While sublimation printing is a method that has been around for centuries, it has emerged as a new and modern era of customization and versatility. Its printing capabilities extend across various sectors beyond textile items, including home decor, signs, mouse pads, and various promotional items. But what is sublimation printing?
In this article, we’ll elaborate on the definition of sublimation printing and its miraculous process with the key elements that deliver optimal and exceptional results. You can also learn more about the benefits this method offers and the cons you may encounter.
What Is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing is a unique and sophisticated technique that involves transferring an image from sublimation paper onto a piece of material using pressure and heat.
Unlike traditional methods, it allows the sublimation inks to deeply penetrate the material's surface, resulting in long-lasting, permanent, and exceedingly vibrant hues and printed designs. The possession transitions a substance directly from a solid to a gas state, called sublimation.
It is an easy and relatively cost-effective method, making it ideal for personalized applications with intricate designs. With sublimation printing, designs can be applied to various materials ranging from textiles, aluminum, glass, plastic, and almost all hard surfaces.
Necessary Equipment for Sublimation Printing
Sublimation printing involves a series of steps to achieve optimal results. This method can seamlessly transform your digital designs into various materials without compromising quality. The process can be broken down into five steps, which include:
Printing your design
Transferring paper alignment
Heat press transfer
Below are the necessary tools and the step-by-step sublimation printing process to create stunning prints on various surfaces.
Sublimation ink is one of the most vital components for this printing. There are two main types of sublimation ink — aqueous and solvent sublimation ink.
The aqueous sublimation ink is a water-based dye in which the pigment is suspended in water. On the other hand, solvent ink is oil-based, where the pigment is suspended in some type of oil.
They’re specialized inks made from dye particles, specially designed for a sublimation printer and formulated to sublimate. This means that once the inks are exposed to heat and pressure, they turn from solid directly into a gaseous state without passing the liquifying phase.
A sublimation printer is another critical component, as these printers handle a large portion of the printing process. That is why everyone interested in sublimation printing should consider getting it first.
Sublimation printers are designed to transfer designs to an object in a gas state using a high-temperature heat press. While different sublimation machines are available, exploring each type is vital to knowing what kind of printer meets your requirements. This includes:
Swing away - Ideal for printing onto denser materials.
Calendar press - Suitable for printing large format prints like banners, flags, and other large-scale graphics
Flatbed press - Great for transferring onto solid objects and printing T-shirts that require “all-over” prints.
Heat press machine
Heat press machines are important in sublimation printing as they transform sublimation paper onto various substrates. These machines utilize heat and pressure to apply the desired designs onto the surface of your product items.
Sublimation heat press machines are designed with precision and exceptional craftsmanship, ensuring optimal function and balanced application of heat and pressure for successful transfers. While most presses deliver heat to diverse textiles, different kinds accommodate various transfers. This includes machines that can be used on items such as mugs, caps, balls, etc.
So, what paper is needed for sublimation printing? You need a specialized paper to absorb the sublimation ink, acting as the dye's vessel or carrier. This facilitates the main part of the printing process, transferring intricate designs onto various materials.
Unlike conventional papers, the sublimation paper is made of a special polyester coating layer on its print area. It keeps the sublimation ink inside the paper, which will be transferred to the substrate once exposed to heat. This high-release layer ensures that the inks will be fully transferred, resulting in vivid and detailed images.
The Sublimation Printing Process
The key steps that go into a sublimation printing process for optimal and long-lasting results are:
1. Design creation
The first step is creating a design that will go onto your product. These designs are commonly crafted using various software like Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Creative Suite, or CorelDRAW to ensure a high-quality image with the required standards.
This is important as the file’s size and format determine the sharpness and precision of the print’s results. Therefore, if the image resolution in the print file is low, you’ll most likely get a blurred or dull print.
2. Printing your design
The second step involves using a specialized printer with proper sublimation inks and papers to print out your design. The unique properties of sublimation inks enable them to transition directly from a solid to a gas state. This allows the sublimation paper to absorb and store them for the next step.
These characteristics are vital for a vibrant, precise print that achieves long-lasting results. The printer seamlessly applies the inks onto the paper, ensuring an accurate recreation of your design.
