Roadblock to Sublimation

Copyright © 2004 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in November 2004, Volume 30, No. 5 of The Engravers Journal

    You can accomplish anything you set your mind to, right? I’m sure that’s what your parents told you, and there’s some truth to that. But the caveat is that you need to have some idea of what kind of animal you are getting ready to wrestle, prior to running head first into the dark forest.
    I’m sure you’ve watched the slick sales demonstrations at your local county fair showing how easy it is to make a 10 course gourmet dinner in five minutes if you would purchase the “Slice-Em Dice-Em Ice-Em” set for only three easy payments of $19.95 each! You watched amazed as the expert at the demo counter made it look so easy. So you buy it, take it home, more than likely try it once or twice with dismal results, and then let it sit on your bottom shelf for a couple of years or until you no longer feel guilty selling it off at your next garage sale.
    Just as in many other professions, there are some sublimation vendors who will try to make a quick sale by presenting you with an unrealistically easy picture of what is involved. Statements like “It’s as easy as printing money!” make it sound like a sure-fire no-brainer way to riches. Sublimation printing can very well be the basis of a successful business but you deserve to know what you are getting into prior to making a decision. If you’re prepared for some of the difficulties that may lie ahead, and still decide to get into it, you are much more likely to be successful at it. This series of articles is designed to do just give you a more realistic feel of what you’ll be getting into, and how to deal with some of the common difficulties that may come up.
    First, let’s talk briefly about why you may want to add sublimation printing to your mix of processes. Beautiful full color, photo-realistic printing onto a variety of items can be achieved cheaply, easily and quickly, even doing one item at a time. In many cases sublimation printing is the only practical and cost-effective way to decorate an item. Plus, while there are many ways to decorate some of the more common items like t-shirts, sublimation printing can allow you, in many cases, to provide a higher quality product with stronger durability and better washability. Another advantage is that since it’s not an easy enough process to be in widespread use at the present time, and has only recently become a practical process for many uses, that currently translates into a competitive advantage for those who use it.
    So let’s take a look at some of the roadblocks to using the sublimation process, and ways around them. For purposes of this article, I’m talking about the inkjet dye sublimation process, although there are other sublimation printing processes with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Whenever I refer to “sublimation ink” in this article I am talking about inkjet dye sublimation ink.
    First, let me tell you what this article series is NOT about. It’s not about teaching you the normal steps involved in getting into and using the sublimation printing process. You’ll find other sources for that information, both from other articles in this magazine over time and from many other places. The purpose of this article series is not to be a “how to” article but rather to fill in the gaps with some of the surprises, or potential roadblocks, that your friendly local sublimation dealer may not tell you about, or that you would not see discussed at a trade show or in a print ad. The things I’m going to discuss are not black and white areas of training but rather unpredictable gray areas, with no simple answers. So let’s explore the first 5 of 10 potential roadblocks in this first part of a 2-part article series, and see how to come out on top in any situation...

Roadblock #1: No Perfect Ink—This sublimated glass tile from Conde Systems, Mobile, AL, shows what you can achieve when your supplier delivers the quality of ink you need.   Roadblock #2: Clogging or Air Bubbles—This mug from RPL Supplies, Saddle Brook, NJ, was created using a printer with freshly cleaned heads.

Roadblock #1: No Perfect Sublimation Ink
    Some brands of sublimation ink along with their recommended color corrections are better than others in terms of clogging, consistency, accurate color, vibrant color, available color gamut, density of the blacks, resistance to settling, UV resistance, archival quality of unprinted transfers, average price per square inch of coverage, consistency from batch to batch, etc. But no one ink has the advantage in all these and other areas.
    Therefore your choice of ink is more than likely going to involve compromises. With many of those compromises comes a roadblock. For example, one leading sub ink on the market has had a very spotty history in terms of bad batches of ink, especially with green blacks and clogging. The fact that many users had these kinds of problems was not apparent for some time, because the answer this company would tend to give anyone with problems was “Gee, we’ve never heard of anyone else having these problems, it must be something on your end.” Two other popular inks on the market have had sporadic problems with the magenta ink over spraying (uncontrolled spraying on the print that has nothing to do with the art in question) in certain models of printers. The answer for some is to replace the magenta cartridge with a “quick-drying” magenta cartridge offered by the same companies, but for others, the problem still remains even after switching to that cartridge.
