David Lavaneri, owner of DGL Engraving in Oxnard, California, added sublimation
to his industry-based business about three years ago and has never looked
back. The profit potential for sublimation is, in a lot of areas,
just overshadowing what I can even hope for in engraving. Lavaneri
is thrilled with his sublimation business and it continues to be a money-maker
for him. Whats the big appeal? For starters, your initial start-up
costs are low and industry experts estimate profit margins are at 200-500
percent! For a process thats relatively easy to learn, what more
could you ask for?
Most people in the industry are familiar with
todays sublimation. You start by creating a digital image of the
design you want to reproduce a scanned photo, a downloaded photo, clip
art, digitized artwork, etc. Next, print the (reverse-reading) image onto
paper using an inkjet (or laser) printer and special sublimation inks.
Place the printed transfer on top of the substrate (T-shirt, tile, mug,
etc.) and place both in a heat press. When you apply the appropriate time,
pressure and temperature, the inks sublimate, i.e. they transform
from a solid to a gas and back to a solid to create a permanent imprint
on the item one thats colorful, detailed and wont wash
or peel off.
Sublimation is one area of the industry that
has seen great strides in the past couple of years. If you were around
in the 80s, you will agree that a lot has changed since the days
when we used to use a modified copy machine and actually had to cut
and paste together (yes, with scissors and by hand) a transfer to
achieve more than one color! Today, we have new printing and ink technology,
and the evolution of digital imaging means you can sublimate just about
any image you can think of!
Sublimation has many advantages, which is why
it has continued to be a favorite marking method in this industry. Its
fast and economical, and consumers have accepted it with wide open arms.
In fact, the markets for sublimation are continuing to expand to include
everything from awards to wearables to architectural design.
Have you considered venturing into the sublimation
business? Where do you start? What equipment should you purchase? Who
will buy sublimated merchandise? This article series is intended to provide
you with what you need to know about sublimation by giving you the latest
technological and marketing information. Note that laser sublimation is
extremely profitable and economical, and its actually preferred
for some applications, such as sublimating metal. However, the focus of
this particular article series is inkjet sublimation. Here, we take a
look at everything you need to make an inkjet sublimation transfer.
transfer paper and extended life inks with UV protection for the Epson
C80 or 1280 printers. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis,
tri-chamber printers (C60, C80, 800, 900 & 1280 models) with Color
Rite Continuous Ink Flow System. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions,
Computer & Software
The first piece of equipment you need is a computer. A PC or a
Mac will do, but keep in mind that the more memory and disk space, the
better. This is especially true if you will be working with photos and
colorful graphics. Graphics programs and graphics files tend to eat up
huge chunks of memory and disk space, so get a lot!
In simple terms, you can use just about any software to create
sublimation transfers, even word processing programs. The most popular
option is to use off-the-shelf graphics software, like CorelDRAW or Adobe
PhotoShop and Illustrator.
You can use just about any graphics software to create sublimatable
images, but keep in mind a couple of points: One is that some ink suppliers
only have color correction software for certain programs (more about color
correction later). And two, be sure you know how to use the software before
you take on too many jobs! You can literally spend hours trying to get
a design just right and that wasted time can mean money down the drain.
David Lavaneri says that the best advice he could give to someone starting
out in inkjet sublimation is to learn the graphics program(s). That
will be the toughest hurdle, he explains.
In addition to a speedy computer and good software, you will probably
want to include an artwork scanner and/or a digital camera in your sublimation
setup, at least at some point. These tools are invaluable for work involving
photographs and other digital images, and can be relatively inexpensive.
(You can find good artwork scanners for around $60.)
of a sublimation inkjet cartridge for Epson printers.
up sublimation package includes Refurbished Epson 300 printer, ink
cartridges, materials and hands-on training. Photo courtesy of Sawgrass
Technologies, Mt. Pleasant, SC.
Sublimation transfers can be created using a variety of methods,
including thermal printers, offset printers (used most often for high
volume applications, e.g. 1,000 pieces or more), laser printers (monochrome
or color) and screen printing. Today, one of the primary methods for generating
sublimation transfers utilizes inkjet technology.
Unfortunately, you cant just drive to your local office supply
store, buy any desktop inkjet printer off the shelf and use it for sublimation.
At this time, inkjet sublimation is limited to Epson printers. The difference
is that Epson inkjet printers utilize Piezo printhead technology, while
other brands of inkjet printers (such as Hewlett Packard, Cannon and Lexmark)
use a thermal printhead that is not compatible with most sublimation inks.
In simple terms, thermal printheads have a tiny heating element
inside each nozzle that heats the ink, causing it to expand and push out
of the nozzle. When heat is applied in this printing methodology, the
solids in the sublimation ink will clog the nozzle. Piezo printheads,
on the other hand, use electricity to push the ink out of the nozzle.
