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 and magazine ads 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.  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.

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. 

How Many Prints Can You Get From a Kit of Sublimation Ink?

Alternative title:  How Many Prints Could a Printer Print, if a Printer Could Print Prints?
By Tom Chambers

If you really just want an answer to take away and skip reading the rest of this article –  then figure a penny per square inch is what it will cost you for the ink to print sublimation*.  That’s a safe number that you probably won’t go wrong with, and your paper cost is simply the cost of a sheet of paper divided by how many items you get out of it.  If you’d like to know the “why and how” though, then read on.

One of the most common questions I hear at trade shows and over the phone regarding sublimation is “How many prints can I get out of a set of sublimation ink?”  It’s a great question that is asked in all sincerity, but one that is completely impossible to answer.  I will even go so far as to say that anyone that will tell you a specific number of prints in answer to that question either isn’t being truthful or doesn’t understand the question.  Why?   Because everyone and every design is different.  What you print and sell isn’t going to be the same thing that someone else prints and sells, plus you aren’t going to be printing the same exact design over and over again.  To illustrate this, here are a couple of basic examples.

Susie prints full color, full coverage 11” x 17” size paper prints for Vapor Apparel t-shirts on her SG800 sublimation system using extended ink cartridges**.  John on the other hand sells to souvenir shops, florists, does some custom work, uses standard size 8.5″ x 11″ paper on the smaller SG400 system, but prints a wide variety of name tags, belt buckles, ceramic tiles, the ever ubiquitous 11oz coffee mugs, and a few other products – all having different sizes, different types of art, and different levels of ink coverage.

In the two scenarios above, who uses the most ink?  How many t-shirt prints does Susie get vs. John when he prints name tags?  Any effort to answer the question would result in Susie having to print as many pages of a particular full page t-shirt design as she could before the ink ran out, and John printing out pages and pages of name tags until the ink ran out.  And the end result of this particular test would ultimately be useless against any future projections, unless Susie and John only ever printed that one design.  Apples and oranges comparisons like this never work.

The real problem here is with the question itself.  The one people should be asking, and the one that they really want the answer to anyway even if they don’t know it, is “What’s it going to cost me to print something?”  And THAT question has an answer – one that is based on 3 very simple principles and some pretty basic math.

  1. The Coverage Area: How many square inches are in your design?
  2. The Coverage Percentage: What percentage of the coverage area is printed?
  3. Designs Per Page: How many designs can you print on a single page?

Calculating this is a lot easier than it sounds, and the important thing here is to realize that it isn’t necessary to be absolutely precise – some rounding and fairly close guesses are perfectly fine.

First let’s figure out your coverage area.  To do that, take the overall height of the image and multiply it by the width of the image to obtain the area in square inches (or centimeters, if you are using metric).  You can even do circles the same way, just lower your coverage percentage estimate since the “corners” don’t really exist and are empty.

For any mathematicians out there that want greater accuracy with circles, the formula is A = π r2 (take half the diameter, times itself, times 3.14.)

For example, your design for an 11oz mug that measures 3.25” high x 8” wide would be 26 square inches.  Or, a 3” circle ornament or coaster would be 7.1 square inches.

Once you have the square inches in your coverage area, estimate your percentage of coverage based on a visual “best guess” of the amount of that area covered by your design.  Keep in mind that light, pale colors use less ink and are thus considered to be lower coverage, while darker colors are considered higher.  Open areas and white space are zero coverage.  Consider light coverage to be below 40%; medium is 40%-60%, and heavy is above 60%.

Next, multiply the square inches by $0.0075 (3/4 of a cent) for typical medium coverage designs.  For light coverage, use $0.005 (half a cent), or for heavy coverage, use $0.01 (one cent).

Assuming an average medium coverage design, the ink cost of our mug and ornament examples would be rounded to $0.20 cents and $0.05 cents, respectively.

