7 Tips for Sublimation Success


If you are just starting out in sublimation or already have a running business, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure your business is running smoothly and avoid potential problems.

1 . Get the right equipment

Sublimation is an attractive opportunity because it can be easy and fairly cheap to set up. The only equipment that is needed includes a printer, sublimation ink, sublimation paper and a good heat press.

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Note: In this blog, we talk about sublimation ink in general but it is important to note that the only ink we offer and support for small format printers is made by Sawgrass, which is the official manufacturer who holds multiple patents for sublimation printing. Ink for wide format printers comes in a wider variety but is not specifically mentioned. 

Currently, the two major competing brands for small format printers are Epson and Sawgrass. Both produce great image results but are different when it comes to the ink they use. The main difference is that Epson inks have higher water content so they are prone to clogging when not in use for a  period of time. However, the ink can come in larger bags (bulk ink system) therefore resulting in a much lower ink cost per page. Epson is a great route for those who will be printing a lot on a daily basis, but not ideal for businesses that don’t print daily.

The Sawgrass Virtuoso system on the other hand is an all around perfect package for those who are brand new to sublimation. This is an easier system to set up, very active customer support all through Sawgrass on both printer and inks, and is good for both small and large volume jobs. The cartridges are larger than most standard cartridges that come with Epson, but there is no bulk system available for those who print hundreds of prints a day. The ink has lower water content and is formulated like a gel to prevent drying and clogging. The printers have automatic self-maintenance as long as they are left on which keeps the nozzles clean at all times.

Click HERE to see more of our Sawgrass packages.

Finally, a good heat press is a must. Consistent pressure and temperature are factors that can make or break your sublimation process. We recommend swing away presses which can accommodate thicker objects  and overall provide more even pressure over time. Clam shell presses are more budget friendly and good choice for thinner objects and garments but not as good for thicker glass or ceramic items.

2 . Stock Up On Accessories

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To get the workflow going, we recommend the following accessories:

Heat gloves– protect your hands from burning when handling items

Thermal tape + tape dispenser– use this heat resistant tape to secure your paper on items and prevent shifting or moving which can ruin the transfer. A tape dispenser cuts down on the production process by always keeping your tape ready for use.

Spray adhesive– another method to keep paper in place. Recommended for garments and fabrics.

Teflon sheets or Teflon covers– protect your lower heat platen with this water proof Teflon that can be easily wiped off and cleaned. A Teflon sheet can also be placed on top of a transfer as extra protection.

Silicone sheets– The thinner and more temporary  alternative of Teflon, these can also be used on the bottom platen as well as placed on top of the transfer, to catch any escaping ink from staining the heat press or prevent dirt from accidentally transferring on the substrate.

Heat transfer pillows– The life savers when it comes to pressing certain hard surface items, garment with seams or zippers,  or raising an area of a t-shirt to prevent the dreaded indentations the paper edge can leave due to the pressure. We always keep a few of these close by.

Sublimation heating pad– A good accessory to have if you are pressing multiple ceramic or metal items. Works like magic by distributing the heat evenly throughout the whole surface area.

 3 . Stock Up On Blanks

Sublimation can be tricky at times. New problems arise, mistakes happen, and items go out of stock last minute. If there is a large order due in a month, always plan ahead and factor in possible time for testing and trial and error, extra blanks that may end up being a waste, ordering as early as possible, etc.  Holidays are especially risky because items can be in stock one day and back ordered for weeks following that.

Click HERE to view all of our available blanks.

4. Know Your Design Software

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Chances are that at least a basic design software is needed to be able to do things like crop and re-size an image to fit a specific item. Further, all of our products come with free downloadable templates, found on each product page in PDF (Photoshop) and EPS (Illustrator or Corel Draw) format. To use these templates successfully, some knowledge on how to use a design software such as Photoshop is a must. To stand out further as a business, creating your own designs from scratch would be ultimately the winning goal. There are a ton of written tutorials and videos online on Adobe Suite programs as well as Corel Draw. Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator are both available as a 1 month free trial download on the Adobe website.

