When it comes to printing on T-shirts, mugs, and signs, a lot of people confuse sublimation printing with heat transfer printing. Although both methods are very similar and very popular printing techniques used by small businesses, they each have their own unique advantages.
So, what’s the key difference between sublimation printing vs. heat transfer printing? Sublimation printing employs a special type of ink that evaporates and fuses permanently with the substrate under the heat press, while heat transfer printing creates another layer on top of the substrate.
But that’s not the only difference between the two printing methods. In this blog post, we’ll break down the similarities and key differences between these two printing methods so you can choose the right one for your next project.
What Is Sublimation?
Sublimation printing involves printing a digital design using sublimation ink onto sublimation transfer paper and then using a heat press to transfer the ink to the substrate (fabric, coffee mug, etc.)
The heat press opens the ‘pores’ of the substrate and turns the ink into a gas form, which can then be permanently embedded into a polyester material. Once the temperature cools, the gas returns to a solid state and becomes fused with the substrate.
That’s why when you use the sublimation printing method to print a design on a T-shirt, the design will look and feel like a part of the fabric itself. As a result, the print quality is extremely high, and the colors are very vibrant.
Sublimation printing is also very durable, as the dyes become a part of the substrate itself. This makes it ideal for prints that will be exposed to wear and tear, such as T-shirts, signs, and flags.
One disadvantage of sublimation ink is that it can only work with polyester materials. If you want to print on a substrate other than a polyester T-shirt, the substrate will need to be coated with a poly coating first so that the sublimation ink can stick to the substrate.
When working with sublimation printing, you will need some highly specialized equipment and materials. You will need to use a special sublimation ink and a sublimation printer to transfer the ink to a sublimation paper.
You can convert a regular inkjet printer into a sublimation printer, but the conversion is not reversible – once you’ve used sublimation ink with a printer, it won’t work with regular toner or ink anymore.
As you can imagine, the startup cost for sublimation printing is quite costly, especially when factoring in the cost of the printer and specialized inks.
Here’s a great tutorial from Design Bundles on YouTube.
What Is Heat Transfer Printing?
The process of heat transfer printing is quite similar to sublimation, but with one key difference: you can use your regular inkjet or laser printer to do the task. With heat transfer printing, your design is first printed onto a wax-based clear transfer vinyl.
Then, you will need to do an additional step of heat pressing the vinyl onto an adhesive paper, which will help the design adhere to your substrate. Depending on the transfer vinyl that you use, this extra step may not be required.
In the final step, the adhesive side is placed on top of your substrate (usually a cotton T-shirt), and the design will be seamlessly transferred from your vinyl to your substrate. Then, you can let the whole thing cool down before peeling the transfer vinyl away.
Compared to the chemical process of sublimation printing, the two-step heat transfer process is just a mechanical transfer process. Since there’s nothing special about the ink, the transfer vinyl and adhesive back need to be employed to help your design stick to the substrate.
When this process is done correctly, the result can be a bright, vibrant print with photo-quality print that is highly durable. Compared to sublimation, you can also use a heat press printing method to print on almost any substrate you can think of, including cotton T-shirts, mugs, mouse pads, etc.
This process is relatively simple, and you can just use your regular home printer to print out your design on a vinyl transfer sheet. Because of this, heat press printing is super beginner-friendly.
Depending on the vinyl transfer paper that you use, you don’t even need to use a heat press. Sometimes, even a home iron will do just fine to transfer the images to your substrate.
However, one disadvantage of this method is that the prints may not last very long, especially if you are printing on T-shirts that need to be washed regularly.
Since the prints are just sitting on top of the substrate, the bond is not as strong as sublimation prints. As a result, your prints may crack and peel away after a few trips through the washing machine.
Here’s a great tutorial from Design Bundles on YouTube.
Similarities Between Sublimation & Heat Transfer Printing
Having explained what each printing method involves, let’s now take a look at the similarities and differences between sublimation and heat transfer printing.
There’s a reason why sublimation printing and heat transfer printing are often lumped together. Both are popular methods for transferring digital designs onto a variety of substrates.
Both methods require you to print a design onto a transfer medium and then use a heat press to transfer the design to the substrate. The major difference between the two methods is the type of ink and transfer medium that is used, which are not always distinguishable.
Because of this similarity, there may not be a very big difference in how much time it requires to finish a sublimation print versus a heat transfer print, especially if you are printing in small quantities.
Sublimation printing and heat transfer printing are both popular methods for creating high-quality, vibrant prints.
In sublimation printing, the ink is heated until it turns into a gas and then transferred to the substrate. This results in a very sharp and detailed print. However, if the substrate has a dark background (like a black T-shirt), the colors may not show very well.
Heat transfer printing, on the other hand, activates transfer medium using heat, which allows the print to adhere to the substrate. This method is typically used for larger prints and is not as detailed as sublimation printing.
Most people believe that sublimation printing produces better color quality than heat transfer printing, but this assumption is debatable.
You can produce high-quality prints using the heat transfer method as long as you use an inkjet printer or a laser printer with white toner; both are exceptional in creating sharp, high-quality, and vibrant colors on any substrate.
