9 Steps to Sublimation Success

By Tom Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

To Draw, or Not to Draw (and with what?) That is the Question….

by Tom Chambers

Of the 3 major stages in the process of creating sublimated goods, the last two are easy to learn and do – pressing with a heat press, and printing your design on your sublimation printer.  Then there’s the first stage, where it all starts – the part where you have to design and set up whatever it is that you want to print.

Yes, sublimation is easy and (almost) anyone can do it.  Designing your artwork?  That is a different thing altogether.  The world of graphics design can be a secretive, wonderful, complex, difficult, and on occasion even a seemingly magical realm of gurus, self-help videos, seminars, and even college level classes.  So where do you start, and which program should you choose?

Full disclosure – I’m biased.  I use CorelDRAW Suite because that’s what I learned 20+ years ago, and I keep using it because I like it, it’s easy (once you know how), and it’s inexpensive for what you get.  I’ve designed everything from custom drawn artwork to full color brochures, magazine ads, and 8’x10′ popup banners in it.  But that wasn’t always so.

In the beginning, I tried to teach myself Corel.  After a couple months I could do some basic stuff, but I wasn’t really happy with what I could (or couldn’t) do.  I struggled with some things until I finally took a series of in-depth classes lasting 4 days.  After that, the sky was the limit and the whole thing became just plain fun.

To do sublimation, your graphics program needs to be able to handle two types of images – vector and raster.  Simply put, vector is clipart-type drawings, and raster refers to images made up of pixels, like photos.

You also need to be able to turn off color management in the graphics program – OR it needs to be able to handle the color correction required for sublimation either on its own, or by using a color profile designed for it.

Here is a list of the 3 most popular graphics programs for sublimation, and the pros and cons of each.

  1. Adobe Creative SuiteAdobe Illustrator (vector) and Adobe Photoshop (raster)

Pros:  This is the flagship, top of the line graphics program suite, with the most features, power, and overall support.  Widely taught in colleges and other institutions and used by many graphics designers everywhere, it’s easy to find classes, self-help books, and videos.  You can literally design everything from magazines to full color banners for skyscrapers; retouch photos, and create original artwork.  This is what made the word “photoshopped” a part of mainstream vocabulary.  Completely control your color output with use of custom profiles, or turn it completely off.  If you can fully master these programs, you will most likely be at the top of the graphics design world.  Versions are available for both PC and Mac.

Cons:  The learning curve is steep and long.  Think Mount Everest here with years of preparation.  You will likely need lengthy training and many classes unless you are gifted that way, have lots of time, and can teach yourself.  The programs and features are complex, and not always intuitive.  Color management and settings are almost as difficult as the programs themselves.  It is expensive, and all recent versions are now subscription based.

  1. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite – CorelDRAW (vector) and Corel PhotoPaint (raster)

Pros:  This suite is probably the most widely used in the decorated apparel industry for a variety of reasons including a more attractive price point, availability in both purchase and subscription models, and being easier to master with a shorter, gentler learning curve.  While possible to teach yourself, classes or videos will shorten that time dramatically.  You can design almost anything in Corel that you can in Adobe, and the tools are more intuitive and easier to work with.  Color management can be turned completely off, or configured in a myriad of custom ways with or without profiles.  Settings are a little easier to work with and more intuitive.

Cons:  Corel can occasionally act up in ways that will remind you how important it is to save your work often.  Outside the decorated apparel industry, it is less widely used and supported.  It can be difficult to find classes in your area, forcing you to use online classes if you can find them, or self-help options like webinars, videos and books.  Also, Corel is available only for PCs.

  1. Sawgrass Creative Studio

Pros:  This program is entirely web based, accessible from anywhere on most computers, tablets, and even mobile devices, and handles both vector and raster images.  The price is hard to beat as well – free, with the purchase of any Sawgrass sublimation system.  This is probably the best option out there for anyone new to graphics design that wants to get into sublimation as quick as possible.  And because it’s created by the people who brought you desktop sublimation in the first place, it’s designed specifically with that in mind – giving you access to thousands of clipart and graphic images, and templates for sublimation blanks to make everything as easy as possible.  Additional premium content is even available via a paid subscription plan.

