Dye sublimation has become one of the fastest growing trends in the creative world. We’re seeing many hobbyists turning to this form of art to earn a little extra cash on the side. Of course, when most people think of sublimation, they are thinking t-shirts and coffee mug designs. But sublimation on aluminum designs have started to become quite popular due to their elegant design and durability.
We’re going to dive deep into the art of sublimation on aluminum and take a close look at the exact process. My goal is to help hobbyists get started and then turn this into a small business.
Table of contents
- What Exactly is Sublimation Printing?
- Get Started by Investing in the Right Equipment
- Sublimation Printing Hobby vs. Small Business
- What substrates can you Sublimate onto?
- Aluminum Panel Recommendations
- What to Expect with Sublimation on Aluminum
- What is the Process for Dye Sublimation on Aluminum?
- How to Store Finished Designs
- What Sublimation Ink Can I Use to Print on Aluminum?
- Can I Use Garment Sublimation Ink on Aluminum?
- Sublimation Ink Recommendations
- Difference in Digital/Dye Sublimation on Aluminum
- The Bottom Line
You’ll learn what’s needed to sublimate on aluminum sheets, whether or not to transform this into a business, and discover the best materials. Like all art forms, it’s essential to follow a process to get from beginning to end but that process will be slightly different for everyone.
What Exactly is Sublimation Printing?
Without getting too technical, sublimation printing is the process of transmitting a design using specialized ink onto another surface using heat and pressure. Since the ink will transform into gas from the heat, it digs under the surface of the material. This makes it highly durable. It’s also what gives aluminum sublimation prints a 3D appearance. It’s a one-of-a-kind process that has the potential to create some of the most visually appealing designs in existence.
Get Started by Investing in the Right Equipment
Like I said earlier, most people think of sublimation printing as designing clothing and coffee mugs. Rarely do they even think about aluminum being used as the canvas so those who are doing it are seeing great success. The designs are so unique and in such demand that we’re seeing an insurgence.
Excited yet? How could you not be? Here’s what you need to get started today!
A Heat Press Machine
A heat press is required to transfer the design onto the aluminum surface. This is also going to be the biggest investment you’ll make so be sure to shop around for the best fit. You don’t want to choose a heat press machine that is difficult to use if you’re a beginner. Don’t rush into it.
A flatbed heat press machine is going to be your best bet for aluminum sublimation printing. However it’s worth nothing that this machine will also work on fabrics and other materials so you won’t find yourself limited should you decide to expand.
Some key factors you should consider when purchasing a heat press would be the bed size. Whatever size garment or substrate you end up using, your heat press needs to be large enough to support your designs.
While the press is the most expensive piece of equipment needed, the printer might be the most important. This is the machine used to get designs from a digital platform onto the paper that will eventually transfer it to the final product.
The three most popular brands of professional sublimation printers are Mutoh, Durst, and Mimaki.
Alternatively, you may want to explore some smaller scale sublimation printers. The most popular, desktop scale sublimation printers are the Sawgrass SG500 and Sawgrass Virtuoso SG1000.
Sublimation requires a special kind of paper that is specifically designed to release the ink from its surface onto the substrate. There are two types of sublimation paper so let’s take a look at each of them.
Light Sublimation Paper: This is used with light colored backgrounds because it blends well with lighter colors. In most cases, this is going to be the optimal choice for sublimation on aluminum.
Dark Sublimation Paper: In contrast, this paper is designed for darker backgrounds. It will make the colors much more vibrant and contrasts well with darker surfaces. Due to the difficulty of getting designs onto a dark surface, this paper has limited uses and should not be used by beginners.
Check out our guide on sublimation paper here!
Some sublimation printers (more professional printers) will come with specific programs that need to be installed in order to actually print the designs. This is known as RIP software. With other sublimation printers (hobbyist sublimation printers) may be used with your design software of choice. You may need to setup with a custom ICC color profile in order to print correctly.
For the actual designs, you can use a photo editing program like Adobe Photoshop or Corel Draw. Then transfer those designs into the required software for printing.
Teflon and Thermal Tape
Parchment paper will provide a certain amount of protection against heat transfer but it’s not enough. That’s where Teflon comes into play. It sits between the paper and surface so that the heating element from the press never comes into direct contact with the surface.
Thermal tape is also required to hold the sheet in place while the heat transfers the ink.
Heat Resistant Gloves
Sublimation puts you at risk of severe burns since you are working with heated aluminum so heat resistant gloves are an essential item. These will protect you from accidents. Safety first!
Sublimation Printing Hobby vs. Small Business
There is a clear distinction between doing something as a hobby and starting a business. Many people see it like this:
“If I’m making money, then it’s a business.”
This is not always the case. Just because you make money on the side doesn’t mean that you have a business. It’s still a hobby if you’re working at a full-time job while working with sublimation printing on the side with no aspirations of making it your job.
So what exactly constitutes stepping over the line from hobbyist to business? From a legal standpoint, it’s when you start earning a certain threshold of money. But business is just as much about mindset as anything. So in my opinion, it becomes a business when you decide that sublimation printing is what you want to do over your full-time job, and take the steps necessary to achieve that goal.
Here are a few reasons why you should consider turning this from a hobby into a business.
- If you find yourself spending a lot of money frequently, then you should consider making it a business.
- You’ve taken the time to create a catalog of items and are consistently getting orders.
- You find that profits are significant and comparable to your full-time job.
- You’d rather work with sublimation printing than go to your full-time job.
What substrates can you Sublimate onto?
Although this guide’s focus is sublimation on aluminum, we’ll look at some of the other substrates that you can sublimate into. There are a lot of possibilities, some of which you might not have even considered.
