Color Management for Sublimation in a Nut Shell

What is Color Management?
To sum up, color management is the process of managing colors so that they come out the way you expect them to and to make this consistent every time.  There are many variables in the process of printing.  This includes the inks, the printer and the canvas that have to be considered.  Color Management uses a color profile to profile the inks, the printer, and the canvas in order to achieve predictable color.  When we use the color profile, we keep all three of these variables consistent so that the final color output is consistent as well.  With color profiles, you are able to achieve more predictable results.  Most of the time, color management is used to match – as closely as possible – the colors that are printed out compared with what is shown on your screen.

What is a Color Profile?
A color profile is something that we create to convert colors more accurately.  When converting colors without a color profile a lot of inaccurate guessing is done by the computer.  By providing a profile, we eliminate much of the guesswork and if some guessing is required, the profile gives the computer more information to make a better informed guess than without a profile.  For instance if your third party inks tend to print colors a tiny bit more red, this information is given to the computer to adjust for the red tint when using a color profile.  In sublimation, when you buy sublimation inks from your supplier, they will normally provide you with either an ICC profile or a Power Driver (embedded color profiles are in the Power Driver).

Why is Color Management Necessary?
Without some form of color management, it would be very difficult to print anything that has color as you wouldn’t know the final result.  Without color management, it’s anyone’s guess how your image would come out on paper compared to the screen.   Color Management basically takes out the guess work in printing.  With a profile, you know that the color you are seeing on the screen is more likely to be the same color that comes out on paper or on your substrate.

How Come We Don’t Need to do This With Our OEM inks?
OEM stands for “Original Equipment Manufacturer”.  This is the standard inks that come with your printer (if you bought an Epson, the OEM inks would be the Epson brand inks).  OEM inks also require a color profile for them to print properly.  All printers with OEM inks will need a color profile and they are normally embeded in the printer driver you have to install before being able to print from your printer.  So there’s no need for a color profile for your OEM inks as your printer driver is already using one.

If you bought a sublimation package, your vendor may have taken out of the box, the OEM inks and replaced them with sublimation inks to prevent users from accidentally loading the OEM inks for their sublimation printer.

When using inks other than OEM inks such as sublimation inks, you will need a different color profile.  When you buy sublimation inks, your supplier will supply you with either a Power Driver (with embedded profiles for individual substrates) or an ICC profile.  It is recommended to use the profiles provided by your sublimation vendor to achieve predictable color results.

Other factors that affect Color
Because sublimation isn’t just printing to paper, it gets a little bit more complicated than just color profiles.  And the following factors below can also affect your color.

Heat Press Temperature and Press Time – Be sure to follow your vendors recommended settings when printing to your substrate as different variations of press time and temperature will also affect how your colors will turn out as well as the sharpness of your image.  If you are unsure, call your supplier.

Nozzle checks – If you are finding color shifts but you know that your color profile, press time and temperature settings were correct; it may be that your printer’s nozzles are not firing correctly.  With sublimation inks, we recommend doing daily nozzle checks to ensure your printer is performing normally.  And clean your printer heads if your nozzle check fails.

Choosing The Correct Color Profile – Use the correct profile!  Don’t use a profile specifically designed for a different printer than the one you are using.  For example, don’t use an Epson 1400 color profile for your Ricoh 7000 sublimation printer.

Last but not least, be sure that your color settings in your design software are correct when using your profile.  Sawgrass has very good instructions on how to set up your Power Driver or your ICC profile for your Ricoh GX7000/3300 sublimation printers.  You can download the instructions/ICC Profiles/Power Drivers here.

Advantages of Sublimation Printing

Sublimation is a digital printing method for a variety of hard surface products and also includes printing onto polyester t-shirts. Because there is such a huge selection of items that can be printed with sublimation, it is a very attractive printing option.

What Do You Need To Get Started In Sublimation?
You will need an inkjet printer (Ricoh or Epson), sublimation inks, sublimation paper, and a heat press. In addition, you will need a white or light colored substrate that is either coated with a polyester coating or made of polyester fabric for sublimation to work.