Last but not least, let’s figure out what the paper cost is.  Using 8.5” x 11” paper, you can fit 3 of those mug designs on one page, or 5 of the 3” ornaments.  Based on the cost of a single pack of 100 sheets of our MPRES sublimation paper at $0.14 cents per page, your paper cost is under $0.05 cents per mug, or under $0.03 cents per ornament.

Add the paper cost to your ink cost, and that brings the total in ink and paper to $0.25 and $0.08 for your mug and ornament, and now you know what your items will cost you to print.  That’s it!

*All calculations used in this article are based on the market standard Sawgrass HD series sublimation ink for the Sawgrass Virtuoso SG400 and SG800 series of desktop sublimation printers.  Other printers, inks, and formats may result in different costs. 

**The extended size ink cartridges save approximately 25% in ink cost over standard ink cartridges due to their larger capacity and lower price per milliliter of ink.

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. 

How to Create a Sublimated Patch

Sublimated patches can be a great option for many decorators.   This type of patch is able to support full color designs,  even those with gradients and fades.   Sublimated patches are a perfect option when wishing to add a photo to an item.   Tiny details that may not be easily duplicated in other decoration disciplines will often easily be handled by a sublimated patch.   Sublimating a patch also ensures that the color will last as long as the patch does,  since sublimation ink actually dyes the fabric to which it is transferred.  Clearly,  there are a lot of advantages that a sublimated patch can offer,  and one big decision that needs to occur,  how will your sublimated patches be made.

There are two options for creating sublimated patches,  buy them already made from a supplier,  like EnMart,  or buy or make blank patches of your own and then sublimate those.  Both options have pluses and minuses.

Buying  Sublimated Patches

When you buy an already sublimated patch,  it comes to you completely done.   All you have to do is put it on whatever item has been chosen for decoration.   So there’s not a lot of time involved,  other than the time to create the art,  place the order and then add the patches to the item in question when they’re received.   Artwork,  at least when ordering sublimated patches from EnMart can be fairly simple too.  While we prefer and request vector artwork,  we can work with something as simple as a .jpg.   One potential drawback of ordering premade patches may be minimum requirements.   At EnMart the minimum is 25 pieces per design, size and color combination.    If you’re doing a small job,  that may be more than you need or want to order.   Price can also be an issue when purchasing sublimated patches.   If you have sublimation capabilities,  you may have to crunch the numbers to see if making your own patches is more cost effective than purchasing them already made and sublimated.

Making Your Own Patch

The other option for creating a sublimated patch is making your own,  and there are two ways of doing this.   One is to buy blank patches already made,  and add a sublimated design to them.    The other is to make your own patches from scratch either with a sublimated fabric or choosing to sublimate the patches after they’ve been constructed.   There are costs and benefits for both methods.

If you choose to buy a blank patch,  you will have less of a minimum than you would if you were purchasing a sublimated patch,  assuming you made your purchase from EnMart.   Our blank patch minimum is 10 pieces per size and color combination.  The time invested in production would also be shorter,  as you would only have to print your design and then press it on the patch.    One issue with this method is the fact that designs that go all the way to the edge of the patch would probably not work too well.   Another is the need to purchase extra patches in case you make a mistake.

On the other side of the coin is making your own sublimated patches from scratch.   Here you would need to cut the patch,  create some sort of border,  and also create the sublimated design and add it to the fabric.     This would most likely consume the most production time.  It is also a method that may result in something that looks the least like a professionally merrowed patch,  although that may not matter.    The plus side of this method is that you can make as few or as many patches as you need.

Keep in mind, for either of these options,  you would also need to have a sublimation printer and inks and paper in order to create a sublimation transfer.     That is a cost that needs to be included when calculating what method is the most fiscally sensible for your business.  Creating your own patches may seem to cost less,  but has hidden costs in supplies and labor.

