Soon after we dove into the world of sublimation, we asked ourselves, ‘Can you sublimate on wood?’ Luckily, the answer is yes! Sublimation on wood is not only possible, but it opens up a whole new world of beautiful and unique products. In this article we’ll take a look at a few different ways you can sublimate on wood.
Method 1 – Bare Wood With No Coating
You may be surprised to learn that it’s technically possible to sublimate on wood without any additional coating or prep. We don’t really recommend this approach, since the results can vary and the resulting image often comes out faded.
That being said, this approach may work for you if you’re using large, blocky graphics and don’t need a lot of detail (for example: large single-color letters may work).
As with all sublimation blanks, it’s important to make sure that you remove as much moisture from the wood as possible before sublimation. Moisture is always the enemy when it comes to sublimation, and wood naturally contains a lot of moisture. Make sure you pre-press your blanks before applying your transfer. You’ll be surprised at how much steam comes out!
Method 2 – Thermal Laminating Wood For Sublimation
Using thermal lamination paper on top of wood is a very popular way of sublimation on wood. Most thermal lamination paper works surprisingly well for sublimation. We tried the Walmart brand lamination paper and found that it did a respectable job adhering to the wood and produced some bright colors once sublimated.
To use the thermal lamination method, cut the lamination pouch so that you have a single sheet of plastic film. You’ll notice that one side has a rough texture – this is the side that should touch the wood. Press the lamination paper onto the wood using your heat press at moderate pressure, 400F for around 30 seconds.
Your wood should now be ready for sublimation. We did ours at 400F for 40 seconds. We didn’t have any issues with the sublimation paper sticking to the lamination paper, making it a relatively easy process. The resulting product should be somewhat glossy with good color.
One of the drawbacks to using thermal lamination sheets for wood sublimation is that the plastic from the lamination paper looks a bit… well… plastic-y. Some people like this look since it offers a bit more gloss than the other methods, but we kind of feel like this method distracts from the natural beauty of wood. It looks good, but the surface feels more like plastic than wood.
Method 3 – Using Polycrylic to Sublimate on Wood
Another popular DIY wood sublimation method is to coat your wood with a layer of polycrylic. Polycrylic is a water-based, polymer coating that is commonly used for woodworking projects. It leaves a clear protective finish on wood and is easy to apply.
To use polycrylic for sublimation, coat your wood with a light layer of polycrylic and allow it to fully dry and cure. For best results, you’ll want to wait the full recommended curing time, which can be up to a few days depending on humidity and temperature.
Once coated and cured, pre-press the wood to remove any moisture. Then use medium to firm pressure to press your transfer on the wood for around 60 seconds at 400F.
Be prepared for your paper to stick to the wood. This is the most significant disadvantage to using polycrylic. That being said, there are ways to remove the paper that is now seemingly glued to your blank!
To remove stuck paper, saturate the paper with water. You’ll likely need a good amount of water. In fact, we had to immerse our blank in water when trying this to fully saturate the paper. Once completely wet, rub the paper off slowly with your fingers or with a sponge. If you’re lucky, the paper will come off in large chunks. Otherwise, you’ll be rubbing and scrubbing for a few minutes to get it all off.
It’s important to get all the paper off. Sometimes the paper can be hard to see when wet, but will dry to an opaque white.
Finally, once completely dry, we recommend using a topcoat, such as paste wax or lacquer, for best results. It’s always amazing to see how much a topcoat can bring out the colors. We use paste wax because it’s cheap and very easy to apply.
Method 4 – Sanding Sealer: The Better Alternative to Polycrylic
This has been one of our favorite discoveries! Polycrylic is kind of expensive and almost always results in the sublimation paper sticking to your wood. However, Sanding Sealer is cheaper, easier to apply, and less likely to stick when compared to polycrylic.
The steps for using sanding sealer are pretty identical for polycrylic. The key differences are that sanding sealer is much thinner and can be applied as a very light coat. You don’t need to saturate your blank with the sealer – using a light coat will give you the best results. Think if it more like applying a stain. Get a sponge or cloth that’s wet with sanding sealer and casually wipe it on your blank.
One of the benefits of sanding sealer is that it dries much faster than polycrylic. You can usually apply the sealer and be ready to sublimate in less than 30 minutes.
Your sublimation paper will probably still stick to the wood, but you’ll notice that it sticks a lot less than polycrylic.
Bonus: Additional Tips for Making Your Own Sublimation Wood Blanks
- Choose a wood that is light in color. We use premium Baltic Birch Plywood for all of our wood sublimation blanks because it has a light, consistent color, close grain pattern, and tolerates the heat from the heat press.
- Spend some time preparing your wood before coating. Make sure the wood is sanded and is smooth. We sand ours to 220 grit before applying a coating. The smoother the wood is, the less likely you are to run into issues with the sublimation paper sticking to the coating.
- When using a coating, less is more. You don’t need to apply several coats or even a single heavy coat. More coating means more opportunity for sticking, and it doesn’t improve the image quality. Plus, you’ll save money by using less of your coating!
- Have realistic expectations. We think that sublimation on wood looks great, but you likely aren’t going to get the level of detail that you would on 100% polyester fabric or Unisub white hardboard. Remember that you still want to see some of the natural beauty of your wood.
- Moisture is your enemy. Wood is a natural product and has a surprising amount of water in it. Just like in other sublimation materials, water can ruin your transfer. It’s always best to pre-press your wood before sublimating!
Don’t want to do it yourself?
We’ve developed our own custom polymer coating that sublimates beautifully without sticking. The result is a natural satin finish on the wood that looks and feels great.