Sublime Sublimation

This last week, to feed my crafting hobby, I picked up an Epson ET-15000 printer and converted it for sublimation printing. I really like it!

Sublimation printing is basically printing on special paper, unironically called sublimation paper, using special inks that are designed to sublimate with heat. What does that mean? Well, when heat is applied to the ink, it will turn into a gas and bind to a surface that is able to absorb it, like a shirt with sufficient polyester (50% or more), leaving the image on the new surface.

You can buy specialty sublimation printers, specifically designed for this purpose, or you can convert certain inkjets. There are some notes of caution however:

  • Not all inkjets can be used, even if they're refillable tank-based. Canon inkjets, for example, apply heat at the printhead and that would actually sublimate the ink as we're printing with it! Epson Ecotank printers do not heat, they even market that on the front label of the printer, and are suitable for conversion. Do be sure, though, that the printer you buy for this is useful for sublimation, so check with the ink makers as they will usually list the supported printers.
  • The printer cannot have ever been used with normal inks before. When it comes to this, if you used the inks that came with the printer, it's forever a regular printer. If you use sublimation inks right from the start, it's forever a sublimation printer. Basically, expect it to be dedicated to purpose.
To get my Epson ET-15000 going, I decided the easiest way to get the inks into the printer was to use the bottles that came with it. Now, these are filled with inks, so you need to empty them and rinse them out, including the fill nozzles. The fill nozzle does unscrew, it just takes a little bit of work at the start. Once they've been cleaned out and dried, you can fill them, quite easily, with sublimation inks and that makes loading the printer really simple. I also kept the bottles for the next time. Now, you can fill the printer with syringes instead, but that's way fussier than this, especially over time!

So after getting the printheads charged and aligned, time to print! I mentioned that you need sublimation paper for this purpose and I've beening using Koala brand in 8.5" x 11" preloaded into my printer paper cartridge. The side you print on matters greatly, but this paper has yellow watermarks all over the back to show you which side to choose. Just load that facedown in the paper tray and good to go!

My first print was a kitten with a heart shaped balloon. It came out really nice, but the colours were not quite correct. I hadn't bothered with the ICC profile from the ink supplier since I wasn't using their paper (the profile is for the paper in combination with the ink). After the first print, which I am still super happy with, I downloaded the profiles and selected what I thought was a reasonable match based on the paper information. The little red panda shirt came out far more colour accurate as a result. Based on comparison, with my display (which is very colour accurate) it looks like an extremely good colour match. So, worth using the ICC profiles, if available, for printing.

Now, material wise, the first two shirts I did used Cricut brand shirts specifically designed for their Infusible Ink product. Infusible Ink is really just a sublimation ink and the shirts are 95% polyester and 5% spandex, so basically perfect for this job. What is especially nice about them is that they don't feel like polyester. The thing to remember, when it comes to sublimation, the surface you want to infuse onto has to have sufficient polyester to bind the inks, generally 50% or more. Even hard surfaces, like sublimation-ready coffee mugs, have a polyester coating designed for this purpose.

50% polyester is pushing the low boundary, but I did pick up a 50% polyester/50% cotton blend sweatshirt to try. It was $12 on Amazon, so I figured I can't really lose out. Anyways, initial transfer of my Kawaii burger and soda looks great, but the acid test will be the first wash in a week or so.  

A couple of notes around surfaces:
  • Cotton and other natural fibers will not absorb the ink. It may appear to do so, but it will all go away after the first wash. For cotton, stick to heat transfer vinyls.
  • Light colours are required. The colour of the surface will show through, so really dark coloured surfaces will basically render your transfer invisible. 
  • Even if the surface has sufficient polyester, it needs to be sublimation safe because high heat is being applied here. A t-shirt that is a blend using a fiber that melts, will melt!
  • You can't print white. So, if you have a coloured surface other than white, bear in mind that if you have white in your image, the actual result will be the colour of your surface. So if you print to a pink shirt, any white in the image will be pink because no ink will be used. You can fake it with a really light grey, but remember, that colour is still going to show through!
The last thing you're going to need is a way to apply heat in a consistent and even manner. This not a job for the same iron you use to press your pants! I personally use a Cricut EasyPress 2, I have the 12"x10", the 6"x7" and the Mini. These maintain constant heat over their entire surface and they have precise temperature and timing controls. Alternatives are out there, including specialty presses, but I just happen to already have these. For other surfaces, such as a mug, these presses will not work, and so you can either get a mug press or do it in a convection oven using special silicone wraps to apply pressure. The key will be constant heat that is circulated around the surface, hence convection if you're going the oven route.

With respect to using your kitchen oven there are various opinions on the safety topic, but if you're concerned about the off-gassing then you can do the bake inside oven bags that have been sealed with heat tape.

Products that I've used so far include (most of the links are to Canadian shops, but rest assured, they're available outside of Canada):