    Another brand of ink that a friend of mine uses has had many significant changes to it’s formulation in the past year or two. He has been running a high volume of sublimation printing using banks of Epson 3000 printers. This ink used to work perfectly in all 13 of his printers. In the last year, due to significant change in the consistency of the ink, changes which the factory had been very slow to acknowledge, 7 of the 13 printers can no longer run this ink. The mystery is why the other six can. Again, an example of a roadblock on many levels. Why did the factory change the formulation? Why didn’t they notify people of the change, and actually deny for months that there were any changes? Why do 13 “identical” printers behave so differently?
    If you’re wondering if the grass is greener on the other side and want to try a different sublimation ink, that’s not a decision to take lightly, although it may be well worth the effort. Properly switching from one ink set to another is probably going to often involve wasting a serious amount of ink, unless you’re going to dedicate a new printer to the new ink. You’re not likely to get to a point where all the ink levels are low at the same time. Therefore, if you do decide to switch over to a new ink, you are left with various amounts of different colored ink that may be of no further value to you. (When you change cartridges in a two cartridge system, you will be wasting the least used colors anyway, so it’s not an issue.) This ink waste is in addition to the ink wasted when you do a “purge” cycle on the printer (required before you switch to a new ink). On a larger printer such as an Epson 3000, a purge cycle is going to waste much more ink compared to purging the lines of a smaller printer; it can add up to as much as $60 or $70 worth of ink if you’re using cartridges with a more expensive ink brand.
    Purging the lines of a bulk ink system will also typically involve wasting a lot of ink, although the bulk ink will be less expensive to waste. To be extra safe after purging the lines, you’ll want to run a set of cleaning cartridges or at least OEM inks through the printer before installing the new inks, even though it involves an extra cost and step. More than likely, however, unless you happen to know that you’re buying the same ink from a different source, you won’t be able to adequately clean out a bulk setup for use with a different ink. You’ll probably be better off throwing out that bulk system and starting over, as opposed to taking the chance of corrupting your new ink supply.
    If you’re getting bad results from your ink and the ink vendor is unable to help you, remember that not all sublimation ink is the same—you do have choices. Don’t let them string you along. If they keep saying “the check is in the mail” on any promised refunds, if they send you new ink that doesn’t work any better than the old ink, if their tech support seems to be coming from the offices of “Rent-A-Geek”, or if their color correction solution doesn’t even come close to being accurate for you, realize that it’s time to move on and cut your losses.
    However if you’re getting good results with your ink you may want to think twice about switching without a strong reason. Some people switch due to a major price difference between ink brands, and some switch in order to get more accurate colors or better customer support. Just make sure that you’re switching for a good reason and not just because you are curious.
    Try to get lots of feedback on ink and ink vendors prior to making your ink decision. There are people out there who have walked in your shoes and who are willing to share their experiences. The more people you talk to or listen to, the less chance of being swayed by any given person who may be biased in some way. Make sure you have talked to at least five happy users of the particular ink you are interested in, and try to make certain that you’re talking to unbiased users.
    Finding a “good” ink from a “good” vendor is one thing, but finding an ink that’s right for you takes a bit more work. The trick is to not just find happy users, but happy users that have similar priorities for a “good” ink. Are they running low volume? High volume? How accurate are their colors? Are they doing commercial construction work, photographic work or business logos? For best results talk to users who have needs similar to yours.
Roadblock #3: Ink Settling—No settled ink was in the cartridges when these pieces from Unisub, Louisville, KY, were printed. Roadblock #4: Ink Change—There were numerous ink changes in this 20,000 piece tile mural from Bison Coating & Supply, Joplin, MO, and the ink supplied matches throughout the piece.

