Interested in starting your own creative business? Sublimation t-shirt printing may just be the way to go. T-shirts are a high-demand product, as people are often looking to have custom threads designed for clubs, groups, or special occasions.
With a sublimation t-shirt printing business, you can be the one to supply these custom-made shirts, and you might be able to turn it into a profitable side hustle—or even a full-time job. Sublimation printing is easy to learn, and with a little bit of research, you can get your business up and running quickly and at a pretty low cost.
What Equipment Do You Need for Sublimation T-Shirt Printing?
There are lots of ways to print and design t-shirts, but one of the benefits of going with sublimation printing over other methods is that it doesn’t require a whole lot of specialized equipment. You’ll need just two must-haves, both of which can be purchased used if you’re trying to keep your costs as low as possible.
(Want to skip up-front costs altogether? You could go the print-on-demand route and create your t-shirt store through a platform like Printful or Society6. They’ll handle the printing, packaging, and shipping—you just have to upload designs, market your services, and set your prices. There are pros and cons, but it may be something to explore if you don’t have the budget to fully set up shop.)
The most important piece of equipment you’ll need to purchase for your sublimation t-shirt printing business is the printer itself. This printer must be capable of printing with sublimation inks, since standard printer ink won’t transfer onto t-shirts.
Note that there are conversion kits that can turn everyday inkjet printers into sublimation printers. You’ll find differing opinions on whether these are worth it, though. If your goal is to run a profitable sublimation printing business, then your best bet is probably to invest in a specialty printer so that you know you’re getting the highest quality and most vibrant ink designs for your shirts.
The cost of a sublimation printer varies, but you should be able to get a decent one for somewhere between $500 and $2,500—and possibly less if you buy used.
In addition to a printer, you’ll need a heat press to transfer your designs onto the t-shirts. Make sure to get a clamshell heat press (also known as a swing away heat press), which is designed to transfer onto flat surfaces. And pay attention to the surface area capabilities of the press, since you’ll need it to fit a variety of t-shirt sizes.
A new heat press runs anywhere from about $180 to $800, but again, you can probably find a used one if you want to save some money.
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Other T-Shirt Sublimation Printing Supplies
Aside from your sublimation printing equipment, you’ll also need to purchase some basic supplies in order to get your business off the ground. Some of these you’ll have to continuously stock up on, so find suppliers that work with your budget and offer reliable shipping to your door.
It likely comes as no surprise that you’ll need to buy t-shirts for your t-shirt printing business. Purchase these in bulk to cut costs, and get an assortment of sizes. As you get settled with your business, you’ll start to learn what t-shirt sizes and styles get purchased most often, as well as how much you need to keep stocked at a time. For best results with sublimation, buy blank t-shirts in light colors that are 100% polyester or a blend of at least 50% polyester.
Do buy some t-shirts to get started with (including t-shirts for practicing on), but don’t feel like you need to buy a complete inventory out the gate. Cost-wise, it’s better to underbuy and have to purchase a bulk t-shirt order with rush delivery to accommodate a big sale than to overbuy and end up with a ton of unsold inventory.
Sublimation printing requires a special type of ink, known as dye-sub inks or disperse dyes. These dyes easily bond to polyester fabrics, making them an important purchase for your t-shirt printing business.
Check your printer manual to see if there are additional specifications around the ink that you need to be using, and always have one extra set of ink at the ready just in case.
Sublimation paper is designed for use with sublimation printers, inks, and heat presses. It has a polyester coating that allows it to absorb dye during printing and then release the dye onto fabric when heat is applied, making it an essential part of the sublimation printing process. Get at least two boxes to start so that you have enough for practice and early sales.
Heat Tape and Gloves
When you’re using your heat press, you’ll need heat tape for keeping your designs in place and heat gloves for protecting your hands. Both of these are low-cost items and can easily be found in art supply stores or online.
High-quality design software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, is key for creating professional-looking t-shirt designs. Adobe design products can be purchased with a subscription plan that starts at $20.99 per month, or you can look into other design tools that are either lower cost or only need to be purchased once.
Setting Up Your E-Commerce Website
You have a couple of different options when it comes to your sublimation t-shirt printing business’s website. Decide whether you want to build your site from scratch or go through an existing e-commerce platform, paying attention to things like ease of use, flexibility, design, and traffic potential. Both ways have their benefits and drawbacks, but either can work for you if you put enough time and effort into your enterprise.
Building a Website from Scratch
To build a new site for your business, you’ll need to choose a website building platform that offers e-commerce capabilities (for example: BigCommerce, Wix, or Shopify), a host, and a domain name. From there, it’s just a matter of optimizing your design and filling out your text. And fortunately, these platforms offer a lot of tools that make design easy and intuitive, so there’s no need for HTML or coding experience.
Because this is an e-commerce store, the essential features you’ll want to focus on include your product photos, product descriptions, checkout process, and payment processing system. Once you go live, you can start adding more content as needed and optimizing your site for search engines.
Designing from scratch gives you complete control over the end design. It also helps you establish a more well-rounded brand. That being said, it might not be necessary if you’re only selling t-shirts for a little bit of extra money.
Set Up On an Existing Platform
As an alternative to building a website, you could get your business set up on an existing platform, such as Etsy or eBay. Going this direction means that you have a lot less work to do on the back-end, though it’s not quite as brand-oriented and may be better suited to a part-time gig than a full-fledged business.
These types of online marketplaces have built-in audiences, but there’s a lot of competition too. Try them out if you’re confident you have something to offer that buyers can’t easily get from someone else—just be prepared to adjust your tactics on the fly if the algorithm changes and messes with your traffic.
Marketing and Shipping Your T-Shirts
There’s a big market out there for custom sublimated t-shirts. You’ll need to find a way to get those potential customers to your store though, and to keep them satisfied once they’ve made a purchase.
Both stores on their own websites and those on existing online marketplaces will benefit from social media marketing. Take the time to identify and target your audience, and experiment with both organic posting and paid ads to see what gets you results. Another thing you’ll want to do, regardless of how your store is set up, is prioritize customer reviews and aim for a five-star rating. This will lend more credibility to your business and can be instrumental in bringing in new customers.
How do you get those five-star reviews? Having a great product is a big part of it, but that’s not all. Provide your customers with accurate delivery estimates and get your products shipped in a reasonable time frame. Along the way, keep your customers up to date by providing personalized order tracking updates so they know exactly when their t-shirts will arrive.
Helpful Tips for Starting a Sublimation T-Shirt Business
You won’t know if your sublimation t-shirt printing business will succeed until you take the leap and get it going. There are some things you can do though to increase your chances of having it all pay off:
- Find a niche: Your store doesn’t have to be one of a kind, but it shouldn’t be a dime a dozen either. Specializing your product will help set you apart and give potential customers a reason to choose you over someone else. Some niches you might want to explore include corporate t-shirts, student gear, or event shirts. You could also center your niche around a design style that stands out.
- Know who your target audience is: The more customers the better, but if you try to appeal to too many people at once, your message will get muddled. Think about who your ideal customers are, then model your designs and marketing efforts with them in mind.
- Look at your competitors: Identify a few of your top competitors (i.e. t-shirt sublimation printing businesses in the same niche as you and with the same audience) and do your homework to figure out what sorts of strategies they’re using. You should end up with some useful takeaways you can put into practice for your own store.
A sublimation t-shirt printing business can be profitable, but it takes work. Do your research, put out great designs, and prioritize customer satisfaction—success is bound to follow.
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