“What is a sublimation printer?” You might have never heard of these before – or maybe you have. It doesn’t matter because I’m 100% you’ve worn a shirt with some kind of printing on it before.
Sublimation printing is probably the most important aspect of this printing and can be the difference between a cheap-looking shirt – and a shirt with high quality and high-resolution printing.
The problem you’re likely to face is finding good information on what to look for in a sublimation printer.
It’s a good thing you’re here because we’re going to deal with exactly that – and much more – in this article.
I’ll help you get a full understanding of what sublimation printing is. You’ll learn about its key features and the most important things you’ll need for top quality sublimation printing.
You’ll know about the different types of printers on the market, and how they compare against each other.
By the end of the guide, you’ll feel confident enough to take the topic head-on. You’ll know everything you need to know to get you started down the right path.
It’s an awesome topic and has the potential to make you money, open new opportunities, and create some interesting art and much more!
Let’s get into the guide.
Table of Contents
What is a Sublimation Printer?
All sublimation printing happens through special sublimation printers – the same way you print your documents through a standard ink or laser printer.
There are different types of sublimation printers and they each come with their own set of pros and cons.
Before we go into the different types of printers, we need to clear up this scientific-sounding name of sublimation.
What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation is the name of the process in which solids turn into gases without needing to go through the liquid stage.
This is achieved through some interesting science, which we won’t get too much into. It’s enough to know that heat and a transference material are used.
The result is that the gases permeate into the top layers of whatever you’re printing on to give you an excellently sharp and high-resolution representation of the original print design.
Go and look at a t-shirt or a pair of shorts that have any kind of design on them. You’ll notice that you can’t feel the gel or the ink that was used to print with.
Instead, it feels as if it was originally a part of the t-shirt. That’s what sublimation printing does.
There are a number of key advantages to using sublimation printing as opposed to other types:
- It offers the highest resolution and is, therefore, the best way to print photos onto shirts, plates, mugs, display units, etc.
- You can print different types of surfaces and not just fabrics
- The ability to print very long-lasting prints that don’t fade easily or get removed by washing
These are only the main ones that come to mind and there are many more. It’s safe to know that this type of printing is likely the highest quality you’ll find on the market.
How Does Sublimation Printing Work?
A sublimation printer is a device that is capable of sublimation printing.
They’re a little different from your standard printers. Once a printer is used for sublimation, it can no longer be used to standard ink or laser printing again.
Here’s how it works:
- Uses a digital printer to produce an image onto special sublimation transfer paper
- It uses sublimation ink to produce these images onto the sublimation paper
- This sublimation paper is then put into a heat press along with the material you’ll be printing onto
- These temperatures are usually around 350 – 400 degrees Fahrenheit
- In this stage, both the transfer material and the ink are turned from solid and straight into gas form
- In the gas form, it permeates into the fibers of the material you’re printing onto
- Remember that this type of printing isn’t just limited to fibers, but also onto plates, mugs, etc.
- Once the healing process is complete and the ink has set into place, the transfer paper locks it in there for good
- The removal of the heat and pressure cause the ink to return to the solid-state, locking it in place
This covers the basic process that’s followed when using a sublimation printer and the heat press.
The heat press and the sublimation printer are separate units and aren’t interchangeable.
What is a Dye Sublimation Printer?
This is an important part of the “What is a sublimation printer?” question.
Luckily, this isn’t as complicated as it sounds, so don’t stress.
Dye-sublimation printing is different from ordinary inkjet printing in the way that it lays down the ink.
Inkjet printers lay the ink out is small dots (almost like a type of spraying). This isn’t great for high-quality images as the individual dots can be spotted when observed closely.
This greatly reduces the overall resolution of the image that gets printed (think of it like watching a YouTube video in 240p vs watching in 4K or 1080p).
Dye-sublimation printing is the HD or 4K version of the video, and typical inkjet printing is the 240p or 360p version.
Dye-sublimation printing lays out a long film that has red, blue, yellow, and grey colors. There are solid dyes embedded into these films and use the four main printing colors:
These colors are vaporized from solid into a gas and they pass through the transfer paper.
Dye-sublimation printing is how most sublimation printers work and tends to produce the highest quality images – consistently.
What is a Sublimation Printer Used For?
Sublimation printing is pretty specialized and can’t just be used on any old surface.
It’s best suited to clothing and fibers (polyester clothing works best). It also works exceptionally well on hard surfaces that have a poly-coating.
This poly-coating is needed because the dye needs a place to set it into. The layer of poly-coating on hard surfaces like mugs and plates is the perfect spot to hold the dye in place.
Here are the most common examples:
- Pieces of decorative china
- Polyester clothing
What is a Good Sublimation Printer?
When you’re asking “What is a sublimation printer?” you need to learn what’s worth the money and what is a waste of time.
Not all sublimation printers are equal, the same way that not all traditional printers are equal.
