Ceramic Tile Mural

  This 30-tile wedding mural takes a beautiful photo and makes it into a treasure that’s viewed daily. Photo courtesy of Photo USA, Sunnyvale, CA.

By John Pratt and Jack Franklin

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2004, Volume 30, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal.

     All of the information that we’ve 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 it’s 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 you’re an experienced sublimator, don’t 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 you’re 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, it’s not. Don’t 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. There’s 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. There’s 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 white tile.
     As we begin detailing the actual process of tile sublimation, keep these two thoughts in mind. First, we’re 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.

Figure 1: For face down single tile sublimation place the transfer image on the bottom platen, face up. Figure 2: Carefully center the tile on the image. Figure 3: By placing a Teflon sheet over the tile you help block stray sublimation dye, and protect the heater block from tile grit.

Single Tile Sublimation-Face Down
     Specifications-6" x 6" gloss tile, sublimated face down, 400, firm pressure, for 420 seconds.
     1. Place the transfer image on the bottom platen, face up (Fig. 1). Note: Because a 6" x 6" tile is being sublimated, the printed image needs to be 6.1" x 6.1". This ensures that the image color will transfer to all of the tile edges and also provides easy registration in positioning the tile on the transfer.
     2. Carefully center the tile on the image (Fig. 2). Note: There are four pieces of heat resistant felt on the press (Nomex®). When you close the heat press, the tile will push into the felt and cause the transfer sheet to tightly press against the tile edges.
     3. Place a Teflon sheet over the tile (Fig. 3). You can also use a thick sheet of paper. Note: The Teflon sheet not only blocks stray sublimation dye, but protects the heater block from tile grit.
     4. Close the heat press and begin the 400, 420 second heating cycle.
     5. After the heating cycle is completed, immediately and carefully remove the tile from the heat press (Fig. 4). Place the tile face up on a clean surface and allow it to cool naturally. Note: A good technique for removing the tile is to press down hard on one side of the tile, which should cause the other side to lift slightly, and allow enough room for you to put your gloved thumb under the tile, and remove it from the heat press.
     6. Figure 5 shows the completed tile. Note the difference in the image on the sublimated tile from the image on the transfer paper in Figure 1. This difference is entirely normal. Sublimation inks do not produce vivid colors until they have been heated.
     Additional Important Notes: To ensure proper centering of the tile on your transfer, make sure you’re looking straight down at the tile, not from an angle. Another reason we use felt on the bottom of the press is to reduce wear and tear on the expensive, black heat resistant rubber. Care should be exercised when removing hot tiles from a transfer. If you slide a hot tile across a transfer it will probably re-sublimate and cause a slight shadow effect. Remember to turn the sublimated side of a glass tile face up to cool. Because the sublimated image can be seen through the glass, many people forget to turn the tile over.
     Figure 6 shows single 6"x 6" glass tiles (you are looking at the images through the tempered glass) produced using the same method as that used for the gloss tile in Figure 5. Be aware that if you can discern a slight “texture” in the glass that this is deliberate. Floor tiles must pass friction standards to meet OSHA safety requirements and the texture is in the glass.
     Another point that we found interesting when testing these tiles is the fact that although the manufacturer has added almost twice the UV inhibitors (in the glass), it has not affected image quality.
Figure 4: After the heating cycle immediately and carefully remove your tile from the heat press. Figure 5: The completed sublimated tile.

Single Tile Sublimation-Face Up
     As we mentioned previously, there are a few types of images that we would consider sublimating face up. Two of them are cameo type images and faded-edge images. A cameo image, of course, is an oval shaped image, so there’s no concern about color on the edges of square tiles, while, as the name implies, faded-edge images are clear images with deliberately faded edges.
     The cameo effect is normally used for photographs of live subjects. Faded-edge effects can be effectively used for many different types of imaged single tiles or murals (only the outside edges of the mural tiles are faded).
     Faded edges are often used on single tiles to “blend” the edge of the image with the edge of the tile. This effect is sometimes preferable to the sharp “drop-off” effect as shown in Figure 6.
     Much of the process is similar to the previous procedure. Our explanations and illustrations depict the differences.
     Specifications—Two, 4" x 4" gloss tiles, sublimated face up, 400, medium pressure, 420 seconds, using a “green pad” (heat conductive rubber).
     1. Place the transfer onto the tiles using small pieces of tape (Fig. 7). Note: You tape the transfers onto the tiles to eliminate shifting of the transfer paper. When the transfers are not taped they may shift and create imperfections when the green pad is taken off of the tiles after the heating process.
     2. Place the tiles face up on the press and lay the green pad over them as the operator is doing in Figure 8.
     3. Our finished tiles are displayed in Figure 9. As you will notice, we combined faded-edges with the “Cameo” tile. We prepared the special effects of both images in Mural 7.
     Additional Important Notes: When we removed the tiles from the press, we just simply put them on a countertop to cool and left the transfer on, until they were cool enough to pick up and peel the paper off. This will not affect your tile image. Never put tiles in water to cool them off. Ceramic tiles are porous on the back and will soak up water.
     You may have noticed in the “Specification” list for this section that we used exactly the same time for sublimating tiles face up as we did for the ones sublimated face down. Many are under the impression that it is faster to sublimate tiles face up because the tile surface is closer to the heat. They are mistaken.
     The reason for this is simple physics. While the green pad does conduct heat it is not 100% conductive. To make up for less than 100% efficiency, the heating time must be increased.

Figure 6: These two 6"x 6" glass tiles were produced using the same method that was used for the gloss tile in Figure 5. Figure 7: For face up single tile sublimation place the transfer onto the tile using small pieces of tape.

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 we’ll discuss some very important information concerning very large murals. Don’t 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 we’ll use in discussing sublimation for small murals.
The first example requires at least a 16" x 20" swing-away heat press.
     Specifications-Six, 6" x 6" tiles at 400, firm pressure and 540 seconds—the 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 isn’t 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 400, 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 weren’t 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. You’ll 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 isn’t 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.



Figure 8: For face up single tile sublimating place the tiles face up on the press and lay the green pad over them.   Figure 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 don’t 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, don’t 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.

Figure 10: When sublimating murals, the transfer image is placed on the bottom platen, face up and the tiles are centered on the image. Figure 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. Figure 12: Use caution when removing your transfer sheets. Hot tiles are very brittle. If you accidentally bump one tile with another it can easily chip.

Maintaining Color Consistency
     While maintaining color consistency is important with any sublimation work (especially when producing multiples of the same image), it’s 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 pilot’s adage states, “proper planning prevents poor performance.” You can’t prevent the totally unexpected but you can take actions to make sure you don’t cause it.
     First, when starting a big mural project, don’t change anything in what you normally do. This is not the time to try out a new graphics program that you aren’t 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 don’t run out. No, there shouldn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 don’t need to watch every page, as it prints, but a casual observance of the prints can provide an easy “heads-up” that the page that’s printing isn’t 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, here’s the scenario.
     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 control samples.
     Many may consider this procedure “over-kill” and we are also somewhat ambivalent in our opinion. However, the professionals that we’re referring to command $80 to $150 a square foot for their work, so maybe it is a non-issue to them.

Figure 13: 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. Figure 14: 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.

Closing Pictures
     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!
Final Picture
     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 sublimation.
     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 not!
     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!