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Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer: Key Differences Explained

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If you’ve ever bought an item that had a professionally printed graphic on it, the design was probably created either via sublimation printing or heat transfer.

Sublimation printing and heat transfer are two of the most popular ways for printing images and text.

What’s the difference between sublimation and heat transfer? Sublimation printing can be more expensive than heat transfer. All you need to get started with heat transfer is an iron, a regular laser or inkjet printer, and heat transfer paper. Sublimation printing requires a special printer, ink, and paper as well as a heat press for optimal results. 

Designs printed using sublimation printing tend to last longer than heat transfer designs, but sublimation printing cannot be done on darker colored materials, while heat transfer works on all colors.

Sublimation printing is also quicker than heat transfer, as you usually only need to apply heat to the design for a minute or less, while heat transfer can take several minutes or more until the design sticks to the material.

Sublimation printing can be done on many soft and hard materials, while heat transfer paper works best on fabrics. Heat transfer vinyl can be used effectively on hard materials.

SublimationHeat Transfer
Requires the use of special sublimation inkWorks with regular printer ink
Works best with sublimation transfer paper, although regular copy paper will doNeeds heat transfer paper to work
Needs either a special sublimation printer or an inkjet printer that has been converted to a sublimation printerCan be done with any regular inkjet or laser printer
Best results come from a heat pressCan be ironed on
Can only be applied to white or lighter colored materialsCan be applied to any color of fabric
Most sublimation inks work best on materials that contain polyester or a poly-coatingWorks well on different types of fabrics
Higher startup costsAnyone with a printer and an iron can easily create a heat transfer design
Longer-lasting design Designs can crack, peel, or fade over time
Smoother finish due to the ink permeating the material Can feel the ink on the surface of the material
Can take less than a minute to apply the designCan take several minutes or more to apply the design
Better at printing photosGood at printing vector graphics
Can print on both hard and soft materialsBest for fabrics

Sublimation and heat transfer are both excellent methods for producing high-quality designs. This article will detail the differences between these two processes.

Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer

Sublimation printing is best for permanently dyeing fabrics and hard surfaces. Heat transfer paper is better for printing on darker colored fabrics.

Heat transfer vinyl is another option that can also be used on harder materials.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation ink comes in a solid form that turns to a gas when it is exposed to heat, which enables it to become a part of the substrate.

The Process

Sublimation printing is when you use sublimation ink in either a sublimation printer or a regular inkjet printer that has been converted to a sublimation printer to print a design on either special sublimation paper or regular printer paper. 

You then apply the design to the substrate of your choice, making sure to use heat tape or adhesive spray to get the paper to stick to the material.

Next you press the design into the substrate using a heat press. The heat transforms the ink from a solid to a gas, infusing it into the material. 

Equipment and Supplies Needed

Basic supplies needed are a sublimation printer, ink, paper, and a heat press.

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Startup Costs

The printer and the heat press are the most expensive things you will need for sublimation printing, although the ink can be pricey as well.

Materials & Colors That Can Be Printed With Sublimation

Most sublimation inks can only print on materials that contain polyester or have a poly-coating, although there are newer inks that can print on other materials.

You should only sublimate on white or lighter colored materials.

Quality of End Result

Sublimation printing results in a smooth, high-quality, expert design.

Advantages of Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing can be done on both soft and hard materials, and there are hundreds of sublimation blanks available online to choose from.

It creates professional, quality results that are great for running your own printing business.

Disadvantages of Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing cannot be done on darker colored materials, and the initial startup costs can be high.

Heat Transfer

In this article we are focusing on using heat transfer paper to create designs.

Heat transfer vinyl is another option for transferring graphics onto substrates, but it is a different (and generally more expensive) process that requires the use of a wide-format printer that uses solvent, eco-solvent, or latex inks. 

Heat transfer paper has a special coating of pigment and wax, and the ink from a regular printer can easily print on it.

The Process

Simply print your design onto the heat transfer paper, apply it to your substrate, and press it with an iron. Then peel away the paper and your design should remain on the substrate.

Equipment and Supplies Needed

You will need heat transfer paper, a laser or inkjet printer, and an iron or heat press.

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Startup Costs

If you already have a printer and an iron, all you will need to purchase is heat transfer paper.

Materials & Colors That Can Be Printed With Heat Transfer

Heat transfer can be printed on all colors and all kinds of fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and blends. 

