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.
- 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!