Amazing Sublimation Successes Part 1

Copyright © 2005 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in April 2005, Volume 30, No. 10 of The Engravers Journal
High fashion dog apparel can be created with a heat press and your imagination. Photo courtesy of Paramount Services, Inc., Miramar, FL.  


     Is your sublimation business popping? I hope so. I hope you have so much business you don’t know what to do with it all. If it isn’t, perhaps some of the ideas shared here will help you make your sublimation sales go snap, crackle and pop!
    This article is about marketing but is not one of those long, drawn out narratives that expound the virtues of following ninety-nine steps for successful sales. Rather, it’s meant to be a fun article—fun to write and fun to read. If it gives you an idea or two that helps you grow your sublimation business, then we have more than accomplished our goal.
    Growing up, I loved to watch Dragnet on TV. Do you remember the booming voice that announced, “The story you are about to hear is true, the names have been changed to protect the innocent?” Well, same here. These accounts are true stories from people I have met over the years. Most of their names I’ve forgotten and I won’t swear to the absolute accuracy of all the information, but this is the way I remember it. If you think one of these stories is about you and there is some information that isn’t correct, rest assured it must be about someone like you.
    Through the years, I’ve met thousands of people doing or learning to do sublimation. Most have been in classes held by various sublimation distributors. Some people have been funny, some serious and some in a complete fog about whatever it was I was rambling on about. All of them were warm, caring and friendly. I count my life as better after having met each and every one.
    I remember this guy in a Nova Chrome California workshop. He and his wife owned a sixty-foot motor home and had set up their sublimation equipment in the “living room” of the RV. They spent their time driving around, seeing the country and then stopping in at horse shows and (I think) antique car shows where they would roll out the red carpet and offer to make sublimated products for participants in the various shows. They had built quite a business I understand and were in demand by show sponsors to the point that they didn’t have time to go to all of the shows they were invited to simply because they couldn’t be in two places at once.
    This was the same guy who put me in my place one day when I was ranting and raving about how people sell their sublimated products too cheaply. I get on this soapbox regularly and this was no exception. During my soliloquy about how name badges should sell for $5 to $8.50, he spoke up and said he sold his for $15.95! These things cost less than $1 to make and he gets $15.95! That’s my kind of guy! He had found out that in environments like horse shows and car shows, people buy sublimated products, not because of price, but because they love their car, horse, motorcycle, etc. It’s their passion. They invest thousands in their sport, sometimes hundreds of thousands. For them, nothing is too good—or too expensive!

All of these items could be sold at a
local car show or rally. Photo courtesy of Sawgrass Technologies, Inc., Mt. Pleasant, SC.
  Ceramic tile murals can be used as art pieces in an office building, an aquarium, a bathroom or anywhere. Photo courtesy of Tropical Graphics, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

     Remember 9/11? Of course you do. Every time I think about that terrible event, I remember two ladies (let’s say they were past middle age and let it go at that) who attended one of my workshops. They sat in the very first row and they were really eating it up. Taking notes and constantly chatting among themselves during the two day exercise. To say they were excited would be a huge understatement.
    Yet, they didn’t look the part. Somehow, I couldn’t picture these two making a go of a business, but was I ever wrong. It was a year or so before I heard about them again, but when I did, I was floored. As the story goes, these two designed a license plate commemorating those lost in the 9/11 tragedy and they sold 2,000 of them in a matter of just a couple of weeks! I designed one too, and I sold a couple of hundred, but 2,000? Wow! I don’t know how many they sold in total but I did contact their supplier to confirm the story and he assured me that he had sent them 2,000 license plates and had an order for several thousand more. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is good marketing. They were and they didn’t waste any time. People wanted to show their support for the 9/11 victims and this duo afforded them a way to do that. How many opportunities have you let slip by?
    I had a lady ask me one time, “Does polyester fabric shrink when washed?” Now I often say that polyester shirts are superior to cotton because they don’t shrink or stretch when washed but something about this question made me ask, “Why do you want to know?” To make a long story short, she was sublimating pieces of polyester for ladies who were sewing them together to make quilts. What a great idea. They were making custom quilts like my grandmother used to make and selling them. For each customer, they would collect a variety of photographs of their children’s school pictures, vacation snapshots, the homes where they had lived, wedding pictures and the like and make a quilt from them. I live in the Ohio Valley and here there are countless churches and sewing circles that make quilts. I’ve sold a few squares to some of them but if I invested some energy in marketing this, I could probably sell quilting squares all day long. Quilts are commonly made to sell to tourists, as family heirlooms, for baby blankets and as wedding gifts. By the way, polyester should be washed before being sewn into a quilt.
    Have you ever eaten at a Long John Silver’s? Of course you have. Have you noticed lately that many of them are using sublimated name badges? I don’t know who’s making them but there are a lot of other food chains that haven’t heard yet about the advantages of sublimated badges. Which one would you like to do work for? While you’re at it, don’t forget to offer “Employee of the Month” plaques as well.


