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The Basics of Inkjet Dye Sublimation


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If you thoroughly understand inkjet sublimation, you may want to skip to the next page. If you don't know much about it, this page will help you learn what it will and won't do.

The basic inkjet dye sublimation process uses a heat sensitive sublimation dye, dissolved in a liquid, to print graphics and text onto special inkjet paper. This is called a dye sub transfer. The dye sub transfer and a sublimatable item are then placed into a heat press.

When the heating cycle is completed, the image on the paper has been transferred into the coating on the item and has actually become a part of the surface. Run your finger across the surface of sublimation and you will feel nothing.

In the case of polyester, satin and some other synthetic fibers, the sublimation dye actually penetrates the fibers and becomes part of the fabric. Again, nothing is felt!

The reason for this is that sublimation is always done on a polyester, polymer, or polymer coated item. At high temperatures, the solid dyes in the print converts into a gas without ever becoming a liquid. The high temperature also opens the pores of the polymer and allows the gas to enter. When the item is removed from the heat press, the temperature drops, the pores close and the gas reverts to a solid state. It has now become a part of the polymer. Done correctly, it cannot be washed out or come off, unless the actual fibers or coating is damaged.

This is why Inkjet sublimation can't be done on natural materials, like 100% cotton. Natural fibers and non-coated materials have no "pores" to open and so the dye just sits on top of the fabric. Heat transfers are the best way to imprint cotton and cotton-blend fabrics (see

coaster1.jpg 99.9% of inkjet sublimation is done on white materials (substrates is the technical term). The reason for this is because the inks are actually transparent, when sublimated, and need a background to show up. White is the ideal background because it does not clash with the colors. Indeed, the white background actually enhances the colors.

This allows sublimators to print a wide gamut of vibrant, brilliant colors on multiple substrates. Some of the items include Soft-Link™ T-shirts (a cotton shirt, with a micro-weave of polyester on the outside), colored mesh ball caps, with a polyester front, mouse pads, jackets, beverage insulators, polyester calendars, clock faces, doll clothes, polyester patches, ceramic plates, mugs and tiles, FR plastic, coated MDF hard board (coasters, clipboards, etc.) and many other items. (The coaster to the right is MDF hard board).

Things inkjet sublimation can't do (or do well).

  • Imprint cotton shirts. Multicolor imprints on cotton shirts are done with heat transfer paper. Briefly, regular inks (many pros like Epson printers like the C88+, 1400 and 4800 ) are printed onto a high quality transfer paper (known in the trade as a carrier paper). When put into a heat press on top of a garment, the coating on the paper comes off, takes the image with it, and sticks it to the substrate. This can produce a nice look, but it is an imprint you can feel. To learn more about this process and the T-shirt business (we made our first shirt in 1978), go to our tutorial site at

  • Imprint 65/35 and 50/50 shirts with bright colors. A percentage of the shirt is cotton, so this really dulls down the look of the colors, especially after washing. Again, using heat transfers is really the best option. Later in our tour, however, you will learn how to use heat transfer paper and sublimation inks to produce beautiful transfers for these fabrics..

  • Imprint colored shirts. Any colored background drastically alters the imprint colors. In our opinion, there is no really attractive dependable way to imprint colored shirts, except with screen-printing ( only profitable with high volume) or heat transfers, using an inkjet printer.

  • Imprint items (like mugs and tiles) not polymer coated. Remember that sublimation is printing into the coating, not the item. The "breakfast picture" to the right, for example, has been sublimated onto polymer coated white aluminum.

  • Imprint the gold and silver metal used by award companies. Yes, it will imprint it, but the background color interferes with the imprint colors. Also, an inkjet transfer is much more expensive than a laser transfers. If your interest is in awards, get information about single color laser sublimation at or full color laser sublimation, using our ColourMagic!™ cartridges at

We have shared this long page of information with you because we want to help you select the right process for the type of work you want to do.

We constantly tell folks, there is no one universal process that will do everything. Forget about the "sales hype" that many offer, in touting what their process can do. Instead, concentrate on making sure the process does what you need it to do. That is the first step on the road to success.

Now that we have given you a background on what sublimation is, let's take a look a look at the "heart" of the process: the special sublimation inks! To continue, Click "Next"

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Updated: 6/10/2011
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