9 Steps to Sublimation Success

By Tom Chambers

So you’ve decided to enter the world of sublimation.  Now what?  Where do you start?  What do you do first?  And most importantly, how do you make it a success?

There is so much information on the internet about sublimation these days that it can be overwhelming.  In fact, it’s much easier to be overwhelmed and confused than it is to just do it.  Yes, it really is that easy – and it’s fun too.

The purpose of this article isn’t to tell you how to create a business plan, how to go out and sell sublimation, or specifically what to charge for it.  It IS however a general guide to using your system to create a successful business.

A good starting point once you understand just what sublimation is (and isn’t), is to ask yourself these 6 questions.  But what if you’ve already done all your research, purchased a sublimation system and blanks, and now you are wondering where to go next?  In that case, here are some tips that will help you on your way to success.

  1. Set up your system. Yes, first, you have to take the system out of the box and set it up.  While that may seem obvious, you’d be surprised at the number of people that let it sit unused for months or years, whether from subli-timidation or some other reason.  But if you don’t set it up, you definitely won’t be successful, and the sooner you do it, the sooner you will succeed.
  2. Understand your equipment, and how to operate it. Realistically, if you are even slightly tech savvy, you can probably set up your sublimation system, turn on your heat press, and start sublimating something all without reading a single word.  But those instructions contain details that are important, like turning off color management in your chosen graphics program for example. So for the best results, read the instructions, follow them in order, and understand what you are doing – not just on your printer and computer, but your heat press(es) as well.
  3. Learn to use your chosen graphics program. There are several graphics programs available, but these 3 are the most common in sublimation.  A little study and practice will pay off many times over with better quality artwork, which ultimately translates into better looking products and hopefully more money for you.
  4. Practice, practice, practice. Experiment on your chosen blanks, and make sure you always have extra.  Don’t assume that you will never make a mistake or ruin something – you will.  And don’t be afraid to make mistakes either.  It’s ok, and all part of the process.  No matter how many settings charts you manage to obtain, depending on the exact mix of equipment, blank products and manufacturers, you will likely have to do some troubleshooting and make a few adjustments that only reveal themselves with practice.
  5. Make samples. Whether you are selling on Etsy, Amazon, at a fair or trade show, or in your own storefront, you will need samples to make photos of and to show people.
  6. Sublimation is best suited for smaller orders and custom work. While that doesn’t necessarily mean you should turn down that order for 1000 mugs of the same design, most people expect a price reduction when ordering larger quantities.  Since sublimation costs you virtually the same amount of money per item to produce no matter the quantity, any price breaks come directly out of your pocket.  Sublimation is especially well suited for doing small orders and custom work.  As a result you can charge a premium price for it, and increase your profit margin.  So unless you have a wide format system and a large shop devoted to mass sublimation production, focus on smaller and custom orders for the most profit.
  7. Know your market. Simply put, know who you are selling to, what they want to buy, and how much they’re willing to pay.  That’s easier said than done though, and will likely require some research on your part – but this step is very important to your success.  Just because you have 3 other people doing sublimation on your block doesn’t mean there isn’t room for you too – especially if you are doing something they aren’t.  And if everyone you know is doing performance apparel – that doesn’t mean you should too (unless there’s more business to go around than your competition can handle).
  8. Don’t compete solely on price. Ah, the price trap.  Many people make the mistake of falling into this pit of constantly lowering prices until there really isn’t any incentive for you to do sublimation any longer.  Here’s the thing – there will ALWAYS be someone that will beat your price, somewhere.  Set your prices for the item you are selling and area you are in and the amount of profit you require.  If you can’t compete on service and quality in this case without losing on pricing, then consider making other items that aren’t as highly competitive on price.
  9. Offer good service and quality. Service and quality go a long way to make up for price differences.  There will always be those people who buy solely on price, but chances are that whomever they do wind up buying from will wind up sacrificing either or both service and quality in the process, and sooner or later that customer will most likely wind up back at your shop or website.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list, but the 9 basic principles here will create a sound foundation for you to build on.  Or maybe you have already created a successful business doing sublimation, and if so, we’d love to hear from you in the comments with your own steps to success.

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. 

Sublimation vs. Printed Transfers

by Tom Chambers

This article is intended to be a summarized comparison between two very popular methods of garment and promotional decoration.  While much of it has already been covered in more detailed fashion elsewhere in this blog, this summary is a general guide to better enable you to make an informed choice between two very different methods.

Sublimation

Sublimation is both a process and a bit of science, and is a unique method of decorating.  When you sublimate, you print a dye onto a special paper.  When you put the paper on something made of or coated with polyester or a polyester polymer, and put it in a heat press, the heat turns the dye into a gas, which then permanently dyes the item by penetrating and bonding with the polyester molecules.