Roadblock #2: Clogging and/or Air Bubbles
    Do you plan on firing up your sublimation printer only when you get an occasional subbing job days or even weeks apart? Do you plan to take vacations (and not worry about your sublimation printer)? The problem with those plans is that you are prone to have some clogging problems when the printer is left idle, unless special precautions are taken. This is not just an issue with sublimation ink, but with inkjet ink and inkjet printers in general. They don’t like to sit unused with ink loaded, because over time the ink is likely to dry up around the heads and cause either partial or complete ink clogging. Sublimation ink is much more likely to clog over time because of suspended particles in the fluid unlike regular dyebased inkjet ink which has none. Those particles can cause havoc with the small orifices of the printer heads.
    If the heads are partially clogged, it may cause “banding” (evenly spaced clear or colored lines) on your print. Or it may just print the entire image with a slightly different tint or intensity. In this case, you may not realize that your printer has developed a partial clog until you’ve wasted several mugs or shirts. Unless you print a nozzle check after every print, you really can’t determine if you have a clogging problem. Of course you would never want to do a nozzle check after every print due to the time/materials waste factor.
    Some clogs are easily cleared up in just a couple of head cleanings (something that you can do easily in the printer driver menu), but some clogs require much more work, such as installing cleaning cartridges and letting the printer soak for hours or even days. This is an especially nasty roadblock.
    Depending on the brand of ink, the printer, the ambient temperature of your work area, the humidity level, and many other factors, you may have to run your printer every day or every week in order to keep it clog-free, and even then, it may clog. To be fair, on the flip-side, many people can run their sublimation printers for months at a time with no clogging problems at all, even though they often let them sit unused for long periods of time.
    There is also the possibility that the ink cartridge itself or some part of the ink delivery system has air bubbles trapped in it, which can cause the printer to seem like it has a clog, because the air bubble keeps the ink from flowing through the print heads. Since you never know if you have an air bubble, where it is, or when it will lodge itself in the ink path, an air bubble translates into another potential roadblock. Air bubbles in the ink are a less-likely concern than the possibility of clogs, especially if your ink cartridges have been professionally filled. There are several ink vendors out there who hand-fill their own cartridges, and if they are careful and talented in that regard, there should be nothing to worry about. But if they aren’t very careful while filling, they can inadvertently introduce air bubbles into the ink cartridge.
    The most common cause of air bubbles in the lines or in the cartridge comes from removing and then later re-installing certain Epson cartridges that are not designed for such removals and re-installs. Virtually all Epson printer models prior to the “C” printer series such as the C40, C42, C60, C62, C80 or C82 warn users not to remove and replace the cartridges. Unofficially you can, but there are certain precautions you must take in order to avoid introducing air bubbles into the printer ink lines when you do so.
    If you are going to be getting into the world of sublimation printing, you’ll simply need to resign yourself to becoming somewhat familiar with the care and maintenance of your printer and to having a backup printer available if you’re doing time-sensitive work. Unless you have a serious gambling gene, you need to keep a constant eye on every print coming out of your printer for any signs of banding, ink clogging, etc., since you never know when a problem will start to develop. Otherwise, you might come back to find that of the 100 prints you fired off, the last 25 or 45 or 75 prints are unusable which is quite a nasty surprise. Once the printer starts printing with banding or other signs of clogging or air bubbles, it’s not going to clear up on its own, it will only get worse, until you solve the problem.
    It’s possible that a clogging problem or an air bubble problem will not show up in a nozzle check, since a nozzle check doesn’t use much ink. If you have a problem like this that’s too slight to be detected in a nozzle check, you might nonetheless experience a color shift in your prints.
    To detect any color shifts, I’d recommend that you create a control piece and use it to compare to later printings/pressings. I call this my “sanity check.” When you first get your system and/or new set of ink cartridges you should print a standard test image onto a standard type of release paper and press it onto a standard substrate. Notice I keep stressing the word “standard.” The important thing is for you to decide up front what’s going to be YOUR standard test image (there are many good test images available on the internet, and I’ll talk more about this later). Then print this image onto what you decide to be your standard test release paper and press the image onto what you decide is going to be your standard test substrate. (FRP, Unisub metal strips, or SoftL’ink test squares are some examples of economical test pieces, depending on your main decorating interests.)
