If you’ve never heard it before, the phrase “sublimation printing” might sound complex. “Printing” is easy enough to understand, but “sublimation?” Not so much. 

Like so many other art forms, though, sublimation printing isn’t especially complicated once you learn the basics and figure out how it might play a role in your creative life. 

In this guide, you’ll get a full overview of this printing process so that you can use it to create sellable art to share with audiences online or elsewhere. If, for example, you’ve ever dreamed of designing and making one-of-a-kind t-shirts, sublimation printing will give you the tools you need to make it happen. 

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What Is Sublimation Printing? 

pros and cons
Here are some of the pros and cons to consider as you learn more details. 

Let’s start with the basics. What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing (also known as dye sublimation printing) is a process that transfers a design from sublimation paper to fabric and other materials by putting dye into the actual fibers of various hard and soft materials. 

It’s an alternative to heat transfer printing and screen printing (more on that below) and is considered by many to yield higher-quality, more vibrant, more durable end results. Designs applied using sublimation printing will last as long as the material they’ve been printed on—among the reasons it’s been gaining popularity in recent years. It’s certainly not foolproof, but with practice, artists can master the technique and ensure clean, aesthetically pleasing products. 

Compare and Contrast Printing Methods

Put Your Art on a T-Shirt—Overview of Most Common Printing Methods

What Sublimation Printing Is Used For 

blue shirt
It can be used to create all-over designs on a variety of surfaces.

Sublimation printing functions well for transferring designs from sublimation paper onto a variety of surfaces:

  • Mugs
  • Pens
  • Clocks
  • Christmas ornaments
  • Tins
  • Fabric with a high polyester content

Let’s pause to chat a bit more about fabric. The major downside to sublimation printing is that it’s not especially effective on cotton, silk, and other natural fabrics. While you probably don’t have a lot of use on silk, you may be tempted to print on cotton. 

But cotton (like other natural fabrics) doesn’t have the pores necessary to absorb the dye from sublimation paper. As a result, sublimation printing will not give you a clear, vibrant design on 100% cotton. If you want to print your work on a t-shirt, seek out those made from a polyblend. 

Another downside is that, while you can use unlimited colors for printing, it works best when applied to a white surface or material. 

This sublimation printing tank looks black—but it’s actually white, printed on with black and colored ink.
This tank looks black—but it’s actually white, printed on with black and colored ink.

Sublimation Printing vs. Heat Transfer 

This large-scale heat transfer printing system uses heat to add a layer of ink on top of t-shirts. 
Source: instagram
This large-scale heat transfer printing system uses heat to add a layer of ink on top of t-shirts. 

If you’ve ever used an iron to transfer a design onto fabric, you already have experience with heat transfer. In heat transfer printing, special heat transfer paper—when met with heat, of course—adds a new layer of ink to the fabric or other material. The new ink sits on top of the material. The downside? If you’re not careful, you might pull it off. 

In sublimation printing, on the other hand, ink actually becomes part of the fabric. As a result, the design is usually smoother and more durable. 

Sublimation Printing vs. Screen Printing 

Here, screen printing is used to add an ink design on top of a piece of MDF. 
Here, screen printing is used to add an ink design on top of a piece of MDF. 

Screen printing is another common printing method. Like heat transfer printing, screen printing applies a new layer of ink on top of a surface or garment. As you already know, sublimation printing transfers the ink into the actual fibers of the surface or garment—hence why it works best on materials with pores. 

How Sublimation Printing Works

To try sublimation printing, you’ll need access to a sublimation printer.
To try sublimation printing, you’ll need access to a sublimation printer.

In order to try it yourself, you’ll need access to a sublimation printer. Sublimation printers use a special kind of dye that’s insoluble in water, so standard inkjet printers won’t do the job. Sublimation printers are more expensive than their mainstream counterparts, but you can find one suitable for household use online or in some office supply stores. These printers will also require sublimation ink cartridges. 

Once you have a printer and ink, you’ll also need a heat press to complete the printing process. Heat transfer presses are available in various sizes online and at craft suppliers. 

The other key material is sublimation paper, which you can find anywhere you buy office or craft supplies. But here’s a not-so-secret hack: as long as you’re using a sublimation printer and ink, copy paper can also fit the bill. 

The first step is to create the design you want to print. You might do this by hand, on Illustrator, or on Photoshop. Once you’re happy with your design, you’ll print it using your sublimation printer. After that, your heat press steps in to do the rest! 

You’ll use your heat press to apply your printed design to your t-shirt or other item. As it’s applied, the heat opens up the pores of the fabric material while the pressure quickly lowers the temperature of the ink. The ink turns into a solid so that it embeds into the fibers of the surface. 

Time to Print!

If you have some design or artistic flair, you can use sublimation printing to take the designs of your dreams and put them on shirts, tote bags, mugs, pens, and so many other things. It’s a great way to put your work out there in unlimited forms—and create pro-quality pieces that are ready to sell. With a few trial runs and a handful of supplies, the sky really will be the limit with sublimation printing.

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