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Using Laminate Film to Sublimate Uncoated Substrates

With over 10 years of experience in the industry, Cheryl Kuchek is the owner of Just My Imagination DeZigns Inc. in New York and the founder of the Facebook groups Sublimation, OKI, iColor and Beyond and Sublimation for Beginners and Beyond—the first of its kind to focus on sublimation—hosting a community of digital decorators and serving as a resource to grow their business through weekly Facebook Live sessions, webinars, vendor discounts, and more. For referrals or more information, contact Kuchek directly at justmyimaginationdezigns4u@gmail.com.

Note: This article appears in the April 2020 issue of A&E magazine. To ensure that you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, be sure to subscribe today! Your subscription will automatically ensure your access to the new publication, GRAPHICS PRO, launching in May 2020.

When you happen upon what I call a game-changer for sublimation, you just have to share it. The excitement, the buzz in the Sublimation for Beginners and Beyond Facebook group as well as among others, is currently coming from using lamination film to sublimate on uncoated substrates. Yes, you read that right: store-bought lamination film, heat-pressed on wood and other items, and then sublimated. 

Imagine using lamination film to coat wood, ceramic, and store-bought canvas for pennies and having a vibrant, stunning look. I watched a video from a fellow subber Jeff Griffith on applying lamination film on a piece of wood. The wheels started turning and I thought, if it works on wood, it could work on just about anything that could take heat.  

I started experimenting with anything I thought would work — wood, ceramic, canvas, metal, and even a frosted glass candle holder. The substrates that I have had success with using lamination film are the thin wood pieces as well as the thick wood pieces with bark on them, flat canvas panels, uncoated ceramic tiles, and metal pieces.

Using lamination film may not be a solution for everyone, but for those who don’t mind the extra steps and are on a budget, or love to experiment, this is definitely for them.

Process Pointers

Someone might wonder what the advantage is of using lamination instead of buying ready-made sublimation substrates. For those who have been looking to get into sublimation but are concerned about the cost of substrates and/or possibly ruining them, this is a perfect solution. Though it requires some added steps, for the price, it can’t be beat.

Note: if you have white in your image, it will take on the color of the wood or other substrate that you are using.

The lamination film is a two-step process. First you apply the lamination film on a piece of uncoated wood or other substrate by heat pressing it on, and then press your sublimated image. 

In step one when applying the lamination film, leave a little extra laminate around the edges to allow for shrinkage and allow enough time for the laminate to cool thoroughly before moving on to the sublimation process. If you press the image while the laminate is still hot, you will have bubbling in the lamination.

Some people have inquired if it is safe to apply lamination to wood. The answer is yes, as the laminate is 100% polyester film. 

Another question I receive frequently is, “Would I be able to sell these items?” The answer is a little more complex to give a blanket answer, so I will try and break it down.

In general, sublimated lamination products, should be used for decorative display purposes only. For example, the downside to using the lamination film on an uncoated ceramic tile that would be used for a trivet would most likely cause the lamination to bubble when something hot is placed on it, and therefore would not be something you could sell. However, if you put that same tile in a frame to display it, you have a sellable item.

The thin wood cuts from Michaels or Hobby Lobby sublimate beautifully and the image will not peel or scratch off. I bought the flat canvas panels, and thin wood and thicker wood with bark all from Michaels, and the uncoated ceramic tiles and metal pieces from Home Depot. You can get the thin wood and metal pieces from Hobby Lobby. 

Most of these items are inexpensive, and I even found some seasonal pieces for Valentine’s Day and Easter at the dollar store. The glossy laminate film I use here was bought from Staples, and the other matte and glossy rolls I bought from Lamination Depot.

The tools and materials needed when using lamination for the sublimation process. (All images courtesy Cheryl Kuchek)

Wood Heart Tutorial

Materials you need:

  • Laminate film (glossy or matte)
  • Scissors
  • X-Acto knife
  • Repositionable spray
  • Lint roller
  • Plain uncoated wood, ceramic, metal, or canvas (this tutorial features a wood heart purchased at the Dollar Tree)
  • Sublimation image transfer 
  • Poly-poplin material (can be bought at Condé Systems)
  • Parchment paper
  • Heat gloves
  • Cooling glass plate (optional)

Additional materials used for the wooden heart.­­­­

Step One: Set the heat press at 360 F for 90 seconds.

Step Two: Print the sublimation image.

Step Three: Cut the excess laminate film around the wood, leaving a little extra film for shrinkage.

Step Four: Place parchment paper on the top and bottom of the substrate. Use poly-poplin for thicker pieces of wood to absorb moisture.

Step Five: Press with the lamination on top, wood on the bottom.

Step Six: Put your wood heart on the cooling plate and wait for it to cool down.

Step Seven: Turn the wood over and, using your X-Acto knife, cut the remaining excess from around the wood. 

Prepping for the transfer by cutting the excess laminate after pressing it to the wood.

Step Eight: Allow your laminated wood to completely cool down before pressing your image. Press it at 350 F for 120 seconds with light to medium pressure.

Step Nine: After the wood has cooled, lightly spray your image with repositionable spray to ensure secure placement on the wood. 

The finished wooden heart.

Canvas Panel Tutorial

Using the same materials list, here are the steps needed to sublimate canvas flat panels via the lamination process. 

The additional materials used for the canvas.

Step One: Set the heat press at 370 F for 120 seconds, light pressure.

Step Two: Print the sublimation image.

Step Three: Cut the excess from around the canvas panel, leaving a little lamination for shrinkage.

Step Four: Place parchment paper on the top and bottom of the canvas.

Step Five: Press with the lamination on top, canvas on the bottom.

Step Six: Put the canvas on the cooling plate and wait for it to cool down.

Step Seven: Turn the canvas over and, using your X-Acto knife, cut the excess around the panel.

Let it completely cool down before pressing your image.

Prepping for the transfer by cutting the excess laminate after pressing it to the canvas.

Step Eight: Press your image at 360 F for 120 seconds with light to medium pressure.

Step Nine: Lightly spray your image to ensure secure placement on the canvas. 

The finished canvas.

I would say this process is a great find, especially for inexpensive uncoated wood shapes that you find — they sublimate beautifully with the lamination film applied.

I hope you found this helpful and that it will inspire you to think outside of the box and start your own experimenting. I will leave you with a quote from Thomas Edison: “Success depends on how many experiments you can fit into 24 hours… I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”