Many crafters buy pre-printed sublimation transfers to press, but unless you are buying them in bulk or from a local source, the shipping costs can add up.
If you have started creating your own designs, or if you subscribe to a graphic design collection, it may be time to consider having your own at-home printing setup.
To print a sublimation image at home, you will need software to print your design, a sublimation printer (or a converted inkjet printer), and special ink and paper. Mirror the design, so that any lettering is reversed. Colors will appear dull on paper, but will become more vibrant once heat-pressed.
In this post, we won't get into the creation of the design itself, so if you are still looking for an image to print or want to get started creating your own, head over to our Design category.
Once you have an image that you're happy with, it's time to print it out, so that you can press the design onto your finished product.
To do this, you'll need a few things. One is some sort of software that will allow you to send the design from your computer to a printer.
This doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, you can paste the image into something like a Microsoft Word document, and print from there.
But if you want to do any customizing, like adding text to the design or resizing it to fit a template, you may want to use graphic design software.
There are several good options for this that are free, or that you may already have. [Canva, Cricut's DesignSpace software, or Adobe Illustrator will all allow you to edit or resize a design.
One option we've been happy with is Silhouette Studio, made for Silhouette cutting machines – there is a free version of the software available on their site, and you don't need to have a Silhouette machine to use it.
Each of these programs will have its quirks, depending on its intended use – if you currently use a program for other crafting projects, see if you can also use it for sublimation designs.
You will want your final image to have a resolution of 300dpi (300 dots per inch), to produce a high-quality print.
Equipment and Supplies
On to the printing equipment…
In order for the printed design to transfer to the final product, it must be printed with special sublimation ink and paper.
Sublimation ink must be used in a printer with special print heads that will not heat-activate the ink. You can either invest in a sublimation printer, or find an inkjet printer model that uses those heads and allows the use of sublimation ink instead of regular ink. (The Epson EcoTank series of printers are a popular option for converting to sublimation printing.)
Sublimation paper is also specifically made for this process, and will release the ink under heat and pressure, transferring it onto the final product.
Sublimation paper is thicker than ordinary copy paper. For best results, feed one or two sheets at a time in to rear feed of the printer. If your printer has a touch screen for settings, you can set the paper quality there to premium presentation – matte.
Sending to the Printer
Once you are ready to print the final image (or you have pasted a copy into a Microsoft Word document), you are ready to send your design to the printer.
- Select the correct printer. If nothing is happening after you click “Print”, check to see that you have selected the right printer, and that it is powered on and connected to the network.
- Printer settings:
Paper size: Choose the page size you are printing to.
Paper Type: Premium Presentation Matte or similar
Uncheck high-speed or bidirectional printing options,
Print Preview – Checking this option will give you a preview of what the printed page will look like.
- Mirror the design.
When printing the design onto the sublimation paper, you will want the print to be reversed, or mirrored. This is especially true if there is any lettering. Then, when you place the paper – image facing down – onto the item you will be pressing, your design will reverse again, to appear in the correct direction.
Mirroring can be done either in the software, or in the printer settings (but don't select it in both places, or they will cancel each other out!).
We like to leave the mirroring as a setting in a saved printer profile, so that there's one less thing to remember.
(There's nothing like pressing a great-looking shirt or tumbler, only to realize that your words are backwards!)
Tip – Try running a test print of the design to your regular home printer, on regular copy paper and using only black ink.
If you do this with your first projects, it will save you ink and time, down the road: you will gain a better idea of how to size your prints (hold the printed test design up in front of the item you are going to press, and you'll catch common mistakes like forgetting to mirror the image.
The Printed Transfer
Once your design is printed, it may look a bit different than what you're expecting.
Why Does My Printed Design Look So Dull?
You've created a great design in the perfect colors, you've checked all of your printer settings, remembered to mirror the image, and the final print is the perfect size for your project.
You go to grab the print from the printer tray, and…ugh. What are these colors? This doesn't match your design at all!
Well, most likely, it's what hasn't happened…yet.
Sublimation ink is actually a heat-activated dye. The colors you see on the printed page will appear dull and dingy, because they haven't yet been exposed to heat and pressure.
Once you press your design onto the final product, the colors will become brighter.
If your colors are still dull after pressing the design onto the finished item, you may need to increase the temperature of your heat press or oven, or increase the amount of time spent pressing.
If you are getting odd color results (like greens and browns where there should be black), it could also be the result of either “overbaking” or “underbaking” – investing in an infrared thermometer will help you make adjustments to the temperature of your heat press.
Ready to Press?
If you have printed multiple smaller designs onto the same sheet of paper, you can use scissors to separate any designs you won't be using yet – you don't want those to be exposed to the heat, because they can transfer ink.
Place the printed transfer face-down onto the item you will be pressing, or wrap solid items tightly with the printed side of the transfer touching the surface of the object. You can use heat tape to hold the paper in place.
Protect the top plate of your press from ink blowout by covering the transfer with a sheet of butcher paper.
Refer to any press instructions, check the temperature of your press or oven, and press your item.
When it is time to remove the item from the press, you'll want to let the paper cool a bit before removing it, because the dye is still transferring when at high temperatures, and the print may smear.
It doesn't have to cool for long, just get it close to being comfortable to touch, and you should be good to go!
Your transfer paper should now look like a ghost of its former self – very faded. Don't be tempted to use it again; most of your ink should have transferred to your project.
Besides, now you have your own printing operation – you have limitless possibilities for customizing and printing products. You can even sell your sublimation transfers to other crafters!
Have fun! And join us in our free facebook group: Sublimation Connection – we'd love to see what you're making!