In this Complete Guide To Sublimation, we will discuss what sublimation is so you have a better understanding of how it works, its capabilities, what you can make, and what you need to get started on making custom shirts, unique home decor and other personalized gifts.
Sublimation is a simple print and press onto specific blanks. Even though it sounds simple, a little knowledge about it will go a long way. Knowing its basics will help you determine if it’s worth spending your hard-earned dollars on equipment and supplies, if it is worth putting the time and effort into learning the craft, or if it is possible to create what you want to make.
So before you diving in and start making those seasonal shirts, the trendy tumblers, or personalized ornaments, you need to learn how it works.
This complete guide will teach you what sublimation is, the science behind it, its pros and cons, what makes it different from other printing techniques, and what equipment you need to get started.
What Is Sublimation?
Sublimation permanently adds a design to a sublimation blank such as shirts, ornaments, and tumblers. It lets you create an amazing variety of custom products. To be successful, you need to know how it works and its limitations.
It has been around for decades, but recent advancements in technology have made it even more accessible and affordable to people who are looking to create unique items that they won’t find anywhere else. It has become popular in recent years because not only does it allow you to make custom products for personal use, it is also a great business that a creative entrepreneur can get into.
How Sublimation Works: The Science Behind It
Sublimation is a scientific process where heat is used to turn a solid into gas, skipping the liquid stage. The solid (printed design using sublimation ink) needs heat to turn it to gas in order for that design to adhere to your blank.
Dye sublimation is when a design is printed on paper using a specialty ink printed by a dedicated printer. That printed transfer is in a solid form.
When high heat is applied to that printed design, usually 350-400 degrees Fahrenheit, the ink turns to gas. This gas then binds to the blank’s polyester or polymer-coated fiber or surface.
It sounds complicated and highly technical but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist in order to do sublimation. All you need is the right printer, ink, heat source, and a blank that has enough polyester content in order for it to absorb the design.
Pros and Cons of Sublimation
|Wide range of products you can create with sublimation
|Sublimation blank has to be white or light color
|Sublimation blanks are available from various sources
|Can only sublimate on polyester or polymer coated products
|Sublimated products have permanent prints
|Mistakes Mean Wasted Sublimation Blanks
|Sublimated designs are photographic quality
|Sublimation equipment is relatively affordable
These pros and cons will help give you a basic idea of its capabilities. But as you can see from our list, there are more sublimation advantages than disadvantages.
Let’s dig deeper into what each of these pros and cons mean so you are better informed of what it is before you get started.
1. Wide Range of Products You Can Create With Sublimation
Sublimation gives you the opportunity to create whatever your crafty heart desires! Some things you can sublimate include:
- Clothing like T-shirts, sweatshirts, baby bodysuits, athletic clothing, pants, socks, and even underwear
- Kitchen products such as cutting boards, kitchen towels, serving trays, placemats, tiles
- Pet products include collars, pet ID tags, bandanas, bowls, pet mats
- Home decor such as key holders, throw pillows, throw blankets, drink coasters, wall signs, plaques, door mats, photo panels
- Accessories such as keychains, luggage tags, ID badge reels, watch bands, phone cases, air fresheners, license plates
- Office products such as clipboards, erasable boards, mouse pads, pencil holders, notebooks and journals
- Drinkware such as coffee mugs, tumblers, shot glasses, beer steins, metal camp mugs
- Others items such as ornaments, face masks, tote bags, makeup bags.
2. Sublimation Blanks Are Available From Various Sources
The demand for sublimation blanks have increased in recent years because sublimation has been gaining popularity in recent years. Because of this increased demand, the supply for sublimation blanks have also increased. You can get them from:
- Wholesale — There are other online sources of blanks as well, such as Coastal Business Supply, DyeTrans/Conde, Heat Press Nation, and JPPlus. These are the 3 biggest sublimation blank suppliers in the USA.
- Retail — With the recent emergence of Cricut Infusible Ink, many local crafting stores such as Michaels and Joanns started carrying their compatible blanks. These blanks are mostly made from polyester or have polyester coating and because of that, they also work for sublimation. So head down to either store and you may find blanks such as tote bags, shirts, throw pillows, make up bag, and coffee mugs.
