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Getting Started in the Sublimation Business

Copyright © 2016 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in January 2016, Volume 41, No. 7 of The Engravers Journal
The DK20S is a 16” x 20” swing-away heat press available from Johnson Plastics. A major advantage of sublimation is that you can easily print photos on a variety of products.Photo courtesy of Unisub.

   Probably the fastest growing segment of our industry continues to be sublimation. Although lasers, UV direct printing and other personalization methods are growing, sublimation’s low entry cost and wide variety of product possibilities keep it at the head of the pack. Perhaps you have considered getting into sublimation—either as a business in itself or as an add-on to the business you already have—but you have been hesitant for one reason or another. This article might help clear up some of your questions and should help you understand exactly what is needed to be successful.
   There are multiple things to consider when determining if sublimation is right for you, including equipment and supply costs, space requirements and even the less tangible areas of building a successful sublimation business such as marketing. Basically, these considerations can be broken down into two areas: The “stuff” you need to buy and the “stuff” you need to do. We will consider both in this article.
The “Stuff” You Need to Buy
   The “stuff” you need to buy consists of several items including a printer, sublimation ink, a heat press and a computer and software to do the design work. If that sounds like an over simplification, it really isn’t. That’s all you need in terms of equipment. Now, making wise choices when deciding which printer, heat press, etc., to buy is a bit more complicated. Here is some information to get you started on the right path.
   A Sublimation Printer—There are two printers to choose from. Although you might have heard about other printers for sublimation, I don’t recommend them except in the most unique circumstances, and probably not even then. The two printers are both sold by a number of sublimation suppliers and are built exclusively for Sawgrass Technologies for sublimation. These are essentially the same printers that were once sold under the Ricoh brand as models SG7100 and SG3110. When it was announced that Ricoh was going to discontinue these models, Sawgrass cut a deal with Ricoh to keep making them as a private label printer and they are now known as the Virtuoso SG400 and SG800. Unless you have a need for a wide format printer of 24" or more, these are the only printers you should consider buying. Why? Because they work!
   The Sawgrass Virtuoso SG400 accommodates 8.5" x 14" paper, is easy to use and uses three 29 ml color cartridges and one 42 ml black cartridge. It includes PowerDriver color management software (the print driver) and CreativeStudio, a graphic design software suite. This printer with ink sells for around $550.
   The Sawgrass Virtuoso SG800 is basically the same printer as the SG400 but it has a much larger paper size capacity (11" x 17") and additional features like multiple paper drawers and a bypass tray for paper sizes up to 13" x 19". This printer uses the same size cartridges as the SG400 and also includes the PowerDriver and CreativeStudio software. The price for the basic printer and ink starts at $1,625.
   Deciding which printer to buy comes down to how much you want to spend and what size transfer you need to make. If you can live with 8.5" x 14" transfers, there is no significant advantage to buying the SG800. Go with the SG400. If you will need transfers larger than 8.5" x 14" but smaller than 11" x 17", go with the SG800. If you need to print larger transfers in sizes up to 13" x 19", go with the SG800 and add the bypass tray. Also consider adding an extra paper tray to either of these printers for convenience. This allows you to keep two different paper sizes in the printer.


The Digital Knight 16 is a 14” x 16” clam shell press from Geo Knight & Co., Inc. that can be upgraded to an automatic release press for faster semi-automatic garment production. The Kool Plate is a new tool for cooling recently-pressed substrates. Photo courtesy of Condé Systems.

   Sublimation Ink—The question of which ink to use is easy enough. Although there may be other inks out there claiming to be better, less expensive, etc., you should be using Sawgrass sublimation inks. Although Sawgrass has had more than its share of bad publicity through the years, and much of it justified, the current Sawgrass inks work extremely well. The only complaint I have heard for several years now is the cost and although they may seem pricey, the return on investment is so large that it should be a moot point. Just be sure to buy the right ink for your printer and always double check to be sure the expiration date is at least one year beyond the date of purchase. Inks should be replaced after one year to avoid color shifts that can occur after that time. Ink costs for the new printers are approximately $72 per color cartridge (29 ml) and $52 for black (42 ml).
   A Heat Press—Heat presses come in a variety of sizes, designs and price tags. Some say “400 degrees is 400 degrees, so any press will do the job” and that is true to a point, but there should be some additional considerations. If you already have a heat press and it is in good working order, you might be wise to start with that and upgrade as the need arises, but if you need to buy a press, here are some things to consider.
   A heat press will last for 20 years or more if it’s not abused. If you buy a good press (we’ll talk about what that means later), you should not have to do more than minor repairs over that 20-30 year period. Timers tend to go out and perhaps a connection might need to be repaired but other than that, a good press will keep right on cranking. Should the heating element go out, many manufacturers offer a lifetime warranty on that part so repairing the press shouldn’t be a big deal.
There are two basic types of heat presses: the clamshell and the swing-away. I am very partial to the swing-away model but the clamshells do have some redeeming factors. Namely, they are much lighter so they are more portable and they cost considerably less. Beyond that, however, they have a long list of negatives that should be considered.


