What Is Sublimation Printing, and How Does It Work?

Sublimation printer

What Is Sublimation Printing, and How Does It Work?

Sublimation printing is a way to transfer an image onto a variety of materials, such as hats, shirts, and jackets. Sublimation printing was once available only to professional print shops as the cost of the equipment required was too expensive for the average person. Additionally, conventional sublimation equipment is very large, making it almost impossible to store at home.

However, things have changed dramatically over the last decade as the maker revolution has taken over. Machines like 3D printers, CNC routers, and vinyl cutters are now commonplace in many households, and sublimation is growing in popularity. From makers to crafters, sublimation printing is an awesome way to personalize everyday items with a custom image.

What is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation is the process of printing onto a special paper and transferring that printed image onto another material. It relies on a chemical reaction that occurs when the paper is heated. Heat releases the ink from the paper and allows it to transfer into the substrate. Sublimation is a popular alternative to screen printing for small batches because it requires fewer steps and no messy ink.

However, there are pros and cons to using sublimation, like the need for a special printer and a heat press. Additionally, you are limited by the size of the printer and heat press. Unfortunately, conventional printers are not suitable for sublimation, as special ink is also required. The ink must be durable enough to withstand countless wash cycles and wear.

Can Anyone Do Sublimation Printing?

The good news is that sublimation is becoming easy for anyone to do, with more options than ever for crafters and makers. No longer do you need large and bulky machines to do sublimation. Popular companies like Cricut make great products for people looking to make personalized products without much hassle.

In addition, sublimation is very safe and does not involve any harsh chemicals or messy pigments. Instead, the ink goes directly onto sublimation paper and is dry to the touch. However, using a heat press does require caution, and kids should never operate one alone.

Although sublimation has grown in popularity in recent years, it has actually been around for a long time. You may have seen heat transfer paper at your local big box retailer or office supply store. These sheets of paper are designed for at-home sublimation with a simple clothes iron. They also work with standard inkjet printers. While the quality isn’t great, it is good enough for DIY crafts.

What Do You Need For Sublimation Printing?

There are two main things that you need for sublimation: a heat press and a sublimation printer. Of course, you will also need paper, a computer to design an image with, and a suitable material to sublimate. Let’s first take a closer look at the heat press. A heat press for sublimation is a special machine that is designed to distribute heat evenly onto the surface of a garment.

It is critical that the surface of the heat press be larger than the image you are transferring. Most heat presses are also spring-loaded with a clamping mechanism that firmly presses the image into the material to ensure a clean transfer. Newer machines like Cricut’s Easypress are a little easier to use and are more compact. You can also purchase specialty heat presses for different materials like hats and mugs.

The other major component that you need is a printer designed for sublimation. Sawgrass makes some of the most popular printers for DIYers and professionals alike. The printers do cost more than a conventional inkjet, but there are some affordable options. Alternatively, you can use Cricut’s Infusible Ink pens and transfer paper to avoid purchasing a sublimation printer.

What Can You Sublimate On?

Shirts are the most popular item to sublimate on because it is something everyone uses, and there is a large surface area to work with. However, there are tons of other items that you can personalize with sublimation. A common misconception is that sublimation only works with soft materials, but it can also transfer to hard objects like cups and mugs.


Sublimation printer
Printed shirts are the most popular item to use sublimation printing on.


Sublimation is most commonly used on textiles, which includes different types of clothing. Sublimation printers are often large enough to print an image for the front or back of a shirt. Similarly, heat presses are often sold in similar sizes as well. However, you have more than just the front and back of a shirt to work with because the sleeves are also a great place to add some customization.

There are far more textile options beyond just shirts, though. You can sublimate other articles of clothing, too, like shorts and hoodies. Jackets are also a great option, but you do have to be careful with certain materials. Cooking aprons are another product that makes a great gift and has plenty of space to work with. It is best to work with textiles when you first start with sublimation because they are flat and cheap.


Many people don’t realize that sublimation also works on different types of drinkware. For instance, ceramic mugs look fantastic with a sublimated image. You’ve likely seen a sublimated mug or an ad for one. Many photo printing services offer these sublimated mugs with an image of your choosing. Other types of drinkware also work with sublimation, including aluminum cups.

Mugs and drinkware use the same sublimation paper that you would use for textiles. However, you must have a special heat press that is designed to fit these uniquely shaped items. There are several add-ons and standalone machines for coffee mugs, which are designed to let the hand stick out. Some units even come with special attachments for tapered cups.


Although hats are technically textiles, you cannot use the conventional sublimation process on them. It is very common to sublimate baseball hats with a company or team logo. However, the rounded design and hard bill make it impossible to use a regular heat press. Instead, special heat presses can be used to transfer an image to the rounded surface of a hat.


Personalized coasters can make a great gift or offer a nice touch of personalization in your home. Unfortunately, many overlook that you can use sublimation on coasters. There are a few different coaster options to sublimate, including ceramic and cloth. Best of all, coasters are a great way to test out your sublimation skills since they are so affordable. Plus, you can use a conventional heat press on coasters.

Other Materials

Although we’ve covered the most popular items to sublimate, the sky is the limit. Actually, the size of your printer and heat press is the limit. Tote bags, backpacks, pillow covers, and mouse pads are all easy ways to get started. Once you’ve mastered the basics, consider moving up to more complex tasks like blankets. Finally, you can try to sublimate on hard surfaces like metal or glass, which look great framed.

Why Sublimation?

Sublimation is a popular choice for both DIYers and professionals because it is easy to use, and the finished product looks great. The first reason why you should choose sublimation over a different medium, like screen printing, is that you can have unlimited colors. In addition, you don’t have to worry about colors running like direct garment printing.

