A Tale of Two T-Shirts

By Tom Chambers

Occasionally when people are researching sublimation and asking questions, I hear variations of this one:  “Can I sublimate cotton?”  While the short answer is “no”, as with most things, there’s more to it than that.

Usually some follow up questions reveal that the goal is to do sublimation onto sublimatable blanks, and to also be able to do cotton (or 50/50 poly cotton) t-shirts, because the cotton and cotton blend shirts are cheaper than higher quality, longer lasting polyester t-shirts, and they believe they need to create an inexpensive t-shirt to sell to a market that doesn’t want to pay much for it.  That in turn opens up a whole other discussion involving the differences between the two main types of t-shirts and their respective markets.

On the one side, you have polyester t-shirts with a comparable feel and look to cotton, that for a variety of reasons cost significantly more than cotton or blended cotton t-shirts.  However, most polyester t-shirts are of a much higher quality, will last a lot longer, and of course can be sublimated – which is permanent, and has no “feel” to the design.  Not to mention being able to accept full color photo quality artwork.  This more than compensates for the relatively small difference in price – but because of the higher price, you’d have to charge more for the shirt – effectively changing the target market.

On the other side, you have cotton and poly-cotton blended t-shirts.  These are available everywhere from a wide variety of manufacturers with a lower price per unit, and as a result, many decorators use these shirts to create inexpensive products that sell for a low price.  Unfortunately, you can’t sublimate them.  Or can you?  More on that later.

These two sides create a myth of two seemingly irreconcilable shirt types.  The truth is that each shirt is well suited for its own particular market and decoration method.  Cotton lends itself to mainstream, mass production, and discount markets due to the lower cost, whereas polyester is well suited to a completely different market that is willing to pay more for a higher quality, longer lasting shirt that can be decorated in full color photo quality graphics and customized very easily.  The shirt types aren’t irreconcilable – the two different markets are.

To put it another way, someone that wants a cheap $10 t-shirt isn’t going to pay enough for the sublimated polyester t-shirt to cover your costs plus enough extra for you, the decorator, to make it worth your time.  Likewise, someone wanting a nice custom full color t-shirt isn’t looking for something they can make themselves with some transfer paper from an office supply store, the ink in their home printer, and an iron.

It all boils down to knowing what your market is, and selling it what it wants.  Sometimes it’s one type of t-shirt, sometimes the other, and sometimes both.

But what if you are just starting out, and want to do both types and sell to both markets, without buying 2 systems?  There is a way.  Earlier I mentioned that you couldn’t sublimate onto cotton.  Technically, you can’t – it’s a scientific impossibility and it will never happen – but you can fake it.

So how do you achieve this wizardry?  It’s simple.  Take your sublimation system, with sublimation ink, and sublimation paper, print onto ChromaBlast transfer paper, and transfer to 50/50 poly-cotton t-shirts.  The sublimation ink will “sublimate” to the polyester part of the shirt, and the film from the Chromablast transfer paper will bond to the cotton part and carry the rest of the ink over that way.

It’s a hybrid type of transfer method that will let you use one system to print two different things, and works well when you are starting out until you get enough volume to justify a dedicated system for each.

Use your sublimation system and ink with sublimation paper to produce all those premium quality custom promotional items and polyester t-shirts that you can sell for top dollar, and use the same system and ink, with ChromaBlast paper, to produce those t-shirts you plan to sell at a lower cost.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

To Draw, or Not to Draw (and with what?) That is the Question….

by Tom Chambers

Of the 3 major stages in the process of creating sublimated goods, the last two are easy to learn and do – pressing with a heat press, and printing your design on your sublimation printer.  Then there’s the first stage, where it all starts – the part where you have to design and set up whatever it is that you want to print.

Yes, sublimation is easy and (almost) anyone can do it.  Designing your artwork?  That is a different thing altogether.  The world of graphics design can be a secretive, wonderful, complex, difficult, and on occasion even a seemingly magical realm of gurus, self-help videos, seminars, and even college level classes.  So where do you start, and which program should you choose?

Full disclosure – I’m biased.  I use CorelDRAW Suite because that’s what I learned 20+ years ago, and I keep using it because I like it, it’s easy (once you know how), and it’s inexpensive for what you get.  I’ve designed everything from custom drawn artwork to full color brochures, magazine ads, and 8’x10′ popup banners in it.  But that wasn’t always so.

