What is sublimation, and how can you use it to create beautiful, custom designs like this? 👆
You’ll learn this and more in this in-depth guide to the art of sublimation.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about sublimation, how it works, and what you need to get started.
First up, what is it, and how does it work?
What is Sublimation?
In the crafting world, sublimation is a type of printing in which the ink turns into teeny tiny particles and embeds itself into the surface of an object, creating a seamless and beautifully vibrant design that never peels or cracks.
If you want to know the science behind sublimation, read the next paragraph.
If you want to learn more about crafting with sublimation, skip to the next section called “What is Sublimation Printing?”
What’s the science behind sublimation?
We all learned about the phases of matter in school, right? Matter can turn into a solid, liquid, and gas, in that order.
But with sublimation, the solid goes straight into a gas, skipping the liquid state entirely.
The opposite effect is called reverse sublimation, where a gas becomes a solid without going through the liquid phase.
So what does this have to do with crafting?
Read on to learn about sublimation printing, which uses sublimation to transfer your designs into the surface of an object, like tumblers, pen barrels, or t-shirts.
What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing, also known as dye-sublimation printing, is a type of printing that uses special sublimation dyes to create a transferrable design.
You can press your printed design onto fabric or a specially-coated surface using a sublimation oven or heat press. The ink will sublimate, aka turn into a gas that seeps into and becomes part of the fabric.
Unlike other printing methods that attach your design over the top of a surface, sublimation printing embeds your dyes on a deeper level, creating amazing, vibrant designs that won’t crack or peel off.
Which Materials Work With Sublimation?
You can use sublimation to transfer designs to items made with polyester or which have a polyester coating.
Fabrics with at least 65% polyester will usually work well.
Or you can apply a sublimation coating to fabrics and objects to make them work with sublimation dyes.
Check out some examples of things you can make with sublimation printing in the next section.
Sublimation Printing Examples
Tumblers - You can use sublimation to create beautiful custom tumblers with any design you can imagine.
Mugs & Cups - You can customize mugs, cups, and even sippy cups with your own designs.
Pens & Pencils - Create custom pens and pencils with sublimation-ready barrels.
You can also sublimate items like:
- T-shirts and clothing
- Wooden items
- Mouse pads, puzzles, coasters, and other gifts
The list goes on and on.
What You Need to Get Started with Sublimation PrintingSublimation Design - This is the design you’ll print out onto the transfer paper. You can create it with any design software you like.
Sublimation Printer - A specialized printer to print your design using sublimation ink, such as the Epson SureColor F170.
Sublimation Ink - Make sure to use the ink that comes with your sublimation printer for best results.
Item to design - A polyester surface, a 65%+ polyester fabric, or a specially-designed sublimation blanks.
Sublimation Paper - This is paper that can take your sublimation design. Laser paper also works.
Scissors or Paper Cutter - To trim your printed design to the size of the object
Heat-Resistant or Transfer Tape - Use this heat resistant tape to attach the design to the object before transferring it
Heat-Resistant Gloves or Potholders - These gloves are helpful to handle hot items after sublimating the design
Plastic Gloves (optional) - To tape down the design without any fingerprints or oils getting in the way.
These are the basic supplies. Beyond this, it depends on the method you use to transfer your designs.
You have two choices:
- The convection oven method
- The heat press method
Materials for the Convection Oven Method
The convection oven method is best for beginners because it’s easy to master.
You’ll need a Sublimation Oven or convection oven.
Caution: Do NOT use the same oven you use for food. Sublimation produces toxic fumes that you do NOT want mixing with your food. (We recommend the MakerFlo Sublimation Oven for this.)
You can even use an air filter attached to your oven to keep the fumes at bay.
You’ll also want an oven thermometer and a timer to make the process easier.
Materials for the Heat Press Method
Alternatively, you can use a heat press to transfer designs. These are designed to apply pressure and heat to objects to sublimate designs seamlessly.
You can use a flat press for clothing or flat items or specialized presses like a Tumbler Press or Mug Press that are fitted for specific items.
Get Started With Sublimation Craft Kits
Want to start sublimation printing but not sure what to get first? These starter kits can help!
Epson F170 Sublimation Kit
This is our #1 recommended sublimation printer for beginners. You also get ink, paper, a glove, heat-resistant tape, and more than 10 sublimation blanks ready to be customized.
MakerFlo Sublimation Oven Kit
Get our specialized sublimation oven, sublimation paper, gloves, heat-resistant tape, and more than 10 sublimation blanks ready to be customized.
If you don’t want to print designs yourself, you can buy designs from a transfer shop and use this kit to transfer them at home.
Once your materials are ready, it’s time to start printing.
Here’s how to do it step by step.
The Sublimation Printing Process Explained
Step #1 - Print the Design
First, create a design using your design software of choice, and print it out with a sublimation printer.
(Most sublimation printers will automatically mirror your image, but make sure the image is in reverse so it’ll transfer correctly.)
Step #2 - Prepare the Print for Sublimation
First, cut your image down to the exact size you need for the item.
Then it’s time to attach it to the item to transfer it with heat. Using heat-resistant tape, you’ll tape your design down where you want it to appear on the object.
