A Basic Guide to Dye-Sublimation Printing

A basic guide to getting started in dye-sublimation printing

It’s 2019. Everything should be customizable. Whether it be phone cases, Xbox skins, signs, mouse-pads, custom cars, or customized clothes, products need to be customizable to help set them apart from the popular brands. Dye-sublimation is a great way to achieve this customizability for any product you may be interested in. The best part? Dye-sublimation doesn’t require a large upfront capital investment. In fact, dye-sublimation is relatively cheap, and is a super effective technique for producing completely customizable products that are unique from anyone else!

Whether you are looking to start a small business, or expand on the products you are already offering, dye-sublimation is a great option that deserves your attention.

Ok, but what exactly is dye-sublimation and how can it help me and my business?

Cool, so dye-sublimation is an cheap and effective way to make fully customized products. But what the hell is dye-sublimation exactly?

Dye-sublimation is a not-so-new process that was developed a couple of decades ago. Essentially, the process uses heat to turn water-based inks into gases which bond with polyester and other polymer materials. This process specifically dyes the polymer molecules with the water-based inks.

Cool cool cool cool cool cool cool, no doubt no doubt no doubt. But what does that really mean? Essentially, you can take your unique design, and print out your design using these water-based sublimation inks. With these printouts, you can use a heat press to transfer the design onto your preferred material. Got that cool design for a t-shirt you’ve been dying to use (pun intended)? Well you can use dye-sublimation printing to get that design onto t-shirts.

Dye-sublimation is great for a number of reasons. For starters, since we are dying the polymer molecules, the results from dye-sublimation are extremely durable, soft, and vibrant. The image produced won’t wash out, and doesn’t change how the material feels in any way. There are virtually no limits to the colors you can use, or the complexity of your design. The image you print out transfers exactly, so you are limited only by what your printer can print. Really the only limitation to dye-sublimation is the material you are printing on. Because you can only print onto polymers, you are fairly limited to types of ceramic, fabric, and plastics. So that t-shirt you want to make? Make sure you print onto a shirt with a high polyester count (a general rule is at least 60% polyester, any less and your image may not be as vibrant).

Startup your dye-sublimation printing business today!

How can I get started

Does dye-sublimation sound like the technique for you or your business? Great! Let’s get started with dye-sublimation and the equipment you’ll need.

Printers, Ink, and Paper

For starters, you are going to need to be able to print with sublimation inks. You have two major options: getting a sublimation specialty printer or adapting a printer to use sublimation inks.

Some of the best sublimation specialty printers are made by Sawgrass. They offer printers already prepped for sublimation inks, which they also sell. If this option interests you, head over to their website and check out their offerings on printers & inks. This option will run you a little bit more money, but may be easier to manage and get started with.

Looking for a little bit of a cheaper alternative to specialty printers? No worries. Many printers are adaptable for sublimation ink. I suggest using a printer with an kit to adapt to sublimation inks, in particular, my suggestion would be to check out some Epson printers, which are high quality and have many kits to adapt for sublimation ink. I personally use the Epson WF-7710, and I would highly recommend it for anyone looking to get started. You’ll also need to pick up a kit to adapt your printer to sublimation inks. You can either get a single cartridge, which is a little bit cheaper but will run out of ink faster. Alternatively, you can get a Continuous Ink Supply System (CISS) to make refills easier. You can get all of this on Amazon (most are even Prime).

Finally, you’ll need paper with a specialty coating that is able to accept the sublimation inks. I’d recommend checking out either A-SUB or TexPrint for their paper options. You can also use some types of photo printer paper made by Epson, although I’d suggest sticking with the sublimation paper. You can also get your sublimation paper from Amazon (yay! Amazon is the best).

Inventory for your dye-sublimation printing business

Heat Press and Materials

Next you’ll need something to transfer your prints. This part is very dependent on what you are looking to make, although in general you’ll be looking for a fairly standard flatbed heat press.

Most heat presses are just flat beds, and are great for transferring materials onto flat printing surfaces. For example, if you were looking to transfer prints onto t-shirts, you’ll just need to make sure your bed is big enough to cover the size of the design. If you are looking to print onto something that isn’t flat, such as mugs, you’ll need to get a more specialized heat press. Some common heat presses for non-flat surfaces are the circular heat presses used for mugs and the curved heat presses for hats.

You’ll also need to get something to print onto. You can pretty easily source blank t-shirts online, but it’s very important to keep an eye on the material content. Since dye-sublimation dyes the polymer molecules, you’ll need to make sure you are using materials with high-enough polyester content. In general, it’s best to use materials with at least 60% polyester materials. Any less, and your image may not come-out as vibrant. There aren’t too many issues with using higher polyester content materials, but just don’t dip down below 60% without considering how your image will turn out. If you are looking to print on other polymers, I would suggest using Google to find out what would work best for you.

As far as sourcing, it’s super easy. If you want to take on larger batches, check out Alibaba, they are a great source for getting materials. For smaller batches, you can check out local distributors and choose whatever works best for you.

The process

So now that we have all of our equipment, how do we transfer our first print?

Start off by making your design with your preferred photo-manipulation software. My suggestion would be either Photoshop, Corel Draw, or GIMP. Print to your sublimation printer using whatever ICC profile you need, which you can find out more about here.

Once you have your print ready, turn on your heat press machine and let it get warmed up. You’ll want to set the heat press to the correct temperature and time for the materials you are using. Most manufacturers will tell you their recommended settings, but if not, just Google your materials, and you’ll be able to find the proper settings. Layout your print on your material, and press it!

Boom! You should now have your print transferred onto your materials. Feel proud? You should. Dye-sublimation is a super easy and cheap way to offer customized products. This process is easy to start as a side-hustle, or add to your existing offerings.

Running a business

What's next?

You can check out some more of our blog to find more resources on dye-sublimation. We offer downloads for some of the most popular ICC profiles, and lots of information on the dye-sublimation process, tips to get better, how to avoid mistakes, and building a business from dye-sublimation.

Get started using dye-sublimation today!