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The Scoop on Drinkware Part 2: Drinkware by Color Imaging
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One of the hottest sellers in the personalized products and promotional products markets right now is personalized drinkware. According to a recent PPAI sales volume survey, drinkware sales are ranked as the second best product seller of all the promotional products categories (wearables are number one). That’s pretty significant! And when you consider that you can sell personalized drinkware to virtually anyone for just about any occasion or application, it certainly becomes a very viable product line to look into.

What’s great about drinkware for the personalization professional is that these products are easy to create and highly profitable. Laser engraving, for example, is a great method for personalizing drinkware, especially stainless steel and powder coated travel mugs. For more information on this, read “The Scoop on Drinkware Part 1: Drinkware by Laser” in the Jan. 2018 issue and also online at
Two other great options for personalizing drinkware are sublimation and UV printing. These methods can be used to print full-color images on mugs, cups, steins, etc., and we all know that color sells. People love to have a mug, cup or stein with pictures of their children, grandchildren, pets or favorite vacation spots on them. They become a traveling photo gallery of sorts. This article explores sublimation and UV printing for personalizing drinkware.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

Sublimating Drinkware
Sublimated coffee cups have been around for a long time. Even back in the late ‘80s when I started sublimating, we had the standard white 11 oz. coffee cup we still have today. Some say it is the biggest selling sublimation product ever and it may well be. You see them everywhere—at the airport, gift shops, online and at the mall.
I remember well when we bemoaned the fact that the coffee cup was the only type of readily available sublimatable drinkware. Then came the 15 oz. mug which was almost identical to the 11 oz. cup we already had, but at least it was something different.
Today, we still have those two basic pieces but finally, the dam has burst and now there are dozens of shapes and sizes of sublimatable drinkware, and I’m sure someone is working on a new style as we speak. But let’s go back a bit and talk about what makes a sublimatable cup sublimatable in the first place.
Until recently, a sublimatable cup or glass had to be cylindrical. And the more perfectly cylindrical it was, the better. Even a slight variation from top to bottom could cause a problem when sublimated, but cups like that are hard to come by. With advances in sublimation technology, however, a perfectly cylindrical cup is not necessarily a mandate.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

Drinkware products are somewhat unique in the sublimation industry. Like most sublimatable products, these products are sprayed with a sublimatable coating. Unlike other products, however, drinkware is frequently subjected to microwaves and dishwashers. Finding a coating that can handle these extremes took time and offered a variety of problems. I suspect there are still cups out there that would fail the first time they are introduced to these appliances, but most of the sublimatable cups available today do hold up and hold up well in the microwave and dishwasher.

The method of imprinting drinkware has also evolved through the years. At one time, the only option was to use a specially designed heat press (mug press) and that method is still a viable one. The problem is the heating element of a mug press has to be made to fit each product on the market and that is becoming more and more difficult as more and more drinkware styles are being introduced. There are options, however. Johnson Plastics Plus, Burnsville, MN, offers a heat press with a number of satellite fixtures to imprint some of the more popular sizes. Geo Knight & Co., Inc., Brockton, MA, offers two mug presses which can print at least four different styles of cups.
As another option, today we have mug wraps. These rubber and silicone wraps fit tightly around the transfer and the mug, and thus provide the pressure that would otherwise be provided by a mug press. Although you still need a specially designed wrap for different items, wraps are available for a variety of styles of drinkware and the cost is less than a dedicated mug press. In addition, because you use a countertop or conventional oven to generate the necessary heat, multiple products can be printed at the same time.

The introduction of different designs of wraps allows us to sublimate a wide variety of drinkware. Today, there is an incredible variety of drinkware styles available, including coffee mugs, latte mugs, shot glasses, water bottles, steins, Mason jar mugs and travel mugs. Today’s sublimatable drinkware is also available in different materials, including ceramic, glass, high temperature plastic and metal. Remember, just 20 years ago, all we had was one cup—an 11 oz. white coffee cup. From that we have grown to a large selection of options. (See the photos accompanying this article for a sampling of the different styles of drinkware available.)

The final comment I’ll make about sublimation cups and mugs is about pricing. The basic white sublimation cups wholesale for about $3 each and I see people selling them for anywhere from $7.50 to $20 or more. To be sure, we want to push the price to whatever the market will bear but the wide disparity in prices indicates to me there isn’t any rhyme or reason as to how these products are priced. What I fear most about pricing is the business operator who underprices his product. Doing so devalues the product and makes it difficult for the rest of us to make a reasonable profit.

Just as a point of discussion, years ago I developed a pricing plan concerning sublimated cups and mugs. My approach doesn’t work for everyone, and not for every product, but it isn’t meant to. Rather, it is a starting point.
In my world, I think we should make 600% profit on cups, mugs, steins and the like. Here’s why: Not only is shipping sometimes as much as the product itself, but these things require special equipment to print, considerable time (up to 20 minutes) and sometimes they break. If our price is too low and one of them breaks, we are suddenly selling the product at a loss! There has to be enough room in the price to cover not only the cup but a replacement for breakage, shipping, ink, paper and time.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

Photos Courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc., Johnson Plastics Plus and Laser Reproductions, Inc.

In other industries, companies typically set their selling prices at 600% of cost to cover all the various expenses associated with manufacturing products. Sublimated drinkware is a manufactured product, so why shouldn’t we do the same? Besides, we all went into this business for much the same reason—to make money.

