Sublimation: Breaking Murphy's Law

  Trisha & Larry Lambert own Millenium Art, Inc. located in Louisville, Kentucky. For more than a decade, Millenium Art has specialized in sublimated awards and gifts. You can reach the Lamberts at trisha.lambert@insightbb.com.

Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of Murphy’s Law: any-thing that can go wrong will go wrong. There have been days in the shop when we thought Murphy was living with us. He just would not leave.

What else can go wrong today? We always ask ourselves that question when there have been a series of mishaps in the shop that throws our day into chaos. Additionally, it seems things always go wrong when we are rushed and the timing couldn’t be worse. Sometimes orders arrive incorrectly, a rush order walks through the door or the printer chokes. I’m sure we all have a calamity story of one kind or another.

Usually, these types of issues lead to an inordinate amount of rework that increases stress and reduces profit. But if we can implement a consistent process and be aware of some of the small things that can go wrong in the sublimation process, most pitfalls can be avoided.

Typically, the sublimation production process can be divided into two parts. The first is the computer side that includes the creation of the design and the printing of the transfer. The second part includes prepping, pressing and packing the sublimated items.

Below are some common production problems—and their solutions—that we’ve encountered in the sublimation process.

COMPUTER SIDE

Once a design has been created on the computer, make sure the design will fit on the substrate when it is printed out. This type of error is not usually found until the item is ready to be pressed.

This problem can be eliminated on the computer by overlaying a digital outline of the substrate on the image during the design process. The outlines can be found on distributor’s websites, or they can be created by simply scanning in the actual product. If the digital outlines are not available, the creator of the transfer should test the printed image size by comparing it to the actual substrate, at the very minimum.

During the design process, we prefer to oversize each image transfer by .25”. This gives us some wiggle room when we press the item. It allows for a little movement when positioning the transfer on the substrate. It is frustrating to remove the pressed transfer and find an area of the sublimated product that was missed. By printing a slightly oversized transfer, this problem can be avoided.

Make sure the sublimation print settings are correct. This is a source of potential problems, because there are many options that must be selected. Whether using the power driver software for Sawgrass inks or your graphic software print settings for ArTainium inks, review the following items before printing:

Send the image to the correct printer. Many users have multiple printers connected to one computer.

Print the image in reverse. Don’t forget that each transfer has to be printed in reverse. There is a print menu option in CorelDraw and Photoshop that allows this. Remember that all transfers are printed in reverse; the only exceptions are glass items such as plaques, cutting boards and clocks.

Be sure to print the image oriented on the paper correctly, such as landscape or portrait. Along those same lines, be sure the paper in the printer matches the paper that is selected on the computer, like letter, legal, etc.

Check the color settings. This point is critical, since the problem will not be noticed until after the product has been pressed. Skipping this step could cause valuable time and money to be wasted, since the entire process will have to be repeated to complete the job correctly.

Perform a nozzle check on your printer. This is a test of the printer to ensure all print heads are correctly releasing the ink onto the paper. We have found that one nozzle check before the first print job is sufficient to ensure a quality transfer for the remainder of the day.

When printing transfers, always print on the correct (brighter) side of the paper. This sounds like an obvious tip. But valuable time and ink can be wasted if a long job run is sent to the printer when the paper is loaded upside down.

We have eliminated this problem by consistently storing our sublimation paper in the same direction on a shelf after each shipment is received. Consequently, loading of the paper is performed in the same manner each time.

Once the transfer is printed, stray ink can sometimes be found on the edge of your transfer paper. When you least expect it, the printer will grab the paper in such a way that it leaves a little ink on the side or top of your transfer. Usually, this issue does not present a problem. Simply cut it off prior to pressing the transfer.

Another maddening place to find stray ink is the original graphic file. If you have incorrectly dragged the mouse or in some way smudged your design, it is going to show up on the transfer.

