Getting Started in Dye Sublimation
Help, What Do I Need?

Written by:  Cherie Derrick, Encompass Technologies, February 2001


The very first thing you need to be aware of is, what I say today may not be correct tomorrow or possibly even later today. The dye sublimation transfer industry has been changing so quickly over the last 2 years that it is even difficult for us veterans to keep up and we must rely on each other to stay current with all of the changes.

The next thing is, you must decide what you want to sell, who you want to sell it to and how many do you want to sell. A normal reaction to this of course is, "I want to do it all". Unless you are already staffed with 10-20 people and have a very large startup budget, I'm sorry to say it can't be done. Most people getting into this business are typically part time startup companies or they are people who currently run: awards shops, screen printing shops, engravers, sign printers or embroidery shops who want to offer dye sublimation as an "add on" to their business. This is a diverse group of people which may have totally different ideas for what they want from a dye sublimation system.

This article specifically addresses items needed for a business who want to do small format (up to 16" x 21") dye sublimation transfers. 

What You Will Need

Computer: PC or MAC with as much memory as you can afford and plenty of disk space. Currently the color correction software for the smaller format printers mainly work with PC's but this is expected to change in the next few weeks.

Graphics software: In order to be compatible with any of the small format color correction software packages you will need either Adobe Photoshop or CorelDraw. Other packages like Paint Shop Pro, Adobe Illustrator, Xara Studio, etc. will work for some of the color correction software and of course if you will be doing color correction by hand you can use anything you like.

Printer: There are a variety of printers to choose from depending on your needs. The printer you choose must be compatible with the inks/toners/ribbons that are available, not all printers will work with dye sublimation.

The most common small format color printers in use today are the Epson 980 and the Epson 3000. The differences between the 980 and the 3000 are:

1) Image size - the 980 maximum is approximately 8 x 13", the 3000 maximum is approximately 16 x 21"

2) Number of cartridges. There are 2 cartridges in the 980, one contains CMY and the other K. There are 4 cartridges in the 3000 one each for CMYK so if Cyan runs out you can replace just that color and won't lose the other two like in the 980. There are always exceptions to rules and dye sublimation is no different. There are now bulk ink systems which basically bypasses the need to replace cartridges in the 980 as they are continually filled with reservoir bottles of ink/dyes but there is only 1 ink supplier today that has the inks for this system.

3) Cost - The 980 I think is running about $250 USD the 3000 is around $1300 USD new or refurbished at around $800.

Laser printers can also be used and there are dye sublimation cartridges for several of the monochrome laser printers which are great if you are doing aluminum plaques or name plates. Newer to the market are the color laser printer dye sublimation toners.

Printer Update - March 2004

The small format printers that are mainly used in dye sublimation are Epson brand.  The most common ones used today are (click here for an image of these printers)

Epson C82 which prints up to approximately 8.25" x 13" (the C82 has recently been discontinued and replaced with the C84.  Only a few vendors have dye sub inks available for the C84)

Epson 1280 which prints up to approximately 13" x 19"

Epson 3000 which prints up to approximately 16" x 21" (the 3000 will be discontinued in the next 6 months and replaced with the Epson 4000)

Epson 7600 which is less used by many because of it's cost but it does  prints up to 24" wide by 100' (limited by roll length and software application)

The other common types of printers used for dye sublimation is certain laser printers .  The magnetic/electrostatic laser printers (Hewlett Packard being one major brand name of this type of printer) with dye sublimation toners are best for gold, silver and bronze metals.  The oil fuser based laser printers (Brother and QMS being two major brand names of this type of printer) with dye sublimation toners are best for soft products like mouse pads, shirts and can be used on some ceramic products.


Heat: Most of the time this refers to a heat press but there are some alternatives. If you are looking to start out with mugs, you can purchase mug wraps that work in your home oven. There are also tile and plate presses that also work in your home oven. If you are going to be doing soft products like mouse pads, shirts, hats, etc. you will need a heat press.