Since heat transfer printing produces a layer on top of the substrate, it doesn’t matter what the background color is – the print will still show up true to the colors that you see coming out of the printer.
Differences Between Sublimation & Heat Transfer Printing
There are quite a few differences between sublimation and heat transfer printing, and these differences may help you decide which method is right for you.
Sublimation printing is a great way to create personalized T-shirts, mugs, and other prints, but it can be expensive to get started.
A sublimation printer is required, and special sublimation inks must be purchased. In addition, you’ll need a heat press to transfer the images onto your desired surfaces since a regular iron cannot achieve the temperature required to melt the sublimation ink.
The initial investment can be daunting, but there are ways to save money.
You can buy a used printer and then convert it into a sublimation printer by switching out the inks for sublimation inks, but this process is irreversible. Once your printer is used with sublimation ink, it won’t work with other types of ink.
That’s why beginners and hobbyists prefer heat transfer printing. The great thing about heat transfer printing is that it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to do at home. All you need is a regular laser or inkjet printer, transfer vinyl, and adhesive paper.
Depending on the vinyl you buy, sometimes you don’t even need to invest in a heat press – your regular iron will do. That’s why if you’re just looking to do a few personalized gift projects, heat transfer printing is definitely worth considering.
Sublimation printing uses a heat press to transfer ink onto a substrate. Unlike other printing methods, sublimation actually causes the ink to become part of the substrate. As a result, prints produced using this method are highly durable and resistant to fading.
This characteristic is ideal, especially if you are printing on a garment that needs to be washed regularly. This is why a lot of small businesses prefer the sublimation method to print their merchandise.
In comparison, heat transfer printing creates a layer on top of the substrate, which is not durable, especially if we’re talking about substrates that need to be washed regularly, like a T-shirt.
The print can crack and fade over time, and it is not very durable. In fact, most prints made with this method will only last for around 30 washes before they start to show signs of wear. If you need your garments to look good for longer than that, heat transfer printing is probably not the right choice.
Sublimation printing works by fusing the ink with the substrate, which means the ink becomes a part of the substrate, and you won’t be able to feel a difference in the fabric when you run your hands over the print.
That’s why sublimation printing is also known as all-over printing, as it can be used for printing on an entire fabric surface without changing the feel of the fabric.
On the other hand, heat transfer printing creates a vinyl layer on top of the substrate, which means the print will have a different plastic texture compared to the substrate. This may not be ideal for clothing garments, as it can change the fabric’s breathability and drape.
Sublimation printing does a great job at adding custom designs to fabric, but it’s important to understand the limitations of the process. One of the most significant limitations is the type of substrate that can be used – only polyester will work.
This is because the sublimation process requires a high temperature in order to transfer the ink onto the fabric, and polyester is the only material that can withstand those temperatures without being damaged.
You can use some polyester blends like poly-cotton to enhance the material’s breathability, but the print may not look as vibrant or as durable. The material that you print should have at least 70% polyester fiber content in order for the ink to work.
If you want to sublimate on other substrates like ceramic mugs, tumblers, or mousepads, you will need to apply a poly coating to the surface of the substrate first before sublimating.
The poly coating will prime the surface and give the ink something to fuse. Without this coating, the ink won’t be able to stick to the surface.
Heat transfer printing is a versatile printing method that can be used on a wide range of substrates. Virtually any material that can withstand the heat of the transfer process can be used, including plastics, metals, glass, and even ceramic.
This flexibility makes heat transfer printing ideal for a wide variety of applications. As a result, this printing method is increasingly being used in a wide range of industries.
Weeding is the process of removing unnecessary details from a print. This is where you peel away the vinyl transfer paper or sublimation paper to reveal the prints underneath.
With sublimation printing, everything that you see printed on the sublimation paper is going to be transferred to the substrate. This makes the process quite simple because you can adjust where the print goes and what it looks like on your computer and let the ink does its job.
Heat transfer printing is a little bit more complicated. Depending on the transfer vinyl that you use, you may need to do an extra step of trimming away the edges of the print so that you don’t see a film in the shape of the paper on your final result.
If you’re using a two-step heat transfer process with a clear vinyl transfer paper, you don’t have to trim the edges (as the transfer medium is clear). However, in other cases, you will need to cut out your design before pressing it into your substrate.
If you’re looking for a printing method that is fast, efficient and produces high-quality results, you should consider sublimation. This printing process is perfect for small businesses due to its time-saving capabilities.
With sublimation, there is no need for cutting or weeding, which means that you can produce large quantities of product quickly and easily. In addition, the results are always of the highest quality, ensuring that your customers will be satisfied with their purchase.
If you’re interested in heat transfer printing, it’s important to know that the process can be quite time-consuming. This is especially true if you’re creating complex designs that need to be cut by hand. That’s why heat transfer printing is best suited for hobbyists.
While the process may take some time, it’s relatively easy to learn, and the startup cost is super friendly to casual DIYers. Plus, the results can be quite impressive, making it well worth the effort.
This method is great if you are making personalized gifts for friends and family but may not be very cost-efficient if you are looking to produce prints in large quantities.