- Online Retailers — Amazon is a great source of sublimation blanks and most offer them for wholesale prices.
- Local Stores — Dollar stores and retail stores such as Walmart also carry many items that have the polyester coating or are made out of polyester fabric. Take a trip to a local one in your neighborhood and you may find items to sublimate such as washcloths, kitchen pot holders, shirts, and even notebooks.
3. Sublimated Products Have Permanent Prints
Sublimation designs are permanent once they are properly pressed on a blank that has a high amount of polyester content. This is because the ink from the sublimation transfer is embedded directly into the polyester content of the sublimation blank.
They last for years and do not peel off or crack like vinyl. This is a big advantage of sublimation especially on drinkware such as mugs and tumblers. You will not get a call from a friend or get a customer complaint that their name on their tumbler started lifting off…a problem you get when you use vinyl.
4. Sublimated Designs Have Photographic Quality
Sublimation designs have the most realistic, true-to-life colors as compared to other printing methods such as screen printing and HTV. You can sublimate photographic quality prints in full color. Even actual photos can be sublimated on your sublimation blanks! Your creative designs are almost limitless.
5. Sublimation Equipment Is Relatively Affordable
For under $1000, you can get the equipment you need to get started on sublimation. That may sound expensive to some when compared to other types of equipment such as vinyl cutters to make personalized shirts using HTV, but you are able to make more with sublimation so the return is relative to what you spend.
You can definitely get started for as low as $500 but this involves shopping for deals for the sublimation equipment. You can find a gently used Epson to convert to sublimation or find one that is already converted but you have to make sure the print heads are not clogged and all other parts within the printer are in proper working condition.
The heat press is an important equipment that takes a bigger chunk of that starter money. You can find this used to save money but make sure it actually heats up to 400°F and has an even heating element. You also need to make sure it can sustain that temperature for a few minutes, especially when you’re pressing things such as ornaments and slate plaques.
Use our helpful Sublimation Heat Press Buyers Guide to find the right one for your project and fits your budget.
1. Sublimation Blank Has To Be White Or Light-Colored
Sublimation blanks that are white will give you the best result, which means it will have the most vibrant colors. This is because sublimation ink is transparent and in order for those colors to appear, the base has to be white.
An easier way to determine if your design will look vibrant on sublimation blanks that are not white is to picture yourself drawing with colored markers on:
- white paper
- a pastel colored paper
- a dark colored paper
Which drawing will have a good outcome, one that shows the bright and vivid colors of your colored markers? It would be the white paper!
2. Can Only Sublimate On Polyester Or Polymer-Coated Products
The sublimation dye only adheres to polyester and polymer-coated products. Which means natural fibers such as cotton are not a great blank or base to sublimate on. So if you only want to design on 100% cotton shirts, then this may not be a good match for you.
But don’t let that fact stop you from getting started on sublimation because there are many other shirts that have enough polyester content for sublimation and have a feel that’s close to cotton. You can also sublimate on glitter HTV and glow-in-the-dark HTV then press that on 100% cotton shirts.
3. Mistakes Mean Wasted Sublimation Blanks
Making a mistake can cost you money. You can ruin your printer or you can end up with an incorrectly pressed sublimation blank. Since the designs are permanent, there’s no way to erase it. So you would have to throw out multiple sublimation blanks which can become expensive as it can add up in the end
Just like learning a new craft, sublimation can have an intimidating learning curve. It’s not as simple as printing a design and pressing it. You have to understand that things can go wrong, that you’ll eventually run into one or more issues that everyone experiences.
Knowing the most common sublimation problems and how to fix or avoid them will save your sanity and save you money. Another way to keep that learning curve low is to read step-by-step tutorials or watch sublimation videos before doing it yourself, join various sublimation groups to learn from others, or ask us your sublimation questions.
What YOU NEED TO START sublimation?
To start sublimation, you need a sublimation printer, ink, paper, designs, heat press, mug and tumbler press, and blanks. These are the basics. However, the type of items you want to create will determine what additional accessories you need to purchase.
We’ll quickly go over the basic equipment here. And if you’re serious about getting started, our list of what you need to start doing sublimation will help you with choosing which basics to choose and determine what other extra items you need.
