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. 

Save Big on Sublimation in 2015

EnMart is starting out 2015 by slashing prices on our inventory of sublimation and ChromaBlast packages.   If your New Year’s Resolution was to add an additional profit center to your business,  there’s no better time than now.   Take advantage of these great deals and be sublimating or printing ChromaBlast transfers by the weekend.

XT PRO Ricoh 7100 System – 13″ x 19″
sublimation xt pro package

Everything you need for production sublimation printing – the largest size Ricoh 7100 printer plus bypass tray for maximum size 13″ x 19″ prints, eXTended size ink cartridges, various sizes of Mpres paper, a spare waste ink tank – and more!
20% off full price – now only $1769

Standard Ricoh 7100 System – 11″ x 19″
proprintr3 sublimation or chromablast system

Print 11″ x 17″ images with this Ricoh 7100 system. Comes with paper, a standard set of ink, and more!
Available in either Sublimation or Chromablast package configurations.  Or get one of each!

Entry Ricoh 3110 System – 8.5″ x 11″
quickstartr2 sublimation chromablast system

Need to print smaller items? Just starting out? This wildly popular Ricoh 3110 system comes with paper, a complete set of ink, and more!
Available in either Sublimation or Chromablast package configurations. Or get one of each!

SubliStuff Sublimation Series Posts

series listOver on the EmbroideryTalk Blog,  I just did a post where I collected all the links to my series posts in one place.  For those who don’t know,  a series post is when I deal with one subject over several posts,  talking about a different aspect of the topic in each post.   I’ve also done some series posts here on the SubliStuff blog,  so it seemed like a good idea to collect links to those posts all in one place so people can more easily find them.

Subject:  Getting Started with Sublimation

Target Markets for Sublimated Products 

Sublimation: It’s (Not) Complicated 

Create, Print, Press! Is It Really that Easy?

Choosing a Heat Press

Choosing a Printer 

Target Market 

Sublimation Reality Check

Subject: How to Sublimate a Specific Item

How to Sublimate a Shot Glass

What Exactly Can You Sublimate 

How to Sublimate Tiles 

Subject:  Sublimation Paper

Mpres Paper 

The Quest for Fire… Sublimation Paper, pt 1

The Quest for Fire… Sublimation Paper, pt 2

Subject:  ChromaBlast Ink

ChromaBlast:  A Comparison 

ChromaBlast for Cotton

ChromaBlast Printing for Dark T-Shirts

Please keep in mind that this blog has been around since 2010, so some of the printers mentioned may no longer be offered.   I do think the information contained in these posts is still helpful, however, and hopefully you will as well.

Decoration Intimidation

The first title for this post was sublimation intimidation,  but I soon realized that the problem doesn’t just lie with sublimation,  it could involve a heat press, or an embroidery machine or a direct to garment printer or almost any piece of equipment that can be used for decoration.    The issue I want to discuss today is the fact that new equipment and new decorating practices can often seem intimidating and that taking the first step and just getting started is often the most difficult part of the whole process.    I think almost all of us have experienced this form of intimidation at one time or another.  The question we need to answer is how to get past the intimidation factor and move on to successfully using your equipment.

The first thing to remember is that your equipment is tougher than you think.   Yes,  it is possible to break a machine or a printer,  but that probably isn’t going to happen if you push a button or send a print job.   Most manufacturers or suppliers will also send printed instructions or direct you to a website which can help you with set up.    There is also always a tech support option if you get really confused.   Before you do anything else,  you have to take the machines out of their boxes or crates and get them running.   A machine you’ve spent good money on that never gets used certainly isn’t going to be a good return on your investment.

The second thing to remember is that you will screw up.   You’ll print something backwards.  You’ll put something on the heat press the wrong way around and get ink on the platen.  You’ll sublimate something for too long or for not long enough and end up ruining a blank.    Mistakes will happen,  but they aren’t the end of the world.   EnMart sends practice fabric with our sublimation systems precisely because errors happen, and it’s always best to  build a mistake fund into your budget,  that way you can make mistakes without impacting your bottom line.  It is also a good idea to not take any rush jobs until you’re familiar with and secure in your ability to operate your equipment.  Nothing screws up a learning curve like deadline pressures.

