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Everything you must know, but don't know enough to ask.
As a former retailer, author and Alpha Supply Co. founder, Jack Franklin, draws
on 46 years of business experience and 30 years of sublimation experience to
teach you the essentials of sublimation printing and starting and growing your
- The basics of how sublimation works
- The basic equipment you need for sublimation
- Setting up your sublimation business
- Taking A First Look At Your Options
- What Alpha Supply Co. offers you
The Basics Of How Sublimation Works
What Is Sublimation?
The process uses sublimation ink (not regular ink), special coated sublimation paper (however, it does not have a film on it like heat transfer paper) in very specific Epson printers, to print sublimation transfers
When the sublimation transfer is put into a heat press, along with a polymer-coated item or a synthetic fabric (the general term for either is: substrate), the ink turns into a gas, penetrates the substrate and becomes part of it.
How Does Sublimation Work?
The word “sublimation” is used in chemistry to describe any solid (in this case the ink on the transfer) that, when heated, goes from a solid to a gas, without ever being a liquid. Evaporating dry ice is a classic example.
Sublimation ink (as a gas) penetrates the polymer coating on a hard substrate or, in the case of synthetic fabrics, penetrates the threads. The gas then turns back into a solid and becomes part of the item. That is why if you run your finger across a sublimated item, you feel nothing.
What Can I Sublimate?
What Can I Not Sublimate?
Hard Substrates: Any polymer-coated item. All items that can be sublimated must have a special polymer coating on them. The sublimation print actually goes into the coating on the item, not onto the item itself.
Soft Substrates: The fabrics must be synthetic. This includes polyester, satin, rayon and nylon (you have to be careful with rayon and nylon because some types won’t take the heat). Soft substrates include things like mouse pads, puzzles, car flags and can koozies. The fabric is polyester. Sublimated prints will not wash out or off!
Think White! Sublimation inks, like all inks, are translucent. What this means is that you can see through the print. Because of this fact, only white substrates provide true color replication. Ash gray substrates are acceptable. Very light colors can sometimes be acceptably sublimated, if the prints are dark colored or even coordinate with the color (i.e.. picture of a sunset on a pink shirt). The darker a substrate, the more it affects the colors of the sublimation print. This is always true, no matter if the item is fabric or not.
What Are Some Of The Items That I Can Sublimate?
Hard Substrates: Remember that items must be polymer coated. This means that your products must come from a supplier that specializes in providing these types of products. Regular stores carry almost nothing that can be sublimated. Also, remember to “Think White”. As an example, even if you could somehow find a polymer coated black mug and sublimate it, the image would be practically invisible.
Can I coat my own items? Sort of….but there is a Big BUT! Putting a quality coating on an item (bad coatings yellow over time) and curing it correctly so that it won’t delaminate (flake off) is a very technically demanding proposition. Also, controlling dust, humidity and spray droplet size is a headache, even for pros. For the occasional coater, it can be a nightmare. I personally would’t do it. I would rather spend my time sublimating and selling beautiful products.
Soft Substrates: The most important fact to remember is that you cannot sublimate cotton. This also includes 50/50 cotton/polyester blends. The polyester content is so low on 50/50 shirts that the images look very dull, faded and unattractive. If you want to decorate these types of shirts you should use heat transfer paper. Visit our tutorial at www.transferbusiness.com to learn about the T-shirt business and how to do cotton shirts, like the one on the right.
There are actually quite a few items that can be sublimated. More are being added by manufacturers every month. We’ve counted over 100. Here is a partial list.
Light Switch Covers
Business Card Holders
SofLink T-shirts Ornaments
There are also a number of items that are made to hold sublimated products (especially tiles), such as picture frames, trivets, jewelry, recipe, spice, tissue and planter wooden boxes.
There are also a surprising number of regular soft goods that can be sublimated. One example is fabric that is generally referred to as moisture wicking or athletic performance material. The polyester content is so high (85%) that it sublimates very nicely (on white and very light colors).