Inkjet printers that are compatible with Sawgrass (a major distributor of sublimation ink) inks include: Ricoh GX7000, Ricoh GX3300, Epson 1900, Epson 4880, Epson 1800, and many older models that are discontinued.

If you are just getting started on sublimation, it is recommended that you buy a complete packaged system as that will save you a little bit of money compared to buying the components separately.

What Can You Print With Sublimation?
Anything that is flat, white or light colored and is either polyester coated or made of polyester fabric. You can also print on mugs, shot glasses, etc if you use a mug press or a mug wrap with an oven. Here is a small list of popular items that sublimation can be used:

Ceramic mugs | Water bottles | Coasters | Metals | Magnetic sheets | Plaques | Name badges | License plates | Car flags | Mouse pads | Fabric puzzles | Ceramic tiles | Glass tiles | Poker chips | 100% polyester shirts and more!

The Unisub catalog has a huge selection of high quality polyester coated items for you to choose from as well.

Why Choose Sublimation?
Here is a list of the advantages that come with sublimation printing

  • Sublimation is one of the very few methods you can print full colored images onto hard surfaces.
  • It has a relatively low learning curve compared with screen printing.
  • Almost unlimited colors to choose from. Thousands of colors can be produced with sublimation (even if you choose a 4 color printer). And it doesn’t cost extra to add additional colors to your design.
  • Same cost to print one item or 1000 items. So no need for minimum orders, and perfect for 1-up items and promotional items for small businesses, schools, charities, sports teams, parties, reunions, and many more!
  • Complete customization! The advantage of digital sublimation printing is that no plates are required, so it is ideal for customizing designs with changing elements such as names, numbers, etc.
  • Sublimation is quick and easy to produce, allowing for same day or same hour printing, as well as on demand printing that reduces risk and wastage.

Disadvantages
With every printing method there will be disadvantages and so here are a few…

  • Substrates need to be polyester coated or made of polyester fabric.
  • Substrates need to be white or light colored. You cannot print onto dark or black colored items.
  • Printers tend to clog if not used for extended periods of time. With the introduction of Ricoh printers, the clogging risk has been significantly reduced. However we still recommend doing a nozzle check once a week.
  • Sublimation inks are relatively expensive compared with OEM inks. This will need to be factored in when pricing your products.
  • Color Management issues. With the installation of the PowerDriver, color management problems have been significantly reduced. As with all printers, color management issues will vary depending on the graphic/photograph.

With all the advantages of sublimation, it’s obvious why sublimation has become a very popular method with digital decorators!

What is sublimation?

Sublimation is the process from a solid state to a gas state bypassing the liquid state.  Sublimation systems work the same way.  Your inkjet printer, will print onto a specially coated sublimation paper with special sublimation inks.  When it dries onto the paper, the ink is in solid form.

Once you apply heat and pressure on the solid inks, they quickly become gas bypassing the liquid state.  Because of the pressure and heat, the gas slowly and accurately moves from the specially coated paper to the polyester coated substrate.  Once heat is taken away and the ink is allowed to cool, the gas is then trapped in the polyester coating.  Thus, the image is permanently trapped in the polyester coating.

Without the polyester coating, the inks cannot be trapped.  Only some synthetic materials will allow the inks to go into it and to trap the inks inside.  Because the inks are translucent (part transparent, and part opaque), sublimation will not work on dark colored substrates simply because the dark background will show through and contaminate the image.  In a worse case scenario, the dark background may make the image completely not visible.

In addition, not all inkjet printers can use sublimation inks.  The reason for this is because some inkjet printers use heat to print.  Because heat is used in the sublimation process, heat cannot be used during printing on the printer, as it will allow some of the inks to evaporate and color consistency cannot be achieved.  Thus there are only a hand full of printers out there that can use sublimation inks.

Sublimation also requires a flat or consistent surface.  the reason for this is because the heat needs to be applied evenly in all areas at the same time for the image to print onto the hard substrate.  If heat is not applied evenly, the image quality will not be consistent.