First you should understand the basics of sublimation which is essentially using a special ink to print onto special paper to create a transfer, then transferring the image to a special blank item that has a polyester component to it (either cloth or a coating) using a heat press or oven. When the transfer is heated the ink turns to gas and transfers and bonds to polyester fibers and leaves a full color photo-quality image, depending on what you transfer it to.
Printers to Buy
You can buy a specific sublimation printer like a Sawgrass or another brand which can be expensive to get started. Epson now makes consumer size sublimation printers or you can “convert” a standard Epson printer to sublimation. You cannot convert other printers such as Canon, Brother, and HP because they use thermal inkjet technology whereas the Epson printers use piezo print heads. I used quotes around the word “convert” because that word intimidates many people and it should not. You don’t have to change out parts in the printer or anything. You purchase a new printer, do not use the ink that comes with it but instead, you use sublimation ink. If the printer has already been used for regular ink it’s not recommended to convert because it would have to be properly cleaned and flushed out. Be aware that using sublimation ink in a non-sublimation printer does void the warranty. In most cases it’s never and issue and problems don’t occur until well after warranty expiration, anyway.
Epson eco-tank printers work better than ink cartridge types are are less messy. With cartridges you have to manually fill them and they can be problematic, in my opinion. Eco-tank printers are easier to work with and I’ve had far less problems. Consider the size you want to be able to print. Just getting started a basic printer like the ET-2800 (click here to view
) is normally ok for doing things like basic shirt designs, mugs, and more. In fact, you can printer up to 8.5″ x 14″ and even make license plates. A larger format printer that can print 11″ x 17″ or even 13″ x 19″ like the ET-15000 (click here to view
) is even better if you want to do something like a full design on a garden flag. In my opinion, most people just getting started are fine with a standard size eco-tank printer.
Blanks to Use
Apparel can be a blend of polyester and cotton but the polyester content should generally be 65% or higher and of course the best quality image transfers to 100% polyester. When cotton is involved it will transfer but fade after a few washes. Many people prefer to use blended materials such as a 70% polyester and 30% cotton so the image has a slight worn or distressed image look to it after it’s washed a couple times. Other items such as mugs, coasters, etc, must be sublimation items. There is a spray you can use on cotton to sublimate onto it but it eventually wears off and fades as opposed to true sublimation on polyester since it’s bonding to a spray added to the material rather than the actual material fibers.
You may want to consider having plain butcher paper on hand to cover the design when you press. Do not use parchment paper or a Teflon sheet as the butcher paper absorbs the extra ink as gas when it escapes rather than causing blurred or ghosted images. Heat tape is another must have to hold your design in place tightly as you do not want any shifting of the transfer during the process.