  • Sublimation requires a system comprised of a printer, special ink and paper, graphics software on a computer, a heat press and/or an oven, and a variety of blank products to sublimate.
  • Sublimation is NOT a “transfer”. There is no transfer paper with a transfer film. There is no feel or residue.
  • Sublimation works only on polyester (such as performance apparel), or special polymer coated blank items. If you sublimate 50/50 poly-cotton, you’ll get 50% reduced image quality for a worn look (or use ChromaBlast paper for a hybrid subli-transfer solution).
  • Once fabric is sublimated, it IS permanent. Bleach won’t even faze it.
  • Sublimation looks best on white or light colored items. There is NO white ink. You can NOT sublimate onto anything darker than the actual color(s) you are trying to sublimate.
  • Sublimation is arguably one of the least expensive, yet most versatile methods of decoration available, capable of decorating thousands of different items in addition to apparel, with photo quality artwork.
  • Sublimation is perfect for smaller orders and custom work with high profit margins.

Printed Transfers

Printed transfers are, as the name implies, printed, and then transferred.  Other than the fact that you print your artwork and press it, there is very little similarity with sublimation at all.  Transfers are printed onto a special paper, and then the actual print itself is transferred over to the item when you press it.

In general, printed transfer systems can be divided into a couple of types.  Inkjet – ranging from home printers to pro systems such as ChromaBlast; and Laser – both home and professional laser transfers, and also ones that print white that eliminate the need for transfer film based papers and trimming.

  • All transfer systems regardless of type require a printer, ink or toner, transfer paper, a heat press (an iron can be used for some small home based systems), graphics software, and various products to transfer to.
  • There are many different transfer papers available, usually specific to the type of system. Most have a film that carries over the ink or toner to the t-shirt or other item that must be trimmed to avoid leaving excess film residue.  Utilization of a self-weeding type paper can eliminate the need for trimming, but can have mixed results depending on the paper and process used.  Laser printer self-weeding papers tend to produce better results vs. inkjet self-weeding paper.
  • Whether you are doing white and light colored items or dark colors determine the type of transfer paper you will use on many systems. A vinyl cutter is also recommended for trimming the paper close to the edges of your design (except for self weeding paper types).
  • Dark shirts or items require either a white transfer layer to print on, or the ability for the printer to print white. Designs on dark fabrics using the white transfer layer will have a heavier feel to them as a result.  Laser transfers printed with white ink instead are not as thick, but do still have some feel to them (as will any method of printing transfers for dark t-shirts).
  • Printed transfers are a relatively inexpensive method of producing full color graphics for small to medium size orders of t-shirts and other cotton and cotton blend goods at a lower price point. Some can even transfer to polyester as well.

Inkjet

  • Home Office: Simply use your existing regular printer and ink, buy some transfer paper designed for this method from an office supply store or other source, and use an iron or heat press.  Results vary, but generally this method doesn’t create long-wearing and lasting transfers, and is more for occasional hobby use and novelty gifts.  This is the least expensive type of transfer method and system, and quality can be an issue.
  • Pro: There are a variety of larger, professional inkjet systems on the market with different inks and transfer papers that provide a wide range of results that are used mostly for cotton and cotton blends.  This system is somewhat more expensive, but in general you should expect longer lasting designs and better overall quality vs. the home office type setup.  Some inkjet systems purport to be able to transfer to other blank goods besides garments.
  • Chromablast: A pro level inkjet system that is sold by EnMart is the ChromaBlast inkjet transfer system, which offers a high quality long lasting transfer with a soft feel.

With ChromaBlast, a strong, yet stretchable and breathable bond forms between the film, the ink, and the cotton, and most of the extra untrimmed residue where there is no ink will wash out with the first washing.  This wash also makes the transfer feel even softer.

ChromaBlast is designed for use on light colored or white COTTON fabrics ONLY, utilizing proprietary ChromaBlast Transfer Paper.  It CAN be used on dark garments though with other specialty transfer papers such as ChromaDARK, which will have a heavier feel and should be closely trimmed for best results.  In spite of those limitations, ChromaBlast is relatively inexpensive and higher quality compared to many other systems.

Laser

  • Home Office: Similar to the home office inkjet, you can purchase transfer papers from a variety of places to work with your single color or color home laser printer.  Slightly better results than the home office inkjet, but still not a pro level system.
  • Pro: One of the more expensive printed transfer type systems to purchase, it has some of the best results overall on both light and dark colors.  Excellent self-weeding papers are available that eliminate excess transfer film without having to trim.  Having no restrictions as to cotton or polyester, and added abilities to do laser transfers to mugs and many other items are a bonus.
  • White: Simply put, these laser print transfer systems come with all the advantages of the Pro Laser category, and also have the capability of printing white toner – eliminating the need for that thick white transfer film on the transfer paper.  There is no trimming needed either, and you have the ability to do full color printing onto both light and dark colors.  Even though this extra ability comes at a significant increase in system cost, the finished per unit cost is low enough to provide good profit margins.
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. 

