Sublimation printing is primarily used for creating custom gift products and awards. Additionally, white 100% polyester fabrics can be printed as well. Sublimation printing will not work on just any white product that can take the heat. The product must first be coated. The coating on the product allows for the ink to be transferred while leaving a perfectly smooth finish. Sublimation printers do not have the ability of printing white ink, and thus cannot be used to print onto colored garments as the dye cannot properly migrate into the fabric. The process is similar to painting a wall. You cannot paint over a black wall with pink paint and expect one coat to cover the darker surface.
That is why any sublimated color garments that you see are made using white polyester material. Most sublimated apparel (bicycle racing jerseys, cut & sew, etc.) is first printed using large cylinder heat presses that fuse the ink from the transfer paper onto sheets of fabric. With the design and color pressed into the fabric, it can be cut into the pieces necessary to form a finished garment and sewn together. This is how many garments have an “all over” print look as the design wraps around the front, back, and sleeves of the garment.
The sublimation process is simple, and works somewhat like how your inkjet printer at home. Most sublimation printers print onto 13x19 sheets using a desktop printer, but wide format printers have the ability to print long and wide sheets for cut & sew capabilities. The printer uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) ink to print onto a coated heat release transfer paper. The transfer paper is printed as a mirrored image, and only takes a few seconds. Once the sublimation printer has created the transfer, it must then be heat applied to its designated product. In order to avoid any white showing around the edges of the printed area, sublimation transfers should be printed slightly larger than the print area on the product. This is called a “bleed,” and it helps to ensure that the entire available decoration area is covered. Also, sublimation printers must be used regularly in order to maintain optimum performance. If left unattended for an extended period of time, then the printheads may dry up, causing lots of headaches.
There are many sublimated products that a decoration shop can offer, but keep in mind that each type of product requires different time, temperature, and pressure heat press settings in order to create a high-quality print. Everything from coffee mugs and plaques to coasters and puzzles can be decorated using sublimation. Many of the same products available to sublimate are often used as promotional products, so it is important to note that promotional products should be screen-printed rather than sublimated. This is because promotional products are often printed with low-color and simple artwork like logos. Also, they are typically produced in mass quantities. These traits match far better with screen printing than with sublimation printing.
One of the main reasons to get into sublimation printing is the low barrier to entry. Equipment costs are limited to a quality heat press, a dye-sublimation printer (which is far cheaper than a direct-to-garment printer or screen printing machine), and a computer. All together a decoration business can introduce sublimation for $500.00 - $5,000.00 depending on what equipment they currently have (heat press), and what products they want to offer. There are different machines that can cure different types of sublimated products like heat presses, mug presses, vacuum presses, and ovens. When considering its low cost, and the beautiful and vibrant images that sublimation printing can create, it is no wonder that there has been a spike in popularity.
Sublimation printing can be done on-demand with no minimums and no extra effort to transform artwork (a la color separation for screen printing or digitizing for embroidery). Everyone has photos that could be used to print, but quality artwork is far less common. Photos are also much easier to handle through online sales, as there is no back and forth necessary like there often is when dealing with artwork. So, much like DTG printing, sublimation printing is a great method to offer online. Also, like DTG printing, sublimation printing should be viewed as more of a complementary product to screen printing rather than an alternative.
However, sublimation printing does have a few drawbacks. Chief among those is that you can only print on white products. In addition, sublimation cannot print white ink, though it is not usually necessary considering that you can only print onto white products. Also, when sublimation printing non-garment products, mistakes can be expensive. Garments are typically very cheap, but products like puzzles, plaques, and coasters can be expensive to replace.
Do not let those “cons” scare you away from sublimation printing, though. Due to its low equipment costs and wide product line sublimation printing can be a very profitable and popular business to get yourself into. Personalized gifts, and especially personalized photo gifts, are growing in popularity and make for a special present. These products are the types of gifts people want to receive and the market is one that, with the right equipment, is ripe for the taking.