Getting Started in Sublimation

Dye Sublimation Defined

When speaking to users of dye sublimation technology, you find it can mean drastically different advantages to different businesses. To some, it means the ability to produce high-value, photo gift products. To others, it means styling custom performance apparel where the entire garment – from neck to hem – can be a zone for sublimation decoration. Hundreds of other businesses use dye sublimation in unique ways. Arguably the most versatile technology available to the product decorator today, sublimation allows for the creation of thousands of full-color, true photo quality products in numerous markets such as apparel, gifts, awards and recognition, promotional products, signage, recognition pieces, tile murals and much, much more. Whatever your business' primary focus, dye sublimation allows for a wide interpretation of product solutions across many market segments.

When investigating the products and equipment for the first time, businesses seem to have the usual questions: How does the dye sublimation process work? What types of products can be decorated? What equipment makes up a sublimation system?

Before we explore these answers, we need to know exactly what is meant by the term dye sublimation? Other decorative technologies such as rotary engraving, screen printing and embroidery are part of the general lexicon. Most everyone you speak with has some idea of what each of these technologies entails if only on a basic level. Even vinyl cutting and laser engraving are somewhat intuitive. Unfortunately, the term sublimation not only describes a decorating technology, it also describes a scientific process.

The Definition of Dye Sublimation

Looking at the literal meaning – as it is defined in the science world – sublimation is the phase transition of a substance from a solid directly to a gas without going through a liquid phase occurring under specific temperature and pressure conditions.

OK. But how does this fit in to decorating thousands of products with a photo quality image? It helps if you approach this technology by looking first at the word dye. This technology involves a dye process. Hundreds of thousands of everyday products are decorated using colored dyes. Manufacturers of apparel, consumer packaging, consumer goods, electronics, etc., et al add dyes to color their products whether they're made of plastics, fabrics or woods. The dye process is often done at early stages before the individually decorated product components are assembled or sewn together.

As we are describing dye sublimation, the "solid" part of the equation denotes the microscopic particles of solid ink dyes which rest on the surface of your printed, ready-to-transfer sublimation page which you printed directly from CorelDRAW, Adobe PhotoShop or a rip program like Wasatch to a supported Epson, Ricoh, Mutoh or Mimaki sublimation printer. When introduced to heat, these solid ink particles turn directly to a gas which then permanently dye the decorated surface and sub-surface of your product, depending on whether it’s a textile or hard substrate.

The Sublimation Decoration Process

The first steps of sublimation decoration often involve the same tools used with other technologies like engraving, screen printing and embroidery. It is only after the final image is printed to paper when sublimation sets itself apart from all other technologies.

Here's the step-by-step process required to produce a sublimated product:

  1. Design and customize a graphic specific to the final product using professional graphics software. Sublimation products showcase millions of colors utilizing high resolution, true photo quality images and any vector-based graphics and text.
  2. Print the image to a supported inkjet printer using specialty sublimation inks on sublimation-friendly paper.
  3. Face the printed image on the sheet to a sublimation-ready surface (e.g. polyester-based only). Some hard products like plaques and name badges will need to be taped using heat resistant tape. For soft substrates like t-shirts or mouse pads, the transfer can be "tacked" to the product using a light, repositionable adhesive spray available at any hardware, craft or super store, or by using a tacky sublimation paper, currently only available for wide format printers.
  4. Place the product and sublimation print under a heat press. Each product type has its own formula for time, temperature and pressure for optimal decorating. The proper temperature usually hovers between 385° F to 400° F, time varies from 50 seconds for a Vapor Apparel t-shirt to over seven minutes for a glossy, ceramic tile. The required pressure is usually "medium" or around 30-40 psi on a pneumatic press. You're looking for a solid marriage between the heated platen and the face of your sublimation transfer (where the solid ink dyes rest).
  5. After the time expires, remove the product (using protective heat gloves is recommended when handling many sublimation products), tear away the transfer and admire the finished image. Besides assembly for some products (e.g. gift boxes, tile murals, etc.), the product is ready for delivery after cooling.

What Types of Products Can Be Made?

In order to determine whether you can imprint a product with a wash-fast, scratch-resistant, full-color sublimation image, you'll need to check three items: First, is the decoration area polyester-based? Sublimation is reliant on polyester's unique molecular structure (e.g. its ability to bond with the gassed ink dyes). You can not sublimate to cotton, nylon, vinyl, wool, leather, etc. Second, will the product hold up to the optimal temperatures (up to 400° F) and pressure required for the dye sublimation process? Lastly, is the color of the product light enough to take an image? Because this is a dye technology, the color of a sublimation product's decoration surface can affect the final colors of your graphic. True white works best, but you can still decorate lighter colored products such as t-shirts or sand-colored stone tiles while achieving 70-80% of the printer's available color gamut.