Leather and Faux Leather
We have an entire article regarding sublimation on leather and sublimation on faux leather (PU Leather). It’s not too challenging if you are careful, and supplies are readily available.
We’ll start with glass because it’s probably one of the most overlooked opportunities. In most cases, we’re talking about personalized drinking glasses or vases. So if you have the right equipment and some cool designs, don’t forget about this amazing opportunity.
Ceramic coffee mugs and other decorations are a great gift choice, making them popular among buyers. It’s even possible to transfer designs to tiles to use in home decorations. When dealing with ceramics, the most important aspect is the type of glaze used to coat them since all of these are not compatible with sublimation ink.
This is definitely the most popular substrate since t-shirts and clothing apparel are still the most popular. Of course, the process for polyester sublimation is much different than for metal. However, in most cases you can use the same press and ink.
Canvas panels are nice for wall hangings and table top art.
Aluminum Panel Recommendations
Here are three of my personal recommendations for aluminum panels.
ChromaLuxe Sublimation Aluminum Photo Panel
ChromaLuxe HD Aluminum Photo Panels
SATIN SILVER .018 NICKEL SILVER
What to Expect with Sublimation on Aluminum
Since inks are heated and then pressed into the aluminum panel, these designs are highly resilient. Plus the designs will look really cool! Here are some examples of sublimation printing on aluminum sheet.
This website has some really awesome aluminum substrate designs so check it out for some examples!
What is the Process for Dye Sublimation on Aluminum?
Dye sublimation has been popular for a while but printing onto aluminum has always been reserved for very select businesses, mainly due to the inaccessible nature of the equipment. But now that the technology has become much more accessible, we’re seeing it catch on in popularity.
Obviously, the process isn’t as simple as just printing a design and then slapping it onto an aluminum sheet. It involves a four-phase process.
#1: Design and Print
The first phase is to actually create the design. This is done using Photoshop or another similar computer program. Once you have the design saved, pull it into the RIP software and then print it onto sublimation paper.
#2: Prepare the Heat Press
The heat press must be preheated before use. The exact temperature depends on the type of aluminum being used but in most cases, 400° F is the recommendation. While waiting on the press to heat, go ahead and prepare the substrate. Make sure the surface is clean.
Once the press has been heated, place the aluminum sheet onto it. It’s highly advised to use a transfer sheet that is just a bit larger than the surface of the aluminum sheet you’re sublimating onto.
Apply moderate pressure when pressing. It should require a moderate amount of effort from you to close the heat press. The time you keep the substrate pressed depends on the metal, but for aluminum the time is 90-120 seconds. This gives the inks time to penetrate the aluminum surface and extends their life.
It should be noted that dwell times that are too long will result in the details of the design being lost. So I recommend you start with 90 seconds and then increase the time on your next substrate if needed.
#4: Remove Sheet from Heat Press
Always use heat resistant gloves when removing the aluminum from the press. If you want to avoid warping, then allow the sheet to cool while remaining face down. However, if a design becomes too warped you can try pressing it a second time from the backside and then allow it to cool once again. Never try bending a sheet to “straighten” it while it’s hot because this will damage the design.
Note: Colors will sometimes look smudged and will be blown out of their borders. This is known as “blowout.” If this happens, it means that one of three things happened – the sheet was overheated, unevenly heated, or too much pressure was applied. Blowout is prevented by using heat-resistant tape and a Teflon sheet.
How to Store Finished Designs
Once you have let the sheet cool so that the inks are trapped behind the coating, it’s time to store it until use. You’ll need to take special care when storing substrate finishes. First and foremost, never store them in direct contact with one another. The inks will move from piece to piece over time. This is even the case when they are cool so be warned.
Also never use shrink wrap or store them in plastic when shipping. Always use paper sheets for protection.
What Sublimation Ink Can I Use to Print on Aluminum?
Special sublimation inks are required for use with specialized printers. Inks are heated and then suspended in a liquid form that passes through the thin layer of protective coating on the aluminum. Only specialized inks can achieve this goal.
Sublimation inks come in a few types and the one chosen depends on the end goal. Aqueous inks are best used with large format printers, but there are also other solvent type inks that work with wide head printers. In short, use aqueous for large-scape designs and solvent inks for smaller designs.
Can I Use Garment Sublimation Ink on Aluminum?
Sublimation can be used with a wide variety of substrates but a common concern is whether or not the same ink can be used on fabrics and metal. The answer is yes but the challenge comes with color matching. Colors are not going to come across the same way on fabric as they do on metal. So keep this in mind when planning sublimation on aluminum.
Sublimation Ink Recommendations
Here are three of my personal recommendations for sublimation ink.
Printers Jack 400ML Sublimation Ink Refill
Difference in Digital/Dye Sublimation on Aluminum
Sometimes digital printing and dye sublimation are used interchangeably but they do not follow the same process nor do they yield the same result.
With digital printing, images are printed directly onto the surface of the panel. Even though aluminum panels can be used with digital printing with specialized printers, the look and quality of these designs will be much different. The reason is because the design is printed on top of the protective layer.
The dye sublimation process actually heats the ink so that it passes through the protective layer. The end result is that the ink gets trapped under that protective layer once cooled. As you might imagine, this makes the design look different and provides better protection.
The Bottom Line
Now that you understand the process of how to make high definition dye sublimation prints on aluminum blanks, we can end with a brief recap. The first investments are going to be a heat press and a sublimation printer. But even if you need to save up for this big investment, there’s no reason why you can’t start creating designs now.