Grant Cooke, product manager at Xpres, answers the key questions surrounding sublimation printing and advises on how to get started

Grant Cooke

Sublimation is a printing procedure for transferring full-colour graphics or photographs onto a wide selection of products.

These products need to be either made from polyester or feature a polyester coating. The inks are then set into the product, almost like a tattoo. A sublimation print cannot be felt on the surface of the material you’re printing on.

Sublimation printing utilises specific water-based dye inks and a release paper that, under heat, transfers the image from the paper onto a polyester textile or sublimation specific substrate.

The process takes the ink from a liquid when printed, to a solid on the paper, to a gas under heat, and then to a solid again when infused into the printable substrate or fabric.

The benefits of using sublimation for printing include the relatively low initial investment costs involved, the huge range of printables available for this type of printing, its suitability for more intricate designs and the simplicity of the process.

What equipment is required?

A sublimation-specific printer is required for the process. Depending on the size of product you want to produce, a sublimation small-format set-up should be sufficient. A common misconception is that the desktop printers are the same as home office printers; in actual fact, the printers’ ink lines and internals have been updated to allow the thicker sublimation gel ink to flow through them.

There is a wide range of sublimation printers available, from A4 desktop units up to wide- and grand-format machines, which have a print width of up to 5m, with many configurations in between, such as A3, 24”, 44” and 64”. The wider format printers have a greater choice of ink configurations depending on the main substrates being printed; however, entry-level desktop printers allow for printing onto all substrates with commercially viable quality too and are a great choice to start with. You’ll only really need the larger printers if the scale of your business warrants this kind of investment. Make sure you speak to an expert before purchasing any printer to ensure the machine will meet your specific needs.

Next, you need a heat press to transfer the inks from the paper onto the substrate. These can be flat-bed presses, like those used for garment printing (eg heat transfer vinyl and laser) or cylindrical presses for bottles, mugs, etc. The flat-bed heat presses should ideally be swing-style presses, as these give the most reliable pressure on all areas of the press. A clam press would also be sufficient, although there tends to be greater pressure at the back near the hinge than at the front. Potentially, this could lead to noticeable colour gradient shifts on blocks of colour. A pneumatic press will deliver the most consistent pressure, as the pressure can be set the same and is not reliant on ‘feel’.

Your end application will determine which is the best type of disperse dye for your needs

Heat presses, like printers, come in a wide range of sizes. They are available from A4 through to greater than 2m x 1m, and the size required will depend on the size of the printer you own and/or the volume of product you are printing.

RIPs and paper

Some form of RIP software will also be required to ensure the colour reproduction is accurate. For desktop printers, Sawgrass Print Manager has intuitive features to enable optimum output for photography and graphic artwork alike. It also adjusts the ink amounts depending upon the substrate being printed.

Larger format printers have an array of RIP software available, often packaged with the printer during purchase. The RIPs for these printers have greater functionality for production, allow for custom profiles to be created and achieve even better colour reproduction.

Desktop printers utilise a general-purpose paper, generally about 100gsm, that’s suitable for both soft and hard substrates.

Wider format printers benefit from a range of available paper grades – some are specific for textiles and others designed for high quality photographic output, such as ChromaLuxe.

Giftware can be a rewarding market to enter due to the vast array of products available

Depending on what you are looking to print, you will need the consumables or garments to print on. These are often available from the same place you purchased your printer or heat press.

Which are the best markets to target?

The first thing to consider when looking at what market you’re looking to target is the scalability of your business. Can you handle the demand? Is it a stable area? Will you be able to react to any fast changes that may occur? These are all questions to ask yourself.

That being said, there are a few markets that are looking particularly healthy at the moment and could be worth targeting:

■ Giftware can be a rewarding market to enter due to the vast array of products available and trend- driven additions frequently becoming available. For example, stainless water bottles and tote bags are very popular at the moment, due to the demand for reducing single-use plastic.

■ For larger format printers, it is possible to produce home décor applications such as cushions, blinds and blankets. However, entering this area is dependent upon the skillset of the employees at the business.

■ Soft signage can be a great market for signage businesses as textile applications can replace those printed with solvent inks – this method can be better for the environment due to the water-based inks and the possibility to recycle textiles after use.