All of the information that weve shared in the first two installments
of this series was intended to help you build a strong knowledge base
about the equipment and products available and the general procedures
used to sublimate tiles. Now its time to begin the fun, easy task
of actually sublimating tiles.
As a preliminary to your actual tile sublimation, we have a few suggestions
that will help you hit the ground running while headed in
the right direction. Our first suggestion is about selecting the image
for your first tile. Even if youre an experienced sublimator, dont
select just any ordinary image for your test.
When you select an image for your first sublimated tile, we strongly suggest
that it be one that youre positive is perfect!
Poor sublimation results, caused by poor image quality, can be one of
the most frustrating (and time-consuming) problems that you can experience.
Even pros sometimes waste hours trying to find their supposed sublimation
problem, only to eventually discover that it was caused by a poor image.
Initially starting with a perfect image is so important that we even suggest
you purchase a few high-resolution images from a stock photography house
or from a professional clip art service like www.clipart.com. These images
will have the quality and resolution to ensure that if your techniques
are good; your sublimated image will be great!
Our second suggestion is that you purchase a selection of tiles and play
with them before you start serious production and marketing. Often, the
first tile is perfect. Sometimes, its not. Dont put yourself
in the high-pressure situation of ordering new supplies and equipment
because you have immediate, promised orders. Give yourself time to learn
your tools of the trade.
Our third suggestion is that you experiment with sublimating one or two
tiles at a time, before you attempt even small murals.
Our last suggestion is especially valuable for the sublimation beginner.
Theres much to learn and do when setting up your new sublimation
equipment. After the set-up, one of your first tasks will be to print
a transfer and sublimate it, to see if it looks good.
Again, while setting up your sublimation tools is not rocket science,
it may require tweaking for optimum results. Theres
no point in using expensive tiles to test your sublimation methodology.
Go to a fabric store and purchase a few yards of good quality, pure white
polyester. You first test to make sure that your colors and shades are
sublimating correctly (remember that the image on paper will look nothing
like the sublimated image).
Small squares of polyester only cost pennies to sublimate. In addition,
polyester does nothing to an image. If the image looks good on fabric,
it will look great on ceramic tile. Another option, if you have access
to a metal shear, you can cut up some small pieces of a good quality white-coated
aluminum. The sublimated effect on white aluminum is similar to that of
As we begin detailing the actual process of tile sublimation, keep these
two thoughts in mind. First, were detailing the process and methods
that we would use for retailing (or wholesaling) sublimated tiles. There
are other methods that could be used. Our procedures are based on our
best knowledge for the optimum productivity and quality we want.
Second, the specifics are based on a single type of gloss tile, ink, etc.
Your specific type of ink and tiles, the coating on the tiles and the
efficiency of your heat press, versus the square inches of tiles that
you are sublimating at one time, will determine your exact methodology.
Tile Sublimation for Murals
In theory, a mural is a continuously linked image spanning two or more
tiles. In actual production, a mural almost always has considerably
more than two tiles.
While much larger murals have been produced and sold, the biggest mural
that we have personally seen was an 8 x 10 monster, using
320 6" tiles. One of the most technically demanding that we have
seen involved 4" tiles, used to form a 5 square mural. The
primary logo in the middle of the mural was not particularly difficult.
The challenge was the background color (everywhere, except where the logo
was printed) which went from a dark, hunter green at the top and gradually
changed shades until it was a very light green at the bottom.
At the end of this section well discuss some very important information
concerning very large murals. Dont miss it!
Except for a few caveats, the actual sublimation techniques used for a
mural are similar to that used for a single tile. By far the most commonly
sold framed tile murals use six, 6" x 6" tiles. This standard
is the basis well use in discussing sublimation for small murals.
The first example requires at least a 16" x 20" swing-away heat
Specifications-Six, 6" x 6" tiles at 400º, firm pressure
and 540 secondsthe entire image is printed on a 13" x 19"
sheet of True Pix high definition sublimation paper, using an Epson 1280
printer and ArTainium UV+ bulk ink system.
1. The transfer image is placed on the bottom platen, face up and the
tiles centered on the image (Fig. 10). This isnt difficult because
the image is larger than the flat surface tile area. Note: The actual
image size is 12.2" x 18.3". We added 1/10" per tile (vertically
and horizontally) to ensure print coverage on the tile edges. It may be
difficult to see in the picture but we used four pieces of heat resistant
felt on the bottom of the press. The 31 lb. high definition sublimation
paper used for the print is thicker than standard paper. The extra cushion
of four pieces (1/2" total thickness) ensures the paper will be firmly
pushed into the interior edges of the tiles. The extra cushion also greatly
reduces the possibility of tile breakage.
2. As before, place a Teflon sheet over all of the tiles. Uncoated butcher
paper also works very nicely.
3. Close the heat press and begin the 400º, 540 second heating cycle.
Note: The longer heating time is used because of the dark colors and
because the tile edges are touching. You could reduce the heating time
by about 90 seconds if the image were a lighter color or if the tiles
werent touching. This is part of the art of sublimation.
