Where to Begin with Sublimation Printing
Infusible ink paper is gorgeous with incredible vibrant colours and prints from infusible ink paper, but if want to transfer detailed graphics like photographs your own text, and other personalized graphics, you need to investigate sublimation printing.
For sublimation printing to work, you need three main ingredients: sublimation ink, a sublimation surface (blank), and heat application. You do not print directly onto a blank. You print out your image onto paper and then transfer the paper image onto your blank using heat and pressure.
Full disclosure here: my very first attempt with sublimation printing using the cricut mug press was a failure but then those are sometimes the best kind of starts. I sure learned a lot! Especially that this is really simple process and yet I think I made every mistake possible! Maybe I was overthinking it? Anyway, after that, I had a good laugh at myself and I moved on to get very handy with my mug press. Hey, you can’t just press one!
Index to Sublimation Printing
This is a long post with lots of information including where to find all your sublimation printing supplies in Canada. You can use this list to jump directly to the various parts.
- Sublimation Ink
- Sublimation Printers
- Sublimation Transfer Paper
- Transfer Surfaces or Substrates or Blanks
- Heat Presses
- Other Supplies
You cannot use regular ink for sublimation printing. To permanently transfer an image onto your blank, you need the ink to be chemically created for sublimation. This is a careful mixture of various chemicals like acetates, glycol distillate and subliminal dye. This means ink jet ink or laser ink will not work. Regardless of how you plan to transfer the ink, it must be sublimation and not mixed with any other kind of ink.
Sublimation ink comes in different forms. You can get sublimation ink in pens, bottles of ink or specially treated paper with the ink embedded (e.g., infusible ink paper from Cricut). There are many different brands of sublimation ink. For my printer, I went with the Printers Jack brand ink from Amazon.
To print detailed photos or graphics with the sublimation ink, you need a printer that will take and print with sublimation ink. There are special purpose sublimation printers available on the market for home use or small businesses, but these tend to be pricey.
Printer Options and Cost:
(Prices checked at the time of this post but could change without notice.)
For the entry-level/hobbyist there are a few desktop sublimation printers on the market, for example:
- The Sawgrass Virtuoso SG500 sublimation printer starts around $827. The next size up, the Sawgrass Viruoso SG1000 jumps to around $2,000.
- The Epson 24″ F570 sublimation printer is about $3000. Epson recently (2021) came out with an F170 entry level sublimation printer starting at about $519 retail in Canada.
Another alternative is to find an inkjet printer that can re-filled with sublimation ink rather than inkjet ink. It needs to have a tank to fill rather than use ink cartridges and have a technology that DOES NOT HEAT THE INK before printing. The printers on the market that meet these requirements are the Epson EcoTank printer line.
You may want to try to get a deal on a refurbished EcoTank printer on the Epson Canada Clearance Centre.
The Epson EcoTank – Convert For Sublimation Printing
Epson EcoTank printers are inkjet printers NOT sub ink printers. However, it is possible to convert them to a sublimation printer by loading in sublimation ink instead of the supplied inkjet ink. You should be aware that because the machines are not marketed for this particular ink, the warranty on your printer will likely be voided.
Conversion of an Epson EcoTank to sublimation ink will likely void your warranty
The model I converted myself is the Epson EcoTank ET-2720 All-In-One Inkjet printer. When new in the box, the ink tanks and lines are empty and clean. The inkjet ink is provided in separate bottles to fill the tanks. Do not use these inks because they are not sublimation ink and the two types of ink cannot be mixed.
Most basic colour printers use 4 colours (i.e., Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK) which they combine to create all the other colours of the rainbow. Sublimation printing also uses the same 4 colours so it is possible to directly swap them out. Be aware that it is vital that you put the right colours in the right tanks so the printer combines the colours correctly. Fortunately, this is easy to do.
In fact, the first thing I did when I got the printer was to rinse out the supplied ink bottles with water and pour the Printers’ Jack sub ink right into these bottles. The bottle caps are not all the same! Be sure to put the right colour in the right bottle and its all good.
Setting Your Printer Up for Sublimation Printing
Once the ink is transferred into the right bottles, just follow the instructions as normal for setting up your printer substituting your refilled inkjet bottles. There is a great video by QuickSPI on this full process which I recommend you watch. For instance, there is a “charging” process that takes about 20 minutes. If I hadn’t watched the video, I might have thought it was stalled or something. Also she has a great video on setting up the default printer settings too.
For quick reference, the printer settings that differ from the default are:
- Paper type : premium presentation paper matte
- Quality : high
- No high speed
- Mirror image
- Colour mode: custom
- Adobe RGB
- Gamma : 2.2
Image Creation Tips
I won’t go into a a lot of detail here about the techniques or requirements for creating and editing images. I will just mention just a few basics to get you started. For my graphics, I use a great Canadian (and much cheaper!) product called Paint Shop Pro. Unfortunately it is only available on a PC.
When you print your image onto paper, the print will look dull or even faded. This is normal for sublimation ink on paper. The sublimation process itself brings out the true colours of your print through the heat and pressure application. So many times after doing a press, I pull off the paper and gasp at the gorgeous results! Sublimation ink is incredibly vibrant after transfer!
Remember that when you are printing a sublimation image to be transferred to a blank, you need to print it as a mirror image. This will be the case for the vast majority of your transfers.
