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.

Common Questions About Sublimation

Getting started with sublimation is really pretty simple,  but there are some common questions that people always seem to ask.   Since,  we know,  from talking to customers,  that people who are thinking of getting into sublimation do a lot of research online,  it seemed like a good idea to answer some of these common questions in a blog post.   So that’s what we’re going to do.

Common Question #1:  What does it cost?   First of all,  there are the costs of buying the equipment and the inks and the blanks and heat press and paper you’ll need to get started.    Often you might be able to find a package that will allow you to buy those items bundled together at a discount.     So that’s your initial cost to get set-up and ready to print.   What many people forget or calculate incorrectly,   are the costs that come along with setting up a business.  Overhead,  salary,  electricity,  heat,  all those things have to be considered when figuring out what having a sublimation business costs.   Sawgrass has done a terrific post on this subject for those who want more detail.

Common Question #2:  What should I charge?  A perennial problem for people who do creative work is figuring out what to charge.   Some use a formula,  their cost times a certain amount.   Others add up all their expenses and then figure out how much they need to make per hour to cover their overhead costs and salary.   One issue that can occur,  whatever formula used,  is that the business in question is charging less than the market will bear.   Leaving money on the table is never a good idea,  so make sure you know your market and what sort of prices your competitors are getting.   You can read more about how to set your prices in this post.

Common Question #3:  Is sublimation hard?  This is a question that can be answered in a couple of different ways.   One answer is this:  when compared to other decoration disciplines,  sublimation probably has the smallest learning curve and the shortest time from set-up to production.   Another answer is this:  Sublimation does require at least a basic knowledge of graphic software,  a comfort with working with a heat press and the ability to conceptualize designs.   For most people, sublimation should be pretty easy to learn and do.   The big trick is avoiding sublimation intimidation and getting yourself to take the first steps and try decorating some blanks.

Common Question #4:  How many items can I print per kit of ink/pack of paper?  Honestly,  if there’s a common question we dislike intensely,  it’s this one,  because of all the variables involved.   Things like your printer settings,  the size of the items being sublimated,   and other factors that will vary from shop to shop make it hard to give a precise estimate.   Generally,  we decline to speculate,  simply because it’s often assumed that what we’ve said is written in stone and not our best guess.

What Can I Sublimate?

Woman with question marks on a blackboardOne of the most common questions about sublimation that we get asked is “what can I sublimate?”.   It’s a common question because people either assume you can sublimate anything  or they assume you can only sublimate items that are in some super secret special category to which not everyone has access.    The truth is somewhere in the middle.   Not every item is suitable for sublimation, as with most decoration disciplines,   there are items that cannot be sublimated because of how they’re made,  what they’re made of,  or because they won’t fit properly into the  heat presses or other heating methods available.     On the other side of the coin,  items suitable for sublimation are not some magically coated items that only a select few can use or buy.   In reality,  sublimation is really a fairly easy decoration discipline to enter and master.  If you are thinking of starting a sublimation business or wondering what you can and can’t sublimate,  here are a few pieces of information that should help you understand what you can sublimate and what may not be an ideal choice when it comes to sublimating a product.

The first thing you need to know is that hard goods suitable for sublimation need to be poly coated.   This means,  as I said in my last post,   that you can’t go to the dollar store and buy a mug and sublimate it.   Yes,  there are sprays that can be used to coat items for sublimation,  and going that route may be a viable choice for some people.   For most people, however,   the easiest route is to buy sublimation blanks already coated.  This will ensure that you get a quality blank with a smooth coating that is designed to stand up to the temperatures needed to get a good sublimated print.

When it comes to sublimating fabric,   100% polyester fabric will always give you the best result.   There are several t-shirt brands,  among them Vapor Apparel,  that make 100% polyester shirts that are comfortable to wear and have a nice feel.  These shirts are designed especially for sublimation and come in an array of colors that are suitable for this decoration discipline.

People often ask if it is possible to sublimate a polyester blend,  and the answer to that question is yes,  with a qualification.   Yes,  you an sublimate a poly blend but,  because it is a blend,   the sublimation ink will only dye the poly fibers.   This results in a more distressed look for your print.   Some people find this sort of look attractive and desirable.   Others do not.   If you want a full color print,  your best bet is to start with a garment that is 100% polyester.   This will always produce your best and most colorful result.

Sublimation is actually fairly simple when you get right down to it.   You need sublimation ink and sublimation paper and a blank suitable for sublimation.     You need a heat source that can reach 400 degrees,  either a heat press that can accommodate the blank you want to sublimate,  or  a wrap that can hold your transfer in place while the item is in an oven.  Finally you need a blank that is suitable for sublimation and some graphic software to create the graphic you want to print.   If you have all those things,  you’re ready to sublimate.

Uses for a Heat Press

Collage_SwingNote:   It’s very rare that I post the same post on both blogs because the subject matter of the two blogs is so different.  In this case,  however,  I made an exception.  A heat press has so many uses across the spectrum it seemed a shame to not share the content in both places.

Even though it might not seem like it at first glance,  a heat press is a very versatile piece of equipment.  While it’s true that all a heat press can do is heat up and press things,  the variety of  techniques for which it can be used may well make it one of the most valuable instruments in your shop.    Adding a heat press to your set-up can open up a whole host of opportunities for new markets and new sales.    If you’ve never considered adding a heat press to your shop before,  here are some uses for a heat press that may make you think again.

Use 1:  Sublimation – Dye sublimation is a process by which a special ink is printed on a special paper and then the transfer is heat pressed on a polyester garment or a poly coated substrate.  Sublimation offers you the ability to do more complicated designs on garments,  as well as widening the number of items you can offer to your customers.  If you’ve ever wanted to offer mousepads or coffee mugs or jewelry boxes,  then sublimation is the discipline for you.

