Is Sublimation in Your Future

Copyright © 2015 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in January 2015, Volume 40, No. 7 of The Engravers Journal
The Digital Knight DK20S from GeoKnight & Co., Inc., Brockton, ME, is a 16" x 20" swing-away heat press. Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL, has added several styles of socks to its DyeTrans family of sublimatable products.

   Have you considered expanding your business into color? If not, you should. Color sells. It’s used to make visually appealing logos, sports mascots, photographs and much more. Do you know anyone who has a black and white TV? Probably not. Color is more exciting, it shows more creativity and it attracts attention. Whether it is a plaque, key chain or TV set, color makes a huge difference.
   One method for creating colorful products in the personalization industry is sublimation. Why sublimation? To be sure, sublimation isn’t the only way to get started in the world of color. There is digital inkjet printing, heat transfer on garments, direct-to-garment printing, vinyl, paint filling engraved images and, for the really daring and talented, hand painting. However, none of these methods provide the versatility, low entry cost and wide range of products that sublimation does—be it on fabric, hard surfaces or both.
   Consider these numbers: To enter the world of digital inkjet printing on hard substrates, it is going to set you back at least $20,000—more realistically it’s going to cost in the range of $40,000-$60,000. True, you can print color images on almost anything that will fit in the machine, but having the capability of printing anything up to about 10" x 24" is likely to set you back $40,000 and even then, you are limited to 10" x 24". That 10" limitation is a huge drawback in my opinion! Of course, some products are ideal for digital inkjet printing, such as golf balls, phone covers, plaques, ADA signage, small signs, promotional products and more, but how many of those things do you need to sell to recoup your initial investment?
   The same is true with direct-to-garment printing. Although the entry point is about $12,000, it jumps up quickly to add the ability to print white ink so you can print on dark substrates. That white ink also adds greatly to the cost of the finished shirt. And then there’s the time element. With only one machine, you can only print one or sometimes two shirts at a time. Machines vary but consider several minutes per shirt and compare that to the 35 seconds sublimation takes. Of course, you can’t imprint dark colors with sublimation and you must use synthetic fabric but most high-end shirts are “microfiber” (polyester) anyway.
   Heat transfer is a viable option that has been around for decades and modern heat transfer results are very good. Custom made transfers are inexpensive, are available in most any color and the resulting imprint is fairly durable. If you order custom transfers from an outside source, they are typically delivered within a week, which is the biggest problem—a week for delivery or more. Of course, you can make your own heat transfers in-house, but that requires a fairly good investment in equipment if you want to be able to make transfers large enough to fit properly on a large or extra-large shirt (11" x 17"). That ability will likely set you back about $8,000 or more, depending on the printer you purchase. You can imprint full-color photographs with heat transfers with good results, but heat transfer images don’t live up to the life of a sublimated image. A sublimated image isn’t printed on the surface of the fabric like a heat transfer image is. Instead, sublimation actually dyes the fabric fibers which results in a very sharp, vivid image that won’t crack or wash out—ever.


These functional metal storage tins are available from Condé Systems, Inc. and feature a peel-and-stick recessed area on the removable lids for displaying sublimated white or satin silver aluminum inserts. The Ricoh SG 7100DN printer is one of the most popular sublimation printers available today. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN.

   Wide-format printing (usually with solvent inks) generally means you can print on large rolls or pieces of paper or vinyl which is fine if that is what you want to do. Wide-format sublimation is also available, but it generally isn’t used for the large banners, window signs, table covers, etc., that wide-format printing is meant to do. The reason isn’t that it can’t be done, but rather few people have a heat press large enough to accommodate such products. Wide-format sublimation is commonly used for imprinting small rugs, car mats, flags and the like by using a medium sized press of about 36" x 48" in size. The people involved in sublimating these types of products are highly specialized and experienced, and I would never encourage a newbie to go after such challenging markets right out of the gate. An alternative to buying this big equipment is to farm out the work to companies that do a lot of it already. This can be highly beneficial to all concerned.
   Vinyl cutters have been around for a long time and are fairly inexpensive to purchase, but they only allow you to do “spot color,” meaning your color choice is limited to a small selection of basic colors and you can only cut one color at a time. Some people can cut a design out of two or three different colors of vinyl and then combine the pieces to make a color logo or design, but you can’t do full color which is needed to reproduce photographs. For this reason, this is a process that is losing ground.
   Unless you have a proven market that merits investing substantial amounts of money, getting into color can be a very expensive and speculative proposition. The number of products that can be printed and the diversity of the markets you can sell to with these processes are far more limited than they are with sublimation, and the investment can be many times more. For these reasons, sublimation is definitely a process worth considering.


