What is sublimation? Why would it benefit my business?

I get asked this a lot at trade shows.  They see our impressive sublimation display and want to add it to their business.  But they don’t know what the process is or how it works.

Sublimation is a heat transfer process that transfers special sublimation ink onto 100% polyester materials or polyester coated materials.  The key as you might have guessed is in the sublimation inks.

All you need to start sublimation printing is the following:  A sublimation printer, sublimation inks, heat press, sublimation paper, and a polyester substrate or polyester coated substrate.  These can all be purchased in a single package to make it simpler for new users.

The real definition of sublimation is the process of a solid turning to a gas bypassing the liquid state.  This is exactly what happens in sublimation printing.  A sublimation printer prints the ink on a specially coated paper.  The ink dries and turns into a solid.  When heat and pressure is applied to the sublimation inks on the paper, it quickly turns to gas and is forced into the polyester substrate.  When heat is taken away, the gas becomes trapped in the polyester permanently.

Why would it benefit my business?
With sublimation you can add 1000s of new items to your product offerings.  Sublimation has been around for over 20 years; thus you can source over 1000s of different types of sublimatable blanks that are either made of polyester or are polyester coated.  That alone will attract new customers and allow you to make additional revenue from existing customers.  In addition to new products, the sublimation process prints full color images.  This is huge because a sublimated mug can produce much better gradients and drop shadows than a screen printed mug can.  It’s ideal for photographs!  Also, sublimation has no minimums, it costs the same price to produce one item as it does a hundred items.

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What is Considered a Light Colored Fabric?

“For use with White, or Light Colored fabrics.”  You often see this in the instructions of light heat transfer papers.  What does this mean?  Where is the boundary between light colored shirts and dark colored shirts?

The answer isn’t that simple.  It really is a case by case basis.  When determining whether your colored shirt will work with your light transfer papers, you need to determine the type of image it is.

All Black Images
If your image only has black in it such as simple black text or simple line graphics, etc.  It is likely to work on a darker colored shirt such as red and blue shirts.  For most light transfer papers, you will still have to trim around your image to reduce the polymer background.

Photographs/Graphics with solid, non-neutral colors such as reds, deep or dark blues, and greens.
These images can be printed onto colored shirts like pink, beige, or light blue.  But keep in mind that there may be a bit of color distortion depending on the image and the shirt color.

Photographs/Graphics with gradients, drop shadows, light or neutral colors such as grey, light blues, and some yellows.  
These images should only be printed on white fabric only.  This is because colors will distort significantly due to the large amount of white used in the graphic.  Wherever white is used (in gradients, drop shadows, and to produce light colors such light blue), the shirt color will show through and mix with the image.

Black Only Image
Examples of a Black Colored Image on white, pink, and a dark colored fabric.
Black Colored images work well with the colored fabrics shown above
Colored Image
Examples of a Colored Image on white, pink and red fabrics
This colored image works well with both white and pink colored fabrics. On the red fabric, the yellow mixes with the red and the image cannot be printed well on a dark colored fabric.
Photo comparison
Examples of a Light Colored Image on white, pink, and red fabric.
This image only works with a white colored fabric. This image will not print well with most colored fabrics

On light transfer papers, keep in mind that any white areas of any image will become the color of the shirt, as most laser and inkjet printers do not use white ink.  The white comes from the paper.  When using light transfer papers, the white base paper is peeled off leaving the ink and a transparent coating on the shirt.

If unsure whether your image will work on a colored shirt, it is a safer bet to use a dark heat transfer paper instead of a light one.  Dark heat transfer papers will work on any colored fabric.  However, dark transfer papers tend to be a little bit thicker and costs a little more than light transfer papers.

Making Your Own Templates for Sublimation or Laser Transfers

Templates are excellent tools for imaging onto small items.  They guide you on how to resize your image to fit the substrate as well as allow you to see a mock-up of the final imaged product.   In some instances, you can see what parts of the picture is cut-off by holes in the substrate (such as an iPhone cover camera hole).

While most vendors will provide you with templates for your imprintable blanks, not all blank items will have their own template.  So it is useful to know how to make your own templates.

Here’s how to make your own template:

Cylindrical Objects
cylindrical objects such as mugs and water bottles are especially challenging when making your template as the surface is not flat.  But you can always wrap a piece of paper around the surface and mark critical boundaries on the paper.  Once the critical points are marked, you can easily measure out the dimension as the printable area is likely to be a rectangle.

Here’s an example of making a template from a travel mug white patch.

I have marked the corners with a pencil.  Once marked, I can easily connect the crop marks to make a rectangular shape that I can measure with my ruler and input the template size in my graphics software.

Irregular shaped items
Ceramic ornaments with irregular shapes such as a star, heart, snowflake, etc. are items that you cannot measure with your ruler.  However they can easily be traced or scanned in your copier.  One method is to use a pencil and carefully trace the edges of the object.  After tracing is complete, you can scan it into your computer.

It is recommended to use a scanner and not a camera.  Scanners are more accurate because it keeps the sizing of the template consistent, whereas a camera doesn’t do a good job as taking pictures from different distances will change/affect the size of the template.  It’s best to trace your object on paper and then scan it.  Try to avoid placing the object directly on your scanner to scan as ceramic items may scratch the glass on your scanner.  Once scanned use the pen tool or outline trace tool in your graphics design program to make your template.

Here are some examples below.


In this example, I have traced the heart ornament on a piece of paper.


Here is a scan of the iPhone cover with a black background from our scanner.

Tips and hints on making your own templates
Remember when you are finished scanning or measuring your template, make sure to add a bleed border to your template and to consider safe print areas.  This will account for any tiny difference between the size of the substrate and the size of your template.

And finally here is a link to all of Joto’s imprintable blank templates.

www.jotopaper.com (click on the product to get the template)
Unisub blanks templates

Centering Your Image on One or Multiple Small Items

Centering your image is easy to do when you are doing a full bleed image.  But what if you are doing an image with just a white background?  It’s difficult to see your image as the substrate or the paper will be blocking the image.

Centering your image on small items such as name tags is quite simple and is similar to bleeding your image on a substrate.  All you need is a border around your image.

Putting a border around your image helps to center the image especially if you plan to have white as your background.  Simply scan in or get the dimensions of your substrate.  Remember when making a border; always make it 0.25-0.50 inches bigger than the actual printing size of the substrate.  This way, you will not accidentally print the border onto your substrate but you will still be able to use it for centering purposes.  Once the border is made, you can center align your image to the border and print!  See picture below.

Here is an example of a name tag (1” x 3”).  I have created a 1.25” x 3.25” border and have centered my image in the middle of the border.   Once printed, simply place the substrate within the borders with roughly equal space between the substrate and the border on all 4 sides.  Then place a blank sheet on top and press.

For items that require the paper to be put on top of substrate, simply tape the substrate onto the paper after alignment and flip over to press.