In the early days of sublimation, the only substrate we had to work with was polyester shirts, which were hard to come by, ceramic coffee cups, some specially-coated solid brass trinkets that didn’t work very well, and some aluminum sheet stock. That has drastically changed in recent years. Now, we have over a thousand products to choose from made from all kinds of materials—and more being added almost daily.
When I started in sublimation around 1990, there were only a couple of companies offering sublimation systems and very few substrates to work with. Still, it was the only way to get a color logo on a plaque or other product and even back then, color was becoming “the thing to have,” in spite of the quality being abysmal.
Earlier this year, EJ “scooped” both metal and plastic substrates used in our industry (March and July 2016, respectively), exploring the many different options available, what the materials are used for and how they can be engraved, printed or otherwise marked. Now it’s sublimation’s turn.
Evaluating sublimation substrates is a bit different from looking at metal or plastic. In the world of engraving plastics or metals, the discussion is almost entirely about sheet stock. With sublimation, the substrate is really a micro-thin coating of polyester that is applied to a non-sublimatable surface. In other words, sublimation centers more around products which are coated rather than sheet stock (although there are various sublimatable sheet materials available). So, here’s the inside scoop on the many products available for sublimation.
In the modern world of sublimation, this marking method began to really grow beginning with the introduction of the Unisub products. Not only did the product line begin to grow exponentially, the process itself improved greatly with the introduction of inkjet sublimation over toner-driven systems.
One of the first materials to be introduced was 1/8" hardboard with a special sublimation-receptive coating made by Unisub, Louisville, KY. This coating greatly improved the quality and durability of the image compared to the old substrates we used to work with. In addition to single- and double-sided sheet stock, this material is made into everything from mouse pads to coasters. Just a hint of the products made with this hardboard material include clipboards, hard surface mouse pads, coasters, sign blanks, memo boards, place mats, clocks, serving trays, novelty basketball backboards and trophies.
In addition to the 1/8" hardboard, a 1/4" hardboard material is available which is primarily used to make sublimation-printed hardboard tiles. These are commonly used as a substitute for ceramic tiles since they are less expensive and much easier to sublimate. Hardboard tiles have the standard Unisub sublimation-receptive coating and are cut so they fit together very tightly when used to make a mural. Sizes are cut to match typical ceramic tiles so they can be used in the tops of keepsake boxes and other applications intended for ceramic tiles. The 1/4" hardboard material is available in white gloss sheet stock (48" x 48" and 48" x 96") and a variety of gloss white tiles (2" x 2", 4.25" x 4.25", 6" x 6", 8" x 8", 4" x 6", 6" x 7.875", 8" x 10", 4.219" x 5.969" and 12" x 18").
Tempered glass plates from Laser Reproductions, Inc. are coated on the bottom for printing, allowing them to be safely used to serve food.
Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic
Next came FRP (Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic) which brought with it a revolution in sublimation. Now, hundreds of new sublimatable products were possible, including the much anticipated full-color name badge. Since conventional plastics would melt in the 400° F temperatures required for sublimation, Unisub turned to heat-resistant fiberglass and added their special coating. This material was available in sheet stock and could be cut with a safety saw. Unfortunately, it could not be sheared but we were so happy to have a sublimatable “plastic,” no one cared. It can be cut using a laser but the laser leaves a nasty black goo on the edges that has to be sanded off so that limits its possibilities in that respect.
The FRP product hasn’t changed much over the years other than a continually improved coating. This material can be coated on both sides, offering the first double-sided sublimatable product suitable for things like luggage tags. Other products offered using this material include single- and double-sided sheet stock, a wide variety of name badges, bag tags, coasters, trailer hitch covers, key chains, vanity plates, license plate frames, light switch covers, door hangers, clocks and picture frames.
A product that hasn’t caught on much in our industry is Unisub coated phenolic. The reason it hasn’t caught on, in my opinion, is that it is a bit difficult to cut without chipping. It has to be cut with a saw, rotary machine or CNC router and it is fairly thin so it tends to “chatter” when being cut. The material is .050" thick and is available in 11.5" x 23.25" sheet sizes with either a white gloss or matte finish. For those who are not familiar with the material, it is much like Formica countertop material. It is extremely durable but cannot be flexed to any degree without breaking. Coated phenolic is commonly used for specialized applications such as fabricating tabletops, but it can also be used to produce other products such as phone covers and inserts for keepsake boxes.
A common practice among sublimators is to display a variety of products with the same image to communicate that an image can be applied to most any sublimatable product.
The first good sublimation metal to come on the market was from Unisub. This super popular metal almost didn’t happen because it was seen by Unisub as too expensive as it was far more expensive than other sublimatable metals that were then on the market—about twice as much. With some fast talking, however, they did put it on the market and to their surprise, it was a hit. The image quality was so much better than anything else previously seen in metal that people were more than willing to pay the extra price. Today, there are several good metals on the market along with the Unisub metal and we will consider each of them.
