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 for purchase.
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 commercial
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 applications.
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