Dye sublimation printing is a great way to get beautiful, professional-quality designs and decorations onto your polyester clothes and other poly-based surfaces. It requires a special heat press machine to apply the images, and special printers to print the images, and of course, you need the materials you want to print on. All in all, it’s a lot of time, money, and resources spent to make a pretty project—so you really want to make sure it turns out the way you want!
One of the most common disappointments for a new sublimation printing enthusiast is the brightness of your printing results. But you don’t need to fear, we have the solutions to all your sublimation printer-related woes.
Sublimation results will vary depending on a number of factors, including the color of fabric you’re using, and what it’s made out of. But once you know what works best and what you need to avoid, you’ll be able to get much brighter colors.
First things first, to understand what materials and techniques will improve your sublimation printing, you need to understand how dye sublimation printing works. It’s study time, folks!
What is Sublimation?
Although you can find heat presses that can handle both heat transfer and sublimation printing, the two are actually very different things. Heat transfers are very literally ‘stickers’ made out of vinyl, with an adhesive that requires heat to activate it. Once you’ve applied them to your surface, they will stay for a long time in ideal circumstances, but they can be damaged, and can even start to peel off in some situations. That’s why heat presses, while all types of great, are sometimes no match for a sublimation printer.
Sublimation printing does not leave any edges that can be peeled off. It doesn’t even have its own surface that can be damaged. The result of sublimation printing is a design that is now part of your chosen fabric/surface, with the image sublimated into the fabrics.
It cannot be removed and it cannot be damaged (unless the surface itself is damaged, of course). How can such a magical thing happen, you ask? Well, all can be answered by delving into the definition of the word ‘sublimation’.
To sublimate is to pass from a solid state directly into a vapour state. It describes the process of a solid ink turning straight into a gas, without becoming a liquid first. That’s why dye sublimation printing produces some of the highest print quality available—the ink is more than just printed, it becomes fused with the finished product. The printed image is also less at risk of becoming dull or faded, as ink typically retains its qualities for a long time.
When you heat the special sublimation ink with a heat press, it turns into a vapor and attaches itself to the polyester fibers (or polyester coating) of your desired surface. It infuses itself into the material and turns back into a solid once it has cooled.
The result is a design that doesn’t add an extra layer and doesn’t feel any different from the rest of the fabric/material, meaning you won’t be able to spot the coated side just by touching it. Sublimation printers can actually be any inkjet printer, you just need to make sure you’re printing sublimation ink onto sublimation paper for it to work correctly. There’s no need to change your printer settings, either.
Since you already needed to buy a vinyl cutter and a heat press, along with plenty of vinyl and sublimation transfer paper, it’s quite a help that you don’t need to buy specialized printing equipment too.
What Kind of Heat Press Do I Need For Sublimation?
Sublimation printing requires two main things: heat and pressure. It needs heat between 350-400ºF, and it needs a stable and even application of pressure. If your heat press can do these two things, it will be great for sublimation printing.
However, if your machine cannot or struggles to reach and maintain heat levels above 350ºF, you will not be able to use it for sublimation printing because it simply won’t work without more heat and consequently, a higher temperature.
Similarly, if your machine does not have its own feature for applying pressure (for example the Cricut Easy Press 2), you will struggle to get good results. You would need to keep the pressure at the right level and stay completely still to avoid the ink smudging and blurring.
That’s why it’s a good idea to pick up a specialized sublimation print heat press such as this Vevor model that can work on all kinds of fabrics, ink, and transfer paper. This printer has all the features you could need from most printers and is very easy to operate, so it doesn’t need an entire production team to be able to use it.
Why is my Sublimation Color Dull?
There are a whole host of different things to consider when answering this question, so let’s start getting through them and help you learn why your sublimation prints appear to be dull.
Wrong side of the paper
Sublimation inks are printed onto sublimation paper, also known as transfer paper, but there is a correct side to print onto. If you print onto the incorrect side, your design will look faded, both on the paper and when it is applied to your project.
To fix this, make sure you print on the correct side of the transfer paper! Most papers will have marks that let you know which is which, but if not, you want to print on the bright white side of the paper.
Firstly, sublimation printing is essentially like dying the material you’re working with. This means the background or base color you’re printing onto is a very important factor.
If you put pastel pink hair dye onto dark brown hair, nothing is going to happen. Likewise, if you put pastel pink sublimation ink onto a dark brown shirt… the resulting color is not going to be very bright at all.
Instead, printing brown sublimation dye onto a pastel pink shirt—now, that would work super well. The trick is just knowing that the base color matters, everything from there you can work out naturally. We all know what colors are dark and what are light, and what is likely to show up brighter, etc. Knowing your colors before attempting to produce an image ensures that you will pick the right ink and the right settings for your printer.