Since Creative Studio is web based, it should work on any operating system on Mac, PC, tablet or smartphone, in Windows, Apple, Linux or Android, as long as the browser is compatible.

Cons:  There is almost always a trade off when something is easy – and that’s normally manifested in a lack of more powerful and advanced features.  While this is no exception, Sawgrass has done a great job of combining necessary features with something relatively easy to learn and use.

If you don’t have a stable high speed internet connection, this option may not be for you though, and if you lose internet, you won’t be able to access the program at all.

So which program should you choose?  The simple answer is “the one that you like that does the best job for what you want”.  If I were just starting out today with no experience, I’d probably use Sawgrass Creative Studio, and maybe at some point in the future, switch to Corel.  Any of the 3 options listed are great choices though.  It really comes down to what you feel comfortable with, and how much time and money you want to invest.

The Three Stages of Sublimation

By Tom Chambers

Oscar Wilde once said of absinthe that “After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were.  After the second you see them as they are not.  Finally you see things as they really are…”  I stopped there with the quote because after that it gets a bit weird, which could have had something to do with Oscar having drank absinthe for 3 days.  But I digress.  That part of the quote, in a kind of absinthe-y way, makes me think about sublimation.  Or perhaps sublimation makes me think about this quote (or maybe absinthe; it is currently New Year’s Eve as I write this).  In any event, let me explain the odd connection between the two in my mind.

After many years of fielding trade show questions, most would-be future sublimation practitioners seem to follow a certain path of research to three basic levels of awareness that I’ve nicknamed “The Three Glasses Stages of Sublimation Absinthe”.  Those may be simply put as:  what you wish sublimation were; what sublimation is not; and finally, what sublimation really is.

Now hopefully the connection to the Oscar Wilde quote is obvious enough to keep you from thinking that this article is really all about absinthe, or that it is all I’m thinking about.

What You Wish Sublimation Were.

At first contact, sublimation can sound to some like an end-all be-all solution for all decorating styles and mediums that is just short of magic, that can put full color photos on anything quickly and easily for little expense.  My previous article addressed this particular wishful thinking in more detail, but for many, the desire and sometimes even belief, is that sublimation does everything.  Dark garments, light garments, cotton, polyester, nylon, spandex, wood, tile, stuff from Home Depot, race cars, signs, awnings, boat covers, walls, airplanes, everything.  It’s pretty easy to get caught up in all that sublimation WILL do (which is a LOT), forget about what it won’t do, and wind up believing that it does everything except wash dishes.

What Sublimation is Not.

Sublimation (ink) is not really even an ink.  It doesn’t have pigments (think screen print ink, direct to garment ink, or paint), and it doesn’t block other colors from showing through. That means no white ink – not now, not ever.  Without white ink or color pigments, you can’t do dark colored garments or other items, because you need those solid color pigments to cover over the background color with some other color.

Sublimation will not work on anything that is not either made out of polyester, or is coated with a similar polymer coating.  Period.  50/50 polyester/cotton or all cotton t-shirts?  Forget about it.  Only the polyester part sublimates.  Floor tiles from Home Depot?  No way.  The science behind the way sublimation works and what it actually is, just doesn’t allow it.

What Sublimation Really Is.

Now we’re to the good stuff.  Not absinthe, sublimation!  What IS sublimation after all?  In chemistry, sublimation is the transition of a solid to a gas without going through a liquid state. Dry ice is a good example.  For our purposes though, sublimation is the transition of sublimation dye particles into a gas, without going through a liquid state.

In other words, when you put the paper that contains your design that is printed with sublimation dye particles into a heat press at the correct temperature, on top of something made out of, or coated with polyester, then those dye particles turn into a gas that penetrates the polymer chains of the fabric or coating.

Put yet another way, you are dyeing the polyester fabric or coating with a gas created when you heat up dye.

Yes, sublimation ink is really a dye.  We only call it an ink because it comes in inkjet printer cartridges suspended in a liquid, the looks of which tricks our brains into thinking it’s ink.  And because it’s easier to call it “sublimation ink” than “sublimation dye particles suspended in a liquid medium contained in an ink cartridge”.

