Sublimation & Heat Transfer Products

Full-color personalization is a great way to turn a hobby into a viable home-based business or expand an existing business. The two primary technologies for easily customizing a wide range of items are sublimation and heat transfer printing. But how do you choose which technology is right for you? Let’s take a look at both processes, how they’re similar and how they’re different.

Sublimation: Fast and Easy

Sublimation, by its definition, is the process of going from a solid to a gas without passing through the liquid stage. And while there are numerous resources dedicated to the science of sublimation, the process itself has been around for decades in the personalization and customization industry.

Sublimation uses aqueous-based inks to take a color image and transfer that image to a polyester-coated item (also referred to as a substrate) when placed under a heat press. Using time, heat and pressure, the image is transferred to the object. While that sounds complicated, sublimating an item itself is really quite simple. You’ll need a sublimation printer with sublimation inks, heat tape, sublimation paper, a polyester-coated item, and a heat press. Depending on the design and size of the item being decorated, the entire process can take just a few minutes and is not labor intensive.

The sublimation process is print-on-demand, which means being able to print one at a time or multiple copies of an image at once. For example, printing five items on a page, each one with a different name or image, makes the process very efficient and saves on supplies. This print-on-demand process makes sublimation perfect for home businesses who sell personalized items locally or online.

The polyester-coated item is an important step in the sublimation process. Polyester allows for the sublimation inks to completely “absorb” into an item when it’s placed in a heat press. Without polyester, sublimation simply doesn’t work. Transferring to uncoated items will result in washed out images and disappointing results.

If you’re looking at getting in to sublimation, you’ll want to make sure you’re pressing to items that are designed for sublimation and have that polyester coating. Thankfully, there are thousands of items made specifically for sublimation, including drinkware, signs, keychains, shirts and sweatshirts, and more. Recently, new sprays have even been introduced into the market where you can spray a polyester coating on to everyday objects and make them more sublimation friendly. This requires a couple extra steps and planning, but works great if you have the time and equipment.

What Makes Sublimation Special?

One of the many benefits of sublimation is that finished items are very durable. During the pressing process, sublimation inks penetrate the surface of an item. This means finished images and items are typically scratch and mark resistant. Sublimation also lends itself to outstanding image quality and reproduction, including high resolution photographs and graphics.

However, since sublimation is an ink-based system, there’s no way to print the color white in a design. Any white has to be factored in to the finished graphic and is typically achieved by using the “white space” of the polyester-coated substrate.

Frosted Glass Mason JarFrosted Glass Mason Jar

Item #XP9100F: Frosted Glass Mason Jar (Sublimated)

Most sublimation blanks are white or light in color, so with a little forethought most images can be transferred without issue to give the appearance of white in the design. If you plan to do dark garments or other substrates with sublimation, this may be a consideration you’ll need to take in to account.

Because it’s ink-based, sublimation does require either regular use or regular maintenance and cleaning cycles for the printer. Inks may start to “gum up” in the ink delivery system if they’re not used on a regular basis. Printer manufacturers will provide a maintenance schedule for optimum printer output and results.

Sublimation has a relatively low cost of entry and can be easily scaled up if your business grows. While there are options to convert a standard desktop printer for sublimation – these kits typically void a printer's warranty. For a better first-time experience, it is strongly recommended that customers use a printer manufactured for sublimation. Sublimation-specific printers that create transfers up to 8.5” x 14” start around $500. There are numerous heat press options available that can fit almost any size space or budget as well. All told, it’s possible to start personalizing items with sublimation for an initial investment of around $900.

Heat Transfer Printing: Ultimate Versatility

Heat transfer printing uses a different type of technology to achieve a similar result. Unlike sublimation, there’s no transformation of the inks to a gas. Heat transfer printing is a toner-based system, not unlike most standard laser printers. The toner prints an image on to a transfer sheet, which then gets pressed to an adhesive sheet in a second step, before being pressed to the final substrate. This is commonly referred to as using an “A” (printed) and “B” (adhesive) sheet to create the two-step process.

Similar to sublimation, heat transfer printing requires a heat transfer printer, specific heat transfer paper, heat tape, an item to transfer to, and a heat press. Unlike sublimation, heat transfer printing does not require items to have a polyester coating. This makes it much more versatile, as you can transfer to virtually any substrate that can withstand the heat and pressure of your heat press.

Black Canvas Tote BagBlack Canvas Tote Bag

Item #CB09K: Black Canvas Tote Bag (Heat Transfer Printed)

Additionally, since heat transfer printing is toner based, you can print white on to dark items. The inclusion of white toner means that designers don’t have to account for the negative white space as they would with sublimation. This makes heat transfer ideal for customers who want to customize dark garments, like t-shirts and other accessories. Heat transfer printers can also serve as standard printers and print directly on to card stock, adding another layer of versatility for customers looking to print unique wedding invitations or flyers. The ability to print white on dark paper without having to do a transfer means the process is as quick and simple as using a regular desktop printer.

