It never ceases to amaze me how sublimation transfers can be the solution to decorating some of the most challenging products and substrates. Sublimation transfers got my attention 25 years ago when I began experimenting with sublimation transfers that had been printed on an offset press and were being used to apply novelty slogans on polyester foam-front trucker caps.
I was totally blown away when I transferred my first sublimation transfer to the front panel of a polyester cap and the colors were vivid, plus I couldn’t believe how easy the transfer paper lifted off the cap after transferring with no peel like traditional plastisol transfers. My next thought was, “This new transfer process will change everything, and why would anyone ever want to screen print anything ever again?”
But I soon learned the limitations of the sublimation process, and I realized that the industry wasn’t quite ready in the early 1980s for this new transfer process to take the industry by storm. Why? Well, for starters, the average shop in those days had no economical way of printing sublimation transfers unless the shop had access to an offset press or a flatbed screen-printing machine to make the transfers. And if you were fortunate enough to have this expensive printing equipment at your disposal, you sure didn’t want to tie up the press with short-run jobs like a majority of the work required.
And to make matters worse, there were no polyester T-shirts readily available at the time or an abundance of polyester-coated substrates suitable for sublimating. But oh, how times have changed. With the introduction of the computer and the inkjet printer, the demographic suddenly opened up the sublimation process to millions of end users.
Sublimation printing really came to Main Street America in the early to mid-1990s and has continuously grown to help create a whole new way to decorate T-shirts, plaques, mouse pads, mugs, ceramic tiles, glass cutting boards and more! Here is a breakdown of the most popular products being imaged with sublimation and general technical guidelines to follow for each application. Keep in mind these are general application guidelines and always consult your ink manufacturer’s application instructions for more specific information for using their products.
Figure A: Using a mug press, like this one from Geo Knight, is one of the two main methods for applying sublimation transfers to ceramic mugs.
T-Shirts & Apparel
Sign shops know that polyester-based fabric is a great sublimation-friendly substrate for flags, banners and other applications. But many suppliers also distribute blank garments for sublimation decoration, such as the Hanes Soft L’ink Tee. The Soft L’ink Tee is knitted with a yarn that has a polyester sheath around the cotton yarn that is perfect for the sublimation process.
Vapor Apparel is another garment manufacturer that specializes in polyester apparel perfect for sublimation decoration. Using a standard flat heat press, here are the general application instructions: set the machine temperature at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, with firm pressure for 40 to
45 seconds. Use a Teflon sheet to lay over the transfer and garment to keep the heating element clean from the sublimating gas dye.
There are a variety of polyester-coated mugs available on the market that are ideal for sublimation decoration. There are two main methods for applying sublimation transfers to ceramic mugs: using a mug press (see Figure A), or a mug oven and mug wrap (see Figure B).
Figure B: The other main method for applying transfers to ceramic mugs is to use a mug oven with mug wraps.
Here are the general application guidelines for sublimation transfers using a mug press: set the temperature to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for three to six minutes, depending on the mug press used. The mug press is a great way to decorate mugs one at a time in a retail or small shop environment, but for high-volume mug production, a conveyorized mug oven is by far the best method available at this time.
A standard mug oven can output up to 250 mugs per hour, and the larger mug ovens can produce up 1,000 mugs per hour! With the mug wrap/oven method, it will take 12 minutes per batch at 425 degrees F with high convection air flow.
Note: mug ovens are built specifically for this product and made with high-wattage infrared heat panels, stainless conveyor belts, and high-output blowers to increase the cubic feet per minute (cfm) for the heated oven air. (Standard textile conveyor ovens are not adequate for high-volume mug production.) Cooling chambers are also an option to add to the exit end of the mug oven for easier handling of the product after imaging the mugs.
There are now a wide variety of polyester-coated shot glasses and drinking glasses available on the market for sublimation decoration. A majority of the glass shot glasses are being sublimated in a batch oven with a custom wrap (see Figure C).
Figure C: Most shot glasses are sublimated in a batch oven with a custom wrap. This is how you sublimate on a tapered shot glass.
