The sublimation printing process – How it works? What is it?


Last updated on January 17th, 2023

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So, what exactly is sublimation printing and what is the sublimation printing process?

It’s a type of digital printing that uses heat and pressure to transfer ink onto a surface. Unlike other types of printing, this process leaves the paper untouched (which means it won’t get torn or dirty) and can be applied to many different surfaces: clothes, Mugs, photo frames – you name it!

There are so many things you can do with sublimation printing that we decided to put together this guide for all your frequently asked questions about what it is and how to do it.


How does the sublimation printing process work?

Sublimation printing is a technique that uses heat to bring ink and fabric together as one. The inks that are used turn into gas when brought under heat which then combine with the fabric to form a permanent print.

The following diagram shows the steps that go into creating a sublimation print. The diagram shows what would need to be done if you were using an ordinary sublimation printer as opposed to one which is designed specifically to one product eg. printing onto mugs.

sublimation printing process

Put simply, the process is done in three steps:

  1. Firstly, a design is printed onto special paper.
  2. Secondly, the inks that are used are turned into a gas when brought under the heat.
  3. Finally, they combine with the fabric and permanently print onto the fabric.

The effects are permanent and less prone to fading, as the ink is embedded in the fabric or substrate rather than simply laying on top like a normal print.

What are the benefits of sublimation printing?

The advantages and benefits of sublimation printing;

The visuals and prints don’t wear, fade or crack so every day items such as mouse pads or kitchenware will massively benefit from this type of printing. Their appearance will stand the test of time.

Sublimation printing can also be done on a lot more than fabrics, as I will go into more detail later on in the article.

They are massively customisable, so you can get super creative and make things for friends, family or yourself including personalized keychains, puzzles and more.

The fact that sublimation printers use heat to transfer dye onto fabric without the use of ink or solvent means it is better for the environment than traditional methods.

What are the cons of sublimation printing?

The price of the printer and equipment is a little more expensive than other methods.

The process can take longer to produce because it has to be done in sections at different times, but this also means that you get crisp lines which are hard to achieve with traditional printing techniques so it still has a positive side.

Sublimation printers use heat so they need an additional cooling device which again is another cost.

One big downside to this printing technique is that it can be done on polyester fabric only. If you want a good print, the material has to be 100% made of polyester for best results. Similarly, if you’re trying to use items not made from fabric like wood or plastic sheets – they must first undergo an electrostatic process in order for them work with inkjet printers at all!

sublimation printing process_paper

What is a sublimation printer used for?

You can use a sublimation printer for making t-shirts, posters or other textile products. As well using it at home to make customised gifts for friends and family.

It doesn’t have to be fabric, it also works great with polyester materials that have a specialist polymer coating such as mugs, mouse pads, coasters and more.

In some cases, it is also possible to use sublimate on glass. However, the surface of the glass needs to have been treated and prepared correctly with a specialist spray beforehand.

How to use a sublimation printer?

The printer needs heat to sublimate the ink onto a suitable material. The ink then permanently bonds with the fabric or substrate as mentioned above.

To start using your printer, you need to change out an imaging unit. The unit is located on the left side of your printer as looking at it from in front and should be changed out about every 50,000 impressions or so.

You then need to print a template to use for printing.

You will need to place your fabric onto the platen and raise it so that it is near the printer head, but not touching or in contact with any part of the machine.

The heat set by the sublimation process should then be adequate enough to melt off what remains of the ink and begin the bonding process.

You will want to do this in a well ventilated area and make sure that the fabric is not touching any part of the machine, including the platen or printer head.

The sublimation printing can take up to 45 minutes for an image on a lighter weight garment like shirts or hats while thicker garments may require more time.

Are sublimation inks durable?

Yes, as touched upon before the inks will not wear off very easily. The sublimation process is designed to provide a permanent image on the garment. 

This can be a great option if you are looking for something to last.

In order to do this, the garment will need to have an iron-on decal applied before being sublimation printed in order for it not slip off after printing. This is what happens when there is no heat set and all of the ink does not stick to the fabric.

Find out if you can use sublimation ink for regular printing.

What kind of printer is needed for sublimation?

A sublimation printer is needed, which can be specialized for this printing process. You can also convert some printers into sublimation printers. 

Find out more about what printers you can use for sublimation printing.

How much will it cost to print?

The answer really depends on what you are planning to print and how many of those items need to be made. For example, if you want a thousand shirts printed with the same design the price might be lower than just half the amount of shirts but with several different designs on them.

What is the best printer for sublimation printing?

There are loads of great options out there and you can even convert some of your old printers, if you are looking for the best sublimation printer then follow the link and check out our article on it.

What is the difference between sublimation printing and using a heat press?

Sublimation printing only transfers the ink onto the material, whereas using a heat press there is usually a transfer layer that will be transferred to the material as well. Other types will either dye the paper or use a chemical process to transfer ink, which makes them feel more like traditional print. This keeps all your printed items looking exactly as they were created in Photoshop – untouched by heat and pressure.

What is the difference between a sublimation printer and a regular printer?

The difference between a regular printer and a sublimation printer is that the sublimation printer only transfers ink onto the material.

Whereas a standard printer will transfer ink onto paper.

Is sublimation better than screen printing?

Yes! Screen printing is great, but it’s not as good for long-term durability. This is because the ink doesn’t penetrate into the fabric like sublimation does – rather it sits on top of the surface and can be easily worn away with use or exposure to natural elements such as rain.


Hopefully we’ve answered all your questions on sublimation printing, if we’ve missed anything just ask us in the comment section and we’ll get back to you.

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Tommy S.

With more than ten years of experience in the field, I am an avid printing enthusiast who has been captivated by the realm of printing since a young age. The possibilities for creativity and innovation that it presents have always intrigued me.

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