There are a variety of heat presses to choose from, again, depending on your needs. The lower end heat presses are a clam shell style that will work on shirts, mouse pads and other flat items. A swinger type of press is better if you are also going to be doing thicker items such as tiles, cultured marble, glass and wood products. There is a clam style press that is adjustable to take the thicker items usually price right in the middle of the fixed clam shell and the swinger.  There are specialty presses which accommodates things like mugs, plates, hats and there are combo presses which have interchangeable platens so that you have a flat press and specialty press combined into one.

Dye sublimation: Depending on your printer, you will need ink, ribbons or toners for your dye sublimation printer. If you have a printer that takes ribbons there is usually only one choice but if you are using a printer that takes toners or inks there are a variety of choices.

Toners are available in cartridges for many different laser printers. The difference in toners is in the colors themselves and the ability of the toner/printer combination to put this toner on the paper. For example some black toners give you a darker more opaque black or may have an over abundance of "overspray" (e.g. like spray paint that gets onto areas you don't want it).

In my opinion the differences in inks are much more extensive then in toners. There are a few different dye sublimation inks on the market today and within the next few weeks or months there may be many more.

If you are going with the bulk ink system you will be purchasing JetBlaster inks today... tomorrow (or next week/month) there will be another ink, maybe more, available for the bulk ink systems.

If not the bulk ink system, and you purchase the 980 then you will be using Sublijet or Sublibrite because that is all that is available, today.

If you purchase the 3000 then you can choose between a few other inks... JetBlaster, Sublibrite, Sublijet, Wholesale Inks and possibly a few others I'm not aware of yet. I personally have not tried all of these inks. You can find many discussions about the different inks and opinions about them on the DSSI forum http://www.delphi.com/sublimation/start where there are 750+ users/vendors of sublimation discussing the issues.

Paper: The best thing is to start off with using whatever paper is recommended by the ink/toner/ribbon manufacturer. Once you have experience with the process you can then venture out and try different papers. You will also need inexpensive blank paper to lay over your transfer paper to keep the sublimation off of your press. Some people use Teflon sheets but I find that paper works better.

Blank Products: This could be another complete article so basically check to make sure that the product you purchase is for the type of sublimation you are doing especially when it comes to ceramic products.



Color Correction Software: Three of the four main dye sublimation inks on the market now come with some type of color correction software at least for the PC. Some people successfully do color correction through their graphics programs or by setting up their own profiles in their printer drivers.

Paper Cutter:  This is one of those things that is worth spending more then a few dollars on.  An inexpensive one will do at first but as you start doing more and more you will want one of the professional types.  Many people recommend the professional photo cutters.

Scanner: This is really close to being a must, but there are people that may not need one.

Additional graphics packages: If you will be accepting graphic files from your customers you will most likely need more then one graphics package.

Digital camera: These definitely come in handy if you are doing photos for websites of your products or photographs of your customers to put onto items too.

Heat tape: Personally, I can't live without heat tape but someone out there might be. This is used to tape transfers to everything, shirts, mugs, plaques, tiles, etc. to keep the transfer from shifting when you press.  A tape dispenser for these large 3" rolls is a very nice thing to have too.

Metal Cutter: If you're planning on doing a lot of awards this is a must have.  You can get your metal pre-cut and custom cut from some of the distributors but if you stay in the business your going to want to have one.

So that is about it in the way of what you will need. There are some miscellaneous things like a circle cutter, cutting mat, metal t-square ruler, glue, Teflon sheet, Teflon pillows, spray tack, UV protective spray etc. that you may find helpful in producing products but these things may or may not be necessary depending on what items you will be pressing.

All of the products, except for the graphics software, scanner, digital camera and several of the miscellaneous items, mentioned in this article can be found on the Industry Links page on this site. 

Thank you to the people who were nice enough to read the article even though you are already sublimating and suggesting a few items I left off that you (and I in some cases) use on a regular basis!

The above article is:  Copyright ©2001 Cherie Derrick, all rights reserved and may not be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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