From graduation to signage, awards
or nameplates, schools of all kinds
offer unlimited opportunities. Photo courtesy of Unisub, Louisville, KY.

  Everyone drinks coffee! Sell dynamic cups to small businesses, big businesses, schools, hospitals, etc. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN.

    Have you heard about the guy in Florida who sublimates images onto the sides of boats? This is a story I’ve heard told dozens of times. I’ve never met the fellow and I really don’t know if the story is true, but those who told me about him assure me this is gospel. It seems he puts images on the sides of fiberglass boats. Fiberglass in its natural state will sublimate so that is believable enough. UV stability is an obvious question but I did some testing on raw fiberglass recently and it has held up surprisingly well in the elements.
    I was also told he had taken a conventional heat press, removed the heating element and welded handles onto it so he can press it against the boat by hand. Anyway, I don’t really know how he does it (if he does it at all) but the mental image I get is of some guy sitting on the edge of a dock with an extension cord draping back over the water to some far away outlet hand-pressing a transfer on the side of a boat while his feet dangle in the water below! Some jobs just aren’t worth the risk.
    My first occasion to see ceramic tile murals was from a photographer in New Mexico. He would take the pictures and sell the job but farm out the sublimation work to someone else. He did murals all over the country. I’ve seen pictures of this work in government buildings in New Mexico and churches in New England. I’ve lost track of him but I hope by now he has found the virtues of modern ceramic and glass tile and is making his own murals. Murals, both large and small, are very popular right now. Home owners, kitchen installers, tile setters and even floors in commercial buildings are all prime markets for sublimated tiles. Why aren’t you making them?
    Speaking about tiles, I’ll never forget the guy who attended a workshop in Washington state. He was convinced that ceramic tiles could be used in swimming pools. There was talk of this on some web sites, etc., but no one was taking it very seriously since the only testing done thus far was in a laboratory. Still, he was insistent. When I followed up later, I found out what he was really doing. He was installing pictures in people’s swimming pools! There’s a niche marketing concept for you.
    A lady attended a California workshop one time incognito. Now, this has happened before and telling me someone in the audience is attending incognito is like telling me, “Your assignment today is to find out everything you can about this person.” Sure enough, before the day was over, she had spilled the beans. She was there to learn how to work with fabric for Disney. Disney, in case you don’t know, makes and sells thousands of sublimated shirts a month. For those who think they can’t sell sublimated shirts for $20 or more, think again!

This blank tile frame as been customized into a leash holder by adding just the right pet photo. Photo courtesy of Paramount Services, Inc.   These sublimated items from TR Distributors, Portland, ME, could easily be used for school fund raisers or sold at a local craft show.

    Do you like birds? I do. My wife and I spend a lot on bird feed, most of which is consumed by the squirrels. Still, we enjoy our bird feeders and although no self-respecting bird would ever live in one of our bird houses, we like those as well. Some bird houses, however, put ours to shame with their sublimated welcome mats and logos. One gentleman, Duane Ruh, President of Little Log Co., Inc., runs a company that makes planters, bird houses and key racks and affixes company or school logos to them (he is properly licensed to do so by the way). You can order a birdhouse with the Ohio State University logo, John Deere or in my case, the Marshall University logo on the front.
    Although some of these wooden items are laser engraved, many are sublimated. One of the nice things about sublimation is that images can be sublimated to metal, film or other sublimatable material and applied to almost anything—in this case a birdhouse. Are there items in your neighborhood you could buy, attach a sublimated logo or saying to and resell? Most high school logos and mascots are not licensed. Then there are the local junior colleges, trade schools, churches, civic organizations...the list is truly endless.
    Speaking of schools, one project I started one year turned out to be a total surprise. It seems that three local high schools were consolidating. Emotions were running high as many former graduates could not bear to see their children attending “some other school.” I didn’t think much about it myself but a friend came to me and offered to go to the high schools, set up a table and sell “Last Graduating Class” and “End of an Era” plaques showing a picture of the building, the mascot, the person’s name, etc., if I would make them.
    Since I didn’t have anything to lose but a couple of samples I agreed. Hundreds upon hundreds of plaques later, I wished I had sold them directly and made the extra money for myself. I still get an occasional order for one of those plaques. Is there school consolidation going on in your neighborhood?
    One person I met specializes in class reunions. They find lists of class reunions from the Internet and then contact them offering everything from shirts to key chains to name badges. Apparently, they have done very well. It does seem logical to do name badges with the person’s graduation picture on them. Then there could be a plaque with the reunion photograph. Let’s see, what else could we sell these folks?
    My favorite customer is a company in southern West Virginia. They rebuild all kinds of electrical equipment for coal mines and need control panels and labels to make the equipment look new again. I usually make these with Rowmark Mates material and generally sell them in quantities of 100 or more. The selling price for the labels ranges from 50¢ to $3.50 per inch. The cost to make the labels is about 6¢ to 10¢. All industrial concerns have need for safety labels, legends, instructional labels, schematics, door signs, wall signs, decals, control panels and the like. This is a huge market that remains virtually untouched. Speaking of untouched, leave my southern West Virginia company alone.
    I bumped into Jeff Aadnesen not long ago. He is relatively new in sublimation and has started a mural business. He takes his own photographs and turns them into framed ceramic tile murals. Wow! More beautiful work I have never seen. Way to go, Jeff. The tiles are available from most suppliers and frames as well. You should at least have one sample mural in your showroom. You might be pleasantly surprised by what happens. I promise it will be the center of attention if nothing else. To see samples of his work, go to





