Sublimation printing, also known as dye sublimation printing, refers to a printing process used for transferring images onto a substrate. Unlike typical printing methods, where the solid turns to water before a gas, sublimation skips the liquid step and evolves from a solid on the substrate, to a gas, and then to a solid bonded on the new substrate.
The process typically involves a digital printer that uses sublimation inks to create images on a sublimation paper placed in a heat press. Sublimation inks use special dyes that, when heated to high temperatures of about 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, will transfer to the item to be printed. Sublimation paper is placed in a heat press with the desired printed material and exposed to the elevated temperatures. This is where the ink and transfer material turn from solid to gas, and it is in this gas state that the ink permeates the fibers of the materials. When the heat is removed, the sublimation ink that permeated the fibers solidifies and the transfer material’s pores close, locking the ink into place. Since the ink is bonded into the substrate at the molecular level, the end result is a highly durable, high-resolution print that will withstand fading, water, scratches, and cracking.
Sublimation printing can be applied to many materials, the most common being fabric. The fabric being printed on must have a high polyester content of 50 percent or more. The process can also be done to hard materials with a receptive polymer coating, including paper, metal, glass, ceramic, glass, and plastic.
Sublimation printing can be costly up front since it requires sublimation paper and ink, essential software, a heat press, and the desired printed material. It is more suitable for small batches, compared to screen printing that works best for large batches with a simple design. Though both processes are capable of reproducing photographic details, sublimation printing achieves this in a faster, less difficult manner.