    The point is to make sure your test image has a wide range of colors and especially has the particular color or colors that you run frequently. You then need to keep this “control” test piece in a cool dark place so that it’s not affected over time by such variables as UV exposure, heat or humidity. (Also make sure that your control sample is not making contact with any other piece of material that is polyester-based; otherwise you might get slight migration of your test image onto the other piece of material over time which could affect the validity of your control sample.)
    Then make up another test piece occasionally, in an identical manner to your first control test piece, and see if there are any changes. How frequently you make test pieces depends on your volume of printing. If you're printing higher volumes all day, every day, you might want to make a test piece every morning and compare it to your original control piece. If you print a few times per week then you might want to make a test piece once a week. It all depends on how critical it is for you to maintain your original color.
    Keep in mind that this procedure (of comparing test pieces to a standard control sample) is good for detecting whether there is any change in the ink for any reason. There could be many other reasons for ink inconsistency or color shifts as I’ll explain later. I’ll be mentioning the importance of running the “sanity check” throughout this article.
    Again, your choice of ink vendors, even when you’re choosing the same brand of ink, can make a difference in how many or how few problems you have and how those problems resolved. I’d say that it’s fair to ask a vendor if they hand-fill their cartridges, but that in and of itself should not be any cause for concern. It’s simply one more bit of information to keep in mind in case you have problems down the road.
Roadblock #5: Same Batch Ink Change—This ceramic tile mural from TR Distributors, Portland, ME, maintained its batch color throughout the entire printing process.

Roadblock #3: Ink Settling
    Sublimation inkjet ink is a wet product, with a limited shelf life and working life. There are times when you may buy a set of ink cartridges or bulk ink that is too old, or you may have let your ink supply sit too long before using it up completely. If the ink gets old, generally after 6 months to a year, it may have “settled,” in other words the dye particles may have lost their suspension in the liquid and have settled to the bottom of the cartridge or bag. When this happens the color of the ink will change drastically from what you expect it to be, and there’s nothing you can do to bring the ink back to the colors that you expect. Shaking the cartridges is nothing more than a desperate, short term fix, and can allow air bubbles to form in your ink, which can cause lots of other problems. So basically, when your ink settles, you simply need to replace it.
    The frustrating part of this problem is that it’s not predictable, and it’s not always apparent that you have this problem. Ink can start to settle long before it’s a year old, and besides, how do you know just how long your ink has been sitting in the supply chain prior to your possession? Do you know how it was shipped and stored, and at what temperature? All these variables affect the useful life of the ink. When it starts to settle, it can be a gradual process, so you may think that something else is causing your color shifts if it is slight. Or you may not notice any shift in color or intensity until you’ve already pressed (ruined?) many things. It’s very hard and almost impossible to detect slight changes when looking at the unpressed transfer sheet, since the colors only “burst out” when they are pressed. On the other hand, I’ve seen cases where major settling occurred practically overnight. On a given Tuesday, for example, all the colors are printing accurately and then towards the end of that week the colors are all washed up and grayish or yellowish.
    You’ll no doubt hear that a particular sublimation ink “does not settle”. Shame on any ink vendor who would make such a claim. They ALL settle eventually. Hopefully you will use up the ink before that happens.
    First, it’s important to purchase the right sized system, and/or the right amount of ink. For example, I’d recommend that if you’re mainly planning to press small quantities of name badges, to not start off with a bulk ink system, or if you do, at least start out with small ink containers. The general rule of thumb, REGARDLESS of possible vendor claims to longer life such as one or two years, is to only buy enough sublimation ink to last you for a maximum of 6 months at your expected volume. If you’re just starting out you may want to make a conservatively small estimate of your ink volume until you can prove to yourself that you’ll be consuming a higher ink volume. I know one man who was fast-talked into loading up on a bulk ink setup which included 1000 milliliters of ink, and he only used about 100 milliliters of ink before it started settling on him. In his case, he lost several hundred dollars worth of ink due to over buying.
