Use this overview to familiarize yourself with dye-sub printing and decide whether the technology is right for your shop.
Sublimation is defined as the conversion of a solid to a gas without going through the liquid state. The solid in the case of decorative graphics is sublimation ink that has been printed and dried onto a specially coated transfer paper. Applying the graphic to a substrate by using a heat press at a temperature between 400-425°F causes ink to shift from a solid to a gas and transfer onto any polyester surface.
The quality of the transferred image depends on several variables: the type of printer used, artwork, ink, paper, heat press, and the substrate. It sounds a little daunting, but sublimation printing really is easier than it sounds—especially now that our industry has matured and many companies teach end users how to be successful with sublimation inks on a wide variety of substrates! A great place for beginners to learn about the process is to go online and start researching companies that sell sublimation inks and supplies and, of course, by watching some YouTube videos on the subject before buying a system. Industry trade shows are another great place to learn about sublimation.
My first encounter with a sublimation transfer was in the early 1980s. I was so impressed by the vivid colors and the soft hand that my first reaction was that sublimation printing would replace screen printing altogether! Of course, that never happened, because there wasn’t a good method to print sublimation inks in house at that time, polyester substrates were limited and expensive, and sourcing the inks was difficult. But by the late 1990s, all of these issues started to rapidly change with the discovery that sublimation inks could be printed digitally via the computer and inkjet printer. With the printing side of the equation solved, the next hurdle was finding consumables for sublimation. Soon, multiple manufactures started producing polyester-coated blank goods: mugs, mouse pads, key chains, and a wide variety of textile products.
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