Basic Guide to Dye Sublimation

In these days of aging baby boomers and web savvy Gen-Xers, customization is king. People want what they wear and use to say something about them. So we are awash in custom cars, cell phone wraps, Xbox skins, and of course, custom apparel. All of these are ways for an innovative sign maker to expand horizons, find new markets, and make more money. One of the ways you can turn the demand for custom everything into a business opportunity is through dye sublimation. Dye sublimation offers several unique advantages including unmatched softness, durability, and affordability. How does it work? What are the basic settings for decorating sock, shirts, mugs and mouse pads? How profitable is it?

What is dye sublimation and how does it work?

Dye sublimation is not a new process. It’s been around for well over a decade and, due to a patented innovation by Sawgrass Technologies, it doesn’t require a large capital investment. Sublimation is a natural process by which a solid or liquid becomes a gas. Dye sublimation is the process of turning a water-based dye ink into a gas that bonds with polyester fabric or other polymers. It dyes the polymer molecule, resulting in a vibrant graphic that never washes off. This is done with the aid of some transfer paper and a heat press. Sawgrass ink replaces OEM ink in piezo inkjet printers and makes the magic happen when exposed to heat and pressure.

The process is pretty simple. Create a snazzy graphic using your favorite software and print it in reverse on a sheet of sublimation transfer paper using a desktop printer filled with Sawgrass dye sublimation ink. Then place the print on a white or light gray polyester garment and place both in your heat press. There are variations listed below, but the standard formula requires heating the item  to 390 – 400°F (198 – 204°C) for about 35 seconds, using light to medium pressure. Remove the paper and you’re done. You have a freshly decorated garment with an incredibly soft ‘hand’.
Your transfer will be as soft as a screen-printed shirt, but is much easier to make. No color separation, no messy inks, no exposing and washing screens. Just print and press. Profitably. Total cost for an 8″ x 10″ transfer on a good quality polyester shirt averages about $6.00 including the shirt.  At retail prices ranging from $10 – $29.00, there’s plenty of room for profit, especially when you’re selling unique shirts with custom designs. There’s that word again.

Affordable Startup Options

There are several options for running Sawgrass ink in a desktop inkjet printer. Some of these involve replacing OEM ink with Sawgrass ink and essentially retrofitting someone else’s hardware.  Sawgrass has simplified desktop sublimation by providing a branded solution in the form of the Virtuoso SG400 and SG800 printers. With the Virtuoso printer, you never have to worry about the warranty issues of using ‘third party ink’ in someone else’s printer. In the unlikely event that you have a technical problem with your printer, you have a single source for support whether the issue is the hardware or ink delivery system. And a Virtuoso SG400 startup package can by yours for under $600. For more information about Sawgrass Virtuoso printers, please click here.

Sublimation is the King of Softness

We don’t normally associate the words, “king” and “soft”, but in this case, it’s appropriate.  When it comes to making decorated garments with a soft hand, sublimation is king.  Sublimation is the only method of garment decoration that doesn’t add anything to the fabric; no ink, no toner, no film.  You’re literally changing the fabric’s color. So there’s nothing to feel but the fabric.   And, with products from Vapor Apparel, a company that specializes in supplying the sublimation market, you can offer your customers a shirt that feels as good as it looks.

We’re not just talking T-shirts. Sublimation can create custom apparel of all kinds. Professional quality performance apparel, mens and ladies tank tops, V-dresses, hoodies, bandanas, Baby onsies, sweatshirts, arm sleeves, scarves, and socks. Yes, socks.

Decorate Dozens of Keepsakes

In addition to making soft and permanent imprints in polyester garmentsdye sublimation can be used to imprint a wide variety of objects ranging from cell phone cases to clipboards, mugs, mouse pads, license plates & luggage tags, ceramic tiles & trophy inserts.   Just about anything that has a polymer coating and can be sandwiched in a heat press at 400°F — without melting, of course. When you branch out beyond shirts, you’ll need to vary your time and temperature settings. Here’s a guideline for sublimating some common items.

Sublimation Time & Temperature Guidelines

  • Polyester Apparel: 35  seconds at 390 – 400°F
  • SubliSocks 30 seconds at 370°F
  • Cell phone covers 45 seconds at 400°F
  • Polymer-coated plastics 75 seconds at 400°F
  • Metals 60 seconds at 400°F
  • Wood 75 seconds at 400°F
  • Ceramic Tiles 4 minutes at 400°F

Please note. Not all sublimation blanks are created equal. Some will require different combinations of time and temperature. If you’re not certain, check with your supplier and get the settings for the blanks you’re using. Use the information above as a general guideline.  If  your transfer doesn’t sublimate correctly, the settings may be incorrect for your material. The problem may also be a heat press that’s not actually heating the paper and blanks to the set temperature. No matter how good your heat press is, there’s a good chance the displayed or set temperature doesn’t actually match the platen temperature. Use a contact thermometer to check it and adjust accordingly. Click here for  more information about  how to do this.

So now you have a basic understanding and a general guideline for dye sublimation. Due to its simplicity and affordability, dye sublimation is a great way to start a business catering to people who want to turn selfies and iphone pics into custom apparel and keepsakes. If you aren’t sure if sublimation is right for you, give us a call at 800-899-5655. Let us help you make the right choice for your goals and budget. You may discover that dye sublimation is the new business opportunity you’ve been looking for.