Because there is no heat involved, the clogging problem is
The good news is that the latest generation of Epson printers are
inexpensive and they dont have to be modified in any way to make
them suitable for sublimation (with the exception of using sublimation
ink). However, not every Epson printer can be used for sublimation. Different
ink suppliers support different models, and theres also the situation
with Epson itself. Because Epson earns more money from ink sales, not
printers, the company works hard to discourage third-party ink suppliers
(i.e. sublimation ink suppliers) from selling to Epson printer owners.
So, on their newer printers, they have modified their ink cartridges to
include a coded chip that the printer recognizes (it wont recognize
cartridges without the code), something that sublimation ink manufacturers
need to crack. The bottom line? Before you buy an inkjet printer
for sublimation, make sure your ink supplier supports that particular
The chart accompanying this article shows some of the latest inkjet
printers, along with some specifications, that are supported by many ink
suppliers. The chart also shows some discontinued models that you may
either have or can find on clearance. (Take caution when buying discontinued
equipment, however, to make sure it isnt too obsolete.)
Once you find printers that support inkjet sublimation, you will want
to consider their different features, as well. Price, of course, is one
consideration. Prices for printers can vary dramatically from seller to
seller, so it pays to shop around. Many times, rebates are offered, especially
on older models. Also, discontinued or refurbished printers can be found
on clearance. Many times, you get what you pay for, but not always. Shop
around, ask questions and get opinions.
The way a printer handles color can be another important consideration.
Inkjet printers are generally designed to work with either two or four
print cartridges and todays models can have four- or six-color capabilities.
The two-cartridge printers have one black and one tri-color cartridge
(cyan, magenta and yellow). One drawback to this design is that when any
one of the colors runs out (yellow, for instance), you have to replace
the entire cartridge, whether the ink is used or not. A four-cartridge
printer has separate ink cartridges for all four colors, so when one runs
out, you simply replace it.
The six-color system includes one black cartridge and one five-color
cartridge containing cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta and yellow.
The additional colors in this printer design create greater tonal range
and exceptional photographic quality. You wont see any dots in a
halftone image, for example, but rather continuous tones. Six-color sublimation
shows up best on hard surfaces, e.g. wood, plastic and metal, and is used
where color detail is ultra-important. On soft substrates, such as fabrics,
and for items that will be viewed from a distance, the differences between
four- and six-color printing wont be noticeable. In these instances,
it is more economical to use a four-color system.
Other factors to consider when purchasing an inkjet printer are
the format size and print speed. The Epson 980, for example, has an 8"
x 13" print area which is fine as long as you never exceed this image
size. The Epson 3000, on the other hand, has a larger 16" x 21"
print area. Smaller format printers are less expensive and could suit
your needs very well. David Lavaneri says that his sublimation work involves
mostly name badges, so he hasnt had a need for a large format printer.
On the other hand, he says, a large format printer would be an excellent
choice for setting up shop to serve a specific niche market, e.g. door
mats, that your competitors cant handle.
Production-oriented shops will be interested in a printers
speed. Print speeds can vary quite a bit, so if this is important to you,
be sure to check it out. Also, if you are production-minded, you will
probably want to buy a printer that is compatible with a bulk ink system.
tri-color ink cartridge, with cyan, magenta and yellow inks.
The main key in sublimation lies in the ink you use to print transfers.
Actually, you arent really using ink in sublimation at all, but
rather a dye made up of water, heat reactive dyes and a fluid carrier.
The dye is designed to bond with substrates with a high polyester content
the more polyester, the better.
Suppliers sell sublimation inks in cartridges designed for several
models of Epson printers. (Make sure inks are compatible with your printer.)
This is one of the areas that has been affected by changes in the industry.
Open competition between ink vendors has changed the face of sublimation,
says Richard Hilton, Hilton Images, Pembroke Pines, FL. Also, it
has changed the expense. Prices for sublimation inks have gone down
and quality has gone up a win-win situation. (This could, however,
change in the near future. Currently, there is litigation between Sawgrass
Technologies and other sublimation ink supply companies. Sawgrass is claiming
that other ink suppliers are infringing on their patent of the process.
The outcome of the litigation could affect the industry in terms of the
number of ink suppliers and/or how they operate.)
Generally speaking, cartridges for lower end printers dont
hold much ink and even the larger capacity cartridges tend to run out
quickly in production situations. In response to this, suppliers have
developed bulk ink systems. These systems include special ink cartridges
that attach to ink reservoirs placed outside of the printer. This way,
you can purchase larger bottles of ink that you refill as needed without
having to continually replace what can sometimes be expensive sublimation
For laser printing, you can use plain bond paper with fine results,
but inkjet printing requires special quality high release paper. Plain
paper soaks up too much of the dye, so not enough is transferred to the
substrate. Bleeding (poor edge definition) and loss of detail are other
common problems when plain paper is used for inkjet sublimation transfers.