Sublimatable Lace Faces from Condé Systems are just one of the new products available for sublimation.

   Clamshell heat presses were designed for printing T-shirts and very thin products, and they do pretty well at that. A nice clamshell press (approximately $600-$1,100) will open up to about a 60 degree angle and even rise up vertically to help you avoid burning your knuckles. The less expensive presses only open to about 35 degrees so you are more likely to burn your knuckles every time you put a shirt in the press. But much more important than that is the fact that many clamshell presses usually can’t open more than a tiny bit and thus can’t print thicker items such as plaques, coasters, tiles, etc. Instead, they are basically limited to thin items like shirts, metal plates and bag tags. This is a serious restriction in my opinion and would render such a press nearly worthless in my shop since many of my best-selling products fall into the thicker category.
   Swing-away presses are more expensive to be sure (up to about $1,400 plus shipping) but remember a heat press should last for 20 years and beyond so what you spend on a good press should be seen as an investment. In recent months, I have seen some swing-away presses on eBay and other places for around the same price as a good clamshell press. Although I have not tested these presses personally, I have spoken to people who have and as one might expect, they just don’t measure up to a good quality press from a reputable supplier. There are several considerations linked to buying any press and those include considerations such as:
1. How is the heating element made?
2. What is the recovery time of the press?
3. How strong is the frame of the press?
4. What is the warranty, especially on the heating element?
   The reason a swing-away press is so heavy is because it is made from steel—lots of steel—which helps the press handle the enormous stress that is placed on the frame when it is closed using what is referred to as “heavy pressure.” Heavy pressure is required when printing many thick products such as plaques and ceramic tiles. If the frame bows or flexes, the pressure will be uneven and will likely cause problems with the sublimated image.
   Likewise, just because a heating element (referred to as a platen) gets hot, doesn’t mean it is going to do what you expect. This is because the platen cools almost instantly when you begin pressing something in the press. Items like ceramic tiles might reduce the temperature as much as 100° F but then the press will begin bringing the temperature back up (this is called recovery). The time required for a press to recover is directly related to how much time the product must remain in the press to achieve consistent results.

Gift items can be turned into treasured mementos when personalized with sublimation. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics.

   Two other important factors to consider about heat presses are how the heating element is coiled in the upper platen and how thick the platen is physically. A heating element that has only a couple of twists and turns and wide unheated spaces between the elements will get just as hot as a heating element that has the coils closer together. The difference is the one with the coils spaced farther apart will not heat evenly, causing “cold spots,” and will take longer to recover. With the heating coils closer together, there will be a more consistent and even heating pattern across the surface of the upper platen which will give you better quality results in the printed image.
   A heavy metal upper platen also plays a role in holding heat and transferring the heat evenly. When reading some of the claims for presses that “heat up quickly,” remember that this might mean that the heating platen is thin and, although it heats to temperature quickly, it can’t maintain that temperature as evenly as a thicker one. This is always something of a trade-off in that, although you want a press to heat up quickly, you don’t want it to lose that heat as soon as it touches whatever substrate you place in it. These are pretty much non-issues when printing T-shirts, but today’s world of sublimation includes nearly 1,000 products besides shirts.
   When purchasing a heat press, or any equipment for that matter, keep in mind that warranties are only good if you can find the source. This is a major concern when buying from eBay and similar sources. By the time you need to make a claim on your warranty, the sellers are nowhere to be found.
   Buying a press from a reputable manufacturer through a reputable dealer almost always pays off. Even with the best of presses, things do occasionally go wrong! You’ll find a list of reputable heat press manufacturers in EJ’s R&P Directory at www.engraversjournal.com/bluebook.php.
The “Stuff” You Need to Do
   OK, you now have a printer, ink and a heat press. You are set to go, right? Wrong. True, you have all the equipment you will need but there are a few more things to be considered.
   Consider Your Space—The first issue to consider is space. Although it doesn’t take a lot of space to set up a sublimation workstation, it does take some and what I have found is that if you don’t dedicate enough space to the process, you will avoid doing it. Although the exact amount of space needed will differ for each application, you will need a space where you can permanently mount your press and have room for it to swing freely all the way around. (I am assuming you have taken my advice and bought a full-size swing-away press.) Second, you need enough space to lay out whatever product(s) you are working on. I use a 3’ x 6’ workbench for prepress and a similar one for post press.

All kinds of awards can be personalized with sublimation, like this new home plate plaque from
Marco Awards Group.



