Sublimation printing is one of the most common ways to print images onto synthetic fabrics and materials – and for good reason. Not only does the digital print come out crisp, clear, and colorful, but the image will virtually never fade. Furthermore, sublimation printing is cost-effective for small batches, making it a favorite printing technique for personalized apparel like t-shirts and trinkets like mugs.
But what is sublimation printing, really? And how does it differ from other digital printing techniques like screen printing? What is sublimation printing great for? And what are some of its downsides? In this guide to dye sublimation printing, we answer all of these questions, and more
What does sublimation mean?
The word sublimate comes from the Latin for “to raise, lift, or exalt.” As a technical term, sublimation is used to describe any mass transfer process where a solid matter transitions to its gaseous phase without first passing through an intermediary liquid phase. The sense of “lifting” here is relevant because sublimation transfer always involves vapor. In addition to sublimation dye printing, another common process involving sublimation is freeze drying.
What is sublimation printing?
Sublimation printing, also known as dye sublimation printing, is a printing technique that involves applying a heat press to a printed sheet of transfer paper. Once heated, the solidified ink becomes a gas and permeates the fibers of polyester textiles or other plastic materials.
To understand how sublimation printing is distinct, think about your typical home or office printer. In a typical inkjet printer, the ink is transferred to the paper as a liquid. The liquid ink then dries onto the paper through a combination of air and heat, becoming a solid.
In sublimation printing, however, the ink goes directly from its solid form to its gas state. There are no liquids involved in the sublimation printing process whatsoever.
How does sublimation printing work?
Sublimation printing onto fabric begins with a digital printer, transfer paper, and special sublimation ink. Once the transfer paper has been printed with the image, it is placed in either a flatbed or a roller with the material onto which the image is to be transferred.
Next, the sublimation process begins. Through a combination of pressure and heat between 350 and 420 degrees Fahrenheit, the sublimation ink becomes so hot that it evaporates and diffuses before it even has a chance to melt. This intense heat also opens the pores of the plastic, allowing the ink vapor to work its way deep into the material. Once the heat has been removed, the pores of the plastic snap closed, the ink reverts to its solid state, and material has been permanently dyed with a full color, high resolution image.
What materials can be printed through sublimation?
Sublimation printing only works on plastic substrates, like polyester fabric, rubber, and household plastics. You have likely seen sublimation printed t-shirts, bathing suits, athletic gear, shower curtains, wrist bands for events, flip flops, coasters, mugs, floor mats, mouse pads, and more.
Sublimation printing does not work on natural textiles like cotton because the vaporized ink can pass through the garment fibers without bonding to them.
What are the advantages of dye sublimation printing?
Compared with other common printing techniques, dye sublimation printing has a number of advantages:
- Continuous tone – Each and every dot of ink in sublimation printing can be a different color. For this reason, sublimated graphics appear high-resolution and have amazing color fidelity, even under a microscope.
- No dry time – Sublimation printing on fabric means you can be fold or wear the garment immediately after it leaves the press without having to worry about smearing the ink.
- Fewer moving parts – Presses are simple machines, and the thermal print head doesn’t need to move back and forth over the print media. This means sublimation printers are less likely to break down.
- No mess – No liquid ink means no spills and no clean up.
- Fade-free – Sublimated dye impregnates and becomes part of the plastic. It will not fade or degrade the plastic, and the colors will not run if exposed to water.
- Seam-to-seam printing – Sublimation printing can work for even the most intricate shapes, allowing you to print the entire fabric of a garment.
- Uses no water and minimal energy -Dye sublimation requires no water and very little energy resources compared to other commercial printing methods.
- Small-batch friendly – Sublimation printing is great for one-off or small batch orders, making it easy to quickly customize apparel or gifts for special occasions.
What are the disadvantages of dye sublimation printing?
While sublimation printing has its advantages, it comes up short against other common printing techniques in these regards:
- Limited to light-colored plastics – Sublimated printing does not work with natural fibers like cotton or paper, unless the materials have been treated with a polymer coating beforehand. Furthermore, because sublimation printing is more like high-precision dyeing than imprinting, it works best on white or light-colored materials.
- Requires specialty inks and printers – Because sublimation ink is specially formulated to resist becoming a liquid, it is prone to clogging printers. For this reason, printing a graphic onto heat transfer paper for sublimation generally requires a dedicated dye-sublimation printer that can handle these specialized ink cartridges. In turn, sublimation printing requires more upfront costs for the businesses that do it, which can often result in a pricier product.
- Slow – Where inkjet and screen prints can be fired off in rapid succession, sublimation printing requires that each item is pressed individually. And because it also involves the extra step of printing the transfer paper, the sublimation printing process requires more labor.
- Cheap materials result in toxic fumes – Before you order a sublimated print, do your due diligence to ensure that both the sublimation inks and the materials used are of high quality. With cheap sublimation inks, toxic vapors can contaminate the air and may be breathed in by employees. Furthermore, exposing low-quality plastics to the high temperatures necessary for sublimation printing can also produce toxic fumes.
- Recycling issues – Sublimation printing produces a lot of non-recyclable waste, in part because the process involves an extra step and more materials that other printing processes don’t. The ink first needs to be printed onto transfer paper, which then becomes contaminated and can no longer be recycled. Furthermore, plastics impregnated with many different colors of dye are difficult to recycle.
Sublimation printing vs heat transfer
Sublimation printing and heat transfer are both transfer printing methods that involve similar steps, but the end effects are very different. Both printing techniques involve printing an image onto transfer paper, and then applying heat and pressure. However, in sublimation printing, the inks permeate and become part of the print media. In heat transfer, on the other hand, the image simply becomes an additional layer on top of the print media.
Compared wit heat transfer, sublimation printing is much longer lasting and can produce intricate, high-resolution prints in any shape. But an advantage of heat transfer is that it is easy enough for laypeople to perform at home with an iron.
Sublimation printing vs inkjet
Inkjet printers print liquid ink on top of paper, while sublimation printers permeate the material with ink vapors. Sublimation printing is best suited for printing graphics onto plastic substrates. Inkjet printing is best for document printing.
While inkjet printed photos or documents will run if exposed to moisture, sublimation printed graphics are immune to water damage.
Sublimation printing vs screen printing
As its name would suggest, screen printing involves printing a graphic onto fabric through a screen. In screen printing, the graphic is transferred as a layer on top of the fabric, whereas in sublimation printing, the graphic becomes part of the fabric. Screen printing is more limited in the colors and shapes it can produce, and the graphics may crack or peel off with wear. However, screen printing is very quick, and many shops can produce as many as 900 pieces per hour. Sublimation printing, on the other hand, averages at about 60 pieces per hour. For this reason, screen printing lends itself better to bulk production than sublimation printing, making it the most common method of garment printing.