This covers the basics of the sublimation process, now let’s look at the equipment that is needed for sublimation.
The Basic Equipment You Need For Sublimation
Computer – Practically any modern computer is just fine. The only requirements are a decent amount of RAM and hard drive storage space. You will often be dealing with quite large files that need a lot of capacity to work with and store. I personally have 2 gig of RAM and 250 gigs of hard drive but you could start with less and move up later.
Monitor – A good monitor is a real blessing. The colors on older monitors (5 years old or more) are often not correct on your screen. They can be out of calibration or not working correctly which creates visual problems and your prints may not even be close to what is on your screen. Newer monitors are usually much better.
Sublimation Ink - We offer two types: ArTainium UV+ for select Epson printers and SubliJet R for select Ricoh printers (more below, at "Printers"). These are special inks, which cannot be bought in regular stores and must be purchased from a dealer (NOTE- most printer manufacturers include a set of regular inks with their printers - regular inks should NEVER be installed first into your new printer).
ArTainium UV+ Ink - We were the first national distributor of ArTainium UV+ inks and we offer this ink for the Epson printers mentioned below.
SubliJet R Ink - This specialty gel sublimation ink is used exclusively in the below mentioned Ricoh printers
ICC Profiles – This term refers to a very accurate method of color management and the information is installed into your printer color folder, once, when you first set up.
An ICC Profile is not a program that you learn. Rather, it is an information file that automatically tells your inks how to mix, to print correct colors.
The ICC Profile is sent to all new customers, along with their inks and takes just a few minutes to install, and you never need to fool with it again. Instructions can be found here.
PowerDriver R - This is another, but different type, of color management program. It has been developed by sublimation ink manufacturer, Sawgrass Technologies, for specific use in the Ricoh GX7000 printer.
Like an ICC profile, PowerDriver R is an information file that is installed into your color folder and then is ready.
The proprietary PowerDriver R does offer the advantage of allowing you to use virtually any graphics program. Download page
Sublimation Paper – Sublimation inks require a special paper. The paper that we offer is TruPix HD (High Definition). There are many brands on the market and we have tested them all. In fact, we test every new paper that shows up on the market. If we ever find one that is better than TruPix HD, we will offer it instead.
TruPix HD has a special coating on the paper (it has a coating, not a film, like a T-shirt heat transfer paper). This coating serves two critical functions. First, the coating keeps the paper from soaking up the ink. Second, it releases the ink properly, when heated.
Both functions are vitally important. If ink soaks into the paper the prints will not sublimate evenly. If the ink does not release properly (called out-gassing) then similar shades of color blend and clarity is lost.
Printers - Only specific types of Ricoh and Epson printers can be used. What they have in common is a "Piezo" print head. These types of print heads do not use heat to force ink out of the printer (sublimation ink is activated by heat).
The two Ricoh printers used for sublimation are the GX 7000 (prints up to 11x17) and the 5050N (prints up to 8.5x14)
Current Epson printers used for sublimation include: C88+ (prints up to 8.5x14), 1400 (prints up to 13x19) and the 4880 (prints up to 17” wide) and can print sheets and paper rolls.
Some older Epson printers also work and these are listed on the “Epson Printers” page of our full tutorial as well as more details on the new printers.
Bulk Ink – This link on the full tutorial teaches you about bulk ink systems, for C88+ and 1400 Epson printers. Briefly, the sublimation cartridges have lines attached to them that run out of the printer and hook up to a bulk unit outside the printer. In effect, this creates a permanent transfusion of ink to the cartridges and is the most economical way to sublimate.
There is about an 80% savings in ink cost when using a bulk ink system in Epson C88+ and 1400 printers. The reason a bulk ink system is cheaper to run is because you never throw any cartridges away (the special chips on the bulk cartridges reset each time you turn the printer off). Single cartridges, not attached to a bulk system, cannot be refilled (those chips do not reset) and the small single cartridges only hold about 14 ml each.