- Unisub Steel—What brought sublimatable steel about was the ability to use dry-erase markers on the Unisub coating and easily wipe the ink off. Even most permanent markers can be removed with mineral spirts. The coating is also so hard that it is by far the most durable sublimatable coating being offered. Although it can be used for many applications, the main one is as white boards in schools, businesses, churches, etc. The material is ideal as a magnetic board as well. The coated steel comes in only one size which is approximately 2' x 4' and .023" thick with a white gloss finish.
- Unisub Aluminum—Unisub aluminum is not only one of the best for image quality, it is also the only metal that contains UV inhibitors to keep the image from fading in sunlight. I have found that inhibitors restrict fading for 18-24 months depending on the environment and how much exposure the product actually gets. A license plate on a car that is kept in a garage most of the time will hold up far longer than one that isn’t garage-kept.
Although some companies have experimented with coatings on various sublimated products to make them UV safe, I have not seen anything that really works since sublimation has to breathe. This means it requires a semipermeable coating, which is a coating that will allow the sublimation dyes to off-gas while reflecting the UV rays. To date, this is something that’s not available. Adding a coating usually causes the image to off-gas to the back of the coating, causing a ghosting effect.
Unisub aluminum is available as a single-sided sheet stock in several sheet sizes up to 4’ x 8’, in several thicknesses, and with a clear, white or gold matte or gloss coating. You can also purchase premade aluminum products, including disks, name badges, ornaments, bookmarks, jewelry and pet tags.
- ChromaLuxe—ChromaLuxe is a premium line of sublimation aluminum manufactured by Unisub. One of the main features of ChromaLuxe is that it has a rather thick high-quality polyester coating on the metal that is thicker than the coating on standard sublimation aluminum. Many users claim that this material, although the most expensive, is the best material for sublimating photographs. The ChromaLuxe coating is also resistant to UV light, fading, scratches and chemicals.
According to sublimation expert David Gross, president of Condé Systems, Mobile, AL, ChromaLuxe is the top-of-the-line in sublimation metal. “This metal has gone viral in the photo industry because it produces amazingly deep rich colors due to the extra thick coating and optical properties. It is the standard now for all other metals. Because of the thickness of the coating, images appear to have a slight, but noticeable, 3D effect,” says Gross. See this issue’s cover for an example of ChromaLuxe.
ChromaLuxe metal stock is .045" thick and is available in sheet sizes up to 4' x 8'. You can cut the material with a shear and also fabricate it with equipment such as hole punches and corner rounders. The metal is available in white, clear (silver) and gold colors in glossy, semi-matte and matte finishes.
ChromaLuxe sheet stock is also available with the sublimation-receptive coating applied to both sides of the sheet, which introduces some unique two-sided applications for the material. For instance, you can sublimate an image on both sides of the material and then use a metal rolling device to form the flat metal into a curve, creating a unique and attractive self-standing photo display.
- DynaSub—Another type of sublimation aluminum available in the industry is sold under the brand name DynaSub. This metal has a thinner polyester coating than ChromaLuxe and Unisub that is not as resistant to UV light and is less scratch resistant. It does, however, reproduce crisp, full-color images and is less expensive than the other sublimation metals. Due to its low cost, it is often a favorite metal for typical awards and name badge applications. DynaSub aluminum is .020" thick and is sold in 24" x 12" sheet sizes in satin gold, satin silver and gloss white.
- Private Label Aluminum—By private label, I mean the metal is given a brand name by whoever is selling it. It may come from multiple sources—some good, some not so good. This makes it difficult to grade the quality since what you buy from one company may work great while metal from another doesn’t. I’ve seen good metal, of course, but I’ve also seen private label metal that is such poor quality it won’t print. The best thing here is to buy from reputable dealers if you are going to buy private label metal and try it before you invest in a large quantity of it. The brands shown here are all from reputable dealers:
- UltraSub sheet stock (JDS Industries) in white, satin gold, satin silver, matte gold, matte silver
- Super Metal sheet stock (Johnson Plastics) in brushed gold, brushed silver, bright gold, bright silver, brushed copper (no white)
- DecoSub sheet stock (Identification Plates) in gloss white, satin gold, satin silver
- VersaMet sheet stock (Identification Plates) in gloss white, satin gold, satin silver
- DyeTrans sheet stock (Condé Systems) in bright gold, bright silver, satin gold, satin silver
- SubliCoat sheet stock (Nova Sublimation) in white, brushed gold, brushed silver, engineering gray, mirror silver, silver matte, brushed copper, mirror gold
- KrinkleSub aluminum (Condé Systems) 5" x 7" gold, silver or white plate with a crinkle frost border
Although it may look like there are a huge variety of materials from Unisub used in this photo, all of these pieces are actually made from hardboard.
- LaserSub—This material is brass-plated steel with a white gloss sublimation-receptive coating. The concept here is that you can sublimate a full-color image onto the white coating and then use a laser to engrave through it to reveal the bright gold underneath. Combining laser engraving and sublimation allows for some very unique designs and applications, and because the substrate is steel, it is also magnetic. Both Condé Systems and Identification Plates offer LaserSub sheet stock.
