A Look at Dye Sublimation
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A Look at Dye Sublimation

Dye sublimation transfer printing has established itself as the preferred technique for printing polyester woven and knitted fabrics in the apparel and home decoration markets.

By SGIA Technical Department

Sublimation printing has developed further still, finding success in a diverse range of printing applications, often on "hard to print" surfaces. That it can be applied on a very small scale as opposed to a traditional plant's large scale makes the process even more attractive.

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  • Since the emergence of digital printing, dye sublimation transfer printing has evolved rapidly, and it's easy to see why: Low investment costs, no or low set-up costs, short lead times, brilliant colors and high detail printing, and a straightforward, non-polluting process. As ever, of course, there are also limitations: The substrate to be sublimated upon must be polyester or polymer-coated, and should be white. One can also sublime to some other polymers including Nylon 66, polyvinyl, polyethylene and fluoro-polymers, including Tedlar®, and Teflon® protective films and coatings.

    Sublimation refers to the physical process through which a material changes from a solid to a gas without first becoming a liquid. The basic dye sublimation process uses special heat-sensitive dyes to print graphics and text onto special transfer paper. The paper is then placed on a "sublimatable" item and both are placed into a heat press.

    When the heating cycle is completed, the image on the paper has been transferred to the item and has actually become a part of the surface. Run your finger across the surface of a sublimated plate, and you will feel nothing. At high temperatures, the solid dye converts into a gas without ever becoming a liquid. The same high temperature opens the pores of the polymer and allows the gas to enter. When the temperature drops, the pores close and the gas reverts to a solid state. It has now become a part of the polymer.

    Desktop versus Wider Inkjet Printers
    Suitable printer types for dye sublimation garment work can range from small desktop toner- or inkjet-based printers to medium-format inkjet printers. The advantage of a wider format is the ability to increase the production rate of printing. Typically, inks and supplies for desktop units are higher priced than the higher capacity bulk ink systems in the wider-format inkjet printers. Third-party inks are only compatible with certain inkjet head makes and models.

    There are three popular variants of dye sub ink: Water-based ink, solvent-based ink and oil-based ink. The transfer application for each of these inks is the same, using a coated transfer paper to release the ink efficiently. The main difference is the carrier for the ink's pigment.

    Some manufacturers have OEM dye sublimation inks available for specific printer models. Other third-party dye sub inks are compatible with certain printer models depending on the make and model of the inkjet head used in the printer. Users of third-party ink solutions will have to make sure of ink compatibility and ink supplier support for any printing issues that arise.

    Besides the standard CMYK colors of ink, other colors are available from some manufacturers: Neon yellow, neon pink, neon green, orange, red, green, blue, turquoise, violet and various densities of black.

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    Paper Considerations
    There are several things to consider when choosing a transfer paper. First, make sure the coating is compatible with the ink technology being used. Many manufacturers make different papers that are compatible with either oil-, solvent- or water-based inks. The goal of the coating is to minimize ink absorption by holding as much ink as possible in the coating. There are two types of transfer papers now available, as well as differing thicknesses.

    The first type of sublimation paper is High Release paper. This paper is engineered to achieve a very high percentage of dye release from the paper into your substrate. This paper works really well for fabrics, and allows you to achieve a very vibrant image quality on fabric substrates such as apparel and fabric-covered blank sublimation products (e.g., mouse pads).

    The second type of paper is tacky or thermal paper. This paper is specifically engineered for fabrics, as those materials have a high tendency to ghost. Ghosting occurs when you sublimate a product, and the sublimation paper shifts as the heat press opens. This causes a second image slightly off center from the first; this happens as the sublimation dyes off-gas, because everything is still hot. Tacky paper is closed in the heat press and tacks to the fabric, so that when the press is opened, it cannot shift. That allows you to peel off the transfer under controlled circumstances, for a perfect image.

    The growth of sublimation printing has relied on the prevalence of polyester and other sublimation receptive materials and coatings. Polyester fabrics comprise a wide range of apparel items including sports shirts, jackets, coats, blouses, shirts, pants and dresses, in addition to mouse pads and caps. Polyester liquid and powders coatings cover metals, wood, plastics, ceramic, leather, glass and stone.

    In addition to polyester, sublimation and disperse dye can also color some polyamide, polyethylene and polyvinyl polymers. Many suppliers carry a wide variety of promotional and gift products featuring sublimation printable coated aluminum, fiberboard, hardboard, cement board, fiberglass and plastic items. Items include T-shirts for sublimation reception, beverage insulators, polyester calendars, polyester patches, cloth banners, apparel, auto upholstery, flags, pennants, banners, building wraps, gaming table covers, sails, tablecloths, carpet, speaker covers, fabric displays and fabric covered structures, tabletops, clock faces, skis, ceramic tile, ceramic plates, mugs, and tiles, appliance fascia, fire resistant plastic, backlit signs, hardwood flooring, coated medium density fiberboard (MDF) hard board coasters and clipboards, metal panels and wood surfaces.

    The opportunities go on and on.

    The chart presented here is intended to serve as an aid when implementing dye sublimation, and is not all-inclusive. SGIA strives to be the preeminent information resource for specialty imaging professionals. Contact us with any questions about the materials presented - at sgia@sgia.org.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, Garment Edition Spring 2014 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2014 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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