What's New In The Kitchen: Cooking Up Sublimation Success

David Gross is president of Condé Systems Inc., of Mobile, Ala. For the past 24 years, he has devoted to advancing sublimation technology. He can be reached by email at dgross@conde.com.

This article is written to promote a recipe for successful sublimation and to highlight some of the new changes in our sublimation kitchen! “I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”—Alice, from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Yes, that describes our always growing and changing field of sublimation—and for that matter our world. I fell in love with sublimation transfer after a career of designing some of the first laser printers on the market. Knowing that digital imaging would become an essential part of our daily lives, I instantly bonded with this little-known decorating technology. Many years later, the sublimation kitchen is red hot and serving up high-value, personalized, full-color, on-demand dishes! From The Cave To The Kitchen Best I can tell, sublimation decorating was discovered in France in the 1940’s. They found that certain dyes, when heated, permanently dyed polyester and other man-made fabrics. Since that time, two different methods of producing sublimation transfers have evolved: offset and digital. Although most transfers are produced using a printing press filled with sublimation inks (because of the sheer volume and low cost of printing), digital sublimation using a computer and desktop printer is the ideal method for short-run, on-demand, customized transfers. Fairly recently, inkjet printers became just the ticket digital sublimation needed to grow the industry to the point it is today. Sublimation is now widely used to decorate millions of items every year, from a list of substrates that includes glass, metal, ceramics, FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic), hardboard, MDF (medium density fiberboard), mousepads, and polyester fabrics. The line between the two different methods is not as well defined as you might think, especially as inkjet printers get faster and offset printers go digital.   Recipe For Success: Choosing The Right Partner I put this topic first because, like cooking, you must learn from someone that has already been in the kitchen for a while. An expert. Without someone to guide, teach, and support you, it is unlikely that you will be successful in sublimation. The right partner will take the time to help you select the right equipment, ink, paper, substrates, accessories, software, marketing and training. Next, he will focus on set-up, workflow, color management, and transfer technique. A smart partner knows that if your kitchen is not successful at churning out those tasty meals, he won’t prosper either. Printer C88+ 1280/1400 3800 4800 Price $70 $400 $1,300 $2,000 Needs bulk system Yes Yes No No Max paper size 8.5”x14” 13”x19” 17”x22” 17”x22” + Roll Speed  Slow Slow Medium Fast Duty Cycle Light Light Medium Heavy   Printers For full-color digital sublimation, the preferred technology has been inkjet printers (such as Epson) equipped with piezo printheads. These printers use vibration instead of heat to push the droplets out of the printheads. Since sublimation inks are heat activated, the no-heat technology is ideal. Color laser printers have attempted to achieve the results of inkjet, but so far have fallen short of its quality and value. Color laser printers are, however, an excellent choice for normal printing and heat-transfer printing onto cotton garments. Epson has two classes of printers: desktop and professional. Desktop printers are inexpensive and offer an affordable way to get into sublimation. These printers should be considered disposable, since they are not designed to have a long life. Although it adds to the initial cost, most desktop printers need a bulk ink system added to them to provide a cost-effective ink supply. In the desktop family, a new kid on the block, the Epson 1400, has replaced the Epson 1280. On the professional side, the newcomer is the Epson 3800. Capable of printing up to 17”x22”, this printer would seem to be the real replacement for the Epson 3000 printer of many year’s past. Next up is the reigning champ of speed and reliability, the Epson 4800. This printer is wickedly fast and heavy duty, and will have a long service life. Consider that the Epson 1400 weighs about 25 pounds compared with the 84-pound Epson 4800—and they do almost the same thing! The 4800 is built for dependable, heavy-duty use and accepts large 110ml or 220ml cartridges, the equivalent of a bulk ink system. Some partners are offering clear refillable cartridges for the 4800 Duo printers. I recommend getting the extended warranties for professional printers such as the 3800 and 4800—the cost is minimal.   Double-Duty Printers New to our kitchen are double-duty printers that can print with two different types of ink. Since the printers have eight cartridge slots, the four on the left can be filled with sublimation ink, and the four on the right filled with another type of ink. For example, we can load the printer with sublimation ink and a multi-purpose ink (normal printer