    A Carolina couple I met in Florida has a cut-and-sew operation. They actually make custom sportswear for local high school and college teams. They do beautiful work and until recently they used various colors of cloth and heat applied team names and numbers onto the garments after they made them. Now, they start with pure white, high performance polyester, sublimate it, then cut it apart and sew it together making garments of whatever color(s) and designs the customer wants. No longer do they have to hand apply those heat transfer letters because now it’s all sublimated at one time. The graphics are spectacular. The process required some investment but it was worth it! It almost makes me want to learn to sew.
    More than one embroidery operation has told me how they now sublimate some of their work. I don’t do embroidery so I don’t understand the nuances but the idea is, they greatly reduce the count of the logo or design, and then embroider it using only white Polyester thread. This eliminates thread changes of course. They then sublimate the logo onto the embroidered area giving a full-color design and the three dimensional feel with far less time and effort than would be needed to actually embroider the design normally.
    While I was in the Tampa area one year, a man approached me about doing coffee cups. He wanted to know as much as possible about the “dos and don’ts” of coffee cups. We talked for several minutes before I learned he already made cups—thousands of them a year. He hooked up with local school photographers and sold coffee cups to parents using the digital images the school photographer took of the local children. Everybody made a dollar or two and he made a living at it.
    Most schools, day cares, kindergartens and private schools have pictures taken at least once, if not twice, a year as a fundraiser. Why not offer these schools the opportunity to sell sublimated products along with pictures to their parents? Remember, they don’t have picture day out of the goodness of their hearts, schools do it to make money. Chances are you, the school and the photographer can make as much profit selling cups and mouse pads as they do pictures.
    There’s an Internet company in the Midwest that sublimates all kinds of pet items. I have long thought this was a forgotten market in sublimation. Billions of dollars are spent every year on pets and pet related items. If we could only get a small percentage of that…Currently, leashes, collars, tags, dog dishes and doggie sweaters and placemats to go under the pet’s food and water bowl are available. Add to that a huge market for pet memorial products and I’m confident I could build an entire business around nothing but sublimated pet products. The Internet company did just that and they are reportedly doing very well by the way. How many pet products do you offer? Have you considered working with local vets and animal groomers to sell pet related sublimation products?
    Well, did that seem like an article on marketing to you? I hope not, but it was. Good marketing is as simple as two things: Believing in your product or service and a warm relationship with another person. Those who expect to make big bucks selling sublimated products by waiting for somebody to come to them will probably be disappointed. Sublimation is such that dealers must learn to think outside the box and then take the initial step. Potential customers don’t know what you can do until you show them—especially where sublimation is involved. Even telling them isn’t enough, you have to show them. When you do however, it’s amazing the unique ideas people will come up with. Like the guy who asked me if I could sublimate the hubcaps on his car!
    To be sure, there are probably hundreds and hundreds more stories like these and each one marks the fact that the most difficult thing about marketing sublimation products is becoming aware of the many unique opportunities around us. Stay tuned for Part Two of these fun sublimation success stories in our next issue. And if you have a unique application, why not drop me a line. I would love to hear about it. E-mail your story to me, Steve Spence at It will probably never be printed but then, who knows, it just might.