In the beginning, I tried to teach myself Corel.  After a couple months I could do some basic stuff, but I wasn’t really happy with what I could (or couldn’t) do.  I struggled with some things until I finally took a series of in-depth classes lasting 4 days.  After that, the sky was the limit and the whole thing became just plain fun.

To do sublimation, your graphics program needs to be able to handle two types of images – vector and raster.  Simply put, vector is clipart-type drawings, and raster refers to images made up of pixels, like photos.

You also need to be able to turn off color management in the graphics program – OR it needs to be able to handle the color correction required for sublimation either on its own, or by using a color profile designed for it.

Here is a list of the 3 most popular graphics programs for sublimation, and the pros and cons of each.

  1. Adobe Creative SuiteAdobe Illustrator (vector) and Adobe Photoshop (raster)

Pros:  This is the flagship, top of the line graphics program suite, with the most features, power, and overall support.  Widely taught in colleges and other institutions and used by many graphics designers everywhere, it’s easy to find classes, self-help books, and videos.  You can literally design everything from magazines to full color banners for skyscrapers; retouch photos, and create original artwork.  This is what made the word “photoshopped” a part of mainstream vocabulary.  Completely control your color output with use of custom profiles, or turn it completely off.  If you can fully master these programs, you will most likely be at the top of the graphics design world.  Versions are available for both PC and Mac.

Cons:  The learning curve is steep and long.  Think Mount Everest here with years of preparation.  You will likely need lengthy training and many classes unless you are gifted that way, have lots of time, and can teach yourself.  The programs and features are complex, and not always intuitive.  Color management and settings are almost as difficult as the programs themselves.  It is expensive, and all recent versions are now subscription based.

  1. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite – CorelDRAW (vector) and Corel PhotoPaint (raster)

Pros:  This suite is probably the most widely used in the decorated apparel industry for a variety of reasons including a more attractive price point, availability in both purchase and subscription models, and being easier to master with a shorter, gentler learning curve.  While possible to teach yourself, classes or videos will shorten that time dramatically.  You can design almost anything in Corel that you can in Adobe, and the tools are more intuitive and easier to work with.  Color management can be turned completely off, or configured in a myriad of custom ways with or without profiles.  Settings are a little easier to work with and more intuitive.

Cons:  Corel can occasionally act up in ways that will remind you how important it is to save your work often.  Outside the decorated apparel industry, it is less widely used and supported.  It can be difficult to find classes in your area, forcing you to use online classes if you can find them, or self-help options like webinars, videos and books.  Also, Corel is available only for PCs.

  1. Sawgrass Creative Studio

Pros:  This program is entirely web based, accessible from anywhere on most computers, tablets, and even mobile devices, and handles both vector and raster images.  The price is hard to beat as well – free, with the purchase of any Sawgrass sublimation system.  This is probably the best option out there for anyone new to graphics design that wants to get into sublimation as quick as possible.  And because it’s created by the people who brought you desktop sublimation in the first place, it’s designed specifically with that in mind – giving you access to thousands of clipart and graphic images, and templates for sublimation blanks to make everything as easy as possible.  Additional premium content is even available via a paid subscription plan.

Since Creative Studio is web based, it should work on any operating system on Mac, PC, tablet or smartphone, in Windows, Apple, Linux or Android, as long as the browser is compatible.

Cons:  There is almost always a trade off when something is easy – and that’s normally manifested in a lack of more powerful and advanced features.  While this is no exception, Sawgrass has done a great job of combining necessary features with something relatively easy to learn and use.

If you don’t have a stable high speed internet connection, this option may not be for you though, and if you lose internet, you won’t be able to access the program at all.

So which program should you choose?  The simple answer is “the one that you like that does the best job for what you want”.  If I were just starting out today with no experience, I’d probably use Sawgrass Creative Studio, and maybe at some point in the future, switch to Corel.  Any of the 3 options listed are great choices though.  It really comes down to what you feel comfortable with, and how much time and money you want to invest.

The Three Stages of Sublimation

By Tom Chambers

Oscar Wilde once said of absinthe that “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were.  After the second you see them as they are not.  Finally you see things as they really are…”  I stopped there with the quote because after that it gets a bit weird, which could have had something to do with Oscar having drank absinthe for 3 days.  But I digress.  That part of the quote, in a kind of absinthe-y way, makes me think about sublimation.  Or perhaps sublimation makes me think about this quote (or maybe absinthe; it is currently New Year’s Eve as I write this).  In any event, let me explain the odd connection between the two in my mind.

