When Is A "Dye Sublimation" Printer NOT A "Dye Sublimation" Printer? 

by Larry Cohn, Fun Faces Foto Gifts, Oct. 2001

Ink jet dye sublimation has been around in various forms for about 15 years, but first became a "household word" in our industry just a few years ago. Most people who are getting into the "dye sub" transferring market today are planning on doing so with ink jet dye sublimation.

The problem is that before ink jet dye sublimation was popular, there were many other types of "dye sublimation" printer technologies in use. Some of these "other" dye sub printers are still in popular use today, but all have their strengths and weaknesses, are in fact completely different, and only a select few of them can be used for transferring.

So, a "dye sub" printer is not necessarily an "ink jet dye sub" printer, and many people don't have any reason to know the difference. The main topic of conversation in the Dye Sublimation and Specialty Imprinting forum (DSSI), for example, is centered around "ink jet dye sub" printers.

According to Lois Neely of U.S. Coatings, one of the few U.S. ceramic coating factories for the dye sub trade, she gets at least 3 or 4 calls a day that go like this:

Customer: "Hi, I'd like to order some of your "dye sub" mugs, plates, and tiles."

Lois: What kind of "dye sub" printer do you have?

Customer: (A little irritated) I have a "dye sub" printer!

Lois: "But I need to know what kind you have so that I can sell you the right kind of mugs, or maybe I don't have the right mugs for you."

Customer: I saw a "dye sub" printer for sale and bought it because I've heard that's all you need to print onto coated mugs! It's a Kodak 8670, and I paid $5000 for it! Don't tell me I can't make mugs with this!

Lois: "I'm sorry, but that's exactly what I need to tell you. There are different kinds of "dye sub" printers out there, different types of media, and not all of them can make mugs, or make them well. And they may require different types of coatings even if they are capable of printing on mugs. In the case of your printer, you simply can not make an acceptable mug.

Customer: "I can't believe this garbage! I'm never going to order with you, since you must not know what you're talking about!" (Slams the phone.)

Lois is between a rock and a hard place with that type of call. Sell the mugs and expect an expensive RMA coming in a week later from a disgruntled customer. Or take her "medicine" on the initial call and be done with it.

So, what's the scoop?

Ink Jet Dye Sub Printers 

At the time of this writing, the only commercially available "not-wide format plotter type" choices that you have are: Epson 800, 850, 900, 980, 1520, and 3000. The first four printers have been discontinued. There is concern that the other 2 are on their way out, and that their replacement models may be harder to run with dye sub ink since they are designed to run "chipped" cartridges. Epson has purportedly introduced the "chipped" cartridges as a customer enhancement, since the microchip imbedded into each cartridge keeps track of how much ink is left in the cartridge. On the surface this sounds like a good idea, since this would allow, along with physical improvements to the cartridge mechanism itself, the user to freely remove and re-insert the cartridge without fear of air contamination in the ink and without inadvertently resetting the ink level counter. But this move makes it very difficult for ink jet dye sub ink manufacturers to come up with a "work-around" in order to get their cartridges to work in these printers (which was surely the "real" reason for introducing the "chipped" cartridges).

I'm assuming that anyone reading this article already knows the basics of "ink jet dye sub" printers, so I'll skip that whole discussion.

Ribbon-Based Dye Sub Printers 

Besides the ink jet dye sub printers, many people also use "ribbon-based" dye sub printers. These printers tend to be pretty expensive and use matched "film and ribbon" sets to make prints, also relatively expensive. The "postcard" sized prints are going to cost at least 60 cents in reasonable quantities, while the letter-sized prints can range from $2 to $3 per print in quantity. The "letter sized" printers themselves can range in price from $3000 to $7000, while the smaller 5" x 7" printers can cost from $2500 to $4000 and the "postcard sized print" printers can cost from $300 to $2000, depending on speed and features. There is a wide range of prices in this category because many "consumer" models are included in this print size range.

The primary application for these types of printers is not for transferring, but simply for producing a print that can rival a developed 35mm print in image quality but without the processing time. You can push the "capture" button, then the "print" button, and then you get a finished print in about a minute (print time varies by model and brand).

One typical use for these types of printers is for "on-site" instant photos like the "ride" photos you can buy at Disneyland and other theme parks (showing you being captured in a moment of sheer terror only minutes before).

Your child's "Santa" picture that you had taken in the mall was more than likely made with a "ribbon-based dye sub" printer, which is a big step up from the awful Polaroids that were common as Santa pictures only a few years ago.

Another common use is in machines at many one-hour photo stores, or even at Walmart, where you can make an instant "photo quality" 8"x10" reprint (for around $7 to $13 street price) in only a minute or so, with the Kodak "Image Magic" station, (which uses a self serve "copy machine" type of interface with an internal Kodak 8670 printer or similar). There is a similar "self serve" station that is made by Fuji.

