Sublimation Printing, A Starter Guide.
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
Sublimation printing is a way of printing where the ink is transferred to the product via heat, heating the ink so much that it breaks down and attaches to the product you are printing onto, for instance a t-shirt. If you print a t-shirt by sublimation printing the design will be in the fibres of the shirt leaving the shirt as soft as it originally was, unlike some kinds of printing where it leaves a plastic or rubbery feel where the design is printed on top of the shirt. Usually with sublimation printing you will use a sublimation printer and print onto sublimation paper and then some kind of heat press to transfer the ink to your product.
So first things first, we need a printer, when I looked at printers marketed as sublimation printers it seemed that the cheapest of these were around $700, so like many before me I opted for option number 2, convert a normal printer. Now I should warn you, you cannot convert just any printer to a sublimation printer, this is because some printers use a thermal heat process which would just bake the sublimation ink onto the paper, what you will need is a Piezo printer. Most people including myself go for one of the EcoTank 2000-5000 models by Espon. They are affordable, $200 -$300 and have fillable tanks. To convert them to a sublimation printer all you basically need to do is NOT put in the ink that comes with it and instead buy bottles of sublimation ink and use that instead. There are many websites and YouTube videos that go into detail and show you everything from unboxing the printer to your first print, so there is no need for me to do that here. Along with your printer you are going to need sublimation ink, I used Hiipoo brand, it seems to be good and I get vivid colours but I haven't tried any other brands. You also need paper, I used A-sub, again it seems good but I haven't tried any others yet so I can't compare it. It is worth mentioning you can only print on one side of the paper.
We have our printer, and the printer ink and the printer paper, you are all set to print onto the paper, you are going to need a computer or possibly a tablet, but you will have more control of the printer and the settings with a computer. I found there were more settings to play with if I went into my windows settings on my computer Start – Settings – Devices (bluetooth, printers, mouse)- click printers and scanners in the window that opens and select your printer. In those settings you can select mirror printing, remember you are going to print off the paper onto your end product so you are going to need to print onto the paper as a mirror image, you can also select your paper type, I have found presentation paper works well. Now you need a design to print.
You can find many PNG files ready for printing on the internet, many of free some of the better ones will have a small charge, sometimes you can pay a monthly fee to the website and get access to all their files while you do so. You can also use software to make your own PNG files. I use a vector software called Affinity Designer, it is a great piece of software at a very affordable price and a big enough community to get plenty of help if you get stuck on something. There are also many free vector programmes out there that will work just fine too. These programmes will allow you to make your own illustration that is unique, which is great if you want to do something personal like add a person's name or a business name or logo for instance.
Once you have your first print out you need a heat press of some kind and a product to print onto. There are many heat presses on the market but the cheapest and easiest is the Cricut Easy Press or one of the knock off versions of it you can buy. The Cricut Easy Press is a hand held machine with a flat base and a handle on top and a few simple buttons to allow you to set the temperature and amount of time you press for. If you intend to set up something like a t-shirt printing business you might be better off with a proper heat press which are bigger and heavier but more professional, although they lack the versatility of the Easy Press. If you decide to go the route of the Cricut Easy Press you also need a mat to protect your table from the heat, there are plenty of mats which you can buy and Cricut makes it's own mat especially for their machines or you could just use a folded bath towel. I have a thick wool mat that I use when I'm sewing, it sits to the side of my sewing machine and makes it easier to iron seams, I also have a Cricut mat that I put on top and my table still gets warm through them both, although not hot enough to damage the table. So maybe a mat of some kind for the smooth surface and a towel underneath is the way to go. Or you could use an ironing board however many modern ironing boards have holes drilled in them to make them lighter and if the mat on top of the board is not thick enough those holes will cause problems with the item you are printing
Butcher's paper or baking parchment is also essential, (butcher's paper is cheaper) You will need this to put under the item you are printing, inside things like t-shirts so the pattern doesn't go through the shirt onto the back and between the heat press and the sublimation paper with the print on it. When the ink gets hot as you press it can travel through the paper onto your press and also through the object being printed onto the surface below, the paper will protect these surfaces because otherwise when you next print that image will come back off the surfaces and make ghost images on your new printed item. I have tried using the teflon sheets like the kind that can be used for crafting, but the ink didn't wipe off the teflon like I had expected but did transfer back onto the next item I printed as a faint ghost image so now I stick to butcher's paper. You should also use heat resistant tape to prevent items moving around when you are heat pressing them.
Last of all you need the item to print on. There are many 'blank's' that you can buy especially made for sublimation printing, everything from t-shirts, bags, masks, coasters, mouse mats, pacifier clips and many more, also cups and mugs but for those you need an oven or special mug press to heat press onto that curved surface. Essentially what you need is a polyester item, sublimation printing prints best onto a high percentage of polyester, at least 70% is recommended, so a 70% polyeseter 30% cotton t-shirt for instance would work just fine without being branded as a sublimation shirt. Or in the case of cups and mugs you need one that is coated with a special polymer coating for printing on. There are sprays out there for when you really want to print onto a cotton shirt but I have yet to try them.
For a really unique item you can always buy fabric that you print onto and then make your own style of product.
Getting started with sublimation printing can be expensive, however once you get started it is possible to make products that are professional enough to sell, so you could make some of your money back.
Here is a run down of the items you are going to need.
Computer or tablet... a computer will give you more choices in setting up your printer for things like mirror printing, once I set up the settings I did not have to change them every time, it just defaulted to them each time which was useful. I was not able to get into the same settings with my tablet. However there are ways around it, you could simply flip your image each time.
Printer … I used an Espon Ecotank 4800 mostly because it was on sale, any of that range would work just as well
Heat Press.... I used a Cricut Easy Press in a size that was just larger than the size of my paper so that I could do a single press rather than move the press and risk over printing some areas.
Sublimation Ink... I used Hiipoo because it had good reviews on Amazon
Sublimation Paper... I used A-Sub 125 gsm, again because of good reviews but I also saw good reviews for the 120 gsm version and also Printers Jack paper
Heat Resistant Tape... I don't know the brand I use, I just bought it from Amazon, it is used to hold items in place when you heat press. It is reasonably cheap and can be reused
PNG files...you can find many for free but some you do have to pay for and there is always the option of making your own.
Illustration Software... Needed for making images or adapting ones you have I used Affinity Designer but you can also find free ones online.
Heat Mat... I use Cricut mat plus a wool mat I bought on Amazon some time ago, you could also used a folded bath towel.
Butcher's Paper or Parchment Paper... I use a premium butcher's paper by Creative Paper. I did originally use some paper that I already had that I bought years ago on a huge roll from either Lowes or Home Depot hardware stores but it had been in my basement for some time and I think it had gotten damp because it did ripple when heated and cause a faint change in my print out. The premium paper was notably thicker.
Items to print on... I have tried ceramic coasters made for printing on, also rubber coasters and mouse mats, along with other fabric items made for printing all have worked out well with one exception, some pacifier clips I bought had a cord that fastened to the pacifier that wouldn't take the temperatures needed to heat press, since there was a bulky wooden clip one end and this cord the other most heat presses if not all are too big to fit into the space beneath, I ended up using a complicated method of wrapping the cord in bits of cut up teflon mat but I still melted the ends of it a little. I would recommend checking out the online reviews before buying blanks. I have had great results printing onto polyester canvas fabric and also polyester fleece to make my own unique products.