If you ever wanted to know what Sublimation printing is than this article can help. Sublimation printing is simply one of the best ways to get your designs from a computer onto fabric or rigid materials. It’s a pillar in the digital textile printing industry because of its durability, vivid colors, and low prep time.

Sublimation printing is rapidly growing in the hobbyist, small and home business market. Primarily due to low cost sublimation printers.

If you want to get started, it can be relatively inexpensive to adopt the sublimation method. You can get all the sublimation equipment you need for roughly the cost of a good set of golf clubs.

The sublimation process is simple too. You don’t need advanced mastery of desktop publishing or printers.

The process starts with a design made from graphic design software. Canva, GIMP, or Adobe Illustrator to name a few. You can pay monthly or some are free!

Once a design is created, it is printed using sublimation ink and carrier paper. Your typical Pixma, Officejet, or Envy printers are not compatible with sublimation ink.

Seiko Epson Corp, Roland DGA Corp, and Sawgrass Inc have the largest market share of sublimation printers. Only Epson, Sawgrass, and Brother make ones capable for personal or small business use.

Finally, the printed image is transferred to a blank with a heat press or oven. Heat presses come in a variety of layouts depending on your blank.

Popular models range in price from around $200 to $1,000. Though industrial ones approach $50,000.

The process produces designs with vibrant and durable colors. Many items you see in stores are sublimation prints.

Following some basic guidelines even beginners can get great results.

What is Sublimation Printing For?

Sublimation printing is good for crafters and businesses. If your business needs marketing or promotional items, you can make them in house with sublimation printing. If you wanted to start Etsy store or online printing business, then you should consider sublimation printing.

Also, people do sublimation printing just for fun! You can make decorations or customize personal items.

For example, you can make T-shirts, tote bags, blankets, and pillows with sublimation printing. In fact t-shirt printing is the most popular uses for a sublimation printer.

Designs you make from sublimation ink won’t fracture, separate, or degrade after a few washes. Your designs will last as long as the garment itself.

If you want to transfer designs to rigid surfaces, then sublimation printing will be the best route. The most common materials you can sublimate on are:

  • Ceramic
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • PVC

You can use most any rigid surface with a polymer coating for sublimation printing. Mugs and tumblers are popular substrates. If you get a blank from any printing supply company it will be appropriate for heat transfer. Their blanks come with a polymer coating so you don’t have to bother.

If you want to sublimate on wood or metal, then you can spray on your own polymer coating. This coating will also work on special blanks of your own as well.

You can also create custom magnets, keychains, coasters, and even decorative license plates. Assuming your state doesn’t require their license plates on the front of your car. If you want to make bumper stickers, sublimation printing can do that too.

It works for your outdoor items as well. Sublimation ink is waterproof once transferred. If your projects require durability and vivid colors then sublimation printing is right for them.

What you can’t sublimate on is 100% cotton. You would need Direct-To-Garment (DTG) printing for 100% cotton materials. Heat transfer vinyl (HTV) also works on cotton.

Sublimation is for 85% polyester blends and lighter materials. Colors aren’t as vivid with darker materials or lesser blends. Some designs are better suited than others though.

Sublimation Project Ideas

ID cards
Flip flops
Home decor
Place mats
Door mats

What is a Sublimation Printer?

If you’ve ever wondered what makes a sublimation printer different from stock printers, it’s just the kind of ink they use. Any printer capable of using dye sublimation ink is a sublimation printer.

However, not every inkjet printer can use sublimation ink. If you want to use sublimation ink then you will need an inkjet printer with a non-thermal print head.

Which eliminates your average HP and Canon inkjet printers. They do make industrial type of sublimation printers costing tens of thousands of dollars though.

Sawgrass, Epson, and Brother printers are your best route for sublimation printing. If you want a printer ready for sublimation right out of the box then you can get a Sawgrass or Epson.

Sawgrass printers are available with different kinds of sublimation ink. They will also provide you with support. Sawgrass is especially known for their customer support. The printers you can get made for sublimation do cost more and have only a few models you can choose from.

If you’re just starting out or only plan on doing a few projects then converting an inexpensive printer is your best choice. It isn’t as hard as it sounds. Epson Ecotanks are some of the easiest to convert and have terrific print quality as well

If you do decide to convert your printer there are conversion kits for popular models of Epson and Brother. Many printing supply companies provide you with instructions for their sublimation ink conversion kits. If they don’t include how tos, Youtube has some great videos on how you can convert a printer!

What is Sublimation Ink?

If you’re wondering what’s makes sublimation ink so special you’re not alone. It was introduced in the 1990s and companies don’t publish much about it.

What makes sublimation ink special is the dye. Regular ink uses dye but sublimation ink is a disperse dye.

Disperse dye is designed to react to heat. When you heat it to 380-400°F (190-200°C), it changes states.