While sublimation is based on practical science, judgments based on artistic
presentation and production need are also involved. Artists do not paint
exactly the same way, nor are they seldom satisfied with the same results.
Youll become an artist in your own right, with your own opinions.
Our desired results are based on ours.
4. The Tile Master heat press is being used for this illustration.
Figure 11 depicts the second production tray of this press, already loaded
and waiting beside the press for the first tray of tiles to finish sublimating.
When the first tray on the press completes its heating cycle, the press
is opened, the first tray slid off and the second tray is immediately
slid on and the press closed. The downtime of loading and unloading a
heat press is virtually eliminated with this production process.
5. Figure 12 shows the tiles being very carefully removed from the transfer
sheet. Hot tiles are very brittle. If you accidentally bump one tile with
another it can easily chip. If this were an actual production run, we
would allow the empty tray to cool down slightly and then begin reloading
it for the next cycle.
6. Figure 13 shows the completed tile mural, with the used image paper
beside it. Note: Notice the faint image left on the paper. This isnt
really much more than a stain on the paper. The darker grid lines are
where the transfer sublimated the edges of the tiles. As you can see,
not quite all the ink was transferred from the paper to the tile edges.
Under most circumstances, this is not a problem, as long as about 90%
of the ink is transferred. This is okay because the edges of the tiles
are curved and the eye sees color there, as the same color that is on
the flat surface.
8: For face up single tile sublimating place the tiles face up on
the press and lay the green pad over them.
9: The finished tiles.
Grouped Tiles vs. Separated Tiles
Assuming your heat press has sufficient size and power, there are two
production techniques that can be used to sublimate tiles. In the first
method, you print the image on one sublimation sheet (for example, 13"
x 19") and then group six tiles together to sublimate, as illustrated
in Figure 13.
In the second method, you print one sublimation transfer for each tile.
The transfer is trimmed and the tiles are placed on the press, about 1/4"
apart (trim the paper to allow it to wrap more securely around the edges
of the tile) as shown in Figure 14.
The heat press in Figure 14 is a 14" x 16" swing away heat press
and will only hold four 6"x 6" tiles at a time. When producing
a six-tile mural, the sublimator would need to produce the other two tiles
with another production run.
Both production methods are useful. In fact, the separated tile
method is nearly always used when producing murals that are bigger than
12" x 18" because most dont have a printer that prints
larger images, nor a heat press that would hold a larger mural.
While a heat press like the awesome 394 Shuttle press (Fig. 15) or The
Tile Master (Fig. 11) is very efficient and desirable, dont worry,
smaller presses will get the job done. One of our customers did a 300-plus
tile mural, using a 14" x 16" swing away press like the one
shown in Figure 14. When recounting her story to us a few weeks later,
she confessed that, I got a little bit tired, but I smiled all the
way to the bank.
The best method will be determined by your specific production needs.
Tiles grouped together generally need about 20% more heating time, but
the tiles are faster to set up on a single printed sheet.
Tiles that are separated need slightly less cooking time,
but the setup is longer. Part of your decision will be based on what else
needs to be done by the press operator during tile production, the size
of the mural and the size of your press.
10: When sublimating murals, the transfer image is placed on the bottom
platen, face up and the tiles are centered on the image.
11: To speed up multiple tile mural production the second production
tray is already loaded and waiting beside the press (The Tile Master)
for the first tray of tiles to finish.
12: Use caution when removing your transfer sheets. Hot tiles are
very brittle. If you accidentally bump one tile with another it can
Maintaining Color Consistency
While maintaining color consistency is important with any sublimation
work (especially when producing multiples of the same image), its
crucial when producing large murals. The reason should be obvious. Multiples
of the same image means that there are multiples of the substrate. A slight
color shift in part of an image may be very difficult to discern. Even
if 100 of the same imaged items are lined up in a row, it may be very
difficult for you (much less your customer) to see any color difference
in number 1 and number 100 (unless you put those two side by side). This
is not true of a mural.
Every tile in a mural is surrounded by other tiles. Three tiles adjoin
a corner tile, five an edge tile and eight an interior tile. Even slight
color variations are very noticeable.
While thinking about the preceding may cause the nervous to bite their
nails, potential problems can be minimized with proper prudence and planning.
As the old pilots adage states, proper planning prevents poor
performance. You cant prevent the totally unexpected but you
can take actions to make sure you dont cause it.
First, when starting a big mural project, dont change anything in
what you normally do. This is not the time to try out a new graphics program
that you arent totally familiar with, not the time to hook up a
new, untested printer and certainly not the time to buy sublimation supplies
from unfamiliar suppliers because they may be having a sale. Go with what
you know works!
Second, get all of the sublimation supplies in, ahead of time, that you
will need to complete the project and perhaps even a little extra, just
to make sure that you dont run out. No, there shouldnt be
any discernable difference in different boxes of paper or tiles but why
take a chance?