This arch-top multi-panel set is designed for printing high resolution photographs. Photo courtesy of Unisub, Louisville, KY. Hix Corporation, Pittsburg, KS, offers a variety of heat presses, including this automatic clamshell press featuring a digital timer. The press is available in 16" x 20" or 15" x 15" platen sizes.

Getting Up & Running
   An entry level sublimation system costs about $1,650 plus shipping costs. The “Cadillac” desktop system will cost around $3,200 plus shipping. If you already have a heat press, you can deduct about $1,500 from these amounts. Even a 44" wide-format sublimation system will only run about $10,000 although, as mentioned, I don’t recommend starting out that way. Start small and let your profits upgrade your system. Don’t buy more than you need until you are ready for it.
   Here’s what you will need to get started in your own sublimation business:
   1. A computer with design software: Most people use CorelDRAW as the graphics software, but most any design software will work. If you are comfortable with Adobe software or some other brand, these should work fine.
   2. A printer with sublimation inks: Sawgrass Technologies, Mount Pleasant, SC, holds the patent on all sublimation ink for desktop printers in the United States. Since there is only one brand and no options for printers with less than 42” printing capabilities, selecting sublimation inks is easy. Selecting a printer is almost as easy. There are two models of Ricoh printers currently available that can be used for sublimation: The SG 3110DN and the SG 7100DN. There are also some Epson printers being sold that can use the sublimation inks. Most sublimation people will tell you bluntly, “Don’t buy an Epson printer unless you are going to buy a wide-format model.” In this case, wide-format means printers that can handle 24" wide paper or larger—44" and 64" printers are also common.
   The two Ricoh printers currently being used are faithful workhorses. They, and their predecessors, have been around for years. They are well proven, they do not clog and they are incredibly dependable. They are also very affordable.
   The deciding factor as to which printer to buy comes down to size. In every other way, the printers are equal. The entry level printer, the SG 3110DN, handles 8.5" x 14" paper and will print an image about 8.25” x 13.5". The larger professional SG 7100DN is able to print on 11" x 17" paper and an optional feed tray can be added that takes the maximum size to 13" wide. If you can afford it and you are serious about sublimation, buy the larger SG 7100DN. If the $1,300 price tag is too much for you, start with the smaller SG 3110DN. You won’t be able to print some of the big stuff, but there are hundreds of items under the 8" x 13" size limit of the SG 3110DN that you can make a boat load of money with. The key is to “get started!”

Today there are all kinds of products designed for sublimation. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics. LRi/Laser Reproductions, Inc., Skokie, IL, offers several different styles of sublimatable jewelry, including these pendants.


   3. A heat press: You will need a heat press if you don’t already have one. For the most part, a heat press is a heat press. Bells, whistles and creature comforts vary but if a heat press can reach and maintain 400° F, and the substrate you want to print can fit in the press, it should work. You can read more about the different types of heat presses and options available in “What’s in a Heat Press?” published in the April 2014 issue.
   Having said that, there is a lot to say about the quality of a heat press, its ease of use and life expectancy. First, a good heat press should last 20 years with minimal maintenance. In its most essential form, a heat press consists of a heating platen, a timer and a temperature control system.
   There are two basic designs available: a clamshell and a swing-away. The clamshell presses have been around for many years and are most commonly used for fabric but can also be used for other thin substrates such as metal, mouse pads and FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic). Thicker products such as plaques and other MDF (medium density fiberboard) products won’t work in most clamshell presses. If you already have a clamshell, it can certainly be a starter for you but if you are going to buy a heat press, consider a swing-away model.
   Swing-away heat presses cost more than clamshells but they are easier to use, they eliminate the risk of burning your knuckles when loading and unloading the press, and they allow for a vertical adjustment that always keeps the heating platen parallel with the substrate being pressed. This insures good contact with the product and greatly reduces waste. A good swing-away press will cost between $1,200 and $1,500, which is only $200-$300 more than a good clamshell so the choice seems obvious.
   One advantage of the clamshell style over a swing-away press is weight. If you plan to be moving your press a lot, and you can make all the products you want with it, a clamshell may be justified because it is a much lighter weight press. Otherwise, I highly recommend a swing-away and the heavier the better since these presses exert a lot of pressure. “Flimsy” presses can actually warp and deform, making them unusable.
   There are also specialized heat presses available to consider, such as hat, plate and mug presses. Although salespeople make a good case for these presses and why you “just have to have one,” I recommend holding off on these until you have developed your market for these types of products. As for sublimating items like coffee mugs and pet dishes, I recommend using a conventional oven or a countertop oven (like the ones sold at Wal-Mart) and heat wraps. These rubber-like wraps stretch around a cup, glass or dog dish and clamp together to hold pressure on the transfer. The item is then placed in an oven set at 400° F for about 20 minutes. Wraps are available from sublimation equipment suppliers and start at about $20 each. They can be used many times before they have to be replaced. You can also buy multiple wraps to sublimate several items at the same time—something you can’t do with a mug press.

