We can’t pretend to be pioneers in sublimation printing, but we do have some valid experience using this fantastic technology while building our jewelry company, Ontic. So we thought we’d share the 5 things we learned from our experience.
Before jumping into the trials and tribulations of sublimation printing, a little context: our first line of jewelry is a magnetic bracelet that can be paired with a custom a geometric pattern design and then attached to the heart of the bracelet. To go from custom designed Icon to something that would hold up in terms of aesthetic and durability, we needed a solution and that’s where sublimation printing came in. Here’s what we learned:
1. Perfect Under Pressure
When we decided sublimation printing perfectly suited our needs, we set out to find quality, affordable equipment. Our first purchase was the Ricoh Aficio SG3110DNw. This standard €200 inkjet printer takes on new purpose when paired with the right paper and ink (more on this later), enabling printed ink to change from a solid to a gas without passing through a liquid phase – the technical definition of sublimation. With a printer under our belt, next up was the heat press, the tool needed to activate the sublimation process. Because this is an industrial tool, and arguably the most important for transferring images from print to substrate, a quality press proved to be tricky living in Milan. In the end, we found distributors willing to ship a Geo Knight JP14 heat press using 220V to Italy. Game on. The trick with the heat press is really finding the right amount of pressure for your print and substrate. Since we were using aluminum, a more robust material than say, glass, with some trial and error we found medium pressure at 400 degrees C was the ideal combination for pressing our design Icons.
2. Timing Is Everything
Beyond pressure and heat, transferring an image to a substrate requires time. So how much time is right for you? Depends on the substrate and image. For us, our designs are geometric and tend to be more intricate than most images. So, to get that level of detail without over-saturation is a balancing act. We played around with times ranging from 10 seconds, where images turned out much too light, to 2 minutes, which proved to produce blobs of color – and not in a good way. When all was said and done, combining medium pressure at 400 degrees C, pressed for a total of 1 minute, continually yielded vivid, scratch resistant Icons that worked interchangeable with our jewelry.
3. No Substitute For a Good Substrate
Consistent time, heat and pressure are only relevant if you have a good substrate. As mentioned above, we chose to work with aluminum in order to create high resolution, light, scratch resistant design Icons. What ultimately makes a substrate printable, be it metal, glass or cotton is a thin coating that enables ink to be absorbed into the substrate during the sublimation process. But don’t be fooled: not all substrates are created equal. We spent months sourcing vendors that could cut aluminum to spec and coat them properly. The cutting proved relatively easy, but the coating was anything but: we suffered chipping, peeling and lack of color during the early days of prototyping. But several months and vendors later and we can confirm hands down that you want your aluminum coated in ChromaLuxe, which they claim rivals any photographic product. We don’t disagree.
4. Not Your Mother’s Ink and Paper
To make your dye-sublimation printer sing, you need a particular paper and ink. For both, we went with Sawgrass, a company that specializes in dye-sublimation. For ink we went with Sublijet-R, which was specifically designed for and a strong reason we went with our printer model. The difference between standard and sublimation ink is the color, viscosity and application. Paper designed for sublimation allows ink to sit on the surface for easy release during the sublimation process. And since the Sublijet-R ink was made for our printer model, and Sawgrass’ True Pix paper was made for their ink, it seemed a logical choice. We weren’t disappointed.
5. Drivers Wanted
With all of the instant gratification that comes from sublimation printing, perhaps the least sexy part is printer drivers. It’s easy to say as drivers are a pain to install and calibrate just for your computer, graphics software and printer. But once you’ve done so, it makes a big difference. Most monitors aren’t set up to show the full gamut of colors. And what you may be looking at in Photoshop, for example, may be totally different when you go to print it out. Drivers do the work of matching what you see with what you print. Our advice is to set them up early and forget about them or else run the risk of being haunted by mismatched colors throughout.
In the end, due to dye-sublimation printing, we are able to take a custom geometric pattern design, print it to aluminum in a way that’s equal parts vivid and durable, and then connect it to our magnetic bracelet in a matter of minutes. Not too shabby. Feel free to create your own custom bracelet here.