Shop For Sublimation

Copyright © 2003 by Davis Multimedia, Intl. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in August 2003, Volume 29. No. 2 of The Engravers Journal.

     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. What’s 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 that’s relatively easy to learn, what more could you ask for?
     Most people in the industry are familiar with today’s 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 that’s colorful, detailed and won’t 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. It’s 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 it’s 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.

Sublimation transfer paper and extended life inks with UV protection for the Epson C80 or 1280 printers. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN. Epson tri-chamber printers (C60, C80, 800, 900 & 1280 models) with Color Rite Continuous Ink Flow System. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Skokie, IL.

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.)

The anatomy of a sublimation inkjet cartridge for Epson printers. Start 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 can’t 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 eliminated.
     The good news is that the latest generation of Epson printers are inexpensive and they don’t 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 there’s 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 won’t 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 model.
     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 isn’t 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 today’s 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 won’t 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 won’t 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 hasn’t 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 can’t handle.
     Production-oriented shops will be interested in a printer’s 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.

A 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 aren’t 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 don’t 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 ink cartridges.
     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 isn’t 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 it’s usually a good idea to use those papers, at least in the beginning.

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 computer’s monitor with those sublimated on the product. As you probably know, especially if you’ve tried printing digital photos, this doesn’t “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 computer’s 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 MonacoPROOF.
     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 predictable results.
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. There’s 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.