Many common consumer goods are customizable. Whether it be phone cases, Xbox skins, signs, mouse-pads, custom cars, or customized clothes, products need to be customizable to help differentiate them from the competition. Dye-sublimation is a great way to achieve this customizability for many products. 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 in your industry!
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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. What exactly is dye-sublimation and how can it help your business?
The History and Purpose of Dye Sublimation
When Was Dye Sublimation Invented?
Dye-sublimation was invented in 1957 and has become prominent in the 21st Century. Essentially, the process uses heat to turn water-based inks (which are in the solid phase at the time) into gases which bond with polyester and other polymer materials. This process specifically dyes the polymer molecules with the water-based inks. It is called dye sublimation because “sublimation” is the scientific term for when a substance transitions from being a solid to being a gas, skipping the liquid phase entirely.
Purpose of Dye Sublimation
In practice, this means that you can create a unique design, and print out your design using special water-based sublimation inks onto special sublimation paper. With these printouts, you can use a heat press to transfer the design onto your preferred material. While there are limitations, dye-sublimation printing works on a wide variety of objects and materials from mugs to polyester shirts to aluminum.
Dye-sublimation is great for a number of reasons. For starters, since we are dying the polymer molecules, rather than simply ironing on a design, 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. For example, dye sublimation printing only works on shirts with a high polyester count (a general rule is at least 60% polyester, any less and your image may not be as vibrant).
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. We have thorough reviews on their two newest printers, the SG500 and SG1000.
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.
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. Tusy is a well respected brand of heat presses, and we thoroughly checked out their entire product range here.
While not critical for some markets, and not a “must have” at start up, many start up businesses will benefit from having a vinyl cutter. Read our comprehensive review of the USCutter Vinyl Cutter here.
Further Reading: All Over Sublimation Printing
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. If you have a Sawgrass printer, or are going to get one, you are in luck. Sawgrass printers include a design suite – with templates, images, designs, and fonts – called CreativeStudio. CreativeStudio was designed by Sawgrass, specifically for dye sublimation printing, and we consider it to be the very best option.
If you don’t have a Sawgrass printer, choose from Photoshop, Corel Draw, or GIMP. Print to your sublimation printer using whatever ICC profile you need, which you can find out more about here.
Using dye sublimation ink and sublimation paper, print your design.
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, so please carefully read their manual. Layout your print on your material, and press it!
A great place to start is making T-shirts. Dye sublimation jersey printing is also an excellent choice.
You should now have your print transferred onto your material. Dye-sublimation is a relatively easy and low cost way to offer customized products. This process is easy to start as a part of a commercial printing business, as a start-up, and as a hobby.
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 around dye-sublimation.