Dye Sublimation

What is Dye Sublimation?

Well, just to make matters really confusing there are actually two different kinds of dye sublimation printing.  The one we do involves printing on to polyester, polymers or polymer coated products (or substrates as we call them).  For the other kind, here's a quick guide: http://science.howstuffworks.com/question583.htm

How does it work?

You're probably familiar with the processes of freezing (turning from liquid to solid), melting (turing from solid to liquid), condensation (turning from gas to liquid) and evaporation (turning from liquid to gas) but the one you might not be aware of is the state change of matter known as "sublimation".  Sublimation is when a solid turns directly in to a gas without passing through the liquid state (sublimation evaporation) or in reverse (sublimation condensation).

At the right temperature, the special dye sublimation inks we use turn from solid ink into gaseous ink.  Almost magically, at the same temperature, the molecular pores within the polymer substrates open up and become ready to receive the ink.  When we use just the right combination of heat, pressure and time, the ink transfers from the high release paper to the substrate.  The substrate cools, the pores close and the ink is physically locked inside!  It's this re-closing of the pores that makes dye sublimation printing so durable.  Other printing techniques apply the ink on top of the product, but with dye sublimation it feels as though the ink is actually part of the product.

Dye sublimation printing sounds good.  What's the catch?

It is good!  And where dye sublimation can be used it's our first choice.  There are some limitations that mean dye sublimation it isn't always the best solution.

As already mentioned, dye sublimation can't be used on non-polymer materials.  Natural fibers such as cotton simply don't have the right structure to lock the ink in and so it will just wash out straight away.  

We press products at up to 200ºC, sometimes for as long as 9 minutes - the items need to be able to withstand this kind of treatment without being damaged.

Sublimation ink is a dye rather than a pigment ink.  There's no white dye so we can only ever make a product darker.  For the most part this means we need to start with a white substrate although dye sublimation does work well on light coloured garments too - our hi-viz waistcoats are a good example.  For dark garments, we have some dye sublimation workarounds such as a sublimation flock that can be dyed and then heat-pressed on to the garment but it's not quite the same as starting with a white garment.

The ink is also affected by UV and whilst many products have UV inhibitors to extend the life of the print, keeping a dye-sublimation product outside in regular direct sunlight can cause the colours to fade.  

So what can it be used for?  What can discofish designs print for me?

Even with the limitations above, there are still hundreds of fantastic applications for dye sublimation printing.

There are also no costly set up fees.  In fact, each item we print can be unique.  When we print 100 mugs, it makes little difference whether it's 100 identical mugs or 100 completely different mugs - the process is the same.  This makes it ideal for completely personalised items (e.g. a personalised phone cover with your favourite picture on) or for partially personalised items (e.g. a Keep Calm and ... whatever you want).

As well as products that are made of polymers (e.g. polyester material, plastic mugs, fibre-reinforced plastic) there are many products that can be coated with a polymer layer (e.g. ceramic mugs, aluminium, wood) and there is a whole industry dedicated to manufacturing products suitable for sublimation printing (e.g. flip-flops, jigsaw puzzles, bags and purses, keyrings, chopping boards and clocks).  We can also make custom items by cutting aluminium to required size/shape.

The vibrancy and colour depth that can be achieved with dye sublimation printing also makes it ideal for high-end, luxury photo items such as our ChromaLuxe panels, ChromaLuxe murals, acrylic photo blocks and photo slates.