Here are the general instructions for applying sublimation transfers to shot glasses: heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of five to six minutes for a small toaster oven. Drinking glasses are also transferred in approximately the same time period. (Always consult your ink manufacturer for specific application guidelines for their product.)
This is one item that is so easy to get into; everyone needs a mouse pad! The polyester fabric on the surface of the mouse pad is perfect for sublimation decoration.
Here are the general application instructions for using either a small 9" x 12" swing-away press for creating mouse pads one at a time, or for pressing six mouse pads at a time on a larger 20" x 25" heat press: set the machine at 400 degrees Fahrenheit, firm pressure for 40 to 45 seconds. Mouse pads make great ad specialty giveaways!
Sublimating images onto ceramic tiles has created a lot of excitement in many sectors, including the home interior market, awards & engraving, and in the photography gift market. To transfer a sublimation transfer onto tiles, it is preferred to use a swing-away type heat press; however, a clam style press will work if you have a floating lower platen. Place a piece of 1/2" felt on the lower platen, lay the sublimation transfer ink side facing up on top of the felt, and place the polyester-coated ceramic tile face down onto the transfer.
Set the press for firm pressure, and you will be pressing the tile from the back side of the tile (see Figure D). Set the machine for 400 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately six minutes for a single tile. At the end of the transfer cycle, open the press and remove the tile. You must wear gloves to handle these hot tiles!
For a 16" x 20" bed of tiles, the time is approximately 10 to 12 minutes at 400 degrees, and for a full bed of tiles on a 20" x 25" bed, allow approximately 15 minutes. When using the large 4' x 6' bed for large tile murals, the time is also in the 15 minute range at 400 degrees. Always pre-test your transfers before production, and follow your tile manufacturer’s application guidelines for the tiles you are using.
Glass Cutting Boards
This product really delivers the wow factor for your customer when they see their photo or artwork on glass! Everyone has seen a T-shirt or a mouse pad imaged with sublimation—but glass? Now we are talking high tech! In speaking with sublimation artists, they do recommend boosting certain colors in your artwork, since glass is a transparent substrate. And another tip is to break up large areas of color with halftones or a textured pattern to help hide flaws in the ink coverage.
To apply a sublimation transfer to glass, use a piece of felt material (see Figure D) and lay this on the lower platen of the heat press. Next, lay the sublimation transfer ink side facing up, and place the glass on top of the transfer to heat the glass from the back side. But in the case of transfers for glass, you need to output your transfer image right reading and not mirror image like traditional transfers, since you will see the transfer through the glass. Remember, what you print is what you will see through the glass! Set the heat press at 400 degrees with firm to light pressure, and press for four to six minutes.
Figure D: When using a heat press to sublimate onto tiles, make sure to use gloves to protect your hands when it’s time to remove the tile.
Glass Floor Tiles
Glass floor tiles have really been popular in the home interior market and for decorating flooring at banks and professional buildings. This is a very high-end look to display corporate logos in the reception areas of these establishments. Typically, floor murals are heat transferred on large jumbo heat presses like the Geo Knight Triton press (see Figure E).
Figure E: Typically, floor murals are heat transferred on a large jumbo heat press, like the Geo Knight Triton press shown here.
Unisub sells some of the best polyester-coated metal blanks available, and the high-resolution images that can be achieved on metal are breathtaking! Screen printing only dreams of reproducing this photo-quality imagery on metal! Metal signs can be sublimated on a standard heat press, set at 400 to 415 degrees with firm pressure for 40 to 50 seconds.
HIX Corporation uses sublimation transfers to make their control panels on their large industrial custom ovens. This is an easier process than screen printing a one-of custom control panel. Sublimation is very versatile for custom applications on metal.
Wooden Plaques & Photo Boards
Photo boards are the rage now for wedding gifts and awards plaques. A typical application is to transfer a photo of the bride and groom on a large wooden photo board to be displayed on an easel. And the possibilities are endless in the awards market. A sublimation transfer can be applied to the surface of a photo board at 400 degrees, firm pressure for 40 to 45 seconds.
Expanding your shop’s offerings to include any of the products mentioned in this article will give your business new revenue streams during these tough economic times. Sublimation has come a long way in the past three decades! Thanks for reading.