After many years of fielding trade show questions, most would-be future sublimation practitioners seem to follow a certain path of research to three basic levels of awareness that I’ve nicknamed “The Three Glasses Stages of Sublimation Absinthe”.  Those may be simply put as:  what you wish sublimation were; what sublimation is not; and finally, what sublimation really is.

Now hopefully the connection to the Oscar Wilde quote is obvious enough to keep you from thinking that this article is really all about absinthe, or that it is all I’m thinking about.

What You Wish Sublimation Were.

At first contact, sublimation can sound to some like an end-all be-all solution for all decorating styles and mediums that is just short of magic, that can put full color photos on anything quickly and easily for little expense.  My previous article addressed this particular wishful thinking in more detail, but for many, the desire and sometimes even belief, is that sublimation does everything.  Dark garments, light garments, cotton, polyester, nylon, spandex, wood, tile, stuff from Home Depot, race cars, signs, awnings, boat covers, walls, airplanes, everything.  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in all that sublimation WILL do (which is a LOT), forget about what it won’t do, and wind up believing that it does everything except wash dishes.

What Sublimation is Not.

Sublimation (ink) is not really even an ink.  It doesn’t have pigments (think screen print ink, direct to garment ink, or paint), and it doesn’t block other colors from showing through. That means no white ink – not now, not ever.  Without white ink or color pigments, you can’t do dark colored garments or other items, because you need those solid color pigments to cover over the background color with some other color.

Sublimation will not work on anything that is not either made out of polyester, or is coated with a similar polymer coating.  Period.  50/50 polyester/cotton or all cotton t-shirts?  Forget about it.  Only the polyester part sublimates.  Floor tiles from Home Depot?  No way.  The science behind the way sublimation works and what it actually is, just doesn’t allow it.

What Sublimation Really Is.

Now we’re to the good stuff.  Not absinthe, sublimation!  What IS sublimation after all?  In chemistry, sublimation is the transition of a solid to a gas without going through a liquid state. Dry ice is a good example.  For our purposes though, sublimation is the transition of sublimation dye particles into a gas, without going through a liquid state.

In other words, when you put the paper that contains your design that is printed with sublimation dye particles into a heat press at the correct temperature, on top of something made out of, or coated with polyester, then those dye particles turn into a gas that penetrates the polymer chains of the fabric or coating.

Put yet another way, you are dyeing the polyester fabric or coating with a gas created when you heat up dye.

Yes, sublimation ink is really a dye.  We only call it an ink because it comes in inkjet printer cartridges suspended in a liquid, the looks of which tricks our brains into thinking it’s ink.  And because it’s easier to call it “sublimation ink” than “sublimation dye particles suspended in a liquid medium contained in an ink cartridge”.

Because it is a dye, you can only dye something a darker color.  Also, that means it is translucent – it allows light to pass through it.  As in whatever color you are sublimating onto will show through the color(s) you are putting onto it, unless those colors are significantly darker.  This is why sublimation is mostly done onto all white goods.  After all, you can make white into whatever color you want – including white, because it started out that way.

Ultimately, there isn’t any better way out there to put full color, photo quality artwork or photos onto such a wide variety of products.  As long as said products are white or light colors; made of, or coated with polyester, and will hold up in a heat press, you’re good to go.

Hopefully this clears up some of the misinformation and myths about sublimation and what it will and won’t do.  If you would like to discuss sublimation (or absinthe) further, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

No absinthe was harmed (or drank) during the writing of this article.

Get Rich Quick With Sublimation

By Tom Chambers

Now that the headline has grabbed your attention, I’m sure you know that there are no “get rich quick” schemes that are even remotely legal, and all earned wealth comes from hard work and creativity, with a little luck thrown in.  Sublimation alone is (probably) not very likely to make you rich either.  So then why bother?

Because sublimation has its own niche – much like embroidery, direct to garment printing, and screen print all belong to separate decoration niches.  Unlike the others however, sublimation only requires a fraction of the startup costs, generally requires less labor, and is a lot easier to learn.  In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find ANY business venture that you could start up for LESS than sublimation that has even close to the same payback potential.