Personalized mugs and cups make great promotional products. This stainless steel travel mug is offered in white or silver from Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT.


    4. Time: As silly as it might sound, thousands of sublimation systems have been sold over the past two decades that never had a chance to make money. Because of the constraints of running a business, coupled with the low investment of the systems, too many business owners purchased systems that never made it out of their boxes or if they did, the printers clogged up before they could be used, causing the owners to lose interest in sublimation.
    Although clogging is not an issue with the Ricoh printers, the same basic problem continues to exist. When people invest $20,000-$30,000 in a new process, they are highly motivated to get it up and running as soon as possible. When the system costs just a couple of thousand dollars, the motivation is greatly reduced and after the system sits in the corner for six months or a year, any excitement about the new process has waned. Time must be made to learn how sublimation works. It isn’t difficult but it does require a little practice. Instructional videos are available on DVD and YouTube for making most products, including how to set up and care for printers. Time is scarce for all of us and without a conscious effort to make time, it often just never happens.
    4. Products to sublimate: What can you make with sublimation? On the one hand, it might be easier to list what you can’t make, but one important factor must be understood about this process: Sublimation only works on polyester or polyester-coated products. You can’t sublimate just anything and, for the most part, you can’t coat your own products.
    Fortunately, there are hundreds of products available in the industry that are specially coated to accept sublimation dyes. Of course, polyester fabric can be sublimated as can most synthetic fibers. Today, polyester garments are often labeled as “microfiber” to avoid the unnecessary baggage associated with the term polyester. Although the baggage dates back to the 1960s and the earliest polyester clothes (think leisure suits if you are old enough), modern polyester is used in many of our favorite clothes, such as sportswear, daily wear items and even formal wear. The fiber is capable of wicking moisture away from the body and is used in every sport uniform today. Those super colorful, advertising-adorned sports uniforms that you see all the time? They are all sublimated!
    Although good polyester T-shirts, sweatshirts, poly shirts, etc., are more expensive than cotton, they wear better, are more comfortable and images printed on them will not fade with washing. Of course, sublimation will not work on dark fabrics, which is the bane of its existence. It will imprint on light to medium colors, however, and in most cases, the results are excellent. Remember, however, that sublimation inks are translucent so colors can and will change when applied to a colored background.

This 8” x 10” freestanding acrylic from Marco Awards Group features a white self-adhesive backing. Sublimated ornaments are inexpensive, easy to make and can turn a high profit. Photo courtesy of Unisub. The market for personalized pet products continues to grow. This sublimatable pet dish is available from LRi/Laser Reproductions, Inc.

    For the most part, the hundreds of other sublimatable products available today sublimate very well the first time and every time without a problem. Over the years, a wide variety of professionally coated products have been developed, including: plaques, picture frames, name badges, key chains, clipboards, coffee cups, coasters, travel mugs, gift boxes, business card holders, cell phone covers, ceramic tile, metal, hardboard, pet food dishes, serving trays, clocks, hats, throws, towels, car mats, cutting boards and even flip flops.
   
5. Collect the profits: Profit margins for sublimated items can be substantial. I try to get 600% when I can and, in some cases, it can be more—much more. Granted, shirts won’t bring such huge margins, but even those can bring 300% or more. Other products, such as name badges and key fobs, can easily bring that 600% or more. Add to that the short time it takes to sublimate most products, usually a minute or less, and you can turn around a lot of products in a very short period of time.
   
Markets for sublimated products are as diverse as the list of products available for sublimation. The pet market is growing by leaps and bounds, and almost every business and organization uses name badges. Gift items like personalized smartphone covers can be sold to almost anyone. Metal wall hangings and canvas can be sublimated with photographs or family portraits to create attractive works of art. Wherever there are people, there is a market for some kind of sublimated product—just look around.
   
If you are in business or are interested in starting a personalization business, I have to wonder why you aren’t doing sublimation. It is perhaps the least expensive of all the personalization methods yet it produces a wide variety of products that appeal to a great many potential customers. It is easy to learn and there is lots of support to help when things go amiss. Profits are good to unbelievable. It doesn’t take up much space and it can be done at home, in a store front or online. If you already have a business established and wish to expand it, sublimation will speak to every one of your customers on some level.
   
So, check out the ads in this edition of EJ. There are sublimation distributors waiting to help you get started. All you have to do is ask!     


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