One word of caution too. In your graphics software, the .png format allows you to use transparency. In the image below for instance, I forgot to make the white areas transparent and they actually printed black. This was obviously not good for pressing (or for my ink consumption!). I had to print a second time with all white areas set to be transparent. The final mug turned out great as you can see in the second picture of the sublimated mug (also notice how the colours come out much brighter after the pressing process).
Sublimation Printing Paper
Okay, you have the ink and printer ready to go. Great! Next up is what to print onto. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t print directly onto the blank. You print onto paper and then apply heat and pressure to transfer that image. This is why it is important to print a mirror image. It also means you need paper to print on. Personally I use heat transfer sublimation paper from Amazon (Stone City Brand). Sublimation paper has a thin backing and a thicker weave to purportedly hold more ink.
I have also seen many people advise using just regular copy paper instead of sublimation paper. In my opinion, it seems the quality of your print may be fine with little detectable difference for most images, however using sublimation specific transfer paper helps minimize bleeding during the transfer process. During pressing, the ink bleeds through to the wrong side of the paper and can come in direct contact with your mug press or heat press. This leakage is reduced with the transfer paper and also by wrapping your blank with butcher’s paper.
Wrapping and Butcher’s Paper
After placing your print with the image against the blank surface, you need to tape it down with heat resistant tape to get it as tight as possible against the surface. This is to ensure the best transfer and to prevent shifting. If images shift during the heating process, you will get a ghosting effect.
You will also need wrap your mug (or any blank) with an additional layer of butcher paper between your printed image and your mug press or heat press. This makes the press nice and tight but critically, it prevents any leakage of the sublimation ink onto your equipment. After you wrap the image and tape it down tightly with heat resistant tape, wrap it again with a layer or two of butchers’ paper. Voila! pop in the mug press and its ready in about 6 minutes.
I do the same kind of process for coasters. Print the mirrored image on the sub paper, attach paper to coaster with ink touching surface of coaster, tape it down tightly, cover with butchers’ paper and place Easypress2 on top for suggested length of time.
Sublimation Surface or Substrate or Blanks
Awww, blanks! Finally the really fun stuff! Before you go shopping for blanks, there are a few rules of thumb:
- Hard surfaces must be specially treated for sublimation
- Fabrics must have a high percentage of polyester fibres (100% being the best)
- Sublimation dye does not work on cotton fabric
- You cannot transfer onto dark coloured blanks (white being the best)
- You cannot transfer white through sublimation ink.
If you are using the Cricut mug press, be sure your mugs have straight sides.
You may find work-arounds or variations on these above principles throughout the internet, but these are still the general constraints of sublimation. There are methods and products to try get around some these rules, all with varying success. Proceed at your own risk 🙂
There are so many blanks available now it is fantastic. I put together a list of places to shop online for blanks in Canada in the Canadian resources menu. For mugs and coasters, the best quality ones seem to be the Cricut brand ones in my opinion. I like the quality of their round coasters best, but since they are ceramic, they will shatter if dropped. The Cricut 15oz mugs are also great and they offer different coloured handles too. However, If you plan on re-selling and need less expensive blanks, there are many bulk buying options at many great Canadian online suppliers.
I have mostly talked about using the mug press here which is really a great solution for mugs. However, you need a heat press for other sublimation projects like clothing, fabric, coasters, pet tags, metal business cards, air fresheners…well the list is almost endless as long as they are specially-treated for sublimation. I use my 9×9 easypress2 for coasters and such like but you can get great results with most heat presses (irons typically do not get hot enough to transfer the sub ink). I did consider getting a larger heat press at one time, but decided against it and here is why. If you are not sure about your settings, you can refer to the Cricut heat guide.
That’s all you need to know to get started with printing and sublimation!
Other Supplies For Sublimation Printing
Before you go, here are a few more things you might consider. I found that there are a few other necessary or helpful items for a successful sublimation craft room.
First up, heat resistant tape. Most craft supply stores that offer sublimation blanks also have heat resistant tape in stock. It is also available on Amazon. I use the tape for nearly every application but especially on hard surfaces. It is really essential to secure your image against coasters and mugs.
Secondly, I recommend white butcher paper- unbleached, unwaxed and uncoated. As explained, I put this between the press (mini, easypress or mug press). It doesn’t affect the heat transfer and protects your press from possible leakage of the sublimation ink. You can also purchase reusable Teflon sheets.
Finally, I recommend a heat absorbent pad like the cricut heat pad. I have used my wool pressing pad, but it can get singed after multiple presses as the easypress2 touches the mat itself.
Really optional items include:
- Tape dispenser to make your life easier and free up your hands when preparing your blank for pressing.
- Heat resistant gloves can save your fingers from burns.
- File folder or filing system to hold your pre-printed sublimation sheets (you can print out your images far ahead of time and press later).
- Graphics program to make your graphics. I personally use the Canadian product Paint Shop Pro for graphics and photo manipulation. It is a much less expensive alternate to Adobe products, like Photoshop. (only for PC not Mac compatible)
- Signup to online copyright free photo websites (like Unsplash or fonts and graphics at sites like Creative Fabrica
- A well-ventilated room. I usually press near an open window. There is a small burning smell that dissipates quickly.
For me, my sublimation printer really upped my sublimation range and I love it. It is a game-changer! As always, have fun and let me know if you found this type of information helpful.