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Buying guide for best sublimation printers

If you’ve ever considered starting your own customized printing business, you might have been put off by the cost or the involved technique. Fortunately, there’s a device called a sublimation printer. This type of printer can print customized graphics on coffee mugs, shirts, socks, and more.

The right sublimation printer for you is sized for your needs. For example, if you’re only printing coffee mugs, you can get by with a smaller model than if you need to print flags or banners. Also, your printer needs to have a decent resolution, at least 300 dots per inch, for crisp results.

If this type of printing is new to you, you’ll want to learn everything you can about what these devices can do. A comprehensive buying guide on the topic and some top-rated recommendations can get you started.

sublimation printer
Images transferred via sublimation printing won’t peel or wash away, but they can fade when exposed to UV light.

How to buy the best sublimation printer

What is sublimation printing?

This is a technique that uses special inks and paper to transfer graphics to polyester fabrics and rigid objects. This allows users to add custom designs to a wide variety of objects, including T-shirts, socks, totes, banners, and coffee mugs.

How does it work?

It’s a two-step process. First, you use a sublimation printer to print a mirror image of the graphic onto sublimation paper, which absorbs the special ink without curling or warping. Second, you put the printed paper in a heat press. The heat instantly turns the dried sublimation ink into a gas, bypassing the liquid state, so it can be absorbed into and transferred to the final material. This is very important. It means the ink doesn’t lie on the surface of the object the way it does in many other printing processes, so the image won’t peel or wash away.

Advantages of sublimation printing

  • Easy to learn
  • Extremely durable
  • Works on a wide range of items
  • Unlimited range of colors
  • No minimum print run (The cost per print doesn’t increase with smaller print runs.)
  • Quick turnaround time (Most orders can be produced in a day.)
  • No prohibitive startup costs. (If you already own a computer, you can get your business up and running for less than $1,000.)

Disadvantages of sublimation printing

  • It can only be done on certain materials.
  • It can only be done on a light or white background.
  • It can require some trial and error at first.
  • Cost doesn’t go down when printing in bulk. (It’s the same process whether you print 1 or 100 mugs.)
  • The printhead may clog if you don’t use the printer for extended periods.

Sublimation printing doesn’t work on pure cotton. For best results, use fabric that is at least 80% polyester.

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Features to look for in sublimation printers

Size

The size of the printer determines what objects you can print. For most, a printer that accommodates 8.5 x 11-inch paper will be fine. If you need to do any kind of specialty printing, there are wide- and narrow-format printers designed for that purpose. However, these models can cost several thousand dollars, so they aren’t the best option for the average user.

Functions

Print speed: Some sublimation printers are very slow, which won’t necessarily matter if you don’t print often or you only print small quantities. If you need to frequently print large quantities, you’ll want to look for a model with a faster print speed.

Self-maintenance mode: More expensive sublimation printers have an automatic maintenance schedule that helps keep the printer in top working condition.

Multiple functions: If you purchase a dedicated sublimation printer, all you’ll be able to do is print. This isn’t a bad thing. If you purchase an inkjet printer that you use for this type of printing, you’ll also have access to other features like scanning and copying, but you must use sublimation ink.

Bundle

Some companies offer starter bundles that include ink, paper, design options, and more with the printer. If you're new to sublimation printing, this is a good way to start.

ice cubes
DID YOU KNOW?
Sublimation occurs when a substance changes from a solid to a gas without first becoming a liquid, such as when an ice cube turns to steam without first turning into water.
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Accessories to use with a sublimation printer

Sublimation paper

While it’s possible to do sublimation printing on regular copy paper, the results will be unpredictable. Sublimation paper is specially designed to uniformly absorb more ink to produce consistent, high-quality results.

Heat press

To do sublimation printing on fabric, you need a heat press. This essential item uses heat and pressure to imprint the graphic consistently.

How much do sublimation printers cost?

Inexpensive

If you just need supplies, sublimation paper ranges from $15 to $25. Sublimation ink costs anywhere from $30 for bottles to $60 for cartridges.

Mid-range

If you're on a tight budget, you can purchase an inkjet printer that is suitable for sublimation printing. These cost between $280 and $350.

Expensive

To get a dedicated sublimation printer that is specifically designed for the process, you need to spend $600 or more. At this price, you should also get a starter bundle that includes ink, paper, design options, and other extras.

Sublimation printing isn’t effective for patterns that will be produced in multiple areas because the color saturation might not be consistent.

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Tips

  • Print on white for the best results. Sublimation printing is transparent, which means that the color you're printing on will become part of the design. White is the only color that won’t impact the other colors.
  • Print a high-quality mirror image. Make sure you're using an image that’s at least 300 dots per inch to print a mirror image of your design onto the sublimation paper.
  • Protect the paper from moisture. If moisture gets into the printing paper, it can cause unpredictable and undesirable results. Make sure to store the paper in a cool, dry location that has low humidity.
  • Verify the temperature of the heat press. This is more important than the pressure. Before using, make sure the temperature has reached the proper level. If the colors aren’t as vibrant as expected, raising the heat can help the dyes sublimate more completely, resulting in brighter hues.
  • Experiment. If you're not getting the expected results, take the time to experiment. Adjust the contrast, brightness, and hues to learn how each change affects the final product. Your first attempt probably won’t be your best. As you gain more experience with sublimation printing, you’ll achieve high-quality results with greater consistency.
heat press
A heat press gets very hot (roughly 400°F), so prevent possible injury by wearing protective gloves.

FAQ

Q. What materials are suitable for sublimation printing?

A. One downside of sublimation printing is the limited materials that work with the process. On the plus side, those materials are extremely versatile. The best material to print on is polyester or anything coated in polyester. Ceramic is also great, but it needs a high-grade finish for best results. Polymer and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can also be used for this type of printing.

Q. What’s the difference between A, AA, and AAA mugs?

A. Ceramic mugs come in three grades: A, AA, and AAA.

  • A is the lowest grade and indicates surface imperfections and an uneven coating, which can produce unpredictable and undesirable results when printing.
  • AA is the best value. It’s much better than A but still has small imperfections, and the coating might be uneven near the top and bottom edges. Still, it produces a decent acceptable print.
  • AAA is the way to go if you want the best results. These mugs have a thick, uniform finish with no imperfections and the purest white coloring. Sublimation printing on an AAA mug will produce the highest-quality results, but it’s the most expensive option.

Q. Can I use an inkjet printer in a sublimation printer?

A. Possibly. There are two requirements for using a regular inkjet printer for sublimation printing. First, you can only use sublimation ink in the printer. This ink differs greatly from regular ink. If there is regular ink residue inside a machine you use for sublimation printing, it won’t work. Second, inkjet printers use either piezo or thermal technology for printing. Only a piezo inkjet printer will work for sublimation printing.

 

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