Third,  remember that there are resources out there to help you learn how to use your equipment and be successful at whatever decorating discipline you choose.   There are blogs like this one.   For sublimation and ChromaBlast system owners,  Sawgrass has a variety of education and technical support information on their website.  Many suppliers will offer videos or instructional downloads for the machines or supplies they sell.   There are also forums and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter which provide a place to ask questions and find help.

What it comes down to in the end is being willing to work past the intimidation to give something new a try.   You did the research,  you decided what decoration discipline you wanted to add to your business,  you purchased the necessary equipment and supplies,  and now you’re too intimidated to take the stuff out of the box.   You’ve already made a monetary investment,  now make an investment in courage and in time.   After all, equipment that’s left in a box only generates revenue for the person who sold it.

Tech Support for Sublimation and ChromaBlast

Whether you’re just starting out or encounter a problem with a system you’ve had for years,  everyone knows that good tech support can be a huge help and bad tech support can doom you to hours on the phone with people who don’t know what they’re doing.   When you’re buying a ChromaBlast or sublimation system from someone,  in addition to looking at packages and price,  you should also consider the type and amount of tech support that’s being offered.  The level of experience of those offering the tech support matters too,  so be sure to ask.

At EnMart,  our technical support comes from two places.  One is Sawgrass Ink.    There are times when we will refer people to Sawgrass Tech support especially if the problem or question involves ink or driver issues.  Since Sawgrass created those products they are,  in some cases,  better positioned to help solve problems than EnMart would be.  Our goal is always to provide the speediest and easiest resolution to customer concerns that we can,  and sometimes that means referring our customers to the people best suited to solve their problem.

The other option for tech support from EnMart is our own in house tech department.  EnMart’s parent company,  Ensign Emblem,  was the company that brought inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries,  so we’ve had years of experience with sublimation.  We have, over the years,  encountered a great many of the problems that our customers may see as they work with their systems.  We’re familiar with color matching,  heads clogging,  ghosting,  paper issues,  printer issues and those little odd issues that sometimes crop up and no one knows why.   Bill and Tom are knowledgeable and ready to help.  If you purchased a system for us and are having problems, feel free to contact us and we’ll put you in touch with our tech guys who will be happy to help.

 

EnMart Introduces the Ricoh SG 3110DN Printer

EnMart is proud to announce that the Ricoh SG 3110DN printer is NOW IN STOCK! The 4th generation Ricoh SG 3110DN replaces the popular Ricoh GX e3300n.  The new Ricoh  SG 3110DN is the most versatile sublimation printer to date.  It is also a budget smart option for those people looking to enter the market for sublimation products.

The Ricoh SG 3110DN offers many advantages for sublimation printers, including:

  • New Print Head Design – Delivers Superior Print Quality, Speed, and Reliability
  • New Dual-Directional Ink Pump – Cleans Nozzles with Less Ink
  • 15%+ Increased Yield for Lower Image Cost and Faster Return On Investment
  • Two Color Management Options – PowerDriver for Windows and MacProfile for Mac OS

A ChromaBlast cotton transfer printing option is also available for the Ricoh SG 3110DN.  Since the Ricoh SG 3110DN can produce up to 74 prints an hour,  it is one of the fastest entry-level cotton transfer printers available.    When used with ChromaBlast media and ChromaBlast Ink,  this printer produces transfers which can be used to create vibrant, long lasting images on cotton.

The Ricoh SG 3110DN sublimation and ChromaBlast printer systems are definitely the smart choice for those looking to get into the sublimation printing and/or t-shirt transfer business without breaking their budget.   EnMart also offers combo packages featuring the Ricoh SG 3110DN for both sublimation and ChromaBlast.  These packages contain everything you would need to print a sublimation or ChromaBlast transfer.

Sublimation and ChromaBlast Inks: A Comparison

When you visit the EnMart site to purchase inks you’ll notice that sublimation and ChromaBlast are included in one menu category.    Since both inks are made by Sawgrass and both are used to print transfers for the decoration of garments and other items,  it seemed logical to include them under the same menu item.   Linking them together in this manner does not, however, mean they are exactly the same thing.

Sublimation ink is designed to work with polyester garments and poly coated blanks.    This ink actually sublimates when heated and dyes the coating or the fibers of the item it is being used to decorate.   Sublimation ink can be used on a wide variety of items,  including mugs, mousepads,  tiles,  dog tags,  pet bowls and shot glasses.    Because the ink bonds with the coating on the hard goods or the fibers in the garments,  there is very little to no hand with a sublimation print.   Although it is a transfer,  you don’t feel the carrier mechanism.