The big Epson 4880 printer only uses cartridges but the huge 220 ml cartridges are as cost effective as bulk systems for the smaller printers
SubliJet R Cartridges - bulk inks systems cannot be used in the Ricoh GX 7000 and 5050N printers because lines running out of the printer would prevent the cartridge door from closing.
- With the two above printers it is not a disadvantage because the Ricoh cartridges use a special gel sublimation ink. This type of ink "spreads" further than regular sublimation ink, so is very cost effective.
Heat Press – Any heat press that can reach 400° F will work for sublimation. They all plug into a regular wall socket unless you specifically buy a 220v press.
A swing-away heat press is the most versatile. This type of press lifts straight up 1-2” and then swings to the right. It also closes, by going straight down. Clamshell presses that only move up and down can “pinch” thick items in the back and this causes light sublimated areas in the front. An exception to this are presses like the very sophisticated HIX S-650P which has a tilting lower platen that equalizes pressure
We offer a selection, along with our commentary, of our most popular swing-away heat press machines in the full tutorial. Prices range from about $600 to $1,595. Mug presses are about $700.
Don’t get too stressed on which heat press to buy. They are all great for sublimation and which one you need depends upon budget and what you want to do. Call us, if you like. We have used heat presses for over 30 years and we will give you experienced and accurate advice.
Specialty Tools – The following links teach you about some very nifty template and specialty programs. They are not true graphic programs but still have some very desirable features and benefits.
Easy Printing – Hanes Sublimation Maker is a template program for a great many of the different sublimatable items currently on the market. Do be aware that there seems to be some program “glitches” with Vista and many laptop computers. $239
More Printing – The more powerful Novelty Pro 8 ($399) also contains a large number of templates, in addition to an excellent tile mural section. Mural 8 ($199) is just the mural portion of Novelty Pro 8.
Photo Enlargement – All the PhotoZoom program does is to enlarge photos and graphics, but it does it very well indeed! You can download this program and take a free test drive. $129
Photo Editing – The PhotoClean program on this page is a very user friendly and easy way to edit and clean up photos. It won’t make garbage useable but it does make pretty bad useable and will take OK to very good. $49.
Whew! I know you are getting tired by now but hang in there with us. We are really trying to help you be successful and there is a little bit more that you need to know.
Setting Up Your Sublimation Business
Sublimation is fun, profitable and very interesting but you should always remember that it is a business (unless you just want to do it as a hobby). As such, there are other tools, knowledge and planning that must be done, if you are to be successful.
What we offer next are practical, core facts that will help you hit the ground running.
Business is fun, but it ain’t no game. The more that you know, the smarter that you work, the more intelligently that you plan.
To borrow a phrase, in the sublimation business, “image is truly everything”! When a person buys a mug or mouse pad or tile or puzzle from you they are not buying just a product (which they could cheaply get from a store). They are purchasing the desirable image that is on the item.
While you can start with limited graphic skills, it is important that you develop very good graphic skills, as soon as possible, if you want to give yourself the best chance.
The two best programs are CorelDRAW and Adobe PhotoShop. The latest versions of both programs do just about everything, except maybe “walk your dogs”. Developing good skills with either program will pay off handsomely.
Yes, the programs take a bit of time to learn and they are not cheap. The reality is, however, that you cannot do first-class work with second-rate programs.
If price is a barrier, stick “CorelDRAW 12” into a Google search and get that older version. While missing some of the latest features, it is still an excellent program and you can get it for less than $50.
Many versions of Photoshop Elements will work, but remember that it is very limited in ability because it only has a fraction of the full program.
If you quickly need something to deal with photographs, go to www.corel.com and pickup the latest version of “Paint Shop Pro” for about $80.
If you are a sign shop, using FlexiSign, that program also works very nicely.
