of the cartridges can go as high as $200. 
  1. Solvent dye: In case you are looking for something traditional, solvent-based ink choices can work really well. The likes of Mimaki ES3 boast fast drying and excellent color density. These ink types are useful even for partially coated surfaces, and they cost around $60-$250 per liter. Each solvent dye cartridge can cost you anywhere between $30 to $150.

Even though everything is labeled as a dye, the ink picks in regard to sublimation can vary. You can either choose pure dye-based sublimation ink, like the aqueous dye variant or go with the more common solvent-based ink types. 

How does Sublimation Ink work?

Once you choose the right ink type, especially by looking at the printer-ink compatibility, you might start using them to create and print designs on paper and then on the substrates. Here is a quick refresher related to the use of sublimation ink to nudge you in the right direction:

The end-to-end printing process is a complex chemical reaction where the ink transforms from the solid state (when on paper) to a gas-like phase, which permeates the surface of the fabric, wood, metal, canvas, or any substrate you choose to work with.

It is the heat and pressure generated by the heat press — for a given amount of time — that vaporizes the ink into gas. The heat also increases the distance between the substrate molecules, making it easier for the gas to penetrate and bond with the substrate. All of that creates fade-resistant designs. 

The choice of material for sublimation

With sublimation ink out of the way, it is now time to shift attention to the choice of substrate that you can consider. For wearables, it is advisable to get a fabric with a high polyester count. For home decor and utility, polymer-coated substrates work best, whereas the ink type needs to be checked before you can try things on the likes of metal, wood, or even glass. 

Supplies needed for DIY Sublimation printing

Let us now sum up the better part of our discussion and quickly assimilate everything that is necessary to get your sublimation career off the ground:

  1. The right sublimation printer (should be compatible with the ink and paper type)
  2. Sublimation ink (solvent or dye-based, per your budget and requirements).
  3. Heat press (depends on the type of substrate you plan on using. Like for mugs, you have mug presses).
  4. Design software (anything like Photoshop, Inkscape, GIMP, or more).
  5. The right substrate

Designing graphics with sublimation ink

By now, you should have everything needed to start sublimating. However, one last thing remains. You need to know the best practices and the don’ts associated with using sublimation ink. This kind of info will help you maximize the potential of your setup.

Best Sublimation Ink practices

  1. Always store the ink in a cool place.
  2. Always shake the bottles before usage to ensure proper pigment distribution,
  3. The usage of “ICC” color profiles is recommended.
  4. Regular printer and component cleaning are advisable to avoid clogging.
  5. Always conduct test sprints for optimal results
  6. Only use high-res images for printing

Following all of these practices can bring your designs to life every single time. 

What to avoid while using Sublimation ink?

  1. Never use ink and paper that isn’t compatible with the printer.
  2. Avoid mixing inks as they might cause clogging and inconsistent designs.
  3. Avoid exposing the ink to humidity or high temperature.

And that sums up everything that you need to know about sublimation ink to get started. I recommend reading further into ink composition, usage, and other aspects if you want to take your ink-handling expertise to the professional and even expert level.


What is the difference between normal ink and sublimation ink?

Normal ink variants dry on the surface of the substrate, whereas sublimation ink variants turn into a gaseous phase and create permanent bonds with the substrate of choice when subjected to heat and pressure.

Can you use sublimation ink in any printer?

No, you can only use sublimation ink with sublimation printers. Doing it any other way can damage the printer or the paper sheets you plan on using.

What is the advantage of sublimation ink in printing?

When it comes to printing, sublimation ink helps you get fade-resistant, long-lasting designs. This approach helps you create customized DIY products. 

Can you put sublimation ink in regular ink cartridges?

No, it isn’t recommended to use sublimation ink with regular cartridges as that might damage the printer or can even result in subpar printing quality. Only dedicated sublimation cartridges should be used.

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