Most of the "muggers" (carts in the malls that specialize in instant photos on coffee mugs) use a smaller format version of these "ribbon-based dye sub" printers. But there is much to know about finding the right "ribbon-based dye sub" printer along with the right media, with some "super secret" techniques (in terms of time/temp/pressure/scraping/then more cooking time) in order to produce an acceptable mug. Yes, these are the type of mug transfers that you have to "scrape", (squeegee the air bubbles out of the print area) half way through the cooking process. Many "ribbon-based dye sub" printers simply can not produce an acceptable transfer or do not have an acceptable transfer ribbon set available for it's use. (I'll discuss the small format "ribbon-based dye sub" printers in more depth later in this article.)

Some brands of "ribbon-based dye sub" printers are, or were (in the case of discontinued printers or discontinued company divisions) Kodak, Mitsubishi, Seiko (the entire Seiko division of Epson was discontinued, with the exception of a small core group that continues to sell label printers), Sony, Sharp, Olympus, Fargo (discontinued except for their ID card printers), Shinko, Tally (discontinued), Panasonic, Tektronix (now a division of Zerox), Hitachi and Canon.

These types of printers, with the exception of the Seiko running with a "hybrid sub" ribbon, which I'll explain later, can also, according to Mick Eminger of Cactus Coatings, be considered a "second generation" dye sub printer.   Not because they are "better" than ink jet dye sub printers, or are more recent models to ink jet dye sub printers, but because of how they produce the image.

The difference is in what happens at the "image transferring" stage. In the case of a transfer print from an ink jet dye sub printer, there is only one time when the solid ink turns into a gas, or "sublimates". The ink is laid down onto a sheet of receptive paper and then sublimates as that paper is heat pressed onto the mug or other substrate. So this type of a transfer printing process can be called a "first generation" sublimation transfer. (According to the Sawgrass website, this type of dye sub printing is also referred to as "true" dye sub printing.)

With a ribbon-based dye sub printer, the dye sub ink is impregnated onto a plastic carrier sheet, which is wound up into a "ribbon" roll. When printing, the dye sub ink is actually heated up to the point of sublimation as it passes the print head, and the dye is sublimated right onto the matched paper sheet that is passing through the printer. So if you try and use that sheet as a transfer sheet to make a mug, for example, you will be trying to re-sublimate the ink off the paper and onto your mug. This type of dye sub printing can be called "second generation" because the ink has been sublimated once to get it on the paper, and then a second time to get it off the paper and onto your mug or other substrate.

The problem with that idea is that in general, the dye sub ink ribbon/paper sets are designed to provide an image that is deeply penetrated into the paper for maximum quality and durability. When we try to transfer that image we are now trying to bring that ink back out. So there are a few specially designed ribbon/paper sets for transferring, available for a select few "ribbon-based dye sub" printers, that prints the ink on paper that is designed for easier release. If you don't have this combination of "the right ribbon-based dye sub printer" with "the right ribbon/paper set for transferring", then all you will get if you try to transfer the image will be a very weak and washed out looking image to begin with, which will be highly unstable to boot.

The mugs and tiles sold by Cactus Coatings, according to Mick, are labeled according to the proper coating for a given printer type, not the ink type. It may sound confusing at first but this does make sense. Their "Ink Jet" mugs are coated with a harder coating for "ink jet" dye sub printers, their "Dye Sub" mugs are coated with the softer coating required for best results when using a proper "ribbon based dye sub" printer, or "dye sub" printer for short. (And their "laser" mugs are coated for best results with the color laser printers using regular (not dye sub) toner.)

There are other types of "dye sub" printers out there, and it can get confusing. I'll give you a real quick overview of some of the other types.

Hybrid Sublimation Printers 

First, there is a series of thermal wax printers for which Sawgrass developed dye sublimation ribbons. These ribbons require a special matching paper, and they have been called "hybrid sublimation" ribbons as well as by their respective trade names according to printer. The most popular printer for this application was the Seiko 4104. Other Seiko printer models with available hybrid sub ribbons, branded as "Hycolor" ribbons for the Seiko line, include the 5504 and the 7204. The Seiko division of Epson has been shut down (except for the label printer division) and therefore these printers have all been discontinued. The Sawgrass hybrid sub ribbons, however, are still available from Conde Systems, Imprints USA (a division of The Penn Companies), as well as many other suppliers at the time of this writing.  The reason they are called "hybrid sub" ribbons is that they are a hybrid application, turning the output of a thermal wax printer (normally a thermal wax print) into a "first generation", or "true" dye sublimation print just by changing the ribbon.  The limitation of this process is that you are limited to printing at the printer's fixed resolution of 300 dpi, and with the "hybrid sub" ribbon you are making a "first generation" dye sub print. If you print at 300 dpi with a "second generation" dye sub printer, you will get an apparent resolution more closely related to 1440 dpi printing or higher because the initial 300 dpi "dots" have been blended together very smoothly on the paper when it went through it's first sublimation process onto the paper. The "hybrid sub" process can give you a more vibrant image because it hasn't been sublimated prior to your cooking, But it is best suited for simple vector/logo designs since it can look a bit grainy with photos. You can clearly see every dot.

The Fargo Primera printers were another series of thermal wax printers that could use "hybrid sub" ribbons specially designed for those printers. Again, Fargo has discontinued that line of printers and now sells printers only for making I.D. cards (using "ribbon-based dye sub" printing directly onto the plastic cards). Unfortunately, the "hybrid sub" ribbons for these printers are no longer available.

