There are three popular types of dye sublimation ink: solvent-based ink, oil-based ink and water-based
ink. The transfer applications for each of these ink types are roughly the same, using coated transfer
paper to release the ink effectively. The main difference with these inks is the medium in which they
Water-based ink is the most common formulation of ink for dye sublimation and by far the most
eco-friendly. With green printing growing in popularity, water-based ink offers outstanding attributes.
Printers that print with water-based ink range from in-home consumer converted printers to grand-format industrial inkjet printers. Solvent-based and oil-based units are primarily seen in the grand-format space.
Historically, oil-based and solvent-based inks were used because of difficulties with water-based inks,
availability of water-based compatible print heads and a compatible transfer paper. As paper gets wider
(10 feet or 3 meters) it can become unstable during print, in terms of wrinkles (or cockles), which can
cause print artifacts or head strikes. Additionally, when the first grand-format dye sublimation printers were designed, there were not many print head choices that were able to
run water-based inks. Responding to demand, paper manufacturers have created papers that run smoothly
through a printer, even with high ink loads at industrial level print speeds. Also, there are many more
print head choices that are aqueous compatible.
Coatings vary depending on the manufacturer and ink. Different papers all have their own characteristics
to hold and release inks. Clay coated paper seems to work best with water-based inks.
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There is often some confusion involving the differences between sublimation paper and inkjet
transfers. Both use heat presses to "transfer" the image to the substrate at about 400 degrees
Fahrenheit. And in both methods the image will be printed in reverse. The main difference is in
the actual transfer process that is occurring and how the image physically gets to the substrate.
This means there are also differences in the items that may be decorated with either process.
Without becoming too technical, we can say that sublimation paper uses a gaseous process to
transfer the image to the substrate. This process is triggered in the heat press. The substrate is a
polymer coated item or synthetic fabric. The inks used to print dye sublimation transfers is special
and often expensive. These sublimation inks can be used in many standard inkjet printers but once
the printer is switched over to sublimation ink, it is impractical to go back. Therefore, a dedicated
sublimation printer is needed for this process. There are also commercial sublimation printers available
After you have an inkjet printer set up and running with sublimation ink, the process is very similar
to standard inkjet heat transfers with the exception of the substrates. The art is created in the computer
with any graphic software and then sent to the printer to be printed on the sublimation transfer paper.
Most of the items decorated with the sublimation method are made for that process and there are many
such as can koozies, mouse pads, car flags, and colorful puzzles and cubes.
The biggest benefit of this method is that there isn't any adhesive polymer layer that transfers to the shirt
with the ink. It is only the ink in gaseous form that transfers to the substrates. This means no weeding is
needed. The 50/50 garment or polymer coated object receives the image and becomes stable. Because it
works on polymer coated items; things like mugs, plaques and many other products may be produced
with sublimation. It also has a soft feel and it will never fade or crack on t shirts. On other items you
cannot even feel the image because it is actually in the polymer coating. These are the reasons dye
sublimation is so popular.
There are some disadvantages with sublimation. You can only work with light colored garments and
novelty items. The sublimation ink is very transparent and thus will not have the opacity to cover darker
items and using fabrics with a 50/50 mix of cotton and polyester, will result in color that looks dull and
faded. Sometimes sublimation prints look soft as well. And finally the inks themselves are expensive.
Inkjet transfer papers are much different in that the inkjet ink is transferred with a polymer
adhesive layer that encapsulates the ink and gives it stability. Inkjet heat transfers are made to work
with most any inkjet printer and ink. It is the polymer adhesive layer that does all of the actual transfer
work. The ink is printed onto the adhesive layer and it soaks in a bit. After the ink sets into the
adhesive layer, the image is ready to be transferred. The heat press causes the adhesive layer with the
image to release from the paper and adhere to the shirt.
Inkjet heat transfers are easy to make and economical for the home hobbyist. The color saturation is
greater and it does not require any special inks or dedicated printers. Some consumer grade papers
can be purchased at local office supplies while more professional heat transfer papers are sold by
The biggest problem with inkjet heat transfers is the polymer adhesive that will be transferred with or
without ink. This means you have to "weed" all of the negative space out. The adhesive may tend to
become brittle over time and form cracks. There are many types and brands of papers available which
will yield various results in durability.
Inkjet transfer paper for dark garments is available but the transfer is often a heavy rubber or cloth
material onto which the image is printed normally. This is then heat pressed onto the garment face up.
It results in a very heavy, patchy image area which can often cause sweating underneath when worn.
As you can see, dye sublimation is not limited to tee shirts and mouse pads. Some of the most common
products that can be sublimated are: tiles, "dog tags", license plates, ceramic mugs, light switch
covers, clipboards, hardboard tiles, tote bags, plaques, neckties, travel mugs, ornaments, pet tags,
business card holders, name badges, coasters, and clocks.
Inkjet heat transfers are limited to cotton, 50/50 poly-cotton, and other cotton blend fabrics. However,
many items that are difficult to screen print may be done with inkjet heat transfers. A few of these
items include: shirts, sweatshirts, aprons, mouse pads, puzzles, cubes, tote bags, miniature baby or pet
garments and apparel, flags, banners, bandannas, and jackets.
Both of these process work best on light colored items and they do tend to fade some on the first wash.
But the overall benefits of these methods make them very popular in hobby and commercial
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