Because it is a dye, you can only dye something a darker color.  Also, that means it is translucent – it allows light to pass through it.  As in whatever color you are sublimating onto will show through the color(s) you are putting onto it, unless those colors are significantly darker.  This is why sublimation is mostly done onto all white goods.  After all, you can make white into whatever color you want – including white, because it started out that way.

Ultimately, there isn’t any better way out there to put full color, photo quality artwork or photos onto such a wide variety of products.  As long as said products are white or light colors; made of, or coated with polyester, and will hold up in a heat press, you’re good to go.

Hopefully this clears up some of the misinformation and myths about sublimation and what it will and won’t do.  If you would like to discuss sublimation (or absinthe) further, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

No absinthe was harmed (or drank) during the writing of this article.

Your Heat Press and You

by Tom Chambers

My esteemed colleague and professional writer Kristine Shreve has written much ado about heat presses over the years.  Among those articles are “Buying a Heat Press“, “ Uses for a Heat Press“,  “5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press“, and “A Heat Press Primer“.  I’m sure there are more, and there is a ton of useful information in those articles.

So why am I writing yet another article about a heat press?  Because at some point after you read all the above articles and did all your research, you made the decision and bought a heat press.  Now you have to set it up and learn to use it.  How do you do that?  I know, that may seem obvious and simple, but there’s a bit more to it than just taking it out of the box and plugging it in.  That’s where this article comes in.

Setup

The very first thing you need to do when you receive your new heat press is to open up the manual, read what the requirements are, and do a bit of preparation.  If you have access to the manual before you receive your press, you will be ahead of the game when it arrives.

Before you set it up, you need to have a work area large enough for both the press and the work you will be doing.  If it’s a clamshell, you’ll need enough overhead clearance so the upper platen can be raised and lowered without hitting your knuckles on a cabinet bottom (or anything else).  If it’s a swing-away or drawer press, you’ll need additional space to the side and/or front.  You’ll also need a sturdy table, counter, or dedicated stand to place the press on.

The press should be conveniently located near an electrical source that meets or exceeds the requirements of the press. The electrical requirements will be expressed in amps, volts, and watts in the manual (or on the web site) for the press you bought.

You should make sure that you do not exceed the capacity of your electrical circuit and always plug directly into an outlet, not an extension cord.  Overloaded circuits can cause issues ranging from simply tripping a circuit breaker, all the way up to starting a fire and burning down the building.  My recommendation is that if you don’t know what you are doing here, consult an electrician.

If it is an air operated press, you’ll need an air compressor with enough capacity to supply the press, an air supply line of an appropriate diameter and length, plus any fittings necessary.

Not having appropriate electric and air supplies can also cause issues with the operation of the heat press.

Settings

Once you’ve set everything up, you should familiarize yourself with the features your press offers, especially the controls and how to change the settings.  For example, many presses offer the ability to store presets for various products in memory for easy recall.  This can be a real time saver if you have to press a lot of different products with different settings.

No matter the manufacturer, model, or style of heat press, they all have 3 settings in common.  Those are:  time, heat, and pressure.  Whether you plan to do sublimation, vinyl, transfers, rhinestones, or anything else, every single thing you will want to use your heat press for uses those 3 in varying degrees (bad pun fully intended).

Therefore, you will need to know what those 3 settings should be for whatever you are pressing at any given time, and that the settings will vary widely between products.  Manufacturers and distributors have recommended settings, and you will usually obtain those from your place of purchase.

Of the 3 settings, “time” is most consistent and reliable from press to press.  Typically this is a digital timer that either prompts you to release the press, or automatically does it for you, after your set period of time has elapsed.

You would think that the second setting, “temperature” would be consistent as well, but that is rarely the case.  Most heat presses vary anywhere from a few degrees to 20 or 30 degrees F from their displayed temperature, and this can change as they age.  It is important to know what your actual temperature is, because that directly affects the end results of what you are pressing.