Quality of End Result

Heat transfer creates colorful results that look great. They are not as long lasting as sublimation prints, but there are things you can do to make the designs more durable.

Try pre-washing the fabric to avoid shrinking, and preheat fabric to remove wrinkles that can mess up the graphic.

You also want to make sure that you apply the recommended heat and pressure and wait until the item cools before peeling off the carrier sheet.

Advantages of Heat Transfer Printing

Heat transfer printing is simple and straightforward and requires no special knowledge or large upfront costs.

All you need to get started with heat transfer printing is an inkjet or laser printer, heat transfer paper, and an iron.

Disadvantages of Heat Transfer Printing

Weeding can be time consuming with heat transfer printing, especially when it comes to small letters.

Heat transfer paper is made for use on fabrics, although heat transfer vinyl can be used on harder materials. Heat transfer designs can also wear out over time or with repeated washes.

Key Differences Between Sublimation and Heat Transfer

The key differences between sublimation and heat transfer are in the materials required and the quality of the finished product.

Equipment and Costs

With sublimation printing, the costs can quickly add up. You need a sublimation printer, ink, and paper, blowout paper, heat tape or adhesive spray, and a heat press, at minimum.

You will also need to make sure that your sublimation blanks contain polyester or a poly-coating if the ink requires it.

To get started with heat transfer, all you really need is an inkjet or laser printer, heat transfer paper, and an iron. 

Substrates

Sublimation printing is usually done on both soft and hard materials that contain polyester or have a poly-coating, but there are newer sublimation inks that can print on other materials.

Sublimation printing doesn’t work well on darker colored materials.

Heat transfer paper can be used on darker colored materials and is done on fabrics.

Weeding

Weeding is the process of cutting around the image that you want to heat transfer so that the shape of the paper doesn’t show up in the background.

If you are printing on a lighter colored material, the transfer layer won’t show up as much as on darker colored materials, but you will still be able to feel where it is when you touch the substrate. 

There are some self-weeding heat transfer papers that can be used with laser printers and that only transfer the printed image.

When using self-weeding heat transfer paper on lighter colored materials, all you will need to do is press the sheet onto whatever material you are designing.

If you are applying self-weeding heat transfer paper to a darker colored material, you will need to use a second sheet of adhesive to apply the design.

In sublimation printing, only the sublimation ink is transferred to the material, making this method naturally self-weeding.

Overall Quality

Sublimation printing creates designs that are longer lasting and have higher resolution than heat transfer designs. 

Feel

Sublimation ink becomes a part of the substrate that it is printed on, giving it a smoother feel than heat transfer.

Heat transfer prints on top of the surface of the substrate, and the edges of the ink can be felt. Heat transfer designs are also prone to cracking and peeling over time.

Which Is Better – Sublimation or Heat Transfer?

Sublimation is better for creating longer lasting designs, while heat transfer is better for printing on darker colors.

If you are looking to print just a few items and don’t want to spend a lot of money, heat transfer is the way to go.

However, if you’re looking to start a business, sublimation printing offers a quicker method that provides more professional results.

Related Questions: 

Is Sublimation More Durable Than Heat Transfer?

Sublimation printing creates more durable results than heat transfer.
With sublimation printing, the ink becomes embedded in the material, becoming a part of the substrate, while with heat transfer the ink is printed on top of the substrate and can eventually crack, peel, or fade. 

Can You Use the Same Heat Press for Heat Transfer and Sublimation?

You can use the same heat press for heat transfer and sublimation.
Heat transfer projects typically require lower heat than sublimation printing, so make sure to use the recommended heat and pressure for the technique you are using.
You will also want to use blowout paper when sublimation printing to keep excess ink off your heat press.

Conclusion 

Sublimation printing and heat transfer are both great techniques for applying graphics.

Sublimation is better for printing on both soft and hard materials and creates longer lasting results. Heat transfer is best for printing on darker colored garments.

Heat transfer paper can be used on many different kinds of fabrics, while sublimation printing is typically limited to materials that contain polyester or have a poly-coating. 

Sublimation printing does cost more than heat transfer. If you’re looking to print a few T-shirts or want to print on darker colored fabric, heat transfer is the way to go.

If you want to print on many different types of materials and want professional, photo-quality products, sublimation printing is for you.

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