Here’s my logic: I’ll use a cup that costs about $1.50 as an example. Remember, these have to be ordered by the case and for this particular cup, a case is 36 so our initial cost is about $50 plus shipping, which is about $40. That’s $90 we pay out, even if the customer only wants one cup. Let’s take that $90 and divide it by 36 (cups) to find our in-house price which is $2.50 each. If we take that $2.50 and multiply it by six (600%), we get $15 which is a reasonable selling price for a personalized cup. A little manual adjustment and I would offer these cups for $19.95 each or $15 each when ordered in some quantity, like two for $30. It looks like a discount but that is the price I wanted in the first place.

Just another reminder: Even with the various costs that go into making a cup or mug of any kind, the most expensive part of the product is usually the time we spend behind the computer doing the design. This can spread, if we aren’t careful, to make any cup project a loser. How much time does it take to design a cup? If you spend an hour on each design, what does that work out to be cost-wise? Depending on how much you expect to make per hour, it can cost a lot. This is why it is important that we restrict the time designing and encourage customers to buy multiple cups using the same basic design. If you want to make even $25 an hour take-home pay, you can’t do it if you spend an hour on each design and only sell one or two cups at a time. Of course, there are also other hidden costs like electricity, rent, taxes and the like, but even without all those, you can easily see how important it is to minimize the time we spend designing a product and see why it is more than reasonable to upcharge by 600% or more.

UV Printing Drinkware
Another way to print full-color images on drinkware is with UV-LED printing, an emerging technology that is making its way into the Recognition and Personalization Industry. A UV printer is a re-engineered inkjet printer that uses UV light-curable ink and an ultraviolet LED curing lamp(s). UV inkjet printing is different from the conventional solvent inkjet printing used in office-style document printers. Instead of having solvents in the ink that evaporate into the air and absorb into the substrate, UV inks are applied to the substrate and exposed to the UV-LED lights that are built into the printer. This UV light exposure cures the ink almost instantly, turning it from a liquid to a solid.
The UV printing market has been expanding in the past few years and a cylindrical/rotary attachment for printing cylindrical items like mugs is now available for most of the UV printers on the market (typically as an option). The specifics of how the attachment works varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and will determine what you can print (e.g. diameter, size, weight). Depending on the printer’s size, some allow printing more than one mug at a time.
With a typical cylindrical attachment, the print head and UV curing mechanism travel above the round object while synchronized rollers rotate the object on its axis. One thing to note is that UV printing on slanted, tapered and irregular-shaped cylindrical items like wine and beer glasses usually results in poor print quality, but some manufacturers have a solution for this. For instance, Direct Color Systems, Rocky Hill, CT, offers a cylindrical adapter designed to lift or hold uneven substrates in a level position when using their cylindrical attachment. According to manufacturers, these fixtures are designed to be easily installed and removed, and they come with software for formatting images for printing round objects.
Another option for UV printing drinkware is to use a custom jig for the types of drinkware you want to print. These can be especially handy for printing on one side of a mug, printing mugs with handles and printing multiple mugs in one setup. Various companies offer custom jigs for almost anything you want to print, including printer manufacturers and companies like If you have a laser engraver, you can easily make custom jigs yourself out of acrylic, MDF and other materials.

The advantage of UV printing is that it allows you to print white (either as a color or as a base) and CMYK inks on black, colored and clear drinkware without any special coating, including glass, aluminum and stainless steel water bottles, travel mugs, wine bottles, glassware, cups and most anything else. In other words, you can digitally print on light or dark cups or various colors without the color of the substrate affecting the color of the printed image. That’s not the case with sublimation because the dyes are transparent and so, for example, you can’t sublimate a dark colored cup.

Screen Printing Drinkware
Screen printing is another method that can be used to print color images on drinkware. This printing method uses a special mesh-like screen (stencil) with open pores that form the design. Ink is pushed through the open pores on the screen using a squeegee and onto the substrate.
A big advantage of screen printing is that it is a very inexpensive process per item when large quantities are involved, e.g. 50 cups or more. Decorating products with screen printing is fast. It only takes seconds to print each color after the initial setup. It is possible to print multiple colors on the same item and a variety of substrates can be printed, including glass, metal and plastic. The basic equipment is also relatively inexpensive.

On the flip side, screen printing is expensive when the quantities are low and is only cost effective when the image is the same on each cup. Multicolor designs require multiple prints with registered screens. And although you can create multi-color images with this process, you can’t do full-color which limits the use of color photographs.

However, if you have an order for 75 Yeti mugs that are all to be printed with a company logo, for example, screen printing is a very cost effective and viable alternative. If you have the equipment, you can do it yourself. There are also plenty of job shops out there that will do it for you.

Personalized drinkware is one of the few products that will never die. On the contrary, it has actually seen a surge in popularity over the past couple of years. There may be fads and styles might change but there will always be a demand for drinkware that is both interesting in style and that can be personalized.
In our industry, we have the opportunity to provide something really unique by offering a personalized form of drinkware. Be it one piece or a thousand, these items make great gifts and great promotional items, and can be as unique and personal as one wants to make them.
Be it laser engraved, sublimated, UV-LED printed or by some other form of personalization, personalized drinkware is here to stay. How will you tap into the market? 

The Scoop on Drinkware Part 2: Drinkware by Color Imaging
J. Stephen Spence

Copyright © 2018
As Printed in June 2018, Volume 43, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal

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