There are hundreds of ready-to-sublimate products specifically made for the sublimation industry with more and more being introduced continually. There are products for practically every business market. On the awards and recognition side, sublimation allows for full-color, photo quality plaques, signs, name badges and other identification products. The apparel side offers variety and option for the decorator from trendy hooded sweatshirts to engineered, microfibers. Not only will a sublimated image never wash away, but sublimation is the only imprinting technology which doesn't impede the wicking process in performance apparel, allowing you the ability to market customization to the "Under Armour" crowd. On the gift side, what better way to personalize a product than with a photograph realistically recreated on a quality wooden box, coffee mug or other personal item? The promotional industry loves sublimation for the "higher quality" promo products that make a bigger advertising splash due to the full color graphics. The list goes on.

In addition to the ready-made products, you can purchase polyester-coated sheets of masonite, fiberglass-reinforced plastic and metal which can be cut down to create unique shapes and sizes. By sublimating to raw, polyester fabric in dozens of styles, end users develop their own unique cut-and-sew products from custom soft signs to sports jerseys to high-end fashion.

What Makes Up a Sublimation System?

A sublimation system comes in a variety of configurations depending on the decorator’s product offerings and production volume. There are five main components to a typical sublimation system.

  1. A COMPUTER - No matter the product or output, a computer with graphics software is necessary. Professional graphics software (either CorelDRAW Graphics Suite X3+ or Adobe Creative Suite 3+) which have advanced color management settings and which allow for the use of custom color profiles (e.g. ICC profiles) are recommended. Wide format systems may require RIP software (an advanced print driver which can be calibrated for color and quality specifically based on your individual printer, sublimation ink set, paper and your final product).
  2. 2. A SUPPORTED INKJET PRINTER - Printer models come in a variety of print widths and ink configurations depending on the products you'll be making and your anticipated production volume. Johnson Plastics offers sublimation systems for all needs. Solutions in our Desktop line (8.5" to 17" print widths) include a variety of Epson and Ricoh printers with either bulk ink systems (external bags or internal cartridges). These systems are typically for businesses concentrating on decorating "ready-to-sublimate" items (e.g. no manufacturing involved) and offer fast, high quality printing for short run environments. Our Wide Format line features print widths of 24", 42", 44" and larger on printing platforms by Epson, Mutoh and Mimaki. These commercial grade, "open ink" systems (ink is purchased in single or multiple liter containers and used to refill open cartridges) offer the most economical output costs for the business who is (a) producing large runs of sublimated products, (b) producing oversized products requiring a larger print size or (c) building custom sublimation products through "cut-and-sew" or other manufacturing techniques.
  3. SUBLIMATION INKS - Johnson Plastics offers a few different brands of Sawgrass Technologies' available North American region sublimation inks. These inks include: SubliJet IQ (available in a variety of desktop models) which feature PowerDriver color correction software; Ricoh-specific SubliJet-R inks; ArTainium UV + inks and custom profiles for both desktop and wide format printer models; and SubliM wide format inks for custom, color output.
  4. A HEAT PRESS - Again, depending on the products being made and output volume, there are a variety of heat presses to choose from. Clamshell and swing-away presses with larger platens offer versatility for sublimating larger products like t-shirts or more products at once like a six-piece tile mural or multiple plastic name badges. For the wide format sublimation business that wants to produce signs that are 4’ x 8’ or larger, or for those wanting to press full-shirt images, Geo Knight has large Triton air-op heat presses as large as 54" x 103". A mug press can deliver a sublimated ceramic mug in five minutes and – depending on volume – often makes sense for a decorator offering single or short-run mug orders. In addition, mugs and other cylindrical items can be produced in a standard convection oven with the use of heat wraps.
  5. BLANK SUBLIMATION-READY PRODUCTS - There are literally hundreds and hundreds of blank substrates available to the sublimation decorator today from coated metals, woods and ceramics to performance apparel t-shirts.

Savvy business owners have long exploited the versatility of dye sublimation. It’s not unusual for sublimation users to make a variety of special products to satisfy an individual customer’s diverse needs. Whether it’s providing interior signage, full color plaques, or promotional goods, a single vector logo delivered to a digital decorator can yield hundreds of individually customized, sublimation products. Furthermore, digital decorators from other industries like engraving and embroidery are finding that they can target entire new market segments merely by adding a sublimation system.

When you're first getting started, the sublimation process can present some unique learning curves. Should you ever have questions, we urge you to contact one of our sublimation specialists. Johnson Plastics has numerous support options and sublimation education opportunities. As a comprehensive reference tool and for the self-starter, we have our very popular SUBLIMATION INSTRUCTION MANUAL (over 125 pages loaded with practical instruction on sublimation techniques, printing and pressing tips, time-saving tricks and full-color illustrations). In addition to the manual, we offer numerous educational opportunities including trade show seminars, technical articles in trade magazines and our popular open house series which offers a two-day training and networking event at each of our eight branch locations once a year. We look forward to answering any questions you might have about the dynamic sublimation technology and our many available solutions.

Helpful Websites for Beginners

Here are a few websites that are very good for researching about sublimation before and after you purchase a dye sublimation system.

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