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Conventional vs. Direct Dye Sublimation

(May 2009) posted on Fri Jun 12, 2009

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By Rick Mandel

While water-based sublimation inks have struggled in wide-format output because the high-volume of water these inks contain inevitably saturates the transfer paper and causes cockling. Water breaks down the organic material in the paper, which results in the waviness. That said, printers have progressively delivered better results from water-based inks at larger and larger sizes with newer papers that allow for greater ink deposition.

Ink makers introduced solvent-based dye-sub inks to help dye sub go grand format. It’s one of solvent’s advantages. Another is excellent print stability and high color density. Many of these super-wide, solvent-based, dye-sub printers can be converted from dye sublimation to conventional solvent inks for vinyl without too much trouble. In addition, the color gamut of the solvent-based dye-sub inks is very rich and the black is very strong, which provides the pop many applications require. The cost of solvent-based dye-sub inks also is less then water-based formulations. However, the costs per square foot of the two inks are similar enough that cost isn’t a big factor.

Fabric also is a big part of the equation and is where conventional takes a leap ahead. The direct dye-sub process re-uires a coated fabric upon which the inks sit before heat transferring into the material. This coating always creates a stiffness that is not present in the uncoated fabric used in the conventional process. Dye sublimation requires fabric to have a high polyester content, and the availability of a wide range of uncoated polyester fabrics gives conventional the edge.

Fabric texture and other options also tend to favor conventional sublimation printing, and the cost of the uncoated fabric makes it the true winner. Media for direct dye sub can be two to five times the cost of a similar uncoated fabric, depending on availability and competition. Cost analysis seems obvious: Longer runs are best served with conventional dye sublimation when we strictly evaluate fabric prices, though the cost of transfer paper adds approximately 20 cents per square foot.


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