Sublimation, and whether to invest in doing it or not, seems to make for quite the conundrum for some though.  It’s fascinating to me that many people who don’t seem to bat an eye at borrowing or spending thousands of dollars on an embroidery machine, direct to garment printer, or screen print equipment, will suddenly freeze in apparent terror when confronted with the idea of doing sublimation.  It’s almost as if spending money on a sublimation system is somehow the equivalent of lighting a pile of money on fire.  Or maybe they think because it doesn’t cost very much to start out that it can’t really be “all that”.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Sublimation does things that other decoration methods cannot, although it does come with its own set of limitations, the same as everything else.  Because there is no magic “one size fits all” decoration method that does everything, that’s why you see all those other methods and equipment in use.

For example, screen print is limited to a few colors per image or it becomes impractical, but it is very well suited to large runs and mass production, and works on a wide variety of substrates and products with any color background.  Yes, it IS possible to do full color images but you will typically see a dot pattern and it will not look anything like an actual photo.  A screen print business is also very expensive to start up.

Likewise, direct to garment printing is an expensive investment as well, although you can do full color prints onto garments of all colors without worrying about a dot pattern.  This method is very well suited for one-offs, small quantities, and even some larger orders, but is limited in the number and types of additional substrates that can be used, and can require a lot of maintenance and upkeep.

Embroidery, while long recognized and accepted as a premium product, is a complex endeavor requiring expensive equipment, software, and training, and yet cannot reproduce anything resembling photo quality (although there are some extremely talented digitizers that produce admirable work in this area).  Embroidery is also limited to only substrates that can be stitched – typically items made of fabrics and other similar materials.

With sublimation, there is nothing else out there that allows you to do permanent, full color photo quality printing on such a wide variety of substrates and items.  Basically, if it’s either made of polyester, or coated with a similar type of polymer, is a light color or white, and will hold up in a heat press, then you can sublimate it with any image, artwork, or photo that you can dream up – and it will outlast anything else except possibly embroidery.  That list of sublimatable products includes thousands and thousands of different items, fabrics, and garments, in an almost endless variety of sizes and shapes.

It’s so easy to learn and do that your older kids can even do it as a hobby, or for fund raisers.  Even if it is just for holiday gifts for the family and friends, you can still easily justify the purchase of a system, and then anything else you use it for is just a bonus – especially if you get paid for it.

There is a bit of a learning curve, same as there is with anything – but this curve is more of a gentle bunny slope compared to the black diamond mountain trails of learning that go along with embroidery, screen printing, and direct to garment printing.  Not that you shouldn’t invest in one or more of those too – it’s really all about how many different decoration methods you want to offer your customers, and what you feel comfortable with.

And if you already have a decorating business, here’s why you should add sublimation to it.  Simply put, it makes a great add-on for only a little investment, and offers you a high return rate.  Instead of buying sublimated transfers or referring out that type of work, you can do it yourself, cut out the middleman, and make some of the best margins possible anywhere.  400% or better markups aren’t unheard of with sublimation, depending on your local market environment.

The same as any other business, what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it.  You will need a plan, a market for your goods, and some idea of what that market and those goods would be.  A good place to start is “Top 6 Questions to Ask (And Answer) Before You Buy A Sublimation System”.  Other articles in this blog will provide you with additional valuable information.

Last but not least, as always, if you have any questions, contact us – we’re here to help.

Finding New Markets for Sublimation

It’s a new year,  and since pretty much every business owner wants every year to top the previous year’s sales,  you’re probably thinking about ways to increase your sales in 2019.   One way to increase revenue,  as has been discussed previously in this blog,  is to add sublimation to the decoration disciplines you offer.   Once you’ve added sublimation,  however,  you have to find places to sell the new products you can make.   That’s where this blog post comes in.

First off,  let’s assume that you did your research before you added sublimation,  so you already have some idea of what markets you might approach.   Maybe you’ve visited someone who already had a system to see how it worked,  or you joined a dye sublimation group on Facebook,  or talked to a company that sold sublimation supplies at a trade show.  So you understand what the discipline has to offer and what products might have potential in certain markets.   As with any piece of equipment or software you buy,  it’s always wise to figure out how you’re going to use it,  and how it can be made to pay for itself before you make the investment.

Once you’ve figured out what markets you want to approach,  the next thing to do is figure out how that approach should be made.   If you’re contacting current customers to let them know about new products you can now offer,  it may be as simple as sending out an e-mail.   All that e-mail would have to do is describe the new products that sublimation will allow your shop to offer,  maybe delve briefly into pricing and turn times,  and include a call to action (possible a percentage off their first order) that gets customers to call you to learn more.

