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Sublimation Printing 101

(October 2013) posted on Tue Dec 03, 2013

Use this overview to familiarize yourself with dye-sub printing and decide whether the technology is right for your shop.

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By James Ortolani

The most commonly used brands of sublimation ink in our industry are ArTanium UV and Sublijet IQ from Sawgrass Systems and, for large-format dye-sublimation printing, Manoukian inks distributed by TW Graphics. Nazdar carries a line of Lyson inks for large-format printers made to be used in Epson, Roland, Mimaki, and Mutoh inkjets. Sublimation inks can be purchased in cartridges or in bulk supply.

Sublimation inks are translucent in nature and should only be printed on white or pastel backgrounds for best results. Remember that there is no white sublimation ink available, so the graphic designer must let the white color of the substrate show through in the design if the image requires white as part of the composition. Letting the white fabric show through is a technique widely used in soccer uniforms in Europe. The bright, white numbers on the colorful European soccer uniforms is the white fabric showing through the sublimated graphic. This is a great design technique.

Sublimation paper
Carrier stock is critical in transfer-sublimation printing. It’s typically available as a coated inkjet paper that’s designed to hold the right amount of ink on its surface without wicking ink into the grain of the paper. If the sublimation ink is wicked into and trapped in the paper, not enough color will transfer to the substrate.

If you’re getting low-quality transfers, don’t be too quick to blame your inks or your heat press. Instead, try some different sublimation paper. It’s important to store sublimation paper in a sealable container to keep moisture out.

The heat press
The heat press is one of the most important pieces of equipment in the transfer-sublimation process. The image-transfer process is dependent on three variables; time, temperature, and pressure, so it’s important to purchase a machine that accurately controls all three. Heat presses come in two basic configurations: clamshell and swingaway models. The clamshell press, as the name implies, opens up at a 45° angle, and the swingaway model features a heat element that swings away from the lower platen.

Many sublimation decorators prefer the swingaway model, where the heating element comes down parallel to the lower platen and reduces the chance of the paper shifting when the element is brought in contact with the transfer and substrate. Another reason for the popularity of the swingaway press is the fact that 3D items like wood plaques and ceramic tiles can easily be imaged on this type of system.

The most standard heat-platen sizes in the garment-decorating industry are 15 x 15 in. and 16 x 20 in.; however, the popularity of all-over sublimation printing is on the rise, so jumbo heat presses in formats such as 30 x 40 in. are gaining in popularity. The oversized heat presses are also ideal for sublimating ceramic tile murals all in one step! Sublimation is an excellent way to add a new revenue stream to any printing operation. Do your homework on the subject, go to a trade show and talk to the experts, and get started in this exciting decorating process!

James Ortolani manages ink R&D for Stahls’.


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