If you’re using a convection oven, you’ll need to tape the design tightly to make sure there are no gaps between the sublimation paper and the object. You can also use shrink wrap to seal designs on items that need seamless coverage, like a cup or tumbler.
If using a heat press, you can use less tape because the press will make sure the design is held down tightly.
Step #3 - Apply Heat and Sublimate!
Finally, you’ll bake the item inside the oven or use the heat press to sublimate the design and transfer it to your object of choice.
The time and method for transferring depend on the object you’re designing, but you can learn more with our 20 oz skinny sublimation guide.
If you need help, check out our MakerFlo Crafts Facebook Group to get help from our team and more than 40,000 crafters in the MFC family.
Benefits of Sublimation Printing for Crafting
Here’s what’s great about sublimation printing:
- High-Fidelity Designs: Designs transfer beautifully, and colors are vibrant and clear. You can make some really beautiful fades, such as a watercolor effect, that aren’t possible with other types of printing
- Affordable: It’s affordable to get started—you can get started for less than $1,000 (a steal compared to other methods)
- Can Print in Advance: You can print transfers in advance, then save them for later or sell them as a standalone product
- Easy: It’s easy to get started—just print, tape, and transfer!
- No Cracking or Peeling: The ink gets embedded deep into the material, so it doesn’t crack or peel off with time, and the color stays clear and bright for the long term
- No Texture: Unlike other transfer methods that apply film or paint to the top of a surface, this ink goes into the material for a perfectly smooth finish
Downsides of Sublimation Printing for Crafting
Yes, there are some downsides to be aware of:
- Learning Curve: There is a learning curve. You’ll need to discover the right heat, pressure, and taping method for the best results.
- No White Ink: You can’t print white with sublimation ink. If you want white elements in your designs, you’ll need to transfer them onto a white surface.
Sublimation Printing Alternatives
How does sublimation printing compare to other print methods?
We’ve compared it to:
- Heat Transfer Paper
- Screen Printing
- DTG printing
- DTF printing
Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer Paper
Heat transfer paper can be applied to surfaces with heat just like sublimation designs, but the process is different.
Pros of Heat Transfer Paper
- Heat transfer paper is easier to print because you can use a regular inkjet printer to print it out.
- You can use heat transfer paper on various fabrics and surfaces, not just polyester.
Cons of Heat Transfer Paper
- The design gets adhered to the item as a layer resting on the surface, which makes it more susceptible to wear and tear.
Sublimation vs. Screen Printing
With screen printing, ink is applied to fabric using stencils and a special squeegee.
Pros of Screen Printing
- Screen printing allows you to transfer designs on cotton clothing.
- You can add glitter or textured effects to screen-printed items, which you can’t do with basic sublimation transfers (unless you use vinyl)
Cons of Screen Printing
- Screen printing has a greater up-front cost because you have to create stencils for each color in your design
- While you can create complex blended colors, you usually must stick to a few colors
- It takes time and effort to create the stencils needed for the design, so it’s better suited for bulk orders
Sublimation vs. DTG (Direct-to-Garment) Printing
With direct-to-garment printing, the printer prints your design right on top of the fabric, meaning you don’t need any transfer paper.
Pros of DTG Printing
- You can print on dark-colored fabrics with DTG printing because you can use white ink.
- You can use it on cotton, which you can’t do with sublimation printing.
Cons of DTG Printing
- You can’t use DTG printing on plastic items like tumblers, pens, and mugs. It’s only used for fabric.
- Since it’s printed on top of the fabric, it doesn’t have the soft feel you get with sublimation.
Sublimation vs. DTF (Direct-to-Film) Printing
With direct-to-film printing, you print your design onto a film, then transfer the design onto fabric.
Pros of DTF Printing
- DTF printing works on any fabric, making it a versatile printing method.
Cons of DTF Printing
- After transferring your design, you’re left with a silky, plasticky feel of the film that’s been adhered to the fabric, unlike sublimation designs that have no texture at all.
After reading this guide, you’re ready to start crafting with sublimation.
What to do next?
Or check out our full guide to sublimation printers to find the right one for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can you sublimate ink onto anything?
Sublimation works on fabrics that are at least 65% polyester, polyester-coated materials, or items that have been sprayed with a sublimation coating.
It also doesn’t work on black or very dark materials because you can’t print with white ink (only CMYK).
What is sublimation shirt printing?
Sublimation shirt printing is a method in which you print a design with special dyes, then transfer it to a shirt using the process of sublimation.
Sublimation dyes turn into a gas that sinks into the t-shirt fabric and dyes it from within, creating a vibrant and beautifully blended design that never cracks or peels.
Can you use white ink in a sublimation print?
No, you can only print with CMYK colors, so using a white or light-colored background for sublimation crafts is best.
Does Cricut use sublimation?
You can create sublimation designs with a Cricut using Cricut Infusible Ink sheets. The downside is that they come pre-printed with sublimation dyes, so you can’t print your own designs (you’ll just cut them into the shapes you want).
However, they do provide special Infusible Ink pens that you can use to hand-draw custom designs.
To print your own designs, you’ll need a sublimation printer.