How Does Sublimation Printing Work? The Complete Guide

Danica Mae Allibang

7 mins read

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With its high-quality and vibrant prints, dye-sublimation continues to be among the mostly adopted printing methods, especially in the garment industry. Also known as sublimation printing, the process is becoming more popular in other areas such as interior decoration and print on demand merch, from phone cases to mugs.

But how does sublimation printing work, exactly? In this complete guide, we’ll take you through the process step by step so that you have a clear understanding of how this printing method works and what benefits it can offer your business. Let’s begin!

What Is Sublimation Printing?

When you hear the word ‘sublimation’ you might think of the process whereby a solid is transformed into a gas without first becoming a liquid. This is indeed how the printing process got its name.

In sublimation printing, special inks are used which have the ability to turn into gas when heated. As the ink turns into gas, it bonds with the fabric or other substrate, and this is how the image is transferred.

The Sublimation Printing Process

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Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the process, shall we?

As mentioned, the sublimation printing process involves the use of special inks which are transferred to the substrate using heat and pressure.

When printing a shirt or garment, for example, the first step is to print the design onto transfer paper using a sublimation printer. This print is then placed on top of the garment, and both are placed into a heat press.

The heat press applies pressure and, of course, heat to the design; this is what activates the inks and causes them to turn into gas. As the inks turn into gas, they bond with the fibers of the garment, and this is how the image is transferred.

Once the printing process is complete, the garment is allowed to cool so that the inks can solidify and set. And that’s it! Your item is now ready to use.

Which Materials Can You Print On With Sublimation?

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There are dozens of items you can dye-sublimate. However, there two key criteria that must be met in order for sublimation to work:

  • The item must be made of a polyester, polymer, or plastic material.
  • The item must have a smooth surface.

If the item you want to print on meets both of these criteria, then it can be printed with sublimation. However, if your chosen item isn’t made of any of the materials mentioned, there’s no need to worry. You make them ready by adding a special polymer coating to the surface which will allow the inks to bond with the item.

Some of the most popular items that are printed with sublimation include:

  • Polyester T-shirts
  • Tapestries
  • Blankets
  • Towels
  • Coffee Mugs
  • Polyester Tote Bags
  • Pillow Cases

And so much more!

Designs That Work Well With Sublimation Printing

Designs that are meant to stand out and be noticed are ideal for sublimation printing. This is because the process allows for bold, vibrant colors and high-quality prints.

This is why oftentimes, it’s the top choice for sports teams who want their team and sponsors’ logos to really pop. It’s also popular among artsy individuals who like to play with a lot of color in their designs.

Designs That Don’t Work With Sublimation Printing

One limitation of sublimation printing is that it cannot print white. So, if your design has any white elements, they will remain the color of the item you’re printing on.

This is because the method uses the CMYK color model which doesn’t include colors that can blend to produce white. If your design has elements that need to be white, you can either choose a different printing method or have it printed on a white item.

Pros and Cons of Sublimation Printing

Still not sure if sublimation printing is right for you and your business? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

Advantages of Sublimation Printers

If you plan on expanding your merch business to selling different kinds of items such as mugs, plates, and keychains, getting a sublimation printer right from the get-go might be the right choice for you.

This is because sublimation printing is among the few methods that would let you print designs on firm or rigid materials. Once you get the hang of it, printing dozens of different designs within a day wouldn’t be a problem.

Plus, the sublimation printing process can produce high-quality prints with vivid and long-lasting colors. If you want to give your customers a product they can use for years without the design fading, sublimation printing is a great method to consider.

Disadvantages of the Sublimation Technology

But of course, the sublimation printing process isn’t perfect. One of its main disadvantages is that it only works on select materials such as polyester, polymer, and plastic.

This means that if you want to print on natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and wool, you’ll have to look into other printing methods. Additionally, printing on black or dark-colored items with sublimation inks can result in prints that are less than stellar. Some use a transfer paper to get around this but it doesn’t always produce the desired results.

In-house Sublimation vs Print on Demand

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Thinking sublimation printing might be the right method for you? The next step is to decide if you want to do in-house printing or outsource your sublimation printing needs to a print on demand (POD) partner.