Actually, it gets even more confusing when you look at the Fargo Primera or the Seiko 7204 or 7214, because with those three printers you could actually print in one of five ways. You could make a regular thermal wax (non-dye sub) print or transfer, (depending on the paper you load), a "hybrid sub" transfer, or a "ribbon-based" "second generation" dye sub print or transfer, depending on the paper you load.

(Side note - I own a Seiko 7204 printer, and it was the worst $8000 (with the media costs) that I ever spent. All that I have said about this printer is theoretical, but in the "real world" very little worked as advertised. I haven't heard anything bad about the much cheaper Fargo line except that it easily overheated. And my bad experience with the Seiko 7204 is in no way related to the Seiko 4104, which is a fine inexpensive printer.)

Alps MD-5000 Printer

Then you have the Alps MD-5000 printer with "Dye Sub" option added.  The Alps printer, (as well as it's cheaper siblings the MD-1300 and MD-2300) is in a class by itself, because it can do so many things and is a very inexpensive printer compared to other "ribbon-based" dye sub printers. (The ribbons are actually wound up in little cartridges). Besides being able to make "ribbon-based" dye sub prints, with the "dye sub printing" option added, (which you can transfer as well), it can also print gold or silver foil (obviously not for transferring), as well as print very nice, smearproof and fade resistant regular prints. Using the "dry resin" (non-dye-sub) cartridges and the appropriate transfer paper, this printer can be used to make high resolution t-shirt transfers for any type of t-shirt, even 100% cotton, with better results than thermal wax transfers or regular ink jet transfers for image quality and washability. Unfortunately it is no longer sold in the U.S., only in Europe(1), but the supplies are still available. 

Olympus P-400 Printer

The Olympus P-400 "Dye Sub" printer "  is a ribbon-based dye sub" printer and is another that belongs in a class by itself, because it makes an "almost 8" x 10", but not quite" print, and costs a fraction of other printers in this category of print size/type (as low as $700 street price). It does an automatic overlaminate, and from what I've heard so far, you can not make a transfer with this printer.

Fuji Printer

Fuji has their own patented process for creating a "dye sub" print with their printers, which still involves activating the ink through heat (passing by the print head), but the difference is that the ink is actually impregnated into the paper and is invisible until activated. They call this process "Thermo-Autochrome". Advantages are quick print times and a lower cost per print, but these types of "dye sub" prints cannot be used as transfer prints.

Little "Dye Sub Ribbon-Based" Printers

I felt that the "little" printers deserved their own category since there is often little or no easily discernable information as to what kind of printing is being done with these little printers. There are many models, quite a few of them being sold for under $400 or $500 and marketed as "instant photo printers". Some of these printers can make dye sub transfers for mugs, and some can't. The Fargo FotoFUN printer was marketed specifically for mugs. It has been discontinued but the mug transfer media should still be available. The Sony UP-1200R, Sony UP-1800R, Olympus P-300 and P-330 all are able to use the Sony APU-10T film, which is a great mug transfer media, or the Olmec mug media, which is an inferior transfer media in my opinion. Of those 4 printers only the Olympus P-330 is a current model. Keep in mind that with these types of mug transfers you need to order the softer coated mugs for "dye-sub", or should I say "ribbon-based dye sub" mugs, and you need to come up with a scraping routine. There are many other small "ribbon-based" printers out there that are not able to run transfer media for mug transfers, and are only good for making "instant (but expensive) "photos".

So, let's say that you have one of the few "ribbon-based" dye sub printers that has an acceptable ribbon/paper combination for making mug transfers. In all but 2 cases, you will need to scrape the mug half way through the cooking cycle.  The first exception is with using the hybrid sub ribbon for certain Seiko or Fargo thermal wax printers.  The second exception is when using the "No-Scrape" Olmec media available for the Hitachi small format printer models VY-170 or VY-300.  

It is not recommended to use a "mug wrap", such as those available from Cactus Coatings or from Cowtown Ceramics, for any mugs that you need to scrape half way through the cooking cycle, because it would be cumbersome and kind of dangerous to do so.

And in every case, except for the Seiko or Fargo hybrid sublimation, if you are using a "ribbon-based dye sub" printer that is capable of printing a good mug transfer, you will need to use the soft-coated mugs with it rather than the hard-coated ones.

Now that we've got that figured out, let's say someone in the park comes up to you in a raincoat, opens it up and says "PSST... hey buddy, I've got this great dye sub printer I'll sell to you cheap!". Your question to him (or her) might be "Yes, but can it make good transfers for making mugs and stuff?" And then regardless of what the salesperson says, you know that it's time to do your homework... BEFORE you buy it!

For any questions on the different dye sublimation printers, drop me an e-mail.

Larry Cohn

(1) Printers similar to the Alps MD-5000, and using the same supplies, are available in Europe from OKI.

Copyright © 2001 Larry Cohn. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the author.  All trademarks mentioned above are owned by their respective companies. 


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