Third, get your environment, materials, workflow and work area in order.
Here are some suggestions. Have an area where you can spread out your
printed transfers to dry for about 10 minutes (make sure its not
around the airflow of an air conditioner). For consistency, this is especially
important for ceramics. Have all of your tiles in the same room as your
heat press and dont put them on the floor. If you have the space,
have an area where you can temporarily assemble your mural
as the individual tiles cool off enough to be handled with bare hands.
This will help you keep a feel for the overall look of the
project. You should be using a bulk ink sublimation system for serious
sublimation printing. Fill all of your reservoir bottles to the maximum
suggested fill. Refill when a quarter of the fill volume is gone.
Fourth, keep a close eye on your printer, as it is printing. Granted,
this suggestion is so obvious that it seems silly but it is often not
done. Generally, sublimation printers are so reliable that we often take
them for granted and forget that even a $400 Epson printer is still not
a Rolex watch. They are still subject to fits and starts
and burps, like even the most expensive car engine.
You certainly dont need to watch every page, as it prints, but a
casual observance of the prints can provide an easy heads-up
that the page thats printing isnt consistent with the page
that just printed.
If that happens, immediately stop the printing cycle and do a nozzle check.
Remember that a pretty-good (whatever that is) nozzle check
is not good enough. It needs to be perfect! Stoppages (with most sublimation
inks), are usually caused by an air bubble trapped in one or more of the
print heads and just require one or two head cleanings (a mechanical function,
performed by the printer), to clear.
Banding, is the most obvious signal that there is a print head stoppage.
This is where enough nozzles have air in them that white, unprinted stripes
appear across your image. A much more subtle stoppage involves one nozzle.
This may not be enough to cause the very noticeable banding but may be
enough to cause a color shift.
The fifth consistency control procedure is not used by many. In fact,
the only ones that we know of are professionals who charge enough for
their work that the cost is minimal. This involves printing a percentage
of the tiles in their mural as control samples. Briefly, heres the
If they are printing a 200-tile mural they select 10-15 different areas
in the mural that display the major colors and shades. They then print
10-15 tiles from those areas, before they begin the actual mural. As those
tiles are printed during the mural production, they are compared to the
Many may consider this procedure over-kill and we are also
somewhat ambivalent in our opinion. However, the professionals that were
referring to command $80 to $150 a square foot for their work, so maybe
it is a non-issue to them.
The completed tile mural, with the used image paper beside it. The
faint image left on the paper is just a stain left on the paper.
For grouped tiles the trimmed transfer and the tiles are placed on
the 14"x 16" swing away press, about 1/4" apart.
|| Figure 15:
The 394 Shuttle press.
In our many years in and around the R&I Industry we have seen many
products and concepts come and go. Some were fads, initially hailed as
miracle products for the industry and then just as quickly
replaced by a newer latest and greatest. Other products came
more quietly onto the scene and slowly, but steadily, became important
and growing revenue streams. We think the latter scenario is the most
likely business outcome for ceramic tile sublimation.
This will be true for existing businesses seeking to be more competitive
through product diversification as well as startups whose core business
will be sublimated ceramic tile products.
A traditional awards company may be hesitant to jump in and start offering
wall murals to their corporate clients. However, an increasing number
are discovering the value of incorporating sublimated tiles into some
of their higher-end corporate awards and gifts. The reason for their profitable
success is simple. Perceived value!
Like plaques, ceramic tiles have a very highly perceived value. Incorporating
the two together just increases the perceived, intrinsic value.
From the constant success stories that we hear from our customers around
the country, there is also no question about the viability of a startup
company centering their core business on ceramic tile sublimation.
Invariably, the majority of these businesses focus on framed murals and/or
wall murals. Most specialize in a particular niche. This can be special
events such as horse, dog, cat, car, balloon, air shows, etc. Others prefer
to work through portrait studios, contractors, interior decorators, etc.
A growing number have developed the expertise and confidence to work and
develop their own upscale clientele.
One of our clients, for example, has not advertised in a year and a half
and has worked almost exclusively in one growing suburban area. She casually
mentioned those facts as she was ordering some sublimation ink and her
second Tile Master heat press. Considering the productivity of even one
of those heat presses we know that she is doing a whole lot of something!
This article concludes our 3-part series on the equipment and procedures
of ceramic tile sublimation. The series was very challenging for us. Even
though the series included 12,000 plus words and 30 pictures it is still
just an overview. It is intended to provide you with a foundation of knowledge
to help you explore and consider possible opportunities with ceramic tile
Are we advocating that you rush out and immediately begin a tile business
or add to your existing business with ceramic tile sublimation? Of course
However, thinking about and exploring the possibilities and opportunities
is certainly worth your time. There are many that are already enjoying
solid success and this number will continue to grow.
While tiles, or even sublimation, may not be your current cup of
tea, we suggest that you do yourself a favor and at least keep yourself
informed about the latest developments.
Good luck and good sublimation success!