You obviously have the main brands that tend to produce more consistent and generally better quality sublimation printers.
I’ve taken some time to look for some options that will give you excellent quality and will last you a long time – without killing you with maintenance costs.
When you’re planning your budget, bear in mind that you’ll need to account for the heat press and the other required materials.
Here are some of the better sublimation printers that tick all the right boxes:
- Canon Selphy CP1300
- Epson Workforce WF-7710 and WF-7210
- Sawgrass Virtuoso SG400
- Epson Stylus C88+
- Mitsubishi CP-K60DW-S
- Epson Expression Photo HD XP-15000
- HP OfficeJet Pro 9025
This by no means a complete list of all the best printers, but an excellent place to start from.
Taking a little time to study up on what makes these printers so good will help you make a better choice.
Your budget will also decide which models are within reach.
The printers I’ve listed here will also do a good job in setting the standard and give you a solid baseline to work off of.
Generally speaking Epson, HP and Canon make the best (and priciest) sublimation printers – but they deliver big on quality, performance, and durability.
How to Use a Sublimation Printer?
This section will go into how to actually start using your sublimation printer.
This whole sublimation printing process might seem pretty complex. While this may be true to an extent, it doesn’t give you the entire picture.
Once you’ve done sublimation printing and tried it with a bunch of different printing materials, you’ll quickly develop a system that works for you.
Just remember that there are many different types of sublimation printing. These steps just outline the main ones to follow. There will likely be minor changes that you’ll have to adjust for.
Here’s what you’ll need before getting started:
- Sublimation printer and sublimation ink
- A light-colored blank shirt for sublimation printing (you can use any compatible light-colored apparel here)
- Sublimation transfer paper
- A heat press
Once you have all of these, you’re ready to move onto the sublimation printing process:
Step 1: Creating Your Design
You’ll need to create the design you want to print on to the apparel.
You can use any photo editor that you like – I personally use Silhouette Studio. The choice is yours; just don’t get too bogged down with looking for the perfect studio.
The one you’re comfortable with is the best one for you to use.
Step 2: Mirror the Design Once It’s Done and Print It
Mirroring the image is important because it will be mirrored when you print it onto the shirt.
If you don’t mirror it in-studio, then it will be back to front when you print it onto the shirt.
This might mean that any writing is unreadable.
Mirroring is very simple in most photo editing studios and should take you less than a minute to do.
Once it’s mirrored, go ahead and print it on your sublimation paper, via your sublimation printer.
Give it a moment to dry and set, then take it out and move on to the next step.
Step 3: Line up the Design
Take the sublimation paper and line it up with the apparel you’ll be printing onto.
It’s essential to get this step right, or the result will be a print that isn’t centered or symmetrical.
I use the “Tee Square It” set to make sure everything is in line and centered (if that’s what you want).
You can use whatever setting tool you’d like, just make sure you get it right.
Step 4: Press it in the Heat Press
Check what the recommended pressing times and temperatures are for your sublimation paper.
Follow these guidelines well as you don’t want to under-heat and not get a clear print.
You can use a sublimation adhesive if you’re having trouble keeping the shirt steady while using the heat press.
Any movement will make the printed image slightly blurry – like moving a camera while taking a photo. Try to keep it perfectly still while pressing and heating.
For T-shirts and other fabrics, I do a medium pressure press at around 385 degrees Fahrenheit for around 35 seconds.
Step 5: Remove the Transfer Paper
This is probably the easiest step in the whole sublimation printing process.
All you have to do is slowly peel off the transfer paper. Make sure not to drag it too much.
Try to keep the removal as clean as possible. A little movement won’t have any effect, so don’t worry too much about this.
You’ll get a better feel for it once you’ve done it a few times.
Step 6: Inspect the Print
You’ll need to inspect the print up close to make sure that the image is clean and sharp.
Note any issues that you faced and think about how to avoid them the next time you print.
Look for any inconsistencies in the print and consider what you could have done better.
This whole process gets better over time and takes a little refinement to get just right.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: What is the sublimation paper?
A: This is the paper that the sublimation printer prints the mirrored design/image onto. This paper is different from traditional printing paper. It also has specific instructions for how long to press and what temperature pressing should be done at.
Q: Can I use my printer to print normal paper after using it for sublimation printing?
A: Unfortunately, no. Once a printer has been used for sublimation printing, it can no longer be used for traditional inkjet or laser printing.
You should feel very comfortable with this whole process now.
You’ve learned what sublimation is, how sublimation printing works, and how you can do it for yourself.
Like most other things in life, this is a skill that needs to be learned and mastered over time.
You’ll be able to get good results early on if you follow the steps I’ve laid out in this guide.
You should be ready to get a sublimation printer (and you know the other things you’ll need too) and get printing.
Don’t get too frustrated early on – just follow our steps if you get lost anywhere along the way.
Now that you can answer the “What is a sublimation printer?” you’re ready to get one and start putting out some awesome designs and get great results!