1. Sublimation Printer
This printer is different from your regular inkjet and laser printers. It has a specific printer head called piezo that works with water-based, oil-based, eco-solvent, solvent, and gel-based inks.
Printers such as Epson, Sawgrass, and Roland have this type of print head and can be used for printing your transfers. Just to note, there are other printer brands that have this Piezo Print Head but there are no sublimation inks available for them.
You can either convert an Epson printer to sublimation or purchase one that is already setup as a sublimation printer.
To determine which printer to buy, it’s important to know what your options are and the differences between each. Our Comprehensive Guide To Choosing A Sublimation Printer will help with this decision.
2. Sublimation Paper
These papers are specially made for sublimation printing. They are coated so that the dye ink sits on the surface and is ready to transfer onto your blank. Some have used regular copy paper and have had success with them.
How to decide on what to use depends on your printer brand, printing size capabilities, your budget, and what you want to sublimate on. These papers can range in prices from $18 all the way up to $68+ for the rolls.
If you’re mainly interested in sublimating mugs, they have paper that is already sized for them. This will save you time from cutting the regular paper to size and you’ll also cut down on wasting a large sheet of paper for a small project.
Our recent test comparing sublimation papers revealed which paper gave us a great output. This will help you determine which paper to try for your own projects.
3. Sublimation Designs
Here’s where the creativity part comes in, which I think is the fun part of the entire process. The design possibilities are almost endless!
With sublimation, you have to remember that white is not printed by the printer at all. This is because there is no white ink. So designs with white parts will actually be blank when printed. And when this design is pressed on a blank, that blank area will be the same color as your blank.
Your ink is transparent so the color of your blank will determine the final look of your pressed design. To get the best results, that has the most vibrant colors, you will need to press this design on a white blank.
Where to get sublimation designs?
You can either create your own with a graphic design software, purchase designs from reputable companies, or get free designs from us. The PNG, JPG, and SVG formats with a minimum of 300ppi resolution work the best.
Yes, you read that right. We offer free sublimation designs for our readers. These are our own designs and can be used for both personal and commercial use. Our newsletter subscribers get the designs with commercial licenses so sign up now to take advantage of that.
Do not google a design or find one off the internet and just copy it. Almost all of those are copyrighted and stealing from the rights owners is just not ethical. Designs are not expensive so stealing is not necessary. The worst that could happen is the rights owners can legally take action on you for violating their rights. Stealing is not worth it and hurts your fellow designers/crafters.
5. Heat Press
You will need a heat press in order to turn the sublimation ink into gas so that it transfers to your blank. There are various types of heat presses: clamshell, swing away, mug press, tumbler press, hat press, 3D vacuum press, and convection ovens.
Choosing which one to purchase depends on what type of products you want to make, customize, or personalize. There are many presses that have attachments that you can switch depending on what you want to press but many experienced sublimators end up just buying one that is dedicated to the type of blank they often make.
Our sublimation heat press buyers guide will help you narrow down what you need. And if you are making tumblers, then choose the right one with the right features for you from our Sublimation Mug and Tumbler Heat Press Buyers Guide.
Temperatures used range from 350 to 400°F and pressure used can range from very light to heavy. The time and pressure to use depends on what you are making. Most reputable suppliers have the suggested time and pressure to use for their blanks.
6. Miscellaneous Extras
You’ll also need other accessories including heat tape, heat spray, butcher paper, lint roller, and most importantly, the sublimation blanks. We also have the complete list of the extra accessories and supplies you need to get started on sublimation that you can read to make sure you have everything you need to get going.
The heat tape and heat spray will help keep your design in place while in the heat press. If you don’t use anything like this, you can end up with “ghosting” or a faint second impression of the design.
Butcher paper is also important to prevent your design from getting permanently transferred onto your heat press platen. Teflon paper works well for HTV and some sublimators also use it with success. But in general, teflon is not recommended because it traps the moisture and will cause you problems.
Create Custom and Personalized Gifts
Creating custom and personalized gifts is made possible by sublimation. But as you can see, there’s more to it than just print and press.
These are the very basic knowledge of the dye sublimation process. With this information, you can have fun creating lots of different things with only your own creative mind as a boundary….well your budget is a limiting factor too.
It can be your creative outlet while making those special custom gifts for your friends and family or even start your home based business as a side hustle.