There are so many options for sublimation today that you no longer need a dedicated printer and a large heat press. Many hobbyist devices are designed with crafters in mind so you can easily use and store the device. With that said, there are some really great tools for professionals, including large-format printers and large-format heat presses.

The Sublimation Process: Step By Step

Before you start buying equipment and supplies, it is a good idea to get familiar with the sublimation process. Keep in mind that the exact details of each step will vary based on your paper, ink, and heat press. For instance, Cricut’s Easypress sublimation does not use a printer, and its heat presses do not have a latching mechanism. While there are some variations, the basic sublimation process goes like this.

Step 1: Design an Image

The first thing that you must do is create an image. You can use any software for this, but CorelDRAW is always a popular choice, as is Adobe Illustrator. For a free alternative, try Inkscape. When you design an image, keep in mind the size limitations and imagine how the design will look on the finished product.

Step 2: Print the Image

Sublimation Printer
Sublimation printers require special paper and ink to transfer an image.

©Sergey Ryzhov/Shutterstock.com

Once you’ve finished designing, it is time to send the image to the printer. Make sure you are using suitable sublimation ink and paper. Let the paper dry on the printer for a minute before handling. Now is also a good time to trim the paper down if you will be sublimating it to a smaller item like a cup or hat.

Step 3: Prepare the Item to Sublimate

Now that the image is ready, we can prepare the heat press. Preheat your press to the recommended settings. This will vary depending on the material and paper you are using. After the heat press reaches its desired temperature, some people like to press the item for a few seconds to remove wrinkles. Similarly, you can use a lint roller to remove any dust, lint, or pet hair.

Step 4: Apply the Image to the Item

It is time to apply the material and image to the heat press. You must first place a piece of butcher paper onto the heat press surface. If you are sublimating a shirt or a similar item, place another piece of butcher paper inside to prevent ink from soaking through. Align the item item on the heat press, ensuring that it is square and the image will be fully pressed. Next, lay the image onto the item face-down.

Step 5: Add Heat

Now you pull down the lever to apply heat. This is usually done between 30-45 seconds, but it varies by materials and paper. If your heat press doesn’t have a clamping mechanism, then you should continue holding steady pressure for the duration of the press.

Step 6: Post Transfer Care

Lastly, lift up on the heat press and give the image a few seconds to cool. Carefully remove the item while avoiding the hot surfaces. Remove the butcher paper and dispose of the sublimation paper. The transfer is now complete, and you can move on to the next item.

Sublimation Limitations

Although sublimation is a popular way to personalize a variety of items, it does have some startup costs that you must consider. Prices vary greatly depending on equipment quality, with costs easily going into the thousands of dollars. However, you can get started for less than $1,000 with a basic Sawgrass printer and an off-brand heat press. Another problem is that sublimation only works on specific color materials.

Sublimation is best used on white and light-colored materials. The ink used in sublimation dyes the material, which is why darker-colored materials like navy and black will not work. Finally, you are limited to certain types of materials, with polyester being the most popular choice. Other fabric types cannot withstand the necessary heat or do not absorb the dye properly.

Alternatives to Sublimation Printing

Sublimation is the easiest and most affordable way to transfer an image onto a shirt or other product. However, there are some other options to consider, especially if you want to work with higher volumes. The most popular alternative is screen printing, but it comes with its own set of problems. Screen printing is limited to only a few colors, depending on how many screens your machine supports.

The equipment is also significantly more expensive and requires a lot of space. Each color also requires its own screen, which you must make before getting started. Finally, you have to deal with the messy inks, which have to be manually applied to each item. Screen printing has some advantages over sublimation. The most notable is that screen printing is great for large batches with only a couple of colors.

People making smaller batches traditionally used sublimation since each image is printed separately. However, direct-to-garment printing is becoming very popular. This method uses a special printer that applies ink directly to an item. The ink isn’t as durable as screenprinting, but it is a great option for large orders with varying designs.

Should You Get Started With Sublimation Printing?

Whether or not you should get started with sublimation largely depends on your reason for wanting to sublimate. If you are an avid crafter and want to try something new, then sublimation is a great option with a lot of potential. Similarly, if you want to start a T-shirt business offering personalization, sublimation will work fine.

However, if you are a business owner who wants some shirts made, you will likely fare better by using an online printing service. Similarly, if you want to print large batches of a single-colored design, then screenprinting may be a better option. Sublimation can be a fun hobby or the beginning of a new business; either way, you now have a better understanding of what sublimation has to offer.

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11/29/2023 11:58 pm GMT

Frequently Asked Questions

Is sublimation printing durable?

Sublimation printing is surprisingly durable, especially considering how simple the process of applying an image is. While the color may fade over the years, the image will not crack or peel like a screenprinted image will.

Can you use an iron for sublimation?

No, you should never use an iron for sublimation, unless you are considering lower-quality iron transfer sheets. The reason is that an iron cannot get hot enough for sublimation, and an iron is not perfectly flat on the bottom.

Is sublimation the same as direct to garment?

No, direct-to-garment printing has the printer place ink directly onto a material, whereas sublimation uses a sheet of paper to transfer ink to a material. Direct-to-garment is less durable but still allows for large numbers of colors in an image.

Can you sublimate to hard surfaces?

Yes, you can use sublimation printing on hard surfaces like glass, metal, and ceramic. Just remember that the surface has to be able to withstand high heat and be light enough for the dye to show up on.

Is sublimation good for fulfilling large orders?

Sublimation is good for large orders where your product uses lots of colors or requires personalization, like a different name on each piece. However, screenprinting is more efficient for large orders of the exact same item with only one or two colors.

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