Ultimately the best method for creating sublimated patches is the one that makes the most sense for you.    If you’re working with large volumes and often repeat designs,  than having someone else produce the patches may make the most sense.   If you’re working with short runs of a few pieces,  and only need sublimated patches on an irregular basis,  then making your own could be the best option.    Remember,  the best option is the one that makes the most sense for you and your business.

Finding the Value

When asked what the hardest thing is about sublimation,  I often smile,  because the hardest part of running a business selling sublimated goods,  or running a business selling any decorated goods isn’t what most people would think.   It’s not figuring out what equipment to buy.   It’s not finding good suppliers.   It isn’t even learning to use the new equipment and supplies and becoming skilled enough to turn out exceptional product.  The hardest part of running a decoration business,  in my opinion anyway,  is finding the value in what you make.

Finding the value of a decorated product sounds pretty easy,  at first.  Common sense says you take the cost of the materials,  multiply it by the cost of your time,  and add a certain percentage for overhead.   You should probably also do some market research to figure out what others in your market are charging and what customers are accustomed to paying.  With all those data points covered,  it should be easy to set a price.

Sadly,  setting a price is often more complicated than that.

One thing that complicates pricing is education,  or the lack of education among the customer base.  People who buy decorated personalized goods like the fact that they’re one of a kind,  or can be customized,  but they don’t often understand what goes in to making the goods they love so much.   When people say “500 for that family tree quilt, that’s outrageous!” or “I can get a printed mug at the dollar store for less than this!”,  they’re not being cheap or mean,  they’re just being uneducated.   As decorators,  part of our job is to help customers understand what goes into making the products they buy.   Once they understand,  the majority of customers will also come to understand why you charge the prices you do.

Another obstacle to proper pricing is often the attitude of the person creating the product.  Many creators dismiss their work as a hobby,  or think they’re not really in business because their shop is in the basement.   Often,  people who do this sort of work get told that it’s just something they do for fun or something anyone could do,  if they had the time.   The result is a craft that is made to seem less valuable and,  if the creator of the goods believes this sort of thing,  a craft that is sold for less than it’s worth.    Remember,  if you don’t stand up for the value of your work,  no one else will.

Competitors can also throw a wrench into a pricing scheme.   The old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats”  is a saying for a reason.   If all the competitors in a market work to keep prices reasonable for both the customers and the business,  then everyone gets a fair deal and the businesses make what they need to make to stay open.   All it takes,  however,  is one company in the marketplace making their selling proposition low prices and the playing field changes.  Customers,  especially those who have not been educated about the value of decorated goods,  will often be attracted to the lowest priced option,  and other businesses may lower their prices to compete.   Before you know it,  customers are getting lower quality goods from businesses that aren’t making enough money to do better.   Don’t fall into the lowest price as a unique selling proposition trap.   Make good products and charge what they’re worth,  regardless of what the rest of the industry is doing.   In the end,  quality products and service will win the day.

How to Sell on Social Media

Almost every business wants social media to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,  the place that helps generate leads and turn leads into sales with almost no effort at all.   There are classes and books and webinars and seminars about how to make big bucks with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram,  and most of them won’t say the one thing that you really need to know.   The best way to sell on social media is not to sell at all. 

While that sounds like some kind of zen saying,  in reality it’s anything but. It’s a truth that most people want to ignore,  because selling,  putting up a whole line of posts advertising your goods,  or entreating everyone to come look at the latest product in your store or simply blasting people over and over again with a plea that they shop with you seems easier and faster and certainly less work than what actually helps you make sales.

The truth is that finding true customers,  those customers who will buy from you again and again and who will help promote your business,  takes time and effort.   The first step in the process is creating a social media profile that does a lot more than just sell.   A good profile gives some backstage access to how your business runs.   It spotlights your skills and expertise.   It offers education on how the decoration processes you use work,  and ideas for how your customers can benefit from those processes.   It sells,  but subtly,  never screaming but softly whispering how your products and services can benefit your customers.

