Choosing the Right Ink for the Job

Robin Kavanagh serves as the public relations manager for Sawgrass Ink. She has been in the industry for over three years.

Note: This article appears in the April 2017 edition of A&E magazine in The Sublimation Report. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today!

When it comes to the sublimation business, it’s the images that matter most. Whether it’s a corporate logo, an iconic or family picture, a cool design, or a simple plaque, the images you imprint onto your substrates are what make your products special. They’re also what get people excited about buying from you and enable you to command premium prices.

This means that getting the right colors and the best image output possible is important. Getting the technical aspects of digital design and the creativity you come up with to address customer needs are only half of the equation to master. The other half deals with printing and pressing your artwork onto the substrate and having the end-product look stunning.

There are a lot of factors that come into play here, such as the quality of transfer paper and substrate, optimal settings for pressing, environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, cleanliness, etc.), color modes, profiles, software… the list goes on and on. While all of these are important to consider, the inks you choose is one of the most critical keys to cracking the code for outstanding sublimation prints.

Let’s take a look at some key considerations for choosing sublimation ink to decorate products for your customers.   


Nowadays, your options for sublimation ink sets are varied depending on what type of printer you have, which will also determine what kinds of prints and products you can offer your customers.

Four-color printers with CMYK ink sets are the standard. They are the backbone of sublimation printing and the only configurations available for desktop sublimation printers (those with maximum media sizes of 8 1/2 by 14 inches and 13 by 19 inches). CMYK is just right for many applications, including photo plaques, apparel, mugs, promotional products, mobile devices and other popular sublimated products. With the right printer and software, you can deliver dazzling colors and photo quality with these inks.

There are also eight-color printers and ink combinations that deliver more colors than are possible to achieve with CMYK, as well as finer detail and higher definition. (Image 1) These variations each have benefits for different applications and business goals.  

Say you are looking to expand into signage and it’s important to offer your customers specific brand colors. Depending on the color you need to match, you may be able to use a CMYK ink set or you may need to look for an eight-color ink set like SubliJet-HD FLEX, which can deliver an expanded gamut of colors. This ink set provides CMYK inks for everyday use, as well as orange and blue inks that expand the range of colors you can achieve, and fluorescent yellow and pink inks. (Image 2)

If you’re an awards shop that is only looking to provide signage pieces smaller than 13 by 19 inches then a desktop printer with CMYK inks should meet your needs. However, if you have a high volume of such orders, are looking for faster print speeds, or need an increased color range to match logo or organization colors, investing in a 25-inch printer with an ink set, which offers orange and blue cartridges, is a smart move. The addition of these two colors greatly increases the number of colors you can achieve through the sublimation process.

Fluorescent colors add excitement and visibility to tons of products, from shirts, hats, mugs and bandanas, to banners, plaques and beyond. Because desktop printers can only accommodate CMYK inks, you can never achieve a true fluorescent with this combination. Actual fluorescent colors need to be added to the configuration and be able to be mixed to create custom fluorescents that pop the way you expect. You will need an ink set that works with an eight-color printer and offers both CMYK as well as fluorescent ink colors.  (Image 3)


The quality of your color is critical when aiming to produce the best prints for your customers. While the purity and formulation of the ink is a significant factor, the color management and print software you use is also key. When shopping for inks, take into consideration what color management tools you will need to ensure the colors on your final product are as close to what you designed as possible.

Many inks come with a single color profile—software that works with your design programs to manage color conversion from RGB (on-screen) to CMYK (on paper). Because sublimated colors are also influenced by the substrate and paper being used, not to mention the heat and pressure from the press, a single-color profile will not produce colors as good as more specialized software can.

This may mean that you need to purchase a raster image processor (RIP) program, which can be expensive, or look into buying inks with more advanced color software. For example, the newly released Virtuoso Print Manager comes with every Virtuoso HD Product Decorating System. It takes in to account the type of substrate, the type of paper, the design software you’ve used, and the specific ink and print settings to convert your colors for optimal prints. It offers RIP-like capabilities to streamline production and allows for spot color matching and custom color creation. (Image 4)


Many people are concerned about the cost of ink and how it affects their bottom line. Of course, everyone wants to keep costs as low as possible. When it comes to sublimation, however, the cost of the ink accounts for very little of your overall production. What’s more, trying to save on ink can cost more in the long run.

Let’s look at an example of printing a transfer for an 8-by-10-inch plaque with an SG800 printer, which is less than a penny per square inch. (Image 5)

Based on these numbers, ink costs account for 5 percent of your production costs. The majority of your expenses are from the cost of the substrate and overhead. Even if you did not have to pay for ink, your increased profit would only be about $.50.

It makes more sense to look at where you can make your production process faster and more efficient, or where you can save on shipping or substrate costs, than to look to save on ink prices. Using lower quality inks, too, can slow down production and leave you with wasted prints, costly repairs to your printer, and a lot of frustration. 


The best advice for anyone trying to figure out what type of ink to use is to really look at what you’re trying to achieve with your sublimated prints. If your customers are looking for products that look great, but don’t need color matching, fluorescents or artist-quality detail, then CMYK inks are a good option. If you’re looking to create specific products for specific applications with specific needs, then it makes sense to look deeper into what printers can accommodate specialty eight-color ink sets. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to ensure you’re using the highest quality inks for the money you spend. Otherwise, in the long run, you may find you’re losing much more than you save.