Use 2:  Screenprint or plastisol transfers – Screenprint is a very popular decorating technique,  but it does have a learning curve,  and setting up a shop can be expensive.    Plastisol transfers allow you to offer screenprinted garments and items to your customers without having to do the screenprinting yourself.  All you need is a transfer,  an item to embellish,  and a heat press and you’re in business.

Use 3:  Vinyl –  This is another popular decoration technique that can be used on garments and other items.  Vinyl is often popular for the names and numbers on sports jerseys and team uniforms.   If you have a lot of school or sports league business available in your area,  vinyl may well be a great addition to your product offerings.

Use 4:  Rhinestones –  If bling is your thing,  then you’ll love rhinestone transfers.   A heat applied rhinestone transfer allows you to add sparkle to garments and other items without having to deal with the hassle of buying rhinestones and placing them yourself.

Use 5:  Decorated patches –  A blank patch,  embroidered or screenprinted by you,  can be heat sealed onto a garment,  backpack or other item.   Sublimated patches are a terrific way to make complicated designs with many colors simple.     If you have a design that won’t translate well into embroidery or screenprint,  put it on a sublimated patch and then heat seal it to the item to be decorated.    Your complicated design is now decorating the item of your choice with one easy press.

Finally,  if all else fails,  and you’re having a busy day at the shop,  you can always make a quick snack on your press.  Now,  we don’t recommend this option,  but it can be done and apparently,  the grilled cheese sandwich turns out quite tasty.

 

Get Started with Sublimation in 2012

To get started in sublimation you need five things:

  1. A printer
  2. Sublimation ink
  3. Sublimation paper
  4. Blanks suitable for sublimation
  5. A heat press

Your selection of printer really depends on what size prints you want to make.  If the biggest thing you’ll ever print will fit on an 8.5 x 14 sheet of paper,  then you might do well with a Ricoh 3300.   If you want to print 13 x 19 right out of the box,  it might be wise to consider a Epson WF1100.   If you want to print large images and think you will be doing quite a bit of production,  your best choice might well be the Ricoh GX 7000.   Different printers work best in different situations,  so please be sure to take into account how much you want to print and the largest thing you might want to print when deciding which printer to buy.

Sublimation ink is fairly simple –  if you run a Windows system,  you can purchase Sublijet ink for the Ricoh or the Epson printer of your choice.    If you use a Mac,  then you’re best off selecting Artainium ink,  as Sawgrass supplies ICC profiles for that ink which work with Macs.   Enmart does not currently list Artainium ink on our website,  but we can get it for customers who request that we do so.

When it comes to sublimation paper,  EnMart recommends our Mpres Paper.   We’ve tested many different kinds of paper over the years,  and Mpres is the best we’ve found.

Choosing sublimation blanks largely depends on what it is you want to sell.    EnMart offers a wide selection of blanks for sublimation,  everything from dog tags to mousepads, coffee mugs to jewelry boxes.   We also carry Vapor Apparel t-shirts, which are very well suited for sublimation.    EnMart also allows you to purchase just one of any item you might like to try,  subject, of course, to our $25 minimum order.

Finally, in order to sublimate, you need a heat press.   EnMart’s parent company, Ensign Emblem has a long history with George Knight heat presses, and has known them to be durable and reliable.  Since we’ve had such a good experience with these presses,  Geo. Knight is the brand of press that EnMart sells.   If you’re looking for a press,  remember to take into account the largest thing you will every sublimate, as you want to make sure your press is able to handle it.

Getting started with sublimation is not difficult, and EnMart is here to help make it even easier.  If you have questions or concerns, we’ll be happy to help you, or to connect you with people who can.

George Knight Heat Presses

If you follow us on Facebook or Twitter (and if you don’t, you should), you may have seen that I’ve been talking about the new revamp of the heat press section on our website.   We’ve separated out the different types of heat presses to help you be able to better find what you need.  We’ve added some presses and accessories that weren’t previously on the site.   We’ve also added some videos that will tell you more about individual presses,  as well as more about how the presses are built.    If you haven’t had a chance to preview the new set-up,  here’s a little tour.

First of all,  instead of listing all the presses under one category,  they are now divided into types.   We have clamshell presses,  which work well for flat goods,  and swing-away presses which offer room for goods with more shape to them.    Combo presses may be the perfect choice for the sublimator who wants to do a little bit of everything,  and mug, cap and label presses are a great choice for those who want to concentrate on decorating one particular item.

In the options and accessories category,  we spotlight things like pyrometers,  additional platens,  stands, auto release pop-up options and other items that can help you customize your heat press.   We also increased the  variety of materials,  like Teflon,  we offer to help you protect the platens of your heat press and the items that you are pressing.

We do sometimes get asked why we only sell one brand of heat presses,  and the answer to that is pretty simple,  we sell the brand we use.   Our parent company, Ensign Emblem,  has worked with other press manufacturers and used other presses,  and we’ve found George Knight to be the most reliable when it comes to customer service and to the quality of the products they sell.    We use Knight presses in our plants, and they have been workhorses that function well for us.  We’re confident they will do the same for you, and that’s why we sell them.

We also want to remind everyone that heat presses don’t necessarily have to be for sublimation or ChromaBlast printing.  You can use them to press Ntrans transfers to anything that needs decoration.    A heat press is also the perfect tool for heat sealing blank patches or sublimated patches to a garment.   A sturdy, well made press has a variety of uses,  and is a good investment for any shop.