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Help! My Sublimation System Has Been Sitting, and I Can’t Print Out!

by Tom Chambers

A not uncommon tech support question I get is “I bought a sublimation system  ___ years ago, and I never opened the box. What do I need to do?”  Another variation is, “I bought a sublimation system ___ years ago, and used it a couple times and then ___ happened and I never got back to it.  What do I need to do? Now it won’t print.”

OK, I know, it’s your money, and you can spend it however you want, but if you have that much money lying around to spend on something you aren’t ever going to use, send it to me instead, and I’ll go on vacation.  I’ll even send you pictures if you want.  Or you can go on vacation yourself, see the world, and enjoy life; donate to a charity or other worthy cause.

Unlike some out there, we don’t want to “just get the sale”.   We want to help you to be successful too. If you are uncertain, do more research until you aren’t. Ask us questions.  If you are still too intimidated, find someone who does sublimation, and if they will let you, work with them for a while for free to learn about it (preferably not a potential competitor in the same area or that could be awkward).  Or consider that maybe sublimation just isn’t for you.

A lot of system purchases are impulse buys.  I was told once several years ago that up to 80% of all sublimation systems purchased were never used, or only used once or twice.  I was recently told that the numbers have improved, but it’s still over 50%.

Look, we sell sublimation systems, and we will happily take your money if you want to spend it, but we’d much rather help you to do what’s right for YOU in YOUR situation for what YOU want to do.

If you have already spent your money on a system and you are still too intimidated to open up the box,  or maybe “life happened” and there are no plans to use the system, I recommend you just sell it on eBay,  Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, one of your local Facebook yard sale groups, or any of a thousand other venues before you lose your entire investment.  Getting something back is better than nothing.

You’re probably wondering why any of this matters, so to that end, here are some significant reasons not to buy a system and let it sit unopened or unused.

  1. The ink expires. Yes, that’s right, that expensive sublimation ink has an expiration date on the cartridge.  While it won’t magically stop working on that exact date, it is a fact that over time the ink will degrade, the sublimation dye will separate out, and the particles will clump together.  All that is a recipe for clogging up the print heads, lines, and ruining the printer.
  2. Ink dries up. Over time, the ink that is loaded into your printer will eventually dry out if it sits idle, especially if there’s any air in it. The Sawgrass Virtuoso printers are much more forgiving of sitting idle for periods of time – but even those can’t sit indefinitely for months and months or years without suffering consequences.  And other printers?  Good luck getting those working again after sitting unused like that.
  3. Hardware goes bad. Granted, a lower risk than the ink, but all those parts and electronics in the printer – capacitors in particular – age and can go bad after enough time, even if they aren’t being used.
  4. Hardware becomes obsolete. If enough time elapses, even if the printer is still in good condition and would work – it may not be possible to obtain sublimation ink for it any longer.  While Sawgrass does make ink for many models of printers long past their obsolescence date, that support does eventually end.

So what if you have already purchased a system and it is either still sitting in the box, or just hasn’t been used for a long time, and now you want to give it a go?  Regardless of your reasons, there’s no judgment here – we’re here to help.

If you have an unopened, unloaded system you bought some time ago and want to start using now, first check the expiration date on the ink.  If it’s well expired – throw it away and buy a new set of sublimation ink for your printer before you do anything else.  Otherwise, your printer becomes a slot machine in Las Vegas, and that long expired ink could ruin you.

On the other hand, if you have a system that has been sitting loaded but unused for a very long period of time, you have nothing to lose by trying to print again.  The ink is already in it, and either it is bad, or it isn’t.  If it does print correctly right away or after a few nozzle checks and cleanings, you should still check the expiration date on the ink.  If it is well past expiration, replace it immediately, and run a few cleanings to flush the old ink out.

If the print quality is still bad and your ink has expired, you have a couple of choices – either buy new ink and try to revive the printer, or just buy another system.

To help determine which choice to make, run a nozzle check followed by a head cleaning and another nozzle check.  Compare the nozzle checks, and note the position of any gaps.  Repeat the process a few times.  If the gaps are always in the same spot, your head is likely permanently clogged and you probably need a new system.   If the gaps change location, this is a good candidate for trying a new set of ink – but there are no guarantees, and a new system is always a safe bet.

Please contact us if you have any questions.

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.