If you are approaching a new market,  the approach might go better if it happened in person.    Say,  for instance,  you wanted to approach a local high school to try and get some of their team or club business.   One way to do this would be to find out who the buyer is for a particular organization you want to approach,  or if there is a buyer who handles all this sort of business.   Once you know who to approach with your pitch,  set up an appointment.  Do not show up unannounced.  Nothing can be more off-putting to people than someone trying to sell something who obviously does not respect anyone else’s time.

Once you have your appointment,  make up samples you can take with you.   Obviously, samples should be made that reflect the kind of merchandise you think the club will want,  as well as showcasing the best work that you can do.  Include a simple one sheet that details pricing,  turn times and art requirements.   Be prepared to leave your samples as well,  so they can be shown to other decision makers in the organization.

After the appointment,  send a follow up e-mail saying thank you for the time that was given to you,  and restate how you can be contacted if there are further questions.   If you were given any kind of information about when the organization might be making a decision,  let them know you’ll contact them on that date.   And then make sure to contact them when you said you would.   Don’t expect them to follow up with you.

The main thing to remember is that you’ve added a new decoration discipline to your shop because you’re excited about the possibilities for new products.  Make sure you share your passion and excitement about what can be done with sublimation with your potential customers.  The more excited about the prospects that you are,  the more excited your customers are likely to be come,  and customers that are intrigued and excited about possibilities are more likely to buy.

Happy New Year!

EnMart will be closed on Monday, December 31 and Tuesday, January 1,  in honor of the New Year.   We wish all our friends and customers a happy,  prosperous and productive 2019.

We will re-open on Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Set Up for Sublimation Success in 2019

The end of the year is typically a time when people,  and businesses, take a moment to examine where they’ve been and to determine where they want to go in the next year.   Since 2019 will be here very shortly,   we wanted to take a few moments to talk about a few things a company could do to set up for sublimation success.

The first thing to think about is whether or not you want to make any large equipment purchases.   If you make those purchases before the end of 2019,  you can deduct the full purchase price from that year’s taxes.   Which means that buying a sublimation system or a heat press could net you a nice tax deduction as well as getting you equipment that can help make your business more profitable.

The next thing to do is take a look at the markets available to you.  Is there something you can do to increase your share of a market in which you already sell?   Working to increase market share should be your first goal, since you already are serving the market and presumably understand what customers in that market segment want.   Now is the time to update your literature,  examine what samples or sales pitches are working best in this particular market,  and to set your sales goals for the next year.

Once you’ve dealt with markets you already serve,  the next question is are there markets which might be interested in products you offer,  but to which you don’t sell?  It’s always good to have a few potential markets in your sights,  since no customer or market segment is ever a sure thing.   With new markets,  do the research to figure out what products might be of interest.  See if you have any contacts who can introduce you to key players in the new market.   Spend some time on social media to learn how the market communicates and what’s important to your potential customers.   Once you’ve gathered your data,  put together some samples and literature targeted to this new market.   The more targeted your pitch is,  the more likely you are to gain entry into the new market and an array of new customers.

Third,  look at the new products that are available from your suppliers.   Obviously,  you should have a slate of tried and true favorites that you offer,  but adding new products,  particularly products your competitors might not sell can be a great competitive advantage.   Visit your suppliers websites,  look out for e-mails advertising new products,  and pick a few to introduce to your customers in the new year.

Fourth,  pick something new to learn.   Maybe you’ll go to a seminar at a trade show.   You might listen to a podcast or a webinar.   There are always workshops available.   The idea is to pick something you’d like to learn or to add to your business and get the skills necessary to do what you want to do.   The method doesn’t matter.   The education does.

Finally,  identify your pain points and make a plan to fix them.   In 2018,  where did your business have issues?  Was it difficult to find new employees?  Did production times leave you scrambling to complete orders?  Were employees absent,  ghosting you or producing product at a snail’s pace?   Did you find order tracking was in chaos and no one knew what was supposed to be done when?  There are a variety of things that might need to be fixed;  the trick is to pick one or two and concentrate on getting the assistance,  finding the information,  or making the policy or personnel changes necessary to fix them.

T’was the Night Before Christmas – Sublimation Version

EnMart will be closed on Monday, December 24 and Tuesday, December 25 in honor of Christmas.   We wish all our customers and friends the happiest of holidays and the merriest Christmas possible.

