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.

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