ChromaBlast Ink,  on the other hand,  is designed to work on cotton garments and other items like tote bags or hats.    It is a true transfer, in that a carrier mechanism is used to transfer the ink to the fabric.   While ChromaBlast has less of a hand than some other transfer methods,  you can feel the transfer on the shirt if you run your hand across it.   ChromaBlast ink is also intended strictly for light colored garments,  the one thing it does have in common with sublimation ink.  Neither ink is suited for dark colored garments.

How to Price Sublimated Products

If there is one question anyone at EnMart dreads,  at least when it comes to sublimation or ChromaBlast,  it’s the question about how many prints can be gotten from a cartridge of ink.   It would be lovely if we could reel off a number and have that number be accurate,  but that’s not how it works.  The number of prints that can be gotten from a set of cartridges is dependent on a wide variety of factors,  from how large the design is,  to how the printer releases ink,  to the settings that are programmed into the software.   There are any number of variables that can impact how many transfers a set of cartridges can print,  and so it is next to impossible to quote a number that would have any sort of accuracy.

Still, we do understand why this is something that people want to know.   Determining how many prints you can get from a set of cartridges will help you determine how much you’ll be paying per print and thus how much to charge your customers for a finished item.    While we can’t tell you how many prints you will get from your cartridges,  we can give you some estimate,  however broad,  of what those prints will cost.    Sawgrass has handy charts for the Ricoh sublimation systems and the Epson sublimation systems.  They also offer comparisons for ChromaBlast with a Ricoh printer and ChromaBlast with an Epson printer.   While these comparisons offer estimates only,  they will at least give you a place to start from until you begin working with your own printer and discover what your individual yields will be.

Another thing that could impact how many prints you get is the type of substrate you’re using.   A soft substrate,  like a shirt,  takes much less ink to decorate than does a hard substrate,  like a tile.    Harder substrates require more ink and different software settings to get the vibrant colors that you want.   You may also need to choose the High Quality settings in your PowerDriver software,  which leads to higher saturation of your substrate,  but which may also require more ink output.    So, when you’re making an attempt at estimating how many prints you can get from a set of ink,  keep in mind that the item on which you’re printing can impact ink output as well.

The easiest way to calculate the price of your sublimated goods is probably to use Sawgrass’ price calculator.   This calculator is designed to include all the items that could influence the cost of creating a sublimated good.   It is a great tool and a great way to help ensure that you are charging enough for the items you create.

Top 4 Trade Show Questions

Every time we go to a trade show,  our sublimation and ChromaBlast display always gets a lot of interest.   We also get asked a lot of questions.   Of course, every person wants to know different things,  based on their own experiences and circumstances,  but there are some questions that we hear quite regularly.  Since we hear them so often,  I thought it might be useful to list a few of those questions,  and their answers, here on the blog, so those people who may not have made it to a trade show could be informed too.

Question 1:  What’s the difference between ChromaBlast and sublimation? –  There are a lot of ways to answer this question,  but the easiest answer is also the simplest.  To put it simply,  sublimation is a process that works with polyester and poly coated items,  and ChromaBlast is designed to work with cotton.

Question 2:  Can I sublimate/print with ChromaBlast on dark items? –  The short answer is no.  Printing on a dark garment generally requires a white underbase or white ink,  and there is no white sublimation or ChromaBlast ink.  There may be some items,  like our color changing mug that start out dark,  but there is nothing that is consistently a dark color that can be printed with sublimation or ChromaBlast ink.

Question 3: How many prints can I get from a set of ink? – This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many factors which can impact how many prints a set of ink will yield.   The size of the print,  the density of the color,  the settings in your print management program,  the set-up of your printer,  all these things can make a difference in your yield.  There is no hard and fast answer to this question.

Question 4: What’s the best printer? – Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this question.  A lot depends on the needs of the person who is asking.   What is the largest size paper you’ll want to print?  How often will you use the printer?  What’s your budget?  The answers given to questions like these will help determine which printer is best for you.

Obviously,  there are a lot of questions we get asked at every show and, judging from the amount of time people spend in our booth,  a lot of answers that are being given.   If you’re at a trade show where EnMart is exhibiting,  please feel free to stop by and see us.  We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.   If you can’t visit us at a trade show,  leave a comment on this blog,  or on Facebook page or Twitter feed and we’ll reply as soon as we can.