There are a lot of graphic programs out there, so here are the requirements for using a graphics program, other than the above: any program that is able to set both the working space to "Adobe RGB (1998)" (or "Internal RGB Frasier (1998)") and the print space to the ArTainium ICC profile.
An exception to the above statement is if you decide to use the Ricoh GX 7000 for sublimation. The proprietary color management program for this printer (PowerDriver R) allows you to print with virtually any program that can reverse your print and artwork.
We spent a lot of time discussing graphics because it is so important. However, there are other important considerations. Getting customers is certainly one of them!
What You Must Do, To Get Customers
We have a southern adage that states, “even a blind hog can find an acorn every once in awhile”. That’s true about getting customers too. Wait long enough and somebody will buy anything. A bit of simple planning, however, will get you more and better customers, much faster.
There are no guarantees in business but asking and answering these simple questions will greatly improve your odds-
Who are you going to sell to? Will this be walk-in customers in your store, people at sporting, entertainment or competition events, browsers at flea-markets, churches, schools, businesses, etc. Yes, you may eventually sell to a great number of different folks. But, being specific in the beginning will help you keep focused and productive.
How are you going to contact them? The brightest bulb in the world doesn’t do you a bit of good if no one can see it. Plan on how you are going to let folks know what you offer. Getting the word out does not require expensive paid advertising. What is required is planning and persistence in doing it. If you want some practical help, go to Amazon.com and pick up any of the “Guerilla Marketing” books by Jay Conrad Levison. He offers tons of inexpensive marketing ideas.
What are you going to sell? The first reaction of many to this question is, “everything possible”! That’s an understandable statement, but not very practical. Most do best if they pick 5 or 6 items (at most) as their core products and then add to that as time goes along and prospects indicate other needs and wants. A core product only means those that you will inventory, for quick turn-around. You can have a dozen others that you just have a few of, until you learn if they are good sellers.
Does your target market want that product? It is very easy for entrepreneurs to overlook the answer to this vital question. Just because you are excited and love what you produce, doesn’t automatically mean prospects will buy it! If you are really going to be successful, you only have two choices. One choice is to find the greatest number of customers that want the products you want to sell. The other choice is to figure out what your likely prospects want, and then sell that. Objective common-sense will answer this question.
What tools do you need to get started? This question is fairly easy to answer if you mentally picture the beginnings of your business. What are you going to offer, where will you do the work; will you be mobile, work in a kiosk, storefront or your home? The answers to this question generally (but not always) involve equipment. Weight is sometimes a factor in mobile retail, space is usually a big factor in kiosks, speed is often a factor with point-of-purchase sales and a variety of factors can affect in-home production and sales. After you get a rough idea of your needs, call us. As former retailers we have done it all and can offer experienced advice.
What else might you need? This is a good question to get yourself to run through your mental checklist to see if you have left anything out. This can be just thinking about any small accouterments that you might still need, to planning how and when you will get your next major piece of equipment. It is a worthwhile exercise.
What is your USP? USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. In other words, what makes you different and why would folks want to buy your products. The answers don’t have to be complicated, just clear in your mind. If they are, you will make more money. It’s that simple.
Here are three last “Must Remember” thoughts to keep in your mind as you make plans for your sublimation business-
Where possible, try to think of some words other than “sublimation” to describe what you offer. It can be “Digital Art”, “Digital Reproductions” or anything else that you like. The buying process involves emotion. The word sublimation describes a technical process. Describing a technical process to a customer is about as exciting as describing yesterday’s pancakes.
Try to look at the world through your customers eyes. You can’t do that if you spend all of their time talking. Ask questions, listen to the answers and then ask more questions. Make a friend. People like to buy from friends and always remember that people buy from people, not from or for, faceless organizations.
Always remember that people buy perceived benefits, much more than they do mere products. If someone is looking at your products they probably have at least a mild curiosity in the items. It’s your job to take that mild emotion and turn it into “warm fuzzies” of want. When you do that, you’ve got a sale.
