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What is Inkjet Dye Sublimation- Part 2: Rigid Panels and Hard Surfaces
Written by Ordant on August 12, 2019
What is Inkjet Dye Sublimation

Part 1 of this series discussed the inkjet dye sublimation process used to decorate textiles. This post describes how inkjet dye sublimation is used to produce durable full-color images on rigid panels of wood, metal, acrylic, ceramics, and glass as well as pre-made sublimation-ready products such as ornaments, mugs, tiles, and plaques.

How it Works

Heat-activated dye inks are printed in reverse onto a coated transfer paper that is designed to release inks into the final substrate. The sublimation process occurs when the printed paper is pressed onto the rigid panel in a heat press at high temperatures (e.g. 400ºF) for a predetermined length of time.

The heat converts the dyes into a gas that permeates the polymer coating on non-porous rigid substrates such as metal and acrylic. The dyes create bright, vibrant colors and form a durable bond with the polymers in the coating, Protective topcoats aren’t required to keep the inks from running, peeling off, or getting scratched.  

Sublimation Equipment for Hard Substrates 

The printers and heat presses available for decorating rigid materials are available in desktop and wide-format sizes. 

Desktop sublimation printers can print on 8.5 x 11 in., 11 x 17, and 13 x 19 in. sheets of sublimation transfer papers. Depending on the type of heat press used, these papers can be transferred to sublimation-ready products (“blanks”) such as mousepads, coasters, acrylic plaques, photo tiles, ornaments, jewelry, luggage tags, mugs, caps, socks, and more.  

The smaller-format models are popular with home-based businesses and makers who sell small batches of products at craft shows or through online marketplaces. Photo labs, sign shops, and print-for-pay companies sometimes use the smaller equipment to learn about dye sublimation before investing in the wide-format printers and heat presses for higher volume production.  

Companies such as Conde Systems and Sawgrass make it easy for solopreneurs without design or printing experience to use sublimation blanks to make personalized products that can be sold on Etsy and other online marketplaces.  (Video: Introduction to Dye Sublimation Heat Transfer Imprinting)

A variety of smaller format heat presses are available. Some heat presses have flatbeds (platens) from 15 x 15 in., 16 x 20 in., and 16 x 24 in. Specialty heat presses or multi-function heat presses transfer dye-sub prints to mugs, caps, glassware, nametags, license plates, and sneakers.  

Wide-format sublimation transfer printers are designed to print exclusively on rolls of sublimation transfer papers from 24 to 98 in. 

The printed transfer papers enable print shops to decorate both textiles and rigid substrates. Large-formal panels are available to make photo and art prints, decorative murals, and indoor or outdoor signage and architectural decor. Wide-format transfer printers can also be set up to make a higher volume of prints for smaller items. 

Companies that make wide-format sublimation transfer printers include Sawgrass (Virtuoso), Mutoh, Mimaki, and Roland. 

Some wide-format sublimation printers, such as the Roland TexArt 640 shown in this video are designed to print exclusively on a range of sublimation transfer papers, including multifunction papers for both textiles and rigid substrates or specialty papers for textiles only or rigid substrates only. (Video: Product Walkthrough Roland TexArt 640 Dye Sublimation Printer)

Wide-format heat presses with various capabilities are available from Geo. Knight and Monti Antonio. For example, Geo. Knight 931 TRITON heat transfer press can handle rigid panels up to 4 x 8 ft. as well as banners, garments, and thicker materials such as carpets, mats, wood, sheet metal, and ceramic tiles. 

Inks

Inkjet dye-sublimation inks use dyes that don’t fully brighten until exposed to heat. When the dye sublimation inks are printed onto transfer papers, the inks don’t fully bond to the paper and the colors appear muted.  As the heat press applies heat and pressure to the transfer paper and polymer-coated rigid substrate or blank, the inks are released from the paper and the colors in the dyes are activated.

When the dyes are sublimated into the polymer coating, they form a layer that both decorates and protects the hard-surface item. 

The formulation and viscosities of sublimation inks vary, depending on the type of printhead the printer uses.Most dye-sublimation inks developed for polyester textiles also work with polymer-coated rigid substrates, but the processing steps will vary.

The supplier of the rigid panels or sublimation blanks will provide specific step-to-step instructions for sublimating images to the type of product you are using. This usually includes using non-stick protective sheets to keep the heat-press platens free of excess ink.  

Small-format and entry-level wide-format sublimation printers typically use CMYK inks.

Wide-format sublimation printers used to create photographic images typically use 8-color ink sets that add light cyan and light magenta inks and different densities of black inks to the CMYK ink set. Artists, interior decorators, or sign creators who are less concerned with smooth tonal gradations and fine detail, may choose a sublimation insket that includes fluorescent colors or the expanded range of colors provided by inksets that include orange and blue inks.

White inks are not available for dye-sublimation printing. Instead, many rigid panels and sublimation blanks for photo products have a white print surface to optimize color reproduction and image quality. Wood or metal panels without a white-coated surface enable users to take advantage of the substrate’s natural look. The brushed aluminum or natural wood surfaces shine though the printed image and change the overall look of the image.