One of our favorite websites Tutsplus offers a ton of tutorials on Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop as well as wider topics on graphic design, photography and even business. Another popular site among schools is Lynda which requires a sign up but also offers a free trial.  A simple Youtube “How-to” search is an alternative way to find many instructional videos on various design programs.

Check out the following videos from our Channel on how to use our templates with the corresponding design program:

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop Elements

Adobe Illustrator

Corel Draw

5. Watch How Other People Do ItLDS_Art_Home

 

It is no secret that people have the tendency to come up with their own way to sublimate an item, but it is also a good idea to keep up with current videos and blogs on what is new in sublimation or how to press an item. You may catch something in that process that is easier or results in a better transfer than what you might be used to doing. Or if you are brand new, then a little bit of research goes a long way.

Visit our Youtube channel to see a full list of our sublimation videos on various topics.

6. Heat, Pressure and Moisture

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If you are running into problems with the final transfer being faded, burned, too light or spotty, check the three most important things: heat, pressure or moisture.

Too much or too little heat are usually problematic and result in over pressing or under pressing of the substrate. Uneven heating on the press is also an issue and results in spottiness where parts of the substrate sublimate properly but other parts don’t. It is a good idea to invest in temperature strips or a thermal gun, both of which map out the temperature of the heat platen. If there are any inconsistencies or cold spots, it is best to call the manufacturer of the press.

Pressure is equally important and sometimes, uneven transfers can be resolved by simply increasing the pressure. It is possible for the press to be providing uneven pressure however and generally, the manufacturer would do a phone walk through on how to calibrate the press and provide additional assistance to resolve that problem.

If everything checks out, moisture may play a role in spotty transfers. Moisture can warp flat items and can act as a barrier between the surface and the sublimation ink trying to penetrate it. This step is not always listed on the instructions, but it is good practice to pre-press items for 5-10 seconds at high heat and light-medium pressure to let moisture escape and flatten out the substrate. For warped items, such as MDF boards, pre-pressing both sides may be necessary.

Check out our more detailed blog on moisture HERE 

7. Test, Test, Test

No matter how long you have been in the sublimation business, variables change all the time and sometimes overnight. A heat press may suddenly not heat up to the temperature it shows or apply even pressure even though it has worked for 2 years without an issue. An item may be slightly changed in manufacturing requiring a heat/time adjustment which usually happens without warning, or it could be a brand new item you have never used before.

Luckily, you don’t need a ton of extra items to do testing. All blanks can be pressed multiple times for testing purposes. Anything that is previously sublimated will fade out, but the coating itself can take on multiple presses and would not be affected.  The easiest way to test is with small black strips (maybe throw in a few primary colors). Black looks brown when over pressed and grey when under pressed, so that is a pretty good way to figure out what combination of temperature, time and pressure produce the deepest black with sharpest edges. It is generally bad practice to test a full image on a final item and just hope it works right off the bat. That often leads to a wasted item with no extra white space that can be re-used for testing.

IMG_20150717_105559Once the perfect black is achieved with the right combination of settings, we recommend printing out an RGB color chart and pressing that onto the item(s) that will be big sellers.

That way, you will know exactly what the colors will look like on the final product. Remember that light can produce more color combinations (what you see on screen) than what a physical pigment can create (what you see on the final product).

 

 

 

 

 

Tips and Tricks For Wide Format Sublimation on Photo Panels

To ensure that your large Chromaluxe photo panels come out looking perfect, we have compiled a few key tips and tricks for wide format sublimation production that will make the process for you easier and significantly reduce errors!

The following tips are suited for sublimation on any wide format press, however for this blog we pressed our sample panels using the new Hix Single Platen Air-Automatic Heat Press which is designed for superior edge to edge pressing and may be upgraded to two heat platens for maximum production efficiency.

Temperature, Time and Pressure

Temperature

Always ensure that the press is evenly heated at 400F. Heat test strips are a great product to use for testing the temperature throughout the heating element. When pressing a cool item, there may be a drop in temperature. If that drop is more than 15 degrees F. and takes more than 15-20 seconds to recover, set the pressing temperature to 410F to compensate for the heat loss.

Time

The pressing time varies depending on the panel size but the general guidelines are:

Aluminum/ Steel Panels

  • 24″ x 24″ – 90-120 seconds
  • 36″ x 36″- 120-150 seconds
  • Over 36″ x 36″- 150-180 seconds, raising temperature accordingly with increased panel size

FRP/Hardboard Panels

  • 24″ x 24″- 120-150 seconds
  • 36″ x 36″- 150-180 seconds
  • Over 36″ x 36″- 180-200 seconds
  • For panels smaller than 24″ x 24″, decrease the total time by 15 seconds

Pressure

Pressure should be set at a minimum of 60 p.s.i to ensure an even press and will aid in flattening out large items that are prone to warping.

Important Accessories

There are a few items that are highly recommended if not necessary for great results.

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High-temp felt/rubber pad (Ie: Nomex felt)

Place a 1/4″- 1/2″ thick Nomex felt or rubber pad on the bottom platen to keep the heat from escaping through the bottom platen.

 

 

 

 

AAA_4826Polyester cloth
Large polyester cloth, such as the Endura brand offered by Unisub,  that covers the entire heat platen helps to wick away moisture from the paper and substrate while pressing. It is best to stretch the cloth over the heat platen as much as possible to avoid wrinkles.

 

 

 

AAA_4802Newsprint paper
If polyester cloth is not available, you may place 2 sheets of newsprint paper over the substrate. We also use a few sheets underneath the substrate to protect the lower platen from getting stained from sublimation ink. It is a quick and easy way to keep everything clean!

 

 

Correct Paper Type

Wide format sublimation papers are not all made equal. There are some paper brands made for amazing transfers onto fabric but don’t always work as good on hard surfaces. The two main differences to look for are clay coated papers which are ideal for photo panels and cellulose coated papers that are better for fabric – fabric papers also tend to be semi-adhesive, for easy tacking to the fabric that reduces ghosting and blurry transfers. Electrostatic sublimation transfers are not compatible with Unisub coatings.

Troubleshooting Problems

Image appears blotchy, striped/wavy, or colors are running into each other (watercolor effect)

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Moisture is most likely the problem. Chromaluxe panels hold a lot of moisture, especially large panels. Make sure all moisture sources are eliminated by pre-pressing all panels for at least half of their normal pressing time and using either polyester cloth or newsprint over the substrate. Sometimes there is moisture on the paper from the inks themselves. Drying the paper can be sped up by placing it inside the press ensuring that the top and bottom platen are 4″ to 5″ inches apart and let the paper sit for 2-3 minutes (do not close the press).

 Image appears blown out/blurry/yellow

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This is due to over-pressing the image. Decrease the total pressing time by 15 seconds. You may have to test a few images and keep decreasing in intervals of 15 seconds until you get a perfect result.

Image appears faded/grainy

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This is due to under-pressing the image. Increase the total pressing time by 15 seconds and keep increasing at the 15 second interval until a perfect result is achieved.

Image looks perfect but there is a random spot which didn’t sublimate

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If there is an area which appears to have not sublimated, increase the pressure. Double check that your pressure is at least 60 PSI.

Substrate is warping

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Warping occurs due to moisture which we have established is a common problem among photo panels and other flat hard surface substrates. To best solve this problem, remove the substrate after pressing and place under pressure for 24 hours to allow it to regain flatness. If stacking two items together, place a protective sheet in between to avoid dye migration or image distortion.

 

Additional Tips

  • Do not use temperature lower than 385F when pressing Chromaluxe panels and other Unisub products
  • Do not change more than one variable at a time. For example, when doing testing to achieve the most perfect result, change only the time in intervals for each press but do not change the temperature or pressure at the same time.
  • Some items may be pressed “face-down” but we suggest trying “face-up” first to give more room for moisture to escape.

Ink 101: What is all this ink, anyway?


With all of the different technology in the garment and apparel decorating industry, it is easy to get lost in the midst of the hundreds of printers and inks available for use. From solvent to sublimation, the terminology can leave a lot of people confused. Having worked with a lot of these inks ourselves, we want to offer some clarity and break it down to a simplified description of each ink system and its pros and cons.

Click to skip to a certain section…
Inkjet Laser –  Sublimation –  Solvent –  Direct-to-Garment

 

Aqueous Inkjet Inks

These inks are water-based, but most people know them as just regular inkjet inks. All office and professional inkjet printers come with this type of ink which is contained in cartridges with a certain pigment to water ratio which results in liquid ink. The ink is deposited on the paper during the printing process, and once finished printing, the water evaporates leaving only pigment on the paper. The four basic colors are CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) with some printers using additional colors. What is not as common knowledge is that there are two categories of inkjet inks: Dye-based and Pigment-based.

Dye-based inkjet inks are the most common inks that come with the average inkjet printer. The pigment is fully dissolved in water inside the cartridge.. These inks are technically not as ideal for heat transfer paper garment applications as they tend to run more easily under wet conditions, but are great for daily print jobs for your home or business such as documents, indoor displays, posters, or fine art photographic prints due to their vibrancy and true to color image reproduction.

Pigment-based inkjet inks, also sometimes called UV inks, have larger pigment particles that are insoluble and are suspended in less water,  which makes them more ideal for more waterproof solutions such as heat transfer papers for garment decorating, window/outdoor displays, posters, decals, photographic prints, etc. The prints do not run when they come in contact with water but can fade and break down over time after repeated washing (specifically with heat transfer papers) or prolonged outdoor exposure. They are UV-resistant which AAA_1919means they can be exposed to UV light while the colors remain stable. Due to the nature of these inks and the way the light reflects off the pigment particles, they sometimes appear more muted in vibrancy than dye-based. A lot of the Epson inkjet models, such as the workforce series (we use Epson WF-7010 printer), already come with pigment inks, but it is a good idea to double check with the manufacturer.

Note: These are not to be confused with “UV-curable inks”, which require exposure to a very strong UV light to be cured onto the media.

 

 

Aqueous Dye-Based Ink Aqueous Pigment Ink
PROS:
  • Lower Cost
  • Brighter/more vibrant print
  • More waterproof solution that will not run in contact with water
  • UV-resistant that promotes color stability when exposed to bright light
  • Great for heat transfer paper applications
CONS:
  • Not waterproof/may run in contact with water
  • Not UV-resistant/ may fade over time due to sunlight exposure
  • Can be prone to clogging if left to dry inside printer
  • Higher cost
  • Color may appear more muted/ not as vibrant as dye-based ink
  • Can be prone to clogging if left to dry inside printer

 


 

Laser Toner

The second most popular method for every day printing is laser printing which in fact does not use ink, but rather a very fine powder called “toner”. The toner is contained in large cartridges in the printer and is deposited on the paper through either laser or LED technology.  Then the paper runs through a fuser which uses heat to fuse the pigment in place. Most laser printers use the CMYK colors, but recent advances in technology now allow for select few printers to use white toner instead of black, such as our OKI 920WT and OKI 711WT models.

Toner, unlike most other types of inks, does not use liquid in any way which makes it a very waterproof solution, but is still prone to fading over time. Because toner requires heat to be permanently cured in place, for those who are in the heat transfer paper business, it is crucial to have a printer with fuser that runs no hotter than 350F or else the paper adhesive can melt and jam. This is also why the compatibility of papers and printers is difficult to guarantee and always requires testing to ensure the paper will run smoothly through the printer. With the market constantly growing, in recent years manufacturers have started building printers with heat transfers in mind. Our OKI printers have been tested and are warrantied with most of our heat transfer papers.

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PROS: CONS:
  • Waterproof
  • Requires little to no maintenance as toner does not clog
  • Faster print speed for high volume printing
  • Toner usually lasts longer
  • Costs significantly less per-print
  • Laser printers not compatible with all papers, especially some heat transfer papers
  • Higher cost for full color and photographic printers
  • Bulkier/larger cartridges and printers
  • Not always ideal for quality fine art prints

 


 

Dye-Sublimation Ink

Dye-sublimation ink, while also water-based, is a much different type of ink than other typical printing solutions. Sublimation ink is printed on special sublimation paper (similar in look/feel to thicker copy paper) which releases the ink once it is heat activated in the press, turning it from solid to gas while bypassing the liquid stage.

It is compatible with a select few existing small format printer models, such as the Sawgrass Virtuoso SG400 and SG800 printers, the Epson Artisan 1430, and the older Ricoh SG3110DN and SG7100DN. It is also available for some wide format Epson and Mutoh printer models for those who seek high production, larger printing and high cost savings (lower cost for ink overall). There are so few models available because it is a special ink that also requires specific color correction software, and that is available for these select printer platforms for greatest performance consistency. Older formulations of sublimation ink, such as those for Epson printers, have a higher water to dye ratio, which makes them more susceptible to drying up and clogging the nozzles if not used daily, but are the only small format inks that offer a bulk-system option for higher volume printing and lower cost. The newer Sublijet R and Sublijet HD inks for Ricoh and Virtuoso printers are reformulated into a gel-like substance, which uses less water, preventing clogs when printer is not being used daily, however only come in cartridges and are not available for a bulk system.

The process of sublimation transfer printing and pressing to a product is usually done at around 370-400F depending on the item and the process ends as soon as heat is no longer applied and item starts cooling down. Sublimation ink dyes the garment/item on a molecular level rather than being transferred just on top, which results in a permanent solution under normal conditions. Since the dye can be re-activated at really high heat at any point, it is important to transfer a full design from a single sheet of paper in a one-step process. The ink can be reactivated at temperatures as low as 340F, and sometimes even lower, and could stain equipment or already pressed items.

Because sublimation is an additive color process, and it only DYES the color of the item, it is compatible only with white or very light substrates, as the color of a non-white shirt will bleed into the image (and black will block an image out entirely, so sublimation onto black t-shirts is not possible at all). It is also best compatible with 100% polyester garments and polyester-coated items . Other blends of polyester will work as well, but only the polyester content will be dyed – ie: 50/50 blends of poly/cotton will turn out half as bright as a 100% polyester garment. This method does not work on natural fibers (cotton, rayon, wool, etc) as it will wash out completely.  It will not transfer on non-coated items.

 

 

PROS: CONS:
  • Permanent transfers that last as long as the garment/item
  • Easy and fast set up and transfer process
  • Transfers realistic full-color photographs and designs with high detail
  • No texture of its own, easy to transfer on variety of coated items such as mugs coasters, mouse pads, ornaments and more
  •  High cost on inks
  • only compatible with 100% polyester or sublimation coated items that are white/light
  • Requires some design software/printer set up for proper color control

To learn more about sublimation, visit our Sublimation Basics page!

Note: We only sell and support patented, high quality inks made by Sawgrass.

 

 


 

Solvent Ink

Solvent ink is a more aggressive type of ink, available specifically for standing professional style printers with an inkjet style printhead, and is typically used mostly for outdoor applications due to its ability to adhere to a wide variety of media and vinyls and incredible durability. It is great for sign/banner vinyls, T-shirt vinyls and wallpaper media among others. The pigment is dissolved in a solvent chemical instead of water, which evaporates once it has been printed. Its chemical makeup makes it waterproof, fade-proof and scratch resistant in most weather conditions and lasts as long as the material it is printed on. However, due to its caustic nature, it is only compatible with special solvent inkjet printers, such as our wide format Mutoh printers.

