Introduction: Dye Sublimation Printing
I've recently gotten into Dye sublimation printing as a hobby/side gig. I live in a city where there is an abundance of craft fair/market's to sell custom items at (kind of like Etsy...in person). I've been continually amazed at the ease of getting into and conquering the (super short) learning curve.The existing instructables left a bit to be desired, so I figured i'd tackle it!
What is it: Dye sublimation is a process to transfer images from a substrate (in this case, a special paper designed for this process) onto a specially coated material with the application of heat and pressure (more on these materials shortly)
Using a household inkjet printer (certain models only) equipped with special inks, we print onto special paper, and then squeeze the paper against the blank final item, transferring the ink onto the coating of the item for all of time, non-withstanding UV exposure :)
With that being said, there is a bit of an initial investment to get started with the process...But printing on ceramic mugs, cork coasters, and ton's of other item's is in your future!
What do you need?
Capable inkjet printer- Instead of the multi thousand dollar printers designed for this purpose, you can use any inkjet printer with a Piezo Print head- I have an Epson 7710 and that seems to be super popular among DIY Sublimation enthusiasts.($150-175)
Ink and Ink System- Ink Must be designed for sublimation in an inkjet printer. I've had good luck with the "Printers Jack" brand on amazon/ebay. I also use refillable cartridges designed for the printer i have, and you'll need either these or a bulk ink system (cartridges connected via hose to bulk ink reservoirs) ($25 for ink, $50 for Ink supply system)
Sublimation Paper- I've had good luck with the A-Sub Brand ($20 for 100 sheets)
Heat press- Couple options here, but i've not seen anyone succeed without a legitimate heat press (no household iron's please!) There are both flat presses and mug presses (this process is super common for those mugs with family photo's/custom messages) A decent Chines made option should run you between 100-150 dollars.
A flat press can be used for T-Shirt heat transfers too, it's way better then an iron!
Teflon Sheets- Keep ink off your press- these sometimes are included with your press but are only a few dollars otherwise.
Heat resistant tape-a few dollars a roll, and doesn't melt in your press!
Blank items- All item's that are sublimation friendly will be noted as such, and JPPlus.com is a great resource to purchase these items, but try other stuff, generally, the more polyester in an item, the better it will print!
I've also had great luck with plain jane .40 cent each cork coasters-more on this shortly.
Step 1: Setting Up Your Image
Just like with any printing project, quality is dictated by the quality of your starting image/resource. I subscribe to a few vector (infinitely scalable images with no loss in resolution) resource sites, but for personal use you can often find free resources available online, or of course, create your own!
Something to keep in mind, Sublimation ink is translucent, and relies on it's background to give brightness to the final image, on a white mug this is easy peesy and full color images come thru true to life.
On cork coasters, or other substrates that are clear/darker, etc. test print's are encouraged as color adjustment might be needed.
Remember to reverse/mirror your image (especially any text!) and print it out onto sublimation paper with sublimation ink (onto the side of the paper that does NOT have watermarks/text) at the exact scale you would like to print at.
On the average 11oz coffee mug, i find a 8.5in Long X 3.5in Height image to be about perfect.
Step 2: So, You've Got a Washed Out, Mirrored, Picture on Funny Paper
Once you have your paper in hand, you need to trim it to size, trying to avoid touching the part's of your image that will contact your blank (mug, etc)
I use a paper cutter for this, as i get a nice square bottom edge, and can register this against a flat table top for a level transfer onto my blank.
Use heat resistant tape to snugly attach your paper to the blank.
Step 3: Setting Up Your Press
Even cheaper Chinese presses will include a thermostat and timer, and letting your press properly heat up is critical.
Since sublimation relies on the transfer of the solid ink into a vapor (hence the name of the process) we need heat to make this happen. the firm pressure ensures the vapor goes where we want, directly onto our blank!
For mugs I like to use 400 degrees, for 180 seconds, cork coasters, 300 degrees for 75s.
Trial and error is needed here, but your blank supplier can often provide guidelines to start with.
Step 4: Press Away!
Place your blank, with suitably attached sublimation paper/image into the press and close it, these presses have cam type mechanisms, so once closed they will not open until manual pressure is applied (That's you!) Start your timer once the press is closed...cue anxious waiting!
Step 5: Examine Your Item (Trouble Shoot If You Must)
So ideally your image came out perfect, or you realized you need to tweak your colors a bit if your substrate isn't perfectly white.
But...what if not?
There are 2 main problem's I've run into. One is printer based, and one is press based.
The first is horizontal lines on either your paper or final image (If you see them on your paper, don't press it!)
This is caused by a clogged printer nozzle. The Epson 7710 includes an print nozzle clean function in the settings- use this as needed to resolve this issue.
The second is poor print transfer onto the edges of your blank, most common on mugs for me.
This is due to a lack of the needed heat or pressure in this part of your press, and generally boils down to imperfect alignment of the mug into the press- see photo's
Step 6: Finish!
Wrap up your item's and gift as desired!
(My friends get all my testers and the good stuff goes up for sale as I work to get my side gig off the ground!)
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