While we’re gone,  I figured I’d leave you with this parody of T’was the Night Before Christmas with a sublimation theme.  I first wrote it in 2011 and it’s become something of a holiday tradition.

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the shop
All the printers were printing and going non-stop
The pressers were pressing with all of their might
For presents, for Christmas, were needed that night

The t-shirts were folded up neatly and boxed
And dreaming of sublimation transfers that rocked
And mamma in her apron and I in the same
Were printing sports jerseys with numbers and names

When out front of the shop there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my work to see what was the matter
Away to the entrance I stumbled pell-mell
Threw open the door and screamed out “What the … bell?”

I clung to the doorframe, exhausted and drawn
Wondering where all the daylight had gone
A miniature sleigh, and Santa, plus eight
Reminded me quickly that orders were late.

The little old driver, that lively St. Nick
Cried, “Bring me those orders, and move them out quick!”
Bring mousepads, bring mugs and t-shirts galore
Bring bookmarks and puzzles and tote bags and more!

Now Printer, you know this, stop looking so ill
There’s children, world over, with stockings to fill
Bring jerseys; bring car flags, and maybe a plaque
But hurry, please hurry and fill up my sack!

I’d never made claim to being an elf,
But found, by St. Nick, I could not help myself
The printers sprayed color, the heat presses pressed
And presents were finished for Santa’s great quest

The last transfer was printed, the last item dyed
When I turned to find Santa smiling by my side
“Printer you’ve done it!” he said with a grin
And his sack started bulging as the last gift went in

Whether mugs for a latte, plain coffee or tea
A puzzle, a clipboard, a box for jewelry
A key chain or shirt with a logo so bright
There’ll be happy children with gifts made this night

How Santa’s eyes twinkled, his belly it shook
As he gave me the kindest and nicest of looks
His laughter was merry, his praise much desired
My gifts had passed muster and were much admired

As I stood in my shop, all the gifts finally made
The stress of the holidays started to fade
Personalized gifts, sublimated, jolly and fun
Would delight gift recipients, every last one

With a wink and a nod Santa sprang to his sleigh
Gave a flip of the reins and was flying away
His bag bulging with presents, his sleigh loaded down
He set off to being joy to every city and town

I laughed as I saw him, that jolly old elf
Flying off with gifts made by my very own self
With his bag full of pet tags and beer mugs and all
I waved as he flew off and then heard him call

Hey Printer, keep working, there’s always next year
And I’ll be returning now never you fear
Until then, keep printing, with colors so bright
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Sublimation Issues Made Simple

By Tom Chambers

In my last article, I alluded to a future blog post relating to unacceptable sublimation image quality that was caused by “simple issues”.  Well, here are several simple things that can cause hair pulling moments, sleepless nights, and cost you a lot of money – but are easily checked and corrected.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of everything that can happen or go wrong.  It IS however a basic guide to most of the simpler issues that can arise, especially when a user is relatively new to sublimation.

While the list below is written with the Sawgrass Virtuoso series of inkjet sublimation systems in mind, it will apply to many others as well.  It does not, however, specifically address additional issues that can arise with bulk ink systems, aftermarket systems, or generic inks.

Some of the following may seem a bit obvious or even silly, but you’d be surprised at how many times these occur in real life – sometimes even to people who know better.

Issue:  The sublimated image is faint / faded looking / invisible, even though it looks ok on paper.

  • Are you using sublimation paper? Yes, sometimes people will get the idea to save some money and try regular inkjet paper or even copy paper.  Results will vary, but in general you will never achieve good quality results with any paper other than one designed for sublimation.
  • Are you printing on the correct side of the sublimation paper? Most sublimation paper has a printable, coated side which is typically a brighter, whiter color, and a non-printable side that is off white, duller, or even watermarked.  Depending on your printer and its printing path, the paper could need placing either face up or face down.
  • Are you using sublimation ink? Believe it or not, this happens.  Simply put, sublimation requires specific sublimation ink designed for the printer that you are using.  Regular ink will not work.
  • Is your heat press on / fully heated up / actually at the displayed temperature? Always give your press time to warm up to the correct temperature first, and you should also be using a pyrometer to keep tabs on the actual vs. displayed temperature.  Read this article for more in-depth information on that subject.

Issue:  The images printed on paper don’t look like what is on the computer screen.

