Getting Started with Dye Sublimation Printing

Ready to dive in? Here's what you'll need.

Continued from Dye Sublimation: A Process Whose Time Has Come?

Sublimation printing in the form most commonly used for finished garments and other small-format applications is an indirect process. It requires a printer capable of running sublimation inks, a heat press, and a computer with the appropriate printer drivers. Consumables include inks, paper, and sublimation-compatible substrates.

An entry-level sublimation system with a typical 8 ½ x 14-inch inkjet printer can cost $500 or less. A larger desktop printer with a bypass tray will do 13 x 20-inch transfers, making it a good starter unit for the average shop, according to Gross. A 44-inch-wide system, which would provide all-over printing capability, would run about $7500 to $8000.

The other key piece of equipment is a heat press. Small-format flat presses typically come in 9 x 12- and 16 x 20-inch sizes and range in price from about $300 to $2000. Mug presses are available for about $700; kitchen ovens and conveyor dryers also can be used in conjunction with mug wraps. 3D or vacuum presses are also available for decorating mugs, plates, and other curved products, typically costing around $1000.
The heat press is particularly important, veterans stress. The four key variables to be concerned with are time, temperature, pressure, and technique. “While pressure is important, I think the effectiveness of the heat press for sublimation has more to do with how well it distributes the heat in a uniform pattern,” asserts McClaskey.

“You don’t want there to be disproportionate pressure on one side of the press or the other because the transfer can start gassing out in one direction, resulting in uneven color,” says Bernat. “It’s also critical to minimize the possibility of the transfer paper shifting while the substrate’s still hot, which can cause the image to ghost.” For this reason, he considers a manual swing-away design to be a better option for sublimation than a clamshell or pop-up style press.

Inks are another key element. Historically, sublimation inks have been significantly more expensive than other types; however, observers agree that prices have dropped substantially over the past decade and see the trend continuing. “As more and more people get involved, sublimation ink is becoming more of a commodity as opposed to a premium type product,” Montgomery explains. What’s important, he and others agree, is to factor in value. Both domestic and foreign-made brands are available, and it’s important to consider the quality of the product and how well it is supported.
Paper, the other primary consumable, needs to be compatible with the ink, printer, and substrate. Of key concern is how well it handles the heat of sublimation, lets go of the ink, and keeps the ink sharp for minimal dot gain, notes Gross.

Although the costs for getting into sublimation at an entry level are low compared to other decorating processes, the process still has a learning curve. “For many people, the hardest thing about getting into sublimation is that they don’t have the skills to create quality artwork on the computer,” Gross asserts.

“If you want to make real money at sublimation, you have to have a great art department to truly harness the power of the art with the inks,” notes Bernat. “There are types of artwork that sublimation is uniquely qualified to do. For instance, we’re seeing a lot of photographic-plus-vector hybrid art. It’s important to have the computer design skills to take advantage of that.”

Getting accustomed to the precision required in the transfer process is also critical. “You have to press things correctly with the right amount of pressure, time, and temperature,” says Montgomery. “With sublimation, close isn’t good enough. The slightest wrong move, like the paper shifting when it’s in the press, can ruin the image – and the substrate, which can be expensive.”

Environmental factors such as contamination, ambient temperature, and humidity can also impact sublimation printing. “Contamination is lethal in a sublimation printing environment,” asserts Bernat. “Lint in the air from packaging or dirt on a shirt can go into the polyester molecules when they open to receive the ink and create permanent stains. We actually run a lint roller over garments before printing. The bottom line for a decorator is if you’re not currently running a clean shop, you need to ramp up your housekeeping before you start doing sublimation.”

To help control static, Bernat recommends a closed environment without carpeting. McClaskey keeps a humidifier in his print room to prevent banding and other print-related defects, and makes sure the temperature is between 60 and 80 degrees.

Sublimation also poses a different set of color considerations than other processes. “You can’t just put in a number from a Pantone chart and print it and expect to get the same color on a t-shirt and on a snowboard,” Northup stresses. “That color could be a completely different algorithm of CMYK for different substrates. But, once you create your own in-house color-matching system, you can integrate it into your workflow and use it in the future.”

This is critical to achieving the correct color on any substrate and maintaining consistency across other materials. “You have to profile each fabric that you’re going to be printing on to do a complete, 100 percent guarantee on color,” says McClaskey. “An approach we use is to print a chart of all the colors we could possibly do for a customer on the particular fabric he wants to use and have him use those colors to design his artwork.”

Keep reading: Making Money with Dye Sublimation

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