What Makes Heat Transfer Special?

Aside from the key factor of being able to print white on dark substrates, heat transfer is an ideal choice for personalizing a wider range of products. Since items don’t need to have any special coating, the heat transfer process works on any number of items. It also allows for personalization to be added to your customers unique items, such as a one-off shirt or jacket. With sublimation, customers would have to choose from polyester-coated items. That’s not a consideration for heat transfer.

The toner-based system employed by heat transfer also means little to no reoccurring maintenance for the printers. In the right setting, a heat transfer printer can be left idle for months at a time and print as if it was used that same day.

Heat transfer printers also offer greater flexibility with how images are printed, often allowing for a single image to split in two. This allows for slightly larger prints than can be done with sublimation, although the size of the heat press being used is still a consideration.

Just like sublimation, heat transfer is also a print-on-demand process. This is particularly handy when creating personalized t-shirts and other garments. Processes such as screen printing create multiple items with the same design and offer limited customization options. With heat transfer, each and every shirt can be different from the next without going through the hassle of multiple artwork production set-ups.

The cost of entry for heat transfer printing tends to be higher than that of sublimation. Printers start in the $3,000 range for printers that output transfers up to 8.5” x 14”. The trade-off for the added cost is the flexibility the technology has in being able to have white toner, allowing transfers on to dark garments and substrates.

What do Sublimation and Heat Transfer Have in Common?

While the technology behind sublimation and heat transfer may be different, there are several similarities between the two, particularly when it comes to some the consumables and non-printer hardware needed.

For both sublimation and heat transfer, you’ll want to use a graphic design software to create your artwork. Some sublimation printers come with design software included, but most printers work with any common desktop design software such as CorelDraw and Adobe Photoshop.

Those programs will also work with most heat transfer printers. In addition to graphic design software, using raster image processing (RIP) software with heat transfer printing can help improve image quality and save on toner usage. There are several RIP software packages to choose from, and a Johnson Plastics Plus representative can help determine which software is compatible with a chosen printer.

Both sublimation and heat transfer require papers specific for the process. Sublimation paper has a coating that helps promote the sublimation process and ensures the best image results. Using non-sublimation paper with a sublimation paper will lead to transfers that are either washed out or don’t transfer at all.

Heat transfer has specific papers for a wide range of substrates. Depending on what’s being personalized, it’s important to choose a paper that works with each specific set of substrates, such as papers for glass or ceramic and different papers for garments and textiles. Johnson Plastics Plus has a heat transfer paper comparison guide for hard surface specialty products, hard surfaces, and clothing and apparel as well as a team of experts who can help choose the right paper for a particular project.

Finally, both processes require a heat press. There are several different types of heat presses available, including different sizes and features, including clamshell, swing-away, countertop and mug/drinkware presses. All heat presses will work with either process, but some presses are better for different substrates.

Our heat press guide can help you choose the right press for any shop or budget. Having a good quality heat press is strongly recommended for proper transferring.

Heat Press GuideHeat Press Guide
Final Thoughts

Whether choosing sublimation or heat transfer, customers will find it’s easy to get started doing full-color personalization and customization on a large selection of items. Each technology has its strengths and limitations, but the end results with each will offer outstanding results.

For those who are looking for a budget-friendly entry into personalization, sublimation is the way to go. With thousands of polyester-coated items that work perfectly with the process, sublimation produces stunning, personalized items with full-color photos and images. Sublimation is a well-supported technology that’s been around for decades and features numerous user groups on social media platforms who can help newbies and veterans alike.

Customers seeking more flexibility with what they want to design and create should consider heat transfer printing. Heat transfer can be applied to virtually any substrate that can fit in and with stand the heat of a heat press, making it ideal for personalizing cotton garments. The option to print with white toner also opens up a wide-range of dark colored items that can be personalized.

Both sublimation and heat transfer require papers specific for the process. Sublimation paper has a coating that helps promote the sublimation process and ensures the best image results. Using non-sublimation paper with a sublimation paper will lead to transfers that are either washed out or don’t transfer at all.

Regardless of what process you choose, Johnson Plastics Plus has a complete line of printers, paper, supplies, and blanks ready to support you on our customization journey. Johnson Plastics Plus also provides service after the sale with our dedicated team ready to help you get your new equipment up and running. To learn more about both sublimation and heat transfer, check out our other blog posts or visit our YouTube channel.