These are questions that comes up over and over again, so I figured it’s time to help lay it all out!
What is sublimation? Straight from Wikipedia, “Sublimation is the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase, without passing through the intermediate liquid phase.” Sublimation ink is a specialized ink that when heated to high temperatures turns into a gas and transfers onto certain materials thus making it part of the material. The carrier for the ink is paper. Basically, sublimation is a way to add full-color decorations and designs to items without using vinyl. It absorbs directly into the material so the original texture and feel is not changed. It is IN the material, not ON the material (like vinyl would be).
PAPER: Sublimation paper is specialized to hold more ink than regular paper. Some people still use regular paper so that is an option, but when I did side by side tests, the regular paper was definitely more faded than sublimation paper. You print onto the paper mirrored, then place the print (“transfer”) onto your substrate face down, then apply heat. There are lots of sublimation paper out there. I read a lot of reviews and ended up using A-Sub paper from Amazon and have zero complaints so haven’t tried anything else. There are good reviews for other paper as well so it’s something you can defiantly test out if you wanted to.
HEAT PRESS:You can use a regular heat press for anything that is flat but it has to be able to reach higher temps than what is required for vinyl, typically 400°. If you want to put transfer onto something that’s not flat you’ll need a special press or attachments for your press. OR you can purchase “wraps” and use a convection oven. The transfer needs to have good contact with what you're putting it on so the gasses from the ink transfer cleanly to the substrate. Wraps are basically silicone sleeves that can hold the transfer in place while the oven provides the heat. You would use a dedicated oven for this. Not one you plan on ever cooking again with. You can get small countertop convection ovens at places like Walmart for under $100. I haven’t gone this route, but wanted to mention the option. I have an 12x15” 8-in-1 swing away press so I have lots of different attachments to do different things. Also, you will be limited to how big of a design you can press by the size of your press. Some people have had luck moving the item and pressing again to do bigger things, but that’s really hard to not shift the transfer. It is doable though. I gave up and bought an additional 16x24” press so I can do bigger items.
PRINTER: There are a couple directions you can go with your printer. You can get a Sawgrass printer that is sold as a sublimation printer and comes with special software to help you print, color profiles to help the accuracy of colors, and customer service available to hold your hand if needed. Sawgrass Printers are nice Printers, but they cost significantly more and the base models do not print as large as some other options. The next option is an Epson printer. Both Epson and Sawgrass are Inkjet Printers and print quality is comparable. Epson Printers would need the original cartridges removed and either refillable cartridges or a Continuous Ink Supply System (CISS) installed. For a more in-depth comparison of Epson vs. Sawgrass, read on...
CARTRIDGES vs CISS: I have an Epson and have used both refillable cartridges and a CISS. I stopped using my CISS and switched to cartridges. They hold less ink, but there are less issues dealing with air bubbles in the lines that cause the print heads to dry and clog. Sawgrass Printers have an auto-clean function that runs on its own everyday to prevent clogged heads. Epson's do not. You need to print something, anything, every few days to keep things from drying out. If they do dry out, you will have to do some head cleanings or prime the print heads again to get them flowing. But it happens and it can be fixed. Just something to be aware of. Also, if you break your printer you can’t call Epson for help. Epson will void the warranty of the printer if you tell them you put non-Epson cartridges in it. So you are limited to google, YouTube, and groups like this for support 😉👍
Ink:There are lots of different ink companies out there and only you can decide which one you want to use. Some require ICC color profiles to be installed onto your computer to correct the ink colors and print accurately. Those profiles typically need graphics software to work but there are ways to choose them in the back end, even if your software wont let you. Some inks don’t require profiles, which means they have formulated their ink to be accurate using Epson’s default profile. So you can print from any program you’d like and get great colors. I started with a cheap ink from Amazon that didn’t require a profile because I wanted to be able to print using Silhouette's software so I can use vinyl and sublimation side by side easily. Print and cut for example, if you want to sublimate onto things like white glitter HTV. Or if you want to add some glitter or foil HTV onto a shirt with sublimation, you can make sure your print is sized perfectly for the vinyl. The cheap ink I was using wasn’t awful. But my blacks had a blue tint to them, and some random colors would be off and I’m a perfectionist, so I switched to Cosmos Ink. Cosmos Ink is sold by Caps on Fire and has lots of tutorials for sublimation. I saw the results of the ink and that was good enough for me to make the switch. So far, the colors have been much more consistent and are still very affordable. And I have a true black 🙌
SUBSTRATES: Sublimation does not work with everything. And it doesn’t print white. It’s dye based with not white so it can only darken what your putting it on. Picture using markers on black paper. You can draw whatever you want, but you won’t see it. But on yellow paper you’ll see the colors, but your pinks will look orange, blues will look green, etc. And the general rule of thumb is that the ink won’t absorb into natural materials, like cotton/ceramic/wood. It needs polyester or a specialized coating to hold the ink. Fabrics can be a blend of polyester but if you use 50% polyester 50% cotton, half of the ink will wash out with the first wash. The higher the polyester, the more vibrant the print. There are some sprays you can use to be able to use cotton but they aren’t cheap and there is a learning curve. Some people love them so that’s definitely a route you can take. Or there are special vinyls and transfer sheets you can use to put on your shirt, then sublimate on, but then you’re going back to the HTV feel. It’s not true sublimation anymore. But definitely an option if needed and I’ve used when needed.All that being said, sublimation is so fun and can open up a whole new world of crafting for you! It’s definitely not a plug in and you’re off thing, but with some practice and help from groups like these you can get going pretty quickly, and you will get hooked. I will share all the links for my set up and if I missed anything, feel free to ask. It’s a lot for sure!