As long as there are no defects showing in the print, this is usually not a problem.  It is normal for the printed image to look duller, darker, or even have different colors from the image on the screen.  Unlike printing a photo onto regular photo paper for example, during the sublimation process the color also changes and becomes more like what you see on your monitor.  The best thing to do is to sublimate the image first, then compare.  If you have doubts, use a piece of polyester fabric to test on first.

Issue:  The sublimated image has a double image / faint outline or shadow, but the printed image is fine.

This is called “ghosting” and is caused when the paper shifts sideways during sublimation while everything is hot.   Most often, it happens when the press head comes up too fast creating a vacuum that sucks in air, causing the paper to move.  It can also happen when you are removing the paper if you pull it sideways instead of quickly pulling it straight up.  Another possibility is on a draw press, when drawing the platen out too fast.  Be a bit more careful, use heat tape to affix the paper to your sublimation blank, use a tiny amount of a temporary spray adhesive on the paper, or use an adhesive type sublimation paper.

Issue:  The printed image and / or sublimated image has light or dark horizontal lines in it.

Light lines are most often caused by one or more clogged print nozzles, where there is no ink being printed of a particular color.  The first thing you should do is print a nozzle check, and look for any gaps in the lines.  You may see only one, or it could be several.  If you do, run a head cleaning, followed by another nozzle check.  You should see fewer or no gaps.  If there are still gaps, repeat the process and check again.  As long as the number of gaps decrease or change locations, continue this process around 5 times, and by then you shouldn’t have any gaps remaining.  If some gaps remain and are always in the same place after a few cleanings, you may have more serious issues that require a call to tech support.

Dark lines are usually caused by the print head being out of alignment, and to a lesser extent, light lines can point to this as well.  To correct this, follow the procedures for your printer to print and adjust the print head alignment.  This is typically a straightforward process that gives you step by step instructions to follow.

Both nozzle check and print head alignment procedures are usually accessed in your printer driver maintenance area.

Issue:  The sublimated colors don’t closely match what it shows on the screen.

This one is a bit trickier to explain as there are a variety of possible causes and troubleshooting is considerably more involved, and there will always be some slight differences between what you see and what you sublimate, but I will address the most common, easiest to fix issues here.  Where more specific instructions are needed, always refer to the information provided with your particular printer and sublimation system.

  • Are you printing to the correct printer driver? With many printers that use Sawgrass ink, there are two printer drivers for your printer – a virtual printer driver that does the color correction for sublimation, and the actual OEM printer driver for printing.  Frequently, I see cases where the OEM printer driver has been incorrectly set as the default, so the color correction is being bypassed.  Always make sure you are printing to the virtual printer driver instead.
  • Are your printer driver settings correct? A very common issue that is easy to overlook is the settings within your printer driver.  If you’ve customized it for a particular product, and then go to print something else, you may receive surprising results.
  • Are you using the correct color management settings in your graphics software? Another common issue is not following the correct procedure for a particular sublimation system when configuring graphics software.  Be sure to read any instructions about color management settings for your system, graphics software version, and operating system.  Failing to set up your graphics program properly for sublimation can cause unpredictable results with color, since you essentially wind up with multiple programs fighting for control of the color output.
  • Are you using the correct color profile? If color profiles are a part of your system, they must be set up specifically as recommended by whoever provided the profile.  Color profiles are a complex topic outside the scope of this basic article, but suffice it to say that not having them set up correctly or using the wrong one will definitely affect your color output.

If the above doesn’t solve your issue, or if you have questions about anything, feel free to contact us.  We’re always here to help.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

If You Own a Heat Press, You Should Own a Pyrometer

By Tom Chambers

What is a “pyrometer”?

In my last blog post  I mentioned using a pyrometer to verify the displayed temperature of your heat press.  In this article, I want to expand on this device and how to use it, and why I think it is the single most underrated yet vitally important tool you can have in your shop.

Simply put, a pyrometer is a device to accurately measure temperature.  In the context of heat presses, and with the addition of a surface probe, it allows you to verify that your heat press is actually at the temperature you think it is.

If you’re thinking “yeah, right, it probably costs a lot…”  No, it really doesn’t.  And what it does cost, it can save you, the first time you need it.

Why buy a pyrometer?

I’ve lost count of the number of phone calls I’ve received regarding sublimation image quality.  While most of these could be traced to simple issues (more on those in a future post), there have been a handful that were directly related to the heat press the customer was using.  In almost all of those cases, if the customer simply had an inexpensive pyrometer, they could have saved themselves days of aggravation, phone calls, ruined products, and a significant amount of time and money.