Knowing the actual temperature requires a tool called a pyrometer with a surface probe, and purchasing one will be the best investment you make for your heat press.  It can potentially save you hours of frustration and thousands of dollars in ruined products.

Finally, there’s “pressure”.  On a manually operated heat press, setting the pressure is simply an educated guess.  Heavy pressure means you have to put a good amount of force on the handle to fully close the press.  Light pressure means you only have to put a little force on it.  Some manual presses provide a sensor and graphic display for the pressure, but those should not be taken as precise.  By contrast, an air operated press has an adjustable gauge or dial that shows you exactly how many psi (pounds per square inch) of line pressure is set.

Support

Now you are ready to press.  Follow any additional instructions for your press, but don’t be afraid to experiment either – it’s common to have to make some adjustments to published manufacturer settings as you press different things, and what works on one press may not be exactly the same on another.

It’s usually best to leave your press on even if you won’t be using it for an hour or two.  Turn it off only when you aren’t going to be using it for several hours or more.

Be sure to drain water from any air lines daily, follow any manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations, and keep support numbers handy for any questions or repairs.

As always, contact us with any questions.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

3 Groups Who Should Never Do Sublimation (and 1 Group Who Should)

by Tom Chambers

There are 3 groups of people who should never do sublimation.  Are you one of them?

  1. People who have absolutely no interest in sublimation.

Hey, I’m not here to convince you to do something you have no interest in.  If you aren’t interested in a way to decorate thousands of items in full photo-realistic color easily and quickly at high profit margins – who am I to suggest otherwise?

  1. People who have no creativity.

While practically everyone has some level of creativity out there including most who think they don’t, there are a handful of people that just have no imagination at all. If you can’t take a picture of your cat, write a sentence, or print something, then sublimation probably isn’t for you.

  1. People who cannot use a computer.

Let’s face it, not everyone is a computer nerd.  Not everyone wants to be, and thankfully, no one has to be.  Most people have at least had limited exposure to computers on some level.  However, if you are one of those who prefer to avoid such modern contrivances in favor of more conventional means like pen and paper, then you probably shouldn’t do sublimation.

If you don’t fall into one of the above groups, then read on, this article is for you.

Sublimation is EASY.  That’s right, EASY, in all CAPS.  People get hung up all the time on the word “sublimation” and the definition, because it sounds scientific and complicated, which apparently makes it so intimidating that people will sometimes buy a sublimation system and then store it in a corner and look at it periodically, too afraid to even open the box.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ok, so “sublimation” IS scientific and complicated – but you don’t actually need to know any of that, any more than you need to know what science is behind the print-head and the electronics inside your printer that make it work to print pictures of your children, pets, or a business plan for that great idea for a sublimation business.

When you print something, you don’t think about printing – you just print, right?  Sublimation is like that too.  In fact, printing is the first step in the process, so if you have already printed something, you already know what to do.  Not very intimidating is it?

Sublimation is FUN.  Here again, FUN in all CAPS.  You should enjoy what you do, and if you can make money at it, that’s even better.  Sublimation is fun because you are limited only by your imagination.  If you can imagine something and print it, then you can put it (sublimate it) onto one or more of the thousands of blank items just waiting for your sublimativity (sublimation + creativity; I just made that up – feel free to credit me).

Once you’ve sublimated something, you can sell it and make money.  Putting the image you printed onto a sublimation blank is the second step in the process, which usually involves a heat press.  Doing all that IS fun, and not very intimidating either.

Sublimation is PROFITABLE.  Yes, I know, to be redundant, PROFITABLE in all CAPS.  That’s because the margins can be quite astounding.  Where else can you start up a business for under $2000 (and in some cases, even under $700!), have fun doing it, and make anywhere from 2 to 6 times your cost, typically on the higher end of that range?  For the mathematically challenged, that means if you have a product that costs you $3, including the cost of the ink and paper and your time, you can sell it for $6 to $18.

Oh, and did I mention that from the point in time you decide to embark on a sublimation journey until you will be making products to sell can be as quick as 1 day?  Contact us for more information and if you have any questions.

This introductory article is broad in scope, but future articles will expand some of the individual points mentioned into their own articles.

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.