What Materials Can I Sublimate On?

Unlike most printing technologies, where dye is printed on the surface, dye sublimation embeds color directly into the surface of the material or fabric. This technique produces authentic, high-quality photographic results, making it the preferred choice for ultra-detailed designs. 

If you’re new to the world of sublimation, you’re probably asking yourself, “What materials can I sublimate on?” The answer is: a lot more than you think. We’ll discuss that and more in this article, so read on! 

What Is Dye Sublimation? 

Dye sublimation, also known as dye diffusion, is a computer printing technique that makes use of heat to transfer the design onto a blank substrate. It’s known for its long-lasting, high-quality photographic results because the ink is fully infused into the material rather than just printed on the surface. 

What Materials Can I Sublimate On?

Sublimation ink only sticks to sublimation coated or sublimation ready surfaces, such as: 

Polyester

Polyester is the go-to fabric for dye sublimation as sublimation ink bonds well with polyester molecules. The higher the polyester purity, the better the design transfer. 

To get the best results, always go for 100% polyester. You can still use a low polyester count fabric, but the design won’t transfer completely onto the material.  

Blended Man-Made Fabrics 

Although not as good as 100% polyester, dye sublimation works decently well with blended polyester materials containing lycra, nylon, spandex, and other man-made materials. 

As a general use, aim for at least 40% polyester content for your sublimation designs. 

When using blended fabrics, make sure the selected material has a high-temperature resistance. Sublimation transfers dye through high heat, so fabrics with low burning temperatures may burn or distort under the machine. 

Sheet Materials

Dye sublimation works well with an array of sheet materials, including polymer-coated aluminum, PVC sheets, and high-temperature plastic sheets. 

Each calls for varying dwell times, temperatures, and pressures, so a bit of trial-and-error is required when using these materials. 

But once the right temperature and technique are achieved, these surfaces offer a great sublimation base because of their rigidity and overall durability. 

Fiberglass

Fiberglass has two different meanings; either a reinforced plastic material composed of glass fibers, or a textile fabric made from woven glass filaments. Both materials work well with sublimation. 

Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic (FRP) is made of a  polymer matrix reinforced with fibers. It can easily withstand the high heat of up to 400 degrees, making it an excellent material for sublimation. When the dye is infused within the fiberglass’s polymer matrix, it permanently becomes a part of its surface. 

Fiberglass textile is made of woven glass fibers, which are bundled together and spooled to form a fabric-like structure. The glass fibers are reinforced with polymers, making fiberglass textile another great material for sublimation.

Polymer Coated Items

Polymer-coated plastic materials can also be used in dye sublimation. If purchased online, they’re sometimes called “blanks” because they’re purposely sold without any design or printing to allow customization. This includes:

  • Pens and markers 
  • Bottles 
  • Tupperware 
  • Plates 
  • Cups 
  • Keychains
  • Phone grips
  • Phone cases
  • business cards
  • Notebooks
  • Specially coated license plates
  • Business cards 

Ceramic 

Ceramic is highly heat-resistant, making it an excellent material for sublimation. Once the design is applied to the ceramic surface, the ink won’t peel off or wash away, even if used in the microwave or dishwasher. 

Sublimationis usually performed on flat surfaces. For round objects like mugs, a separate sublimation machine called the mug press is used.

Wood

Dye sublimation works on wood if you protect it first. Without protection, the wood will burn.  

To sublimate on wood, you’ll have to coat it with about three coats of polymer paint and let it cure for 24 hours. Once the paint cures, you can safely sublimate on the wood.

If you don’t want to go through the effort of curing the wood, you can actually find pre-cured wood from specialty craft stores and online. 

Metal

Thanks to its durability and high-temperature resistance, metal is a fantastic material to sublimate on. However, like wood, you can only sublimate on metal if it’s cured with polymer paint. The polymer paint allows better ink absorption and longevity.

Do note that the color printed on the sublimation paper won’t look the same on metal, so color matching is a bit of a challenge. For instance, moss green may look lime green when sublimated on metal. It’ll take a bit of trial and error to get the shades right on this surface. 

Vinyl 

Although completely different in terms of chemical composition, vinyl and polyester similar physical properties. Sublimate ink bonds to vinyl just as well as polyester, making it a fantastic alternative to polyester-coated products. 

What Shouldn’t I Sublimate On? 

There are an array of materials you shouldn’t sublimate on, including: 

Cotton 

Faded cotton top

Sublimation ink doesn’t bond to cotton; it only bonds to polyester and polymers. You can use cotton-polyester blends, but the image will crack, bleed, fade, or peel over time. 

To successfully sublimate on cotton, you have to sublimate the design onto a piece of white glitter vinyl, which can be pressed directly onto the cotton shirt. The image will stick to the glitter vinyl without penetrating the cotton underneath. 

Dark Surfaces 

Dye sublimation doesn’t work well on dark surfaces. 

This isn’t to say you can’t sublimate dark surfaces; you can, but the design won’t appear as well as light-colored materials. For this reason, it’s become a common practice to place a white under base such as white glitter HTV on the dark surface to establish printing feasibility.

Uncoated Polyester Materials

Although you can sublimate on ceramic, plastic, metal, and other sheet material, the same can’t be said for uncoated polyester materials. Mugs from Dollar Tree and tiles from Home Depot, for example, can’t be sublimated, because they aren’t polyester-coated.

Conclusion 

There are a ton of materials you can sublimate on, including polyester, ceramic, vinyl, and cured wood and metal. 

Items and fabrics without polymer coating can’t be used for sublimation, so cotton t-shirts are a no-go, but other t shirts are great to sublimate on. Sublimation dye isn’t visible on black surfaces, either, so it’s best to stick with white or light-colored surfaces. 

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