I hope I haven’t bored you in this section but you know how important customers are. Without them you just have an interesting hobby. Now, let’s take a quick look at some options-
Taking A First Look At Your Options
This part will be brief and approximate, as your final decisions will be decided by your specific budget, needs and circumstances.
Heat Presses – Swing-Away – We have two under a 16x20 Size. The SwingMan 15 (15x15) $625 and the DC16 (14x16) $1,111. When calculating what size press that you want, figure that the “Hot” area is 1” smaller. Be aware that the DC16 is very heavy.
Our three 16x20 heat presses are
the Hotronix Swinger ($1,540), SwingMan 20P ($1,345) and DK20S ($1,299). The
Hotronix press has every feature known to man, on a manual press, the SwingMan
has every feature that you normally use, and is cheaper, while the DK20S at
185 lbs. is the heaviest 16x20 on the market.
The Tile Master was designed by Jack Franklin for serious productivity on ceramic tile sublimation. If that’s your area of interest, check it out at www.thetilemaster.com. The press is expensive but is considered to be the Main Battle Tank of sublimated tile production.
If you want to use a clamshell heat press (they are more efficient in total job-through time) then checkout the HIX S-650P, HT-600P or HT-400P. If your are interested, go to the "HIX heat press super sale".
Both of our main mug presses run slightly under $700. The Phoenix is best for speed, while the DK3 is necessary if you want to also do metal mugs.
Inks/Printers – On the “Starter Deals” section of the main site, we offer printer and bulk ink packages. You can also get your own printer and buy just the appropriate bulk ink system. We really don’t care if you get your printer from us.
The printer/ink deals include the Epson 4880 with 110 mil or 220 mil cartridges ($3,000-$3,600), Stylus Pro 1400 ($1,400-$1,500 depending upon whether you want a bag or tank system) and the Epson C88+ ($750 to $800 depending upon whether you want a bag or tank system). The C88+ only prints up to 8.5x14 but the print quality is tops.
Replacement Ink/Paper – is listed on the “Prices” link on the main site. This lets you look at specific prices for ink refills and paper.
Accessories & Specialty Tools – I won’t restate info about the specialty tools. Just think about them and we can answer questions. The same thing is true about accessories. You only need Teflon sheets, tape, felt pads, etc., for certain types of work. We can advise you on that, depending upon your needs.
This little section was just to give you a quick overview of possibilities. Don’t worry we won’t let you get under-powered without warning you, nor will we encourage you to buy things you don’t need.
We end this review with a short bit about us-
What Alpha Supply Company Offers YOU
In a word: US! It’s not just about products. It is also about our shared desire, knowledge and experience in helping you to be successful.
Alpha is a little bit of an odd duck in today’s go-go, uncaring business world. First, we are not everything to everybody. We are printing experts. As former retailers we made our first sublimation in 1981, long before 99% of current suppliers even knew what the word meant! We provide the best that we can find to print with (printers, inks, paper and heat presses) but we sell nothing to print on. That allows us to focus totally on helping you to become a successful printer and then the freedom to recommend the best suppliers of all blank imprintables.
Second, we don’t have any salespeople. Everyone who talks on the phone at Alpha is an owner, with a keen desire to help you. To us, helping you is considerably more than just finding out what you want to buy and then giving you technical support. It also means helping with anything that is within our power to do. Our Mission Statement says it all.
Third, primary owners Jack and Roy have tons of real-world experience when offering advice and counsel. That’s what makes our tutorial websites read different and even what makes our conversation different. To us, it is much more important to understand what you want to do, when you call. What you might want to buy is a distant second.
You are welcome to e-mail us (we type slowly, but we get there), call us (we talk slow too, but still faster than we type) or if you are coming to Nashville, drop by and visit. We don’t have a fancy place, but we do have a wide open welcome door, a smile and usually a pot of coffee ready.
Thanks for taking the time to wade through all of this section.
Jack Franklin & Roy Hinkle
Alpha Supply Co., Nashville, TN