The next link in the chain is building your company’s reputation and building trust with the other members of your social media community.   This means helping simply for the sake of helping,  and making connections because you have things in common,  or because you can learn from each other,  not because you see everyone else on social media as a mark,  someone to whom you can sell.  Studies have shown that people tend to buy from people and companies that they trust.   Building trust among the members of your community will lead to sales and most likely long lasting relationships.

Another handy social media function that a lot of decoration companies neglect is the ability to present your customers with ideas for what they could purchase from you.   Pinterest is great for this.   Create idea boards for specific customer categories to which you’d like to sell.   Want to sell to local schools?   Create innovative spiritwear designs and showcase them on a spiritwear board.    Have a certain hobby or activity that you really enjoy?  Create themed garments centered on that hobby and put them up on a board.   Pinterest is aspirational,   and along with the people looking for 10 ways to decorate their kitchen,  or six fun summer activities for kids,  there are people looking for shirts for their family reunions or hats for their over 50 baseball team.    Be the place where the find what they’re looking for.

Finally,  successfully selling on social media requires thinking about who your target customers are,  and where they can be found.   It means not simply asking all your friends and family to like your page,  but going out and finding the people who want to buy what you have to sell.   It means building your follower count slowly and strategically,  with a clear goal always in mind.   Selling on social media is most successful when you’re talking to a group of followers who need what you have to offer.   Being strategic and smart about how you build your page’s follower network will take more time and effort,  but will result in connections with a group of people who want to buy what you have to sell.

Sublimation Hints and Help

Like most decoration techniques,  sublimation does have a learning curve,  although it’s considerably less steep than some other decoration options.   Still,  if you’re just starting out,  or even if you’ve been creating sublimated goods for a while,  there are probably things you don’t know that could help you create sublimated items a little faster and a little better.   Every once in a while we like to do a sort of round-up post where we list some sublimation hints and tips,  in the hope of assisting our customers in their quest for the best possible sublimated product.

Cool, man! A basic step in the sublimation process is letting items cool.   Make sure the transfer paper is removed quickly when the item comes off the press,  and make sure items are laid out separately and not overlapped when cooling.   An item like a sublimated mug can be cooled in a room temperature bucket of water.   Make sure the water is not too cold,  as that could cause the mug to crack.

Humidity is the Enemy! Moisture can make a mess of your sublimated supplies,  so it’s always good to make sure humidity is kept to safe levels.   Protect your sublimation paper from humidity by keeping it in a plastic bag,  or a resealable bin.   If you’re worried the paper you’re using is too moist,  set it on your press for a few seconds.  The warmth will help remove excess moisture from the paper.   The pre-press technique can also work for garments.   Also,  using a cover that absorbs moisture,  like newsprint, in place of Teflon can help eliminate moisture problems.   Just make sure to change out the absorbent cover sheet after every press.

The Heat is On! One of the most common issues that cause sublimation failure is a heat press that isn’t heating up to the correct temperature.   Yes,  the gauge may show the proper reading,  but the actual temperature of the press can vary widely.   Make sure to test the temperature of your press frequently,  using either a heat gun or temperature test strips,  to make sure the press is actually heated up to the required temperature.

Stick to It! Heat tape is probably one of the most underrated items in your sublimation arsenal,  but it’s a must have for every shop.   Use it to keep your transfers securely positioned on your blanks.   Make sure not to tape across the image area,  instead securing the transfers on the sides.    Another useful item is a strong adhesive tape,  which can be used to secure sublimated images onto things like pendants or belt buckles.

Primary Colors! Anyone who prints on an inkjet printer knows about nozzle checks,  but they might not be as familiar with primary charts.   A good primary chart will show solid blocks of color without any lines or gaps.   Running a primary chart and a nozzle check is definitely a good idea if you haven’t used your printer for a while.   For details on how to run a primary chart from your Virtuoso printer,   visit this blog post from Sawgrass Ink.