Sublimation ink permeates itself into polyester. That is how it works, and that is the only way it works; it isn’t able to attach itself to anything other than polyester material. This means you cannot sublimation print onto 100% cotton shirts, for example.
It also means that poly-blends (for example 75% poly and 25% cotton), will result in a duller result than 100% polyester. And the results on 50% poly and 50% cotton fabric fibers will be even more dull. Additionally, when using sublimation with hard materials, you need to make sure it has a poly-coating, or it won’t work at all.
This means that you may need to pick a different kind of fabric for your printer or heat press to produce a non-dull image. Choosing high-quality ink is important too.
Too much heat and pressure
Whether you’re working with a heat press that can apply pressure, or are applying it yourself, you could be applying too much. Too much pressure can cause the ink to blur and affect your print quality, and too much heat can cause the colors to fade and grow dull.
Too much heat could be applied either through high temperature or through pressing for an extended amount of time. Overheated sublimation will result in the black ink turning brown, and white/light prints looking yellowed on the finished garment.
How colors look on-screen vs. printed
This is not as much a problem that needs to be fixed, as it is something to be aware of. When we view our images and digital source file on a computer screen, it’s backlit and the colors look nice and bright.
After they’ve been sublimated and printed, depending on your settings, paper type, and a number of other things, they can look a little dull or darker because they are no longer backlit. In addition, all the colors may have undergone slight changes during the printing process.
It might not be a big difference, but it can be annoying if the color shift changes the overall look of the final product.
Can You Make Sublimation Color Brighter?
There are ways to alleviate this, but you’ll need to learn a lot about how colors change and how you can use your software to adjust the color profile for printing. If you already know how to change a color’s CMYK value, you have a head start! CMYK printers are helpful here, and they’re readily available on Amazon.
The most simple thing to try is making your colors look slightly lighter and brighter than you want them on your computer, and once they darken a little during the sublimation process, you should have the color you want on the finished t-shirt.
Let’s say you want to print an image with a bright royal blue color. In order to achieve the color you like, go into your RIP software of choice and pick the brightest royal blue you can find: it will grow darker during production.
For the best sublimation results, try to tick all of these boxes:
- Make sure your base material is bright white or very lightly colored.
- Work with 100% polyester fabric or surfaces with a poly-coating.
- Print your sublimation ink onto the correct side of the sublimation paper.
- Adjust your colors before printing to make sure they still appear bright after sublimating.
- Apply the right temperature and amount of pressure for the right amount of time.
Next, follow our steps below to make the results even better.
Making Sublimation Brighter Step-by-step
You’re now prepared to get started with our full tutorial to brighten your sublimation. Follow along and enjoy the results!
Step 1 – Choose your material
Sublimation printing is like life: we can’t always have everything that we want. If you want to focus on getting your colors as bright and high quality as possible, you’ll find that some of your other choices will become limited. For fabrics, you will get the ultimate results from white 100% polyester fabric.
Lower poly content and darker colors will give duller results, but can still be used at your discretion. For other surfaces, you need to make sure it has a good poly-coating, and white is again the best color.
Step 2 – Printing your design
Adjusting colors can be a tricky business. It can require a deep understanding of how colors work, and how the sublimation process changes them. As a first step, you can try getting your design to look exactly the way you want on your computer screen, and then make it all light and brighter by a few levels.
The result will look over saturated on the computer screen, but don’t worry! When you’re happy and ready to press print on your inkjet printer, make sure you’re printing onto the correct side of the sublimation paper. You can look for a mark that will show which is the right side, or compare the two and choose the one that is a brighter white color.
Step 3 – Heat pressing
Once you’re all ready to apply heat, make sure you know what temperature it should be, and how long you should press for. In terms of pressure, ‘light to mild’ pressure is fine for sublimation.
If your heat press can do this, it will likely be set up to an acceptable level already. You will find temperatures and times on the internet, or included with the products you use. As an example, 100% poly fabric should be pressed for 50-60 seconds at 380-400ºF.
If you follow these steps and guidelines, you should be able to get great results and bright colors with your sublimation printing. Just remember: the higher the polyester content, the better, and the lighter the base color, the better. And always remember to print on the correct side of the paper!
If you try all of these things and still are not happy with the brightness of your colors, you may need to get ready for some hardcore studying. Learning how to properly adjust colors with software before printing should help you to get closer to your desired result.
If you want some serious brightness for a certain project, you might be better off using heat transfer vinyls instead!