    By the way, make sure you get free replacement ink from your vendor if the ink is covered by a one or two year guarantee and your ink only lasts for six months.
    My second bit of advice may sound contradictory to the first, but at some point, especially if you are using your ink slowly, you may want to buy another set to have on hand well before you think you might need it. After all, you never know when your set is going to settle on you, but the odds are higher as the months go by. If you are in a position where you would lose potential business without a good set of inks and really can’t wait for a new set to be shipped to you, then you should have a backup set handy.
    That leads me to the third piece of advice. In order to detect if and when your inks are settling: run a sample to compare to your “sanity check” control sample. Usually in the case of settled ink, the black turns green, or magenta, or some or all colors seem noticeably muted compared to the control sample. When shifts are sudden, you may not need a test piece to tell you that, but when the shifts are gradual then the “sanity check” is invaluable.
    As mentioned previously, it’s sometimes very difficult, depending on the particular colors, to see any color shifts on a print before it has been transferred onto a substrate. You can take a print that apparently has three very similar blues next to each other and heat press it onto a tile, for example, and find that one of the “blue” colors pressed into a vibrant deep blue, while another turned out to be a teal and the third, when pressed, turned into a purple.
    You might be wondering at this point how you can tell the difference between these different problems. How do you know if you have a clogging problem or a settling problem, for example? If you can’t get a good nozzle check on your printer even after running many cleaning cycles, more than likely you have a clog or an air bubble, whereas if you get good nozzle checks and you’ve had your ink for at least a few months then chances are more likely that you have settled ink. That’s an oversimplification. There’s a lot more to it, and that kind of training is beyond the scope of this article. But, needless to say, in the course of your training you should learn what kinds of shifts and changes point to the various kinds of problems that you may encounter.

Roadblock #4: Ink Changes from Batch to Batch

    You get a batch of ink, you love the colors, then you get another batch of the same ink, and you get different colors. Is this an isolated problem? NO, it’s a fairly common problem with many inks. For larger printers such as the Epson 3000 or for printers hooked up to bulk ink setups, you’ll still have lots of the old batch of ink left in the lines after you’ve added a new batch, so you’ll need to realize that until perhaps 50 to 100 prints have been made, you’re still using, or partially using, your old ink.
    Sometimes you may come upon hopelessly defective batches of ink. You may find a major difference which is not easily corrected, such as blacks printing greenish, or printing lighter in color, that seem to be beyond any color correction fix. In those cases you need to find out what your vendor is willing to do for you, such as providing a replacement set of ink.



    Another roadblock that can happen is this, an ink vendor may keep the same name for their ink, not notify you of any changes, yet switch their ink source to a different factory. This can wreak havoc with your color corrections, and even with your printer since, as mentioned earlier, you should not be mixing different brands of ink in your printer without going through a purge cycle and possibly running a cleaning kit.
If you’re not aware you’ve switched inks, then the two different brands mix up in your printer with unpredictable results. This may affect the colors and operation of your ink and printer long after the first supply of new ink is used up. I personally know of one ink vendor who switched to ink #2, then back to ink #1, all in a three or four month period, and never bothered to inform customers of the change. I know of another ink vendor who switched their ink source five times in a two year period. Did they inform their customers with each change in their ink source? I don’t know. But a loyal customer of this particular ink vendor would have had to, at a minimum, gone through the hassle of purging inks, setting up new color corrections, and possibly having to change their times, temperatures and/or pressures and other work procedures four times in two years if they had been informed of the changes. The ink that works perfectly for you today may not work for you tomorrow, simply because you may in fact be running a different ink than you thought you were.

    The number one way to keep on top of any changes from batch to batch is to have a good, open line of communication with your ink vendor. You need to make absolutely certain that your vendor understands the importance of letting you know about any changes. Every time you order ink you need to ask if there have been any changes to the ink that you need to be aware of. It’s no guarantee but it’s a start. There may well be changes the vendor is not yet aware of, and then it’s critical that you inform your vendor, not just to complain, but to give him/her the earliest possible feedback so that they can take corrective actions.
