One question that both beginning and seasoned sublimators often have is what material can you sublimate on. Polyester is typically the most obvious answer. However, many people are surprised to learn that there is actually a wide variety of sublimation material that readily accepts sublimation ink.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common (and some lesser-known) materials that you can use for sublimation printing.
A Brief Overview of How Sublimation Works
If we want to understand what materials we can use for sublimation printing, it’s important to have a basic grasp of how sublimation printing works.
The simplest explanation of sublimation printing is the use of heat to transfer ink from one object to another.
When you put a design that was printed using sublimation ink together with a sublimation blank, three things happen:
- The sublimation blank material expands slightly and opens up microscopic pores.
- The sublimation ink is rapidly heated and changes into a gas.
- The blank absorbs the ink gas.
The absorption of the ink gas results in a permanent, high-quality design transfer. As the blank cools, the microscopic pores or fibers close up and permanently lock the ink into place. This is why properly sublimated products don’t fade or wash away. Ink is embedded into the sublimation material on a molecular level. Other printing methods typically apply ink to the surface of a material. This usually results in fading over time.
What Material Can You Sublimate On
Not all materials work well for sublimation printing. In fact, some materials don’t work at all.
They key is to find materials that can open up during the transfer process in order to accept and lock the ink gas into place. Remember – we’re looking for materials that will fuse with the ink on a molecular level.
By far, the best materials to use for sublimation printing are polymers or items that have been coated with a polymer.
The word Polymer is a term used to describe a type of synthetic material that is made out of large molecules. It is a type of plastic that has a chemical structure that is especially receptive to sublimation printing.
The most common polymer used for sublimation printing is polyester. Polyester is extremely common and is found in a wide variety of fabrics and products. When it comes to sublimation, polyester is the gold standard. 100% polyester blanks will almost always sublimate beautifully and easily.
In fact, many different sublimation blanks are coated with a polyester polymer material, allowing for consistently high quality results.
That being said, sticking to 100% polyester can be limiting, and there are plenty of other sublimation materials that produce stunning results.
The following table is a guide on commonly found materials that can be used for sublimation printing. It’s a good start to know what material can you sublimate on
|100% Polyester Fabric||You’ll have a hard time finding a material with a higher print quality than 100% polyester. Tightly knit polyester fabric tends to have better results than looser knit fabric.|
|Felt||The most common felt material is 100% polyester, which makes for great sublimation transfers. Watch out for real wool felt though – it will not work.|
|Polymer Coated Hardboard||There are a few different brands out there, but Unisub is by far the most well-known – and for a good reason. Unisub hardboard is a premium, high-gloss material that gives professional results every time. If you can’t get your hands on Unisub, you can actually use whiteboard purchased from Lowes or Home Depot. It won’t give the same level of quality, but you can get some pretty good results at the right settings.|
|Polymer Coated Wood||There are a few methods of preparing wood for sublimation printing. You can use thermal lamination paper as a coating, or even a coat of wood sanding sealer or polycrylic. Be prepared for your sublimation paper to stick to the wood after transferring. The paper can be removed by saturating it with water and rubbing it off. For our blanks, we’ve developed a proprietary polyester coating that produces a consistently beautiful matte finish without any sticking.|
|Thermal Lamination Paper||This material accepts sublimation ink but can be tricky to use. A lot of sublimatiors swear by it, but it can be hard to get consistently good results.|
|Ribbon||Most ribbons are made out of polyester, so sublimation usually works great!|
|Acrylic||Acrylic can be hit or miss. Due to the thermal properties of acrylic, there is a tendency for it to melt. However, if you can get the settings right, acrylic can accept sublimation ink and look great.|
|Vinyl||Just like acrylic, vinyl can be tricky due to the tendency to melt. However, it readily accepts sublimation ink and produces some pretty stunning results.|
|Nylon||You can sublimate on nylon. There are many different types of nylon manufacturing processes, and you may not get consistent results. As always, it’s best to test on a spare piece before mass production.|
|Faux Leather||This is a hidden gem for many sublimators! You would be surprised at the number of products that are made using faux leather (think notebooks, purses, etc). These items typically accept sublimation ink very well.|
Can I Sublimate on Cotton?
Cotton is a natural fiber that does not accept sublimation ink. When washed, the transfer will wash away.
There are a lot of sprays or other products on the market that may advertise the ability to sublimate on cotton. These are generally a form of polymer coating that are often untested and are potentially dangerous when used in clothing.
Conclusion – Polyester Reigns Supreme… But Don’t Overlook the Alternatives
It’s pretty clear that polyester and blanks that use a specially formulated polymer coating work best. However, testing out new materials can be a really exciting and fun process. You never know what material can you sublimate On until you give it a try!