- id-Sparkle—Identification Plates has introduced a very interesting metal product that falls into the “specialty metal” category. One of the most interesting characteristics is that it can be used with either sublimation or laser engraving, and it’s also possible to do a job which combines the two technologies. Available in aluminum and brass-plated steel, id-Sparkle has a special “glittery” textured coating applied to it that can be sublimated and laser engraved. Coatings available include gold, silver, bronze and platinum. The material is sold in 12" x 24" sheets and is available in .015"-.018" (steel) and .020" (aluminum) thicknesses. Although not recommended for small, fine detail, this product has some unique applications when a customer is looking for something different.
Here is a sublimated serving tray (all wood). The bottom is a piece of hardboard ready to sublimate. The tray is then assembled around the bottom. Photo courtesy of Unisub.
Magnetic Substrates—Sublimatable aluminum, FRP and hardboard with a magnetic backing is available from industry sublimation suppliers to create magnets. Precut magnets are available in a variety of sizes and shapes, ranging from cars and martini glasses to simple shapes like circles and rectangles. You can also purchase 12" x 24" magnetic sheet stock from some sources (SEPS Graphics is one).
- DyeFlex—This sublimation-receptive white plastic material was developed by Condé Systems and was originally used to create inserts for use on cell phone covers. The plastic is fairly rigid and is described as a “thick film” as it is only .020" thick. Unlike metal phone covers, this material allows Near Field Communication (NFC) using iPhone and Samsung phones. Since the original DyeFlex phone inserts, Condé has introduced several other products made from this material, including a variety of cell phone inserts for all late model iPhones and Galaxy phones, guitar picks, business cards, name badges, sneaker tags, hanger tags and sheet stock.
- Wood—The first to introduce sublimatable wood was really Condé. They offered a paint that could be applied to wood surfaces and then sublimated, but the first to actually offer real wood that was sublimatable was Laser Reproductions, Inc. with their photo and sign boards. Most recently, Unisub introduced a line of wood products and flooring. Natural wood sheets and panels are typically .625" thick.
- Ceramic—A variety of ceramic products with sublimation-receptive coatings are available from sublimation suppliers. Some examples include tiles in a variety of sizes, cups, mugs and steins in various sizes and shapes, and pet dishes.
- Glass—In recent years, we’ve also seen more glass products available for sublimation. Examples include tiles, cutting boards, ornaments, shot glasses, wine glasses, plaques, photo panels, clocks and more.
- Mouse Pad Material—You can, of course, purchase precut mouse pads from sublimation suppliers that are ready to sublimate. You can also purchase the same material in bulk, which opens up a variety of other applications, such as game pads, poker tables and exercise mats. Mouse pad material is actually polyester fabric glued to a sheet of rubber-like foam. Bulk mousepad material is available in multiple thicknesses, including 1/16", 1/8" and 1/4" (thicker versions are also available), and is sold by the yard.
- MouseMATES & MugMATES—These are sublimatable mouse pads and coasters that consist of a sheet of Rowmark’s ultra-thin sublimatable Mates material attached to a sheet of rubber. The ultra-thin plastic provides a high gloss finish with a durable, washable surface that’s also dry-erasable.
- Neoprene—Neoprene, a type of rubber used to make wet suits and shoes, is an extremely durable rubber-like material that has a white polyester face that is naturally sublimatable. It’s used for all kinds of products in this industry, including laptop bags, can and bottle huggers, wristbands, checkbook covers, eyeglass cases and more. It is also available in sheet form, allowing you to glue, sew or heat weld the material into other products.
- Polyester—Polyester is what is referred to as an oil fiber. It is totally manmade from petroleum and therefore sublimates naturally (no coating has to be added). Some polyester fabrics do sublimate better than others so it is important to test a fabric not purchased from a reliable sublimation dealer before committing to use it. Needless to say, all kinds of products are made from this product, including shirts, towels, purses, pillow cases, bibs, arm sleeves, flags, banners, leashes and more. It is also available by the yard.
- Ribbon—Ribbon is made from a variety of materials including polyester. Over the years, suppliers have worked to find a ribbon that was 100% polyester and that would sublimate consistently. Satin and grosgrain ribbons are available in a variety of widths up to 3" from sublimation dealers. Ribbon purchased from other sources may or may not work well so testing prior to commitment is essential.
Metal is a common substrate for sublimation. These sublimated metal pieces are dash plates for a car show. Photo courtesy of Unisub.
Sublimation, discovered prior to the Second World War, came by accident when a scientist noticed some dye had transferred to acetate material. From that simple observation has come a multitude of industries, not the least, ours. Carpets, drapes, clothes, bed linens, car interiors, even rifle butts are all sublimated using one method of sublimation or another.
Sublimation substrates have come a long way over the years and there is no reason to think that trend is going to change. Manufacturers and distributors alike are investing tons of money in perfecting what we have and coming up with new products to fill needs not yet perceived.