   A second consideration about space is where you will position your computer and printer. We haven’t said much about a computer yet and yes, you must have a computer. It doesn’t have to be state-of-the-art by any means but it should be capable of running Windows 8.1 and CorelDRAW with access to high speed Internet. Opinions vary, but I say you need at least 4 GB of RAM memory (the more the better).
   If the computer and printer are going to be next to the heat press, then you will need to create a comfortable space there for design work. Many people separate the computer and printer from the press for a variety of reasons. For instance, the room where you do the pressing is going to get hot and if this is an add-on to an existing business, there is no reason why you can’t use an existing computer that is already set up elsewhere for design and printing.
   If you are going to make large quantities of products at a time, you will need a large post press area to set the products while they cool. Although shirts cool very quickly, other products do not. FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) normally takes up to 7 minutes to cool. Metal takes a little less time, but tile takes much longer. Items like FRP license plates must lay on a perfectly flat surface until cool.
   To avoid needing this rather large table top area, I use a handy new device called a Kool Plate for cooling products more quickly than nature can do it. The Kool Plate has a 12" x 20" cooling surface and three fans for cooling recently-pressed flat substrates, which greatly reduces the amount of space needed for post press. Using a Kool Plate also reduces the cooling time from about 7-10 minutes to about 1 minute. After that, the products can be stacked, which is a very bad idea for FRP products that aren’t completely cool yet. I should mention that I make all the Kool Plates for the industry myself so this might sound like a self-endorsement. Nonetheless, it is a handy tool you should know about (www.KoolPlate.com).
   Design Software—Most sublimators use CorelDRAW as their primary design software, but there are other options. If you already have another graphics software package and know how to use it, chances are good it will work fine for designing sublimation transfers. As I mentioned earlier, a new offering that comes only with the new Virtuoso printers is a design software package called CreativeStudio. This is a very powerful program that brings many benefits to sublimators, both new and old. Although I still much prefer CorelDRAW, CreativeStudio is nothing to be sneezed at. Whatever software you use, there is always a learning curve, especially for those who are not comfortable with graphics programs. Expect to spend some time learning your software. There are lots of YouTube videos available for all the popular programs, including CorelDRAW and CreativeStudio. (I have an entire series of CorelDRAW videos on YouTube just for sublimation).
   Electrical Requirements—Electrical requirements can be significant for a good heat press. The heat presses I use pull 13 and 15 amps at 120 volts. Since a standard circuit in commercial buildings is 20 amps (12 awg wiring), operating two presses means having two dedicated circuits available. Some older buildings are wired with only 15 amp circuits (14 awg wiring). These will handle the larger heat presses but just barely so nothing else should be on that circuit. At least with a 20 amp circuit, there is still room to have a couple of lights, a computer or printer, etc., on the same circuit if necessary. Needless to say, extension cords, multi-tap plugs and the like should not be used unless properly rated and not at all if not absolutely necessary. Some people run 220-240 volt circuits and use one phase for their heat press and the other for everything else. It certainly isn’t mandatory but it is a good solution if you have to run a new circuit anyway.


The Virtuoso SG800 and SG400 sublimation printers are sold by a number of sublimation suppliers. Photo courtesy of Condé Systems.

   Marketing—Whew! We have talked about the equipment, the space needed, the electrical requirements, the computer and the software. Surely, we are done, right? Wrong. There’s one more thing: Marketing.
   This is, in fact, probably the most important element and it is usually the least considered. All of the personalization processes available to us represent great ways to make money—but only if people can determine the answers to several key questions before they invest in the systems. I refer to these questions as “rules” and they should be required before anyone enters any new area of business. When you can answer them, then and only then is it time to plunk down the hard cash: 1) What are you going to make? 2) Who are you going to sell it to? 3) How are you going to sell it?
   This is just basic marketing. Call it a business plan if you wish but whatever you call it, don’t forget to do it. What products do you want to offer with sublimation? Don’t say, “All of them,” but rather focus on determining which ones you will aggressively market. Then determine who your market is going to be. Will it be existing customers or will you go after new ones? Will you be looking for a niche market or will you be going mainstream? Will your sales come from direct contact or through the Internet?
   Don’t short change this step in your decision making process. Short answers like, “I’ll build a website” aren’t good enough. How will you direct people to your website? Why should they buy from your site and not mine? How easy is it to buy from your site and how much will it cost you to sell via your site?
   These are questions that are filled with pitfalls that you must navigate through before you can find the coveted success you are searching for. Amazon.com now offers a new division that caters to nothing but personalized products… is that the magic ticket? What about tools like iPersonalize.com which is an online service that lets your customers design their own products? These all cost money. Are they worth it? Even the greatest process is only an albatross until you figure out how to sell the products. Then it becomes a business.
   Sublimatable products can offer profit margins of as much as 1,000 percent on some products. Certainly 600 percent is common on many products such as name badges, bag tags, license plates and much more. Even the low profit items, such as shirts and coffee cups, offer at least 300 percent and often more—a profit margin many businesses long for.
   In this article, I have attempted to do most of the initial leg work for you. Select a good sublimation supply house (there are several) and give them a call. Ask them some questions. If they seem knowledgeable and helpful, you probably have a winner. Call several and see which one you think will give you the best support—that is probably the right one to buy from. Do a little shopping and get some prices. Prices should be about the same for the same piece of equipment. Some dealers offer startup packages at considerable savings, just make sure they include the equipment you actually want to own.
   Don’t forget those very important three questions. Once you feel confident about those answers and you have found a good supplier that you think will go out of their way to help you, you are ready to scratch a check and begin making money! Good luck!


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