In both of these situations, the transfer should be carefully inspected after printing and then again before pressing to ensure there are no imperfections in the transfer.

PRESS SIDE

Sublimation inks are water-based ink products. Therefore, once the transfer is printed, the water in the ink can evaporate, and the quality of the transfer will start to degrade within a week. Once the transfer becomes old and evaporation has occurred, there will be a noticeable color variation when it is pressed.

To eliminate this potential problem, proper planning and scheduling should be performed so that printing of the transfer and pressing of the product both occur within a reasonable amount of time.

Before pressing, do not forget to remove the protective film on the substrate. This will catch us occasionally. Become familiar with the substrates that are shipped with the protective film.

Another mishap can be printing on the wrong side of the product. License plates have tricked us in the past, because they look almost the same on both sides. The side that is slick is the side to print on. The side that is textured is the wrong side.

Both of these problems are more of an embarrassment and a nuisance than a costly process issue. Arrange the workflow to accommodate the elimination of this problem.

Sublimation ink will not travel through dust during pressing. Take a moment to ensure that the transfer and the substrate are free of dust and lint. For grimy substrates, we use Novus for cleaning, while others like Simple Green. Both products do not streak the substrate or leave a residue.

Another trick to clean the substrate is to use the sticky side of the heat tape to lift something small off the product. We also use a common lint roller to clean up larger areas.

Although a roller is commonly used for fabric, it can be especially helpful on other substrates. It is very effective on picture frames where there is tacky dust from the manufacturing process. Simply roll off the flat surface of the frame to remove debris. The roller is also effective for the edge of a plaque to make a crisp, clean edge. However, when using the roller, be careful not to catch the beveled edge of the plaque.

Always make sure the heat-press heating surfaces (or platens) are clean. Unwanted stray sublimation ink on the press can create a nightmare by migrating to any substrate on the press. Stray ink is the result of not protecting the heat-press platens while pressing. An example of this is when a new T-shirt is prepared, only to be lifted off the press to discover the outline of a license plate from the previous pressing.

Prior to sublimating the product, cover the bottom of the heat press with protective paper. We use tissue paper; others use parchment paper; some even use new newsprint paper. Whatever works best for you is fine.

Also, keep an old T-shirt by your press and periodically press it to catch any stray ink that may be lurking.

Image shadows or ghosting on your substrate may appear out of nowhere. These types of problems are caused by movement of the transfer on the substrate after pressing.

The vacuum that is created by lifting the heat platen lifts the transfer; when the transfer settles back down, it leaves another imprint on the substrate. This problem can be maddening because of the wasted time and money. Preparation is the key to tackling this issue. It can be eliminated by firmly securing the substrate to the transfer with heat tape or using a light adhesive spray.

Incorrect temperature, time or pressure can create problems. When this occurs, the pressed image appears dull or faint after pressing. Sometimes part of the image will not sublimate.

Most products are sublimated at 400 degrees, with very few exceptions. However, press time can vary significantly by substrate. Most sublimation distributors provide a sublimation transfer instruction guide. This document usually provides the press temperature, time and pressure for each type of substrate.

Additionally, we keep a “cheat sheet” posted on the wall next to the press for a quick reference on our most common items.

On high-volume jobs, print one transfer and press it before running the entire order. Inspect the final product carefully to know with confidence that the remainder of the job will be error free.

By carefully reviewing your work at every step in the production process, many errors can be found and eliminated. Good workflow, thorough preparation and consistent use of solid processes can help eliminate the small errors that can lead to expensive rework—and help ensure that you have a successful sublimation business.

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One More To Consider

In this article, we covered many topics that are potential problems, and we discussed actions for improvement in the sublimation process. Here is one more to consider:

When processing plaques, make sure the keyhole on the back is at the top of the plaque. This error has caught us several times during long-run plaque jobs.

Simply check the keyhole position with your fingertips while setting the plaque on the heat press table. Consistent use of this technique will help to avoid this silly, costly error.