Papers that are specially designed for inkjet printing help the dye stay
on top of the paper, rather than soaking into it.
In a pinch, you could visit your office supply store and find a
good quality transfer paper for inkjet printing. Papers such as Epson
Matte Photo Quality Ink Jet paper should work well for many applications.
Both single-sided (the bright white side is the printable side)
and double-sided papers are available for creating inkjet transfers. General
purpose single- and double-sided papers usually work fine on a variety
of substrates and cost about 10-15 cents per 8.5" x 11" sheet.
However, some general purpose papers may not work well for images containing
large, solid areas of color. (An area, by the way, in which laser sublimation
shines.) This lack of opacity means there isnt enough color on the
transfer to completely dye the substrate, so dark colors like black and
navy blue may appear lighter, washed out and blotchy.
For the best quality, consider using a special high release
paper. These papers are single-sided and designed to release the most
amount of dye, thereby creating very good detail and color vibrancy. These
papers are generally capable of generating more color density and creating
a more opaque image, two important factors in sublimation. Note that some
of these papers require the dye to be fully dry before use, which can
slow production time. Also, at about 15-18 cents per sheet, these papers
are a little more expensive than general purpose papers.
When selecting paper for making sublimation transfers, you also
want to consider color correction compatibility. Color correction methods
for inks are commonly designed around certain types of transfer papers,
so its usually a good idea to use those papers, at least in the
|The Color Correction Issue
On the more technical end of things, color correction is an issue
that you will need to address in your day-to-day sublimation jobs. In a
nutshell, the objective behind color correction is to match the colors that
appear on your computers monitor with those sublimated on the product.
As you probably know, especially if youve tried printing digital photos,
this doesnt just happen. Because each device in your system
(monitor, scanner, printer, etc.) handles colors in different ways, you
need to develop a set of standards or a profile to correctly
transfer color from one device to another.
The first step is usually to calibrate your monitor so that the colors
you see on the screen match the colors in your digital files. There are
different ways to do this. For example, Adobe Photoshop and Elements both
include a color calibration utility called Adobe Gamma that you can use
to achieve this, or you can purchase specialized color calibration software.
Although there are different methods for calibrating your equipment, experts
agree that a method that creates an International Color Consortium (ICC)
profile is considered one of the most accurate and reliable. For your monitor,
this can be achieved by using a sensor with special software. ColorVision,
Lawrenceville, NJ, for example, sells the Spyder with PhotoCAL or OptiCAL
software that includes an optical sensor that makes color adjustments to
your computers graphics card to calibrate the monitor and create an
ICC profile. Monaco Systems, Andover, MA, offers similar solutions for calibrating
your monitor, scanner, etc., including MonacoEZcolor, MonacoPROFILER and
Today, many (though not all) suppliers provide color correction information
with their inks. Through a series of tests, they calibrate their inks and
save that information in an ICC profile. When you purchase inks from these
companies, you tell them what type of computer, program, printer and paper
you are using, and they provide the correct ICC profile. Each time you print,
the software accesses that information. The result is more consistent and
Buying Today for a Profitable Tomorrow
You can see how important it is for all of your sublimation system
components to work favorably together. Who you buy from and why are two
very important points to consider when it comes to purchasing equipment
for inkjet sublimation. Price is important, but it is not everything,
says Jack Franklin, Alpha Supply Co., Nashville, TN. A good, knowledgeable
vendor is like a helpful partner and worth their weight in gold, he
says. Anyone can sell you anything. Can (and will) they help you grow?
Before purchasing, Franklin suggests examining your budget, but not
just in terms of affording the equipment, but affording the equipment and
the time to develop your skills day by day. It is very stressful to
put oneself in the position of getting new equipment today and having to
make a profit tomorrow, he says.
While technological changes in sublimation during the past two years
have been major, there promises to be even more commotion to come. Franklin
sees a lot of good changes happening in incremental steps during the next
few years. The biggest changes will be in marketing and they will
be titanic. Within two years, ink costs will be on the level of inexpensive
commodities. Color management and graphic program use, already fairly easy,
will become even easier. The retail market will easily double in size. More
substrate manufacturers will spring up. The easy availability of products,
technology and proliferation of information on the web will encourage not
only part-time start-ups but also large numbers of end-users to begin. The
next three years will be very interesting, according to Franklin.
Very Interesting, indeed. Theres a lot more to cover concerning
inkjet sublimation. Be sure to watch for Part 2, which will focus on that
other important piece of equipment: heat presses.