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. 

Selling Your Art with Sublimation

For most artists,  a major goal is to get the art out into the marketplace,  hopefully to be purchased,  which generates income,  which allows for more art to be made.  The problem for a lot of artists is that creating a unique artwork takes time,  and each piece can only be sold to one customer.  What is needed is the ability to reproduce a unique piece of art a number of times,  on a number of different substrates.   It would also be great if the reproductions could be created relatively easily and quickly,  at a low cost per print.   It would be even better if the method used to create the reproductions had, compared to other decoration options, a low cost of entry.

Sublimation is, as far as we’re concerned,  the perfect decoration method for artists who want to reproduce and sell their work.   For those who don’t know,  sublimation is a printing method which can be used on both soft and hard goods,  as long as the item is either made of polyester or has a poly coating.   Using ink and paper created for sublimation,  transfers are printed which are then set on the item being decorated using heat.   The ink bonds with the poly material or coating,  so the prints have no hand,  and are dishwasher safe.   The printer that’s used is a standard inkjet printer and the designs can be created with any graphics program.

There are several advantages to printing your saleable products using sublimation.   One is the cost of entry.   Compared to other decoration techniques,  like machine embroidery or direct to garment printing,  sublimation has a relatively low cost of entry.    An SG800,  which is the larger of the two desktop printers used for sublimation,  can be purchased in a package for under $2,000.    A heat press, which is also a necessary part of the process, can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand,  depending on the brand and model purchased.    Most blanks are also relatively inexpensive.   The cost for a cartridge of ink ranges from slightly above $60 to just over $100,  depending on the printer make and the size of the cartridge.

A second advantage is the fact that creating a sublimated design doesn’t require learning any new software.   Any graphics program,  Adobe,  CorelDraw,  whatever is currently being used can be used to create designs for sublimation.   If you don’t currently have a preferred graphics program,   Sawgrass’ Creative Studio comes with every purchase of a Virtuoso printer package.   This program is touted as being easy to use,  and contains a curated library of templates for the items that are most often offered by those who sell sublimated products.

One of the best things about sublimation,  especially for photographers,  is that the prints are photo realistic.   If you’re interested in selling your photography or your original art,  sublimation is the perfect decoration discipline for you.  Prints will reproduce exactly as they were created.   Photos will look like photos.   Hand drawn art will retain the qualities that make hand drawn art so unique and special.   The only difference is that sublimation allows the photo or drawing or design to be recreated over and over again on a variety of different substrates.

There are also advantages to owning your own system versus using a contract printer who will do the work for you.   Owning a sublimation system means you can print when you want and as many items as you need,  so you won’t be tied to minimum order requirements,  or have to carry an inventory of a design that didn’t sell.  You also have control over the quality of the finished product,  you create the prints and you can reject them based on your quality standards.   You also know all the costs involved in creating the product in advance.   There’s no last minute shipping or blank good upcharges and no potential delays in production due to weather or problems at the plant producing the goods.

All in all,  sublimation is a great option for a lot of artists.  While there will be a slight learning curve when starting with sublimation,  most people are up and running within hours.   Add to that the relatively low cost of entry,  and the fact that the entire process is controlled by the artist,  and the advantages, for an artist, of purchasing a sublimation system become quite clear.