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What Is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work?

If you want to print high-quality images on to different materials like shirts, mugs, pots etc, then sublimation printing is a skill you must acquire.

It’s a popular method of transferring sharp images to different surfaces with the high resolution and detailing. It is technique with which the design becomes a permanent part of the material that you transfer it on.

Photographic images can be printed on fabrics like shirts, pots, cups, or any other material, and you can play around with this technique for fun or to earn some easy cash.

Once you know sublimation printing, you can make use of this technique for many creative projects.

In this article, we will discuss ”What is Sublimation Printing” and several other relevant questions. But first, let’s look at what is sublimation.

dry ice

Dry Ice or Solid Carbon Dioxide undergoes Sublimation Process by Directly Phasing from Solid to Gas (Does not Turn to Liquid)

Sublimation is a chemical process in which matter undergoes a change or phase of transition like freezing, evaporating, or melting

In sublimation, liquid changes directly from solid to gas without going through the liquid phase.

Dry ice is an obvious example of sublimation.

What is Sublimation Printing?

sublimation printer

So what is sublimation printing and what are materials used?

If you have a good sublimation ink printer that can print high-quality images, you can make use of it for sublimation printing on to fabric or other materials.

You can print these images on sublimation paper with sublimation ink. These printed images, texts, or designs, can be transferred on different surfaces like ceramic, pottery, polyester, metal or any other object that has a polymer coating on it.

Printed images are transferred to a surface with heat and pressure.

The conversion process is initiated by heat and controlled by time and pressure for transferring the image accurately.

You need a special kind of ink called sublimation ink to achieve this process.

What Is Sublimation Ink?

As we just mentioned, sublimation printing is processed by special sublimation ink. It is different than the normal ink used in inkjet printers.

Normally there are three kinds of ink.

  • Dye-based Ink: It is used in inkjet printers but can re-dissolve and flow through the paper.
  • Pigment Ink: This ink uses small colored particles that give color to ink. Pigment ink is used in many different printers.
  • Sublimation ink: This is special ink used in sublimation printing. Made by heat press machines, this ink is used to transfer the photographic images that do not fade or wash away.

Sublimation ink expands the gamut of color on a surface and has a fast drying time.

Sublimation ink is just one part of the equation, the other part is the sublimation paper.

What Is Sublimation Paper?
sublimation paper

Images or photos are printed on a special paper for the sublimation printing. Sublimation paper often gets ignored, but it is one of the main component required for the quality work.

Sublimation papers are based on normal papers, and a special coating is added so that heat transfers to the pattern and then to the printed surface.

It comes with a special carrier that carries your design or photo to a surface and when sublimation ink evaporates into gas and heat and pressure are applied, the carrier is evaporated, leaving only a perfectly printed image behind.

Sublimation papers are available in the market and online. For excellent results, choose a good quality paper that gives better printing output.

How Pressure or Heat is Applied on an Object?

For sublimation printing, a heat press is required that provides the necessary heat and pressure to your printed design.

For this purpose, special heat press machines are used.

Heat Press Machine
heat press machine

The heat press is a special machine that are used for applying heat and pressure to printed designs for transferring designs to different materials.

It is used in vinyl printing, heat transfer printing, or sublimation printing for transferring designs.

normal iron can be used in vinyl printing for applying heat and pressure, but heat press is used for accurate time, pressure, and heat, required for professional use.

Many types of heat press machines are available that are used for several printing projects.

How Does Sublimation Printing Work?

While a comprehensive guide on sublimation printing is beyond the scope of this article that primarily focuses on what is sublimation printing, we can talk about the basic steps as follows:

  1. 1
    Select or create the design you want to print.
  2. 2
    Scale the design according to your required printed area.
  3. 3
    Flip or create a mirror design as the design will be printed on the back of sublimation paper.
  4. 4
    Place the design on the surface where you want to print; it can be a t-shirt, any cloth, or a mug.
  5. 5
    Expose it to a temperature as high as 350-400 Fahrenheit. Use a heat press machine for accurate temperature and time setting.
  6. 6
    The ink will permeate to fibers. Synthetic fibers open to receive gas and will close after it is cooled. Carrier paper will evaporate, leaving a solid design behind.

Materials are Suitable for Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing can be used for many projects. it is best for polyester, polymer, and polymer-coated items.

On polyester and polymer surface, the designs are permanent, becoming a part of the fabric; not something that can be peeled off or removed from the surface.

It can be used for both hard and soft materials. Hard materials are polymer-coated cups, mugs, signs, coated plaques, and other objects.

Soft materials can be garments, cloths, drapes, covers of pillows or cushions, t-shirts, or kids clothing.

Materials not Suitable for Sublimation Printing

Cotton is not a good choice for sublimation printing. The design will be printed but it won’t be permanent and will fade away with wash.

Is Sublimation Printing Affordable?

Sublimation printing can be expensive if you count buying all the tools like printers and heat press.

However, once you acquire them, the printing cost is not very high, and you can make professional use of sublimation printing for selling some cool t-shirts, clothes, mats, or products.

Sublimation printing is best for small orders and printing complex designs or photos on different objects.

For easy prints in large batches, screen-printing and vinyl printing are more suitable.

Sublimation printing is an excellent method of transferring your personal designs, messages, or photos, to your belongings.

You can make use of this technique by selling some wonderful objects decorated with personalized tokens. Not only is it a great hobby, but it can also help you earn some easy cash and results are durable enough to build your professional repute.

Sublimation printing can always be trusted for permanent prints only if you choose the right material and tools for printing.

Sublimation vs Heat Transfer Paper Technique

While searching for what is sublimation printing you may have also come across a technique called Heat Transfer.

While sublimation technique also requires heating the sublimation paper over a fabric or product, the Heat Transfer Paper Technique is actually something different (but similar in concept).

Heat Transfer technique uses heat transfer vinyl instead of sublimation paper. They difference between the two technique is that with sublimation, the graphic becomes permanent part of the fabric. With heat transfer, the graphic is printed over the fabric.

Heat Transfer technique is less durable and the graphics can deteriorate over time.

However, Heat Transfer technique is cheap, you don’t need specialized sublimation ink or sublimation printers and it can be done on a variety of materials including polyester and cotton.

Sublimation technique does not work on cotton fabric.

This article explains the heat transfer and sublimation printing technique in great detail: Heat Transfer Paper vs Sublimation Printing


In this article we briefly looked at what is sublimation printing and it various aspects.

We looked at what separates this technique from the rest and the tools you need. We also briefly had a look at the exact process involved for printing sublimation designs on to products.

All in all, sublimation is a a premium technique for transferring designs on to fabric or other compatible products. The results are vibrant and rich. Unfortunately, sublimation printing processor is more expensive compared to other such as the Heat Transfer Paper Technique.