Here’s the thing – unless you are very lucky, or the press was calibrated precisely in the factory, the temperature it shows on the display, dial, or gauge is not what the actual temperature is.  As a press ages, that variance will also change.  Digital gauges are the most accurate, but they still have to be calibrated periodically.  Dials or gauges that insert into the platen are notoriously inaccurate.

Ultimately it boils down to one main fact – if you don’t have an accurate method of double-checking your press temperature and you have any issues with the products you are pressing,  you simply cannot determine whether the problem is with your heat press or the product itself.

What kind of pyrometer should you get?

There are two popular types of pyrometers.  You may have even seen the first type, a hand held gun-like device using an infra-red sensor, typically with a laser pointer built in.  Some people think that the laser is the sensor, but it isn’t – it’s only there as a pointer (or to play with your cats).

Those are usually the least expensive, but the problem is that they only work well on things that have no reflectivity, like walls, carpet, ceilings, or dark/matte surfaces.  Since many heat press platens are aluminum (which is somewhat reflective), it will give you a false reading.  Even if you have a coated platen with a dark matte surface that it will work with, it won’t always remain so, and will develop blemishes over time that will alter the readings.

The second type, which is what I recommend, is a hand held unit that looks much like a multi-meter, with the addition of a plug-in surface probe.  In this case, you place the end of the probe against the surface of the heat platen for a few seconds to obtain a direct reading of the temperature.  Because the temperature is measured with a sensitive probe and direct contact with the platen, any color, reflectivity, or blemishes simply don’t matter.

What’s the best way to use a pyrometer?

Heat up your press to whatever operating temperature you need, including setting the pressure and timer.  Draw a tic-tac-toe grid on a piece of paper, and use the surface probe to measure 9 spots on the platen in the same tic-tac-toe pattern.  Hold the probe against the platen several seconds, until the temperature on the display stabilizes.  Write those temperatures down in the corresponding squares of the grid you drew.

Now, run a complete pressing cycle as if you were producing the product of your choice.  As soon as it is finished, take a new set of 9 temperature readings and record those below the first set of numbers.

The difference between the first and second numbers will give you the likely drop in the press temperature during operation, and the differences between the 9 different locations on the platen will point out any hot or cold spots.  You’ll also be able to instantly see if your press has a problem.  Any significant variances (more than 20 degrees F) between the highest and lowest numbers can be a problem, depending on the tolerance the products you are pressing allows.

To set the press to provide your ideal temperature, average the first set of numbers together, then average the second set.  Pick a temp between the two averages, but closer to the higher number.  That should match the temperature recommended for the product you are pressing.  If it does not, then adjust your press so that it does.  You may have to repeat the measurement process above a few times to get it dialed in just right, but once you do it, you should only have to check it periodically.

If your press has a feature that allows it, once you dial in the temp, you can calibrate the temperature display to show that exact temperature.

What’s the purpose of all that?

No press is going to maintain the exact set temperature 100% of the time, since heat energy leaves the platen and goes into your product when you are pressing it, and the press then has to switch on and heat the platen back up.

By using your pyrometer, in addition to knowing exactly what temperature your press is, you are able to set any good quality heat press to compensate for those swings in temperature, and even minimize the variance on less expensive presses.  You also have the added benefit of diagnosing any problems that may be occurring related to heat.

Different manufacturers of presses handle the temperature in different ways, and some of those methods can cause delays between when the platen reaches its set temperature, and when the press turns off the heat, resulting in over-shooting the temperature.  The same thing can also occur on the low end before the press turns back on.  This and other reasons cause variances in temperature.

Good quality presses minimize this variance with various technologies that allow for continuous press operation and even heating, whereas lower quality inexpensive presses are typically made to meet a low price point and usually have temperature swings that can be wide enough to cause you to have to wait between pressings for the temperature to recover along with cold spots in the platen.

This will ultimately improve the quality of your products and save you time and money if you ever have an issue with your heat press, because it will let you pinpoint whether the problem is related to the temperature of the press or not.  Even if the problem isn’t the press – you’ve now eliminated it as an issue, which is something you can tell your product tech support when calling to explain that you aren’t getting the results you should be.  That will save you both some time, helping you get back up and running again quickly.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation.