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.
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
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
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:
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
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.
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).