The dye transitions from a solid to gas. Hence the label sublimation.

In addition to the phase change, sublimation ink forms a chemical bond with the material.

This sets it apart from other inks. The dye permanently bonds to the material you use.

Sublimation ink comes in your standard 4 colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The colors you see on paper look faded compared to standard ink. But they come to life after you transfer them.

If you print photos they can benefit from more colors. Extra colors of sublimation ink don’t benefit you as much as photo printing does.

Still, you can get sublimation ink for 6 color printers. If you plan on transferring photos to mugs then the extra colors will help. But you may not see a big difference on t-shirts.

You can also get sublimation ink in fluorescent colors. For example, neon magenta and neon yellow inks are available for Epson printers.

If you decide to use neon colors in your 4 color inkjet printer they replace the standard magenta and yellow. So

Swapping colors or converting a printer to sublimation ink will cause it to mix in the printhead. While mixing sublimation ink with stock ink won’t make your printer explode. You will have to do printhead cleanings and purge pages to flush it all out.

I appreciate office humor as much as anyone. But if you decide to swap to sublimation ink, don’t use your mouth to suck the ink out. According to one manufacturer sublimation ink tastes smelly. Their tips on how to tell authenticity includes how it tastes. How’d they ever figure that out?! So many questions…

Sublimation vs Other Types of Transfer

If you think sublimation is like transfer paper. You’d be right. Sublimation is a form of heat transfer. Transfer paper is another form of heat transfer.

Regular transfer paper and sublimation printing both use inkjet printers. For both processes you print onto carrier paper. Then you use heat and pressure with both to transfer your design onto a blank.

The difference is how the image bonds with the material. Your iron on heat transfer is a surface bond, much like glue. However sublimation ink is chemically bonded with the fibers.

When you use sublimation ink it is permanently bonded. You can stretch or wash it without damaging the design. Transfer paper designs can mechanically separate when you wash or stretch it.

Also, standard ink will fade when you wash it. Sublimation ink won’t. Sublimation ink will last as long as your garment itself.

Another type of heat transfer you can do is HTV. Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV) is for Cricut machines or other cutting plotters.

You can print on or cut your design out of the vinyl. Which comes in many colors and patterns. If you use a cutting plotter then your design is separated or weeded out. Finally you transfer it to your blank with heat.

The benefits are you can use HTV on cotton and darker color materials. HTV is also a surface bond much like glue.

If you want to sublimate on darker or cotton material then you can actually sublimate on top of HTV! This won’t create a permanent bond to the fabric but rather bond to the vinyl itself. It will give you much better results than regular transfer paper.

Vinyl is stronger and your designs won’t fade with sublimation ink like they would with standard ink.

If you use this method it will have the feel of vinyl but that may be worth the trade off to get your designs on cotton and darker material.

Getting Started

Are you chomping at the bit yet? If you want to get started, sublimation printing is a relatively low cost hobby or start up business. A descent setup will cost you less than $1,000.

The least expensive setup is roughly $400. You can get a Cricut mug press for under $130, an Epson printer for under $200, and some supplies would run about $70.

All you need to get started is a sublimation printer, sublimation ink & transfer paper, and a heat press. And of course, something to transfer on.

Starting out sublimation printing isn’t as hard as you’d think. Making your designs can be fun. Converting your printer isn’t as messy as it sounds, and using a heat press is simple.

If you choose to get a continuous ink supply systems (CISS), they are more involved than squirting ink into a cartridge. A CISS might be bewildering to those that shudder at the thought of clearing a paper jam. They require you to route the hose assembly and mount an external ink tank.

If you’ve never used a heat press it isn’t complicated. Most paper and blank supplies include instructions for you. How much and how long you need to apply heat for different types of blanks will be clearly indicated.

Should you sell your products, the blank is the majority of the production costs. Printing costs and equipment will pay for themselves.

All in all it’s not hard and even beginners can get great results. Get yourself some t-shirts or tumblers and have fun!


Does it matter what printer you use for sublimation?

It does. Your typical Pixma, Envy, or Officejet printers are not suitable for sublimation ink. Epson and Brother printers use a non thermal inkjet process compatible with sublimation ink

What Printers can be Converted to Sublimation Ink?

Any Epson Ecotank, Supertank, or Workforce printer can be converted. Brother inkjet printers are also acceptable.

Is Epson Ecotank good for sublimation printing?

Sure. Ones with larger paper capacity are great for sublimation printing projects.

How long does sublimation last?

The bond is permanent and lasts as long as the fabric itself. On rigid items the ink may slightly fade after a few decades.

copier guy

The Copier Guy, aka Dave. I’ve worked on scanners, printers, copiers, and faxes over 23 years. When I’m not fixing them I’m writing about them. Although, I’m probably better at fixing them.  I’ve worked with every major brand. As well as several types of processes. If it uses paper I’ve probably worked on one.

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