    This open line of communication is easier said than done due to vendor concerns about trade secrets. The best you might be able to get out of the seller is that they haven’t changed their ink source, and that their ink source hasn’t changed any formulas lately. To get the name of the actual source is less likely. If you’re lucky enough to do so, you have another potential layer of information available to you. In that case you don’t have to rely on only your own supplier’s account of how things are but can also keep your ears open to any problems or changes concerning that ink brand through other vendors or through high ink volume customers who may be purchasing the same ink directly for themselves.
    As with any change in the ink, the best way to detect such a change or shift in properties is to run a test sample and compare it to your control sample, as I explained above, for a “sanity check”. If your new batch of ink is only slightly different, then you’ll need to experiment with some settings in your application program, such as CorelDRAW or Photoshop. For example, maybe your new batch needs you to tone down the yellow by nine points, or increase cyan by five points. Write this information down in a log book along with the date and other information for that ink batch. If there are major changes in the ink qualities then the vendor should probably provide you with a new set of color corrections, such as “ICCs”, which I’ll explain later, and in addition you deserve an explanation as to why there are such major changes. For example, if it is in fact a different ink, your vendor has a moral obligation to tell you that so you don’t inadvertently mix different brands of ink in your printer. If the ink simply seems defective, beyond any kind of color correction, then you need to ask the supplier if they consider that to be a defective batch of ink and will replace it for you.
    So, there may be problems with ink consistency from batch to batch of the same ink, but as long as you’re printing from the same batch (the same cartridge set or bulk bottles or bags), you shouldn’t have any problems with consistency, right? Well, read on...
Roadblock #5: Ink Changes Within the Same Batch
    There are several factors that can affect the consistency, or lack of it, even when you print from the same batch of ink.
    Many people have reported that with some of the ink sets, such as the smaller tri-color ink sets, the printing density is affected by the level of the ink in the ink cartridges. So, for example, your prints might slowly get lighter as the ink in your cartridges is slowly depleted.
    Some of the printers only estimate the remaining ink levels, and that can cause problems if one of your ink colors is getting too low and your printer doesn’t know it. If your colors suddenly become very inaccurate as the ink levels are getting low, say with 1/3 of the ink remaining according to the printer, then you may well have run out of one of your colors. You shouldn’t have this problem with printers that use separate cartridges for each of the four or six colors of that printer, but rather with the tri-color or five color cartridges. I learned this when a friend of mine complained that his black was no longer black, and his cyan seemed weak. All the colors are actually used in addition to black to make what’s called a “super black” in the Epson driver, and if one color runs out, that throws off the balance of the black tint. It turned out that his cyan still was strong enough to give a good print on a couple of nozzle checks, but was too low to actually print in a sustained manner. So he was getting a “false positive reading” on his nozzle check, quite a frustrating condition when you’re trying to pin down problems such as these. The only way we knew this for sure was that as soon as we replaced the color cartridge with a new one, the black instantly became black again!
    If you have more than one printer, even if it’s the same model of printer, you might find that there are differences in the printing from one printer to another. This is generally more of a subtle difference, but it can be a critical problem if you’re trying to get one job out faster through the use of multiple printers and that job has to be kept to a tight color tolerance.
    For the elimination of at least two of the potential causes of printing variations from the same batch of ink, you should consider using a printer that has large, individual ink cartridges for each color, or has a bulk ink setup available. In any case, make sure that if you’re running cartridges, you run a “sanity check” print sample at both high and low ink levels in the cartridges so that you know whether or not you’re going to have this problem.
    If you are planning on running two or more printers for one given job, make sure that they are all printing your “sanity check” samples within an acceptable tolerance.
    In the second half of this article we’ll explore five more roadblocks and the solutions to help you clearly navigate through them, along with some overall conclusions. Roadblocks discussed in part two will be #6: Color correction inconsistencies, #7: The ever changing, more evil printer choices, #8: Bulk system “gotcha’s”, #9: Ever-changing substrates and coatings, and #10: Vendor support issues.