What is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work?

Sublimation is the best way to personalize mugs, shirts, tiles, jewelry and more on your own. Though reading this, you’ll have a better understanding of sublimation and will know if it’s right for you. You’ll also have an understanding of what equipment can get you started.

Sublimation is more sophisticated and involved than regular heat pressing with professional results to show for it. Sublimated designs are embedded into the fabric of the design where screen presses or screen prints simply heat onto the fabric. You will need to consider the expense of obtaining that professional seamless design.

What is sublimation? Sublimation is similar to heat transfer; it is a process where the image becomes an actual part of the item. Sublimation uses special paper, ink and polyester-coated items that all react with each other.***Sublimation must be applied to 100% polyester fabric or to polyester-coated hard surface items***

The process of sublimation: When heated to high temperature, the sublimation ink turns into a gas, and the pores of the polyester coated item expand allowing the gas to enter. Then, once removed from the heat, the pores of the polyester item contract, trapping the ink inside of the item. Sublimation items are smooth to the touch — you won’t be able to feel any image outline if you run your fingers across the sublimated item.

What sublimation won’t do: Imprint on cotton shirts. Multicolor imprints on cotton shirts are done with heat transfer paper. Regular inks are printed onto a high-quality sublimation transfer paper and pressed on top of a garment with a heat press. However, the coating on heat transfer paper is also transferred, leaving an imprint you can feel. Imprint 65/35 poly/cotton and 50/50 poly/cotton shirts with bright colors. Since a percentage of the shirt is cotton the colors become dull, especially after washing. Again, these shirts are most successfully imprinted with heat transfer papers, not sublimation. Imprint colored shirts. Any colored background will drastically alter the imprinted colors. Colored shirts generally turn out best when using opaque papers. Imprint items (like mugs and tiles) that are not polymer coated. Remember that sublimation prints into the coating, not the item.

What you Need:

  • Sublimation Ink Compatible Printer – Mutoh, Epson, Mimaki printers. If you are just getting started, you can purchase a small format printer; however, the price for a small format is significant. If you are looking to start a business in sublimation, you should invest in a large format printer. All the printers have their pros and cons. Epson is ideal if you are looking for a one-stop shop. Epson is like a Mac where everything is built together but you can’t fix the hardware issues on your own because Epson makes it impossible for you to do so. Sublimation ink for Mutoh is great if you want to understand what you are doing and have control over the equipment. Mutoh is akin to having a PC and customizing it to your fancy. Mimaki printers are the in-between where you can customize some but not all.
  • Sublimation Paper – Paper is required for transfer. Common brands are Beaver paper or International paper. There are many international papers with varying amounts of success. Some find them great; some find them atrocious. Your best bet is to try it yourself.
  • Sublimation Ink – available in bottles (most common), bulk bags for Mimaki, and cartridges for small format printers.
  • ICC Color Correction Profile – this ensures that the colors print consistently with the colors on your image.
  • Heat resistant tape – if you are pressing mugs, tiles, or caps. The tape will prevent your image from moving during the transfer process.
  • Sublimatable Items – only products that have a polyester coating are compatible with sublimation. Search for sublimation blanks to get an idea of what you can sublimate on. The possibilities of what you can sublimate are infinite.
  • Heat press – used to bond the image to the sublimatable item. If you are pressing mugs or caps, you will need a mug or cap press, or attachments that can be bought for compatible presses.
  • ICC Profile compatible program, such as Photoshop, or CorelDraw. (We only support use with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and CorelDraw.)

Preparing your artwork: The heart of your design is the image. You can create original artwork, customize scanned clip art, use ready-made designs or even utilize photographs from your digital camera. Though you can create your design in any design program, you must print it from Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements or CorelDraw. In order to print your image correctly, the orientation will need to be reversed so the design prints out backwards onto the paper, just like regular heat transfer. It’s always a good idea to print a preview copy of your image before printing it on the sublimation paper. You can verify that the image will print correctly, doesn’t fall into your no-print zone and is correctly sized, as the on-screen view can be deceiving. Also, remember that the colors you see on your screen will not always be exactly what prints out. Even with the ICC profile keeping the colors in check, you may not always be able to get exact colors.

The bulk system is simply cartridges that are fed through tubes from replaceable bags that sit in a compact box next to your printer. These bulk ink systems come in 4 cartridges and 4 or 8 bottles, depending on the printer. Once one cartridge starts to get low, it automatically refills from the bottle. *We don’t a recommend bulk system if you are not printing on a regular basis.

Color Correction: When using sublimation ink, you must also use a form of color correction. Depending on which brand of sublimation ink you use, determines which form to take. When using Summit Fluid Systems sublimation ink, you must use an ICC Profile which requires the use of a special design program such as Adobe Photoshop, Elements, Illustrator, or CorelDraw to manage profiles. See below for more about ICC Profiles.

ICC Profile: What does it do? Why do you have to have it? The ICC Color Correction profile is imperative in order to obtain consistently accurate colors from any dye sublimation ink. Though there are many different approaches taken by ink suppliers to obtain precise colors, we trust and use the internationally recognized ICC color profiles method. Quite simply, an ICC profile is a custom designed file that you can create that is custom to your printer, computer, ink, and sublimated product. This file for the color profile takes into account the characteristics of the specific ink, paper, printer and program being used. Every time you print, you must tell the printer to use this file by changing the settings, allowing your prints to have accurate colors. To create your customized ICC Profile, search Youtube and there are multiple ways you can customize your ICC profile based off what RIP software you are using. The ICC profile gives it new instructions so the sublimation inks will print true colors. **Color profiles can only be managed with specific programs. We can only provide support with Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and Corel Draw.**

Which paper should I use? Choosing a sublimation paper is a personal choice.

Heat Presses: A heat press is a machine that presses a transfer onto an imprintable substrate. Transfers are embedded into the product by using high temperatures and heavy pressure. Heat presses are recommended for professional and satisfying results. Sublimation requires 365-400 degrees F. We categorize our heat presses by the manufacturer-Geo Knight, Hix, and Hotronix. A swing-away is the preferred type of heat press.