Substrates

Transfer Papers. Multi-purpose sublimation transfer papers can be used to transfer images to garments, textiles, or hard substrates. 

Papers optimized for transferring images to the specialized coatings on rigid substrates are available from Beaver Paper, Breathing Color, Epson, Texgraff, and Neenah Coldenhove. These papers are designed to resist curling and warping in the heat press and to maximize ink transfer and image sharpness when transferring vivid color photographs to metals and wood.    

Rigid Panels: Large-format rigid panels for dye-sublimation printing are available from companies such as ChromaLuxe, Breathing Color, and Duraluxe. Sizes range from 3 x 8 in. up to 4 ft. x 8 ft. 

ChromaLuxe makes dye-sublimatable panels from aluminum, steel, MDF, maple-veneer, fiber-reinforced plastic, and tempered hardboard.

Artists and photographers like ChromaLuxe photo panels because they offer a high level of resistance to surface abrasion, humidity, atmospheric ozone, and contact with water, ChromaLuxe photo, and art prints can be displayed without being framed behind glass or acrylic, laminated, or face-mounted to acrylic. Aluminum photo panels supplied with the ChromaLuxe EXT coating can be displayed outdoors.  

Designers use ChromaLuxe products to make permanent display signage, museum exhibits, wall murals, dry-erase boards, decorative flooring, and tabletops.

In this 35-minute video, representatives from Chromluxe and Roland show how dye-sublimation panels are being used to create durable, unframed decor and signage in settings such as hospitals, offices, and restaurants. (Video: Commercial Dye-Sublimation Applications of Chromaluxe) 

This ChromaLuxe video demonstrates the ChromaLuxe Metal Prints sublimation process (Video: ChromaLuxe Metal Prints Sublimation Process)

Decoral’s Duraluxe aluminum dye-sublimatable panels for architecture, decor, and outdoor signs offer a five-year warranty for outdoor display. Users can choose to sublimate inks to powder-coated panels that have gloss, matte, or surface textures that add visual appeal. 

Breathing Color, a leading supplier of materials for fine art and photography printing offers Allure dye-sublimatable metal panels and kits to make ready-to-hang frames for metal prints.

Sublimation Blanks: Thousands of sublimation-ready products are available from distributors such as Conde Systems and Best Blanks. Products include aluminum bottles, refrigerator magnets, smartphone cases, bracelets, wine cups, beer mugs, glass cutting boards, coasters, trophies, awards, and photo panels. Sublimation-ready garments and home goods are also available, including baby towels, pillow covers, backpacks, flip flops, T-shirts, and onesies.

Prepress

One of the biggest challenges in dye-sublimation printing is achieving predictable, consistent color. That’s because colors can shift when the sublimation ink becomes a gas when heat or pressure is applied. The final color results are affected by the inkset, transfer paper, printer settings, heat temperature, time and amount of pressure, and type of substrate.

Successful producers of sublimation prints experiment to find the combination of settings, inks, and substrates that work best for a specific product. They document and repeat these settings for future jobs.

The RIP software supplied with wide-format sublimation printers includes color profiles for the printer’s inksets, recommended transfer papers, and commonly used substrates (e.g Chromaluxe panels or a specific type of sublimation blank). 

Newcomers to the design, printing, and the sublimation process can use the Sawgrass Creative Studio. This cloud-based suite of design tools and product templates connects with the Print Manager RIP and color management software supplied with the 8.5-inch, 13-inch, and 24-inch Sawgrass Virtuoso sublimation inkjet printers. 

Finishing and Display

Sublimatable panels and blanks coated and cut to shape or size by the product manufacturer. The pre-applied coatings not only determine the gloss level of the photo print, but also the level of resistance to UV light, abrasion, water, ozone, and other chemicals that can affect the dyes. 

The suppliers of panels and blanks will also supply different types of hardware for hanging, mounting, or framing the prints. 

Advances in Technology

Significant advances have already been made in the variety and durability of hard-surface products that can be decorated with sublimation. Continuing innovations in sublimation inks, transfer papers, and coatings will continue to make it possible to achieve higher-quality, more durable, and more predictable results on an even wider range of products. 

Follow Us on Social Media

This post is part of a series we are publishing to help you understand how the many types of analog and digital printing processes are evolving to meet the changing requirements of customers today.

Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post is published. It will discuss wide-format inkjet printers and inks for textiles other than polyester fabrics.

Related Posts:

What is offset printing?
What is Screen Printing?
What is Flexographic Printing?
Digital Press Technology-Part 1: Electrophotography
Digital Press Technology - Part 2: Production Inkjet Printing
Wide-Format Inking Printing - Part 1: Roll-to-Roll Printers
Wide-Format Inkjet Printing - Part 2: Flatbed & Hybrid Printer
Wide-Format Inkjet Technology- Part 3: Grand Format Printers 
Inkjet Sublimation Printing- Part 1: Textiles and Soft Signage

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