Solvent ink is technically available in two different styles, though both are incredibly similar to one another (similar to pigment vs. dye-based ink differences):

Traditional  solvent– This ink has a stronger chemical makeup which allows it to dry faster and penetrate deeper into a wider variety of media that doesn’t necessarily need to be coated.  However, since the solvent chemical evaporates once it has been printed, it can cause hazardous fumes that can be inhaled by humans. Proper ventilation and space are required for this type of ink.

Eco solvent– “Eco” refers to the lower hazard level this ink is for humans.  Eco-solvent inks use a solvent that is not as aggressive, Hulk_findthesnail1usually derived from mineral oil,  and is better suited for indoor environments that don’t have a special air ventilation in place. The trade off however is slower drying times, with anywhere from a few seconds up to 12 hours of drying time depending on the media. This is becoming less of an issue with certain vinyls being added to the market, such as our ColorPrint Easy vinyl for garments which dries instantly.

 

< – – – Our beloved Hulk printed on Photo Tex Removable Wall Media for solvent printing

Traditional Solvent Ink Eco-Solvent Ink
PROS:
  • Faster drying times
  • Waterproof, scratch-resistant and fade-proof
  • Harsher chemical allows for printing on wider variety of media such as uncoated vinyl/banner material
  • Low costs for inks
  • Waterproof, scratch-resistant and fade-proof
  • No odor and made with biodegradable chemicals that are not as hazardous
  • Can be used in smaller indoor spaces
  • Low cost inks
CONS:
  • Hazardous fumes require proper ventilation and large working space
  • Requires proper disposal and handling
  • Slower drying times
  •  Not compatible with as many vinyls/materials

 

 


 

Direct to Garment ink

Direct to garment (DTG) is a process in which ink is applied directly onto 100% cotton fabric through a flat bed printer, such as our Epson SureColor F2000.  These inks are water-based and similar to pigment-based aqueous inks, and come in the standard yellow, magenta, cyan, black, and white colors. Once printed, they are permanently cured onto the fabric by applying heat and heavier pressure, ideally with a heat press around 335-340F for 1 minute or less depending on the color fabric. They feel similar to a screen print (some can’t tell the difference) and often times even softer because the process eliminates the use of vinyl or paper media, leaving ink to be the only thing on the shirt which lasts as long as the garment and is waterproof and fade-resistant.

DTGWhite or very light colored fabrics don’t need any prior treatment and the design is printed directly onto them, however since the ink absorbs into the fabric, it would be difficult to stand out on dark fabrics, which is why the printer has to print a solid base of white first on most brightly colored and black garments. That creates a heavier print with the additional layer of white ink added into the mix (titanium oxide is its main makeup which already makes it heavier), which can cause the ink to bleed through the fabric. To prevent this from happening, dark/black garments are coated with a pre-treatmeant solution by hand or using a machine (we use our Zoom AE All-Electric pre-treatment machine). The transparent pre-treat coating also helps the white ink to adhere better to the fabric. The extra pre-treat solution on the shirt dissolves in the wash, leaving the shirt with a clean and bright print.

DTG inks are most compatible with 100% cotton only or in some instances, cotton/poly blends. 100% polyester is not recommended because it is a plastic material which will not absorb the ink, causing it to sit on top of the garment. With average amount of washing, the print will fade dramatically over time. DTG may be used for cotton based, polyester-coated items such as mouse pads and flip flops, for display purposes.

 

PROS: CONS:
  • Waterproof, fade proof and scratch resistant
  • Highest quality print for garments on the market
  • Very soft and durable (should last the life of the garment)
  • Great vibrancy and detail
  • Printer requires monthly maintenance and upkeep
  • RIP software required, with specific settings that need to be calibrated every time a fabric is changed to a different fabric weave and thickness
  • Black or brightly colored fabrics require pre-treatment which makes for a longer process and potential higher costs for pre-treat solution and machine
  • Compatible with 100% cotton fabric only and some cotton/poly blends

 

 


 

Technology is constantly growing and improving, and there may be other types of inks for printing methods that weren’t included in this blog. This list is compiled to represent inks that we offer to our customers on a regular basis and are capable of providing great support over phone, e-mail or chat!