3. Transferring paper alignment
The third step of sublimation printing demands high precision and attention to detail. It involves meticulously placing the sublimation transfer paper onto the item that needs to be printed.
Once the paper is positioned, the design is pressed onto the substrate using a heat press, turning the ink into a gas and transferring it to the printed item. The printing item is often a piece of clothing, which must be polyester or have a polyester-based coating. However, this method can also be applied to glass, ceramic, and metals.
4. Heat press transfer
Using a heat press machine, we apply heat and pressure onto the sublimation transfer paper on the substrate and transfer the design. The sublimation inks on the paper turn into gas, penetrating the substrate’s surface and solidifying immediately. This step ensures permanent prints and exceedingly durable print results.
Besides deciding between what type of heat press machine we use, three additional factors affect the resulting image in sublimation printing that we must consider. They are:
If we’re printing a clothing item, using a heat press usually takes 30-60 seconds, whereas hard materials such as mugs or metals may take up to 15 minutes or longer. That’s why it’s important to consider the material that determines the time the design requires to be applied by the heat press.
The temperature at which you heat press an item and the product’s melting point must be considered. While the normal temperature is 204 degrees Celsius, it may not be suitable for all materials.
This involves pressing the product with a heat press machine to transfer the print. However, how tightly you press the product determines your print results. Typically, medium to low pressure is mostly practiced, but this can vary depending on the product’s breaking point.
The final step of a sublimation printing process is allowing the printed items to cool, ensuring the transferred design becomes permanently embedded onto the substrate. If all steps are done correctly, the finishing results display vibrant hues, exceptional detail and sharpness, and durability.
Benefits of Sublimation Printing
Sublimation printing offers unique advantages and benefits that distinguish this technique from other printing methods. Some of the most significant ones include:
High-quality and precise prints
This method uses exceptional equipment to produce the most high-quality prints and sleek results. It can cover large designs and simple motifs in high resolution and accommodate various complex designs with precision and accuracy. This means that the reproducibility rate of these complex and filigree designs with very delicate patterns and color nuances can be perfectly reproduced.
Durability and longevity
Since the sublimation ink reaches the material in gaseous form, it penetrates and firmly binds to the surface under controlled heat and pressure. The dye particles of the ink are fixated in the substrate and cannot peel or scratch off, making the prints close to permanent. Due to the properties of the sublimation inks, they’re both waterproof and resistant to UV, scratching, or abrasion over time.
Another key benefit of sublimation printing is its versatility and flexibility in material application. This printing method can be applied to all substrates except cotton and silk.
It means you can use the unique ability of sublimation inks to print on various materials. For example, polyester fabrics, wood, glass, cardboard, and various metal surfaces can be used.
Cotton and silk may also be sublimated with this particular ink if covered with a coating of polyester. This huge advantage of sublimation printing is one of the main reasons for its favorability and use in the printing industry.
Vibrant color scheme
Sublimation printing produces some of the most vibrant hues with a wide color range, even enabling neon and spot colors. Due to the heat press transfer that anchors the inks firmly into the substrate, the colors resist fading as well as remain vibrant and bright for a long time.
Challenges and Considerations of Sublimation Printing
As with all printing techniques, sublimation is also prone to some errors and cons anyone can occasionally encounter. This may include:
Ghosting - This may occur during the heat pressing process if the transfer paper slightly shifts, creating a blurry or light fade beside the print. This issue often happens if the required pressure isn’t applied or the ink on the paper is not fully dry during the process.
White creasing - During the sublimation process, if there are areas the design hasn’t reached, it may create white creases. These creases compromise the print quality and occur if there's moisture on the transfer paper or if it isn't fully straightened.
Color mismatch - Once you’ve created a design, the image will be displayed in RGB mode, whereas the printer will convert your design to CMYK mode. This means the colors won't be the same once they're printed as displayed on a computer screen.
What is sublimation printing and how does it work? It is a sustainable technology that delivers vibrant-colored and high-quality designs for those seeking perfect prints on clothing and other materials. Sublimation printing exhibits exceptional quality and color scheme and delivers high durability and flexibility to the table.
Sublimation printing has become one of the most favorable choices among customers seeking exceptional results by catering to individual preferences, excellent print quality, and customization. Now that you know, it’s up to you to decide whether you will use this unique method for your next printing project.