What You Need for Sublimation at Home

If you plan on doing in-house sublimation printing, there are a few things you’ll need:

  1. A sublimation printer – You’ll need a specific type of printer that can handle the high temperatures required for sublimation printing. While inkjet printers can be used, they may not be as durable as Sawgrass sublimation printers which are built specifically for the process.
  2. Sublimation inks – You’ll also need to use sublimation inks in your printer instead of regular dye-based inks. These inks can withstand the high temperatures required for sublimation printing without evaporating or losing their color.
  3. A heat press – A heat press is a machine that applies pressure and heat to your design, bonding the inks to the item you’re printing on.
  4. Sublimation-friendly blank products – As we’ve mentioned, not all materials can undergo sublimation printing. Make sure to use items that are specifically made for the process such as mugs, keychains, and mousepads.
  5. Paper for the heat press – You’ll also need sublimation paper to protect your design and help it transfer onto the product more easily. This paper is coated with a polymer that helps the inks bind to the items you’re printing on.

How POD Sublimation Works

That’s quite a lot, right? If you don’t have the time or space to invest in all of this equipment, another option is to partner with a print on demand (POD) company that offers sublimated products, like at Awkward Styles.

Aside from taking care of the whole printing process for you, POD companies also handle the shipping and fulfillment of your orders. This means you can focus on running your business and leave the print production to us.

All you need to do is to connect your store to our platform and upload your design files. Once an order is placed, our dedicated team of print experts will print, package, and ship your products to your customers – all with no minimum order requirements.

Pros and Cons of Doing Sublimation Yourself vs POD

Still not sure if you should do in-house sublimation or partner with a POD company? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each option.

In-House Sublimation Printing

Doing the process yourself has its advantages. For starters, you’ll have more control over your print quality since you’ll be overseeing the whole process from start to finish. You’ll also be able to do it anytime you want without having to wait for someone else to do it for you.

However, there are some drawbacks to consider as well. For one, you’ll need to invest in all the necessary equipment, which can be quite costly. Additionally, you’ll need to have enough space to store all of your products and equipment. And finally, you’ll need to devote time to learning how to properly use all of the equipment, which can be quite complicated and time-consuming.

Print on Demand Sublimation

If you partner with a POD company, they’ll handle the entire printing process for you – from start to finish. This means you won’t have to worry about investing in any equipment or learning how to use it. This saves you not only money, but also time and energy.

Additionally, POD companies usually have a much wider variety of products that you can choose from as well as more printing options, like print fulfillments and bulk discounts. And finally, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that your products are being handled by experts who know exactly what they’re doing.

The only downside of going with a POD company is that you’ll have less control over your print quality since you won’t be overseeing the printing process yourself. But, as long as you work with a company you know you can trust, this shouldn’t be a problem.

FAQs About Sublimation Printing

Got more questions you want answered about sublimation printing? We have the answers for you right here.

Can a sublimation printer print white?

As mentioned, sublimation inks are transparent, so a sublimation printer cannot print white. However, you can get around this by printing on white paper and using a white transfer paper.

Are sublimation and heat transfer the same thing?

Hmm, these two processes may look very similar but they are in fact, quite different. In sublimation printing, the ink is transferred onto the product using heat and pressure. And when the product cools down, the ink is permanently embedded into the fabric.

In heat transfer printing, the design only sticks to the surface of the product and is not actually embedded into the fabric. Additionally, heat transfer printing uses a special kind of paper that needs to be used in order for the design to transfer properly.

Can you sublimate onto anything?

While it’s possible to sublimate onto a variety of materials, there are some that work better than others. The ideal substrate for sublimation printing is polyester fabric or polymer-coated items like mugs, phone cases, etc. Products made with materials like cotton will not work as well since the fibers will not allow the ink to be absorbed properly.

When it comes to rigid substrates, only those that have been coated with a polymer will work since the ink needs something to grip onto in order to be transferred.

What are the limitations of sublimation?

Since sublimation is a printing process that uses heat and pressure to transfer ink onto a product, there are some limitations to what you can do. For example, you can’t print on products that can’t withstand high temperatures or those that are made with materials that don’t allow for ink absorption. Additionally, sublimation can only be done on white or light-colored products since the inks are transparent.

What’s the difference between sublimation printing and digital printing?

The main difference between these two printing processes is how the design is transferred onto the product. In sublimation printing, the design becomes almost permanently embedded into the product through the use of heat and pressure. In digital printing, on the other hand, the design is printed directly onto the product using inkjet or laser printers. A digitally printed design will not be as durable as a sublimation print as it can peel or fade over time.

Ready To Get Started With Sublimation Printing?

And that concludes our crash course on sublimation printing! We hope that this article has cleared up any questions you may have had about the process and that you’re now ready to get started on your own sublimation printing projects.

If you want to get started with sublimation printing today without going through all the hassle of setting up your own printing operation, we’ve got you covered. At Awkward Styles, we offer a wide range of sublimation-ready products you can print on to add your own personal touch. Just upload your design, choose your product, and we’ll take care of the rest!

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