Sublimation is the process of an ink turning into a gas, penetrating the fibers in the garment when heated, becoming a permanent part of that item and then sealing into the fibers of that item once it’s completely cooled. Sublimation was originally thought to be a process to apply images onto hard surface items only, such as ceramics, metals, certain plastics, and hardboard materials but it’s become very popular with large format users who are doing customized garments. Anything from jerseys, t-shirts, swimsuits, towels, blankets, floor mats/car mats and tote bags are just some examples of the growing industry.
Small desktop printers range from 8.5” x 14” systems up to 13” x 19” with optional bypass trays that are available. Epson and Ricoh are the main brands of sublimation printers (see all of our small format sublimation-compatible printers HERE). Epson printers are equipped with a Piezo print head technology. Micro Piezo print heads feature microscopic piezoelectric actuators that are built behind the print nozzles. When an electrical charge is applied to them, the piezoelectric elements bend backward, drawing precise amounts of ink from the ink chamber into the firing chamber. When the electrical pulse is reversed, the piezoelectric elements bend the opposite way very rapidly, propelling the ink out of the nozzles at high speed. This helps with clogging issues since sublimation ink is a little thicker than regular OEM inks. A handful of Epson printers are also able to be equipped with bulk refill systems, which use bags of ink instead of cartridges. This will drastically cut down your cost per print as we all know how small some inkjet printer cartridges can be!
Ricoh printers aren’t equipped with these types of print heads, but the sublimation ink used in Ricoh printers is gel-based. The ink flows more smoothly, therefore you’ll experience less clogging (if any). Although there are no bulk hookups for these printers, they are able to house a much larger cartridge size over its Epson friends.
There are also floor models on the market that are still considered smaller format (under 24”) and can run rolls of paper. Then you get into the wide format equipment, which is a whole other blog in its own. Heck, maybe we will see a wide format blog in the upcoming future!
Some CONS are, sublimation is a bad idea if you need to do dark garments! The only way to get a sublimation image onto a colored garment is if the image (ink you’re laying down) is darker than the color of the shirt. For instance, you can do black images or prints on red garments, orange, yellow, pink, blue… (make sense?)
Another downside is if you’re wanting to use a cheap ole’ shirt – nix that idea. Sublimation requires 100% polyester to get the best image and the best washability possible!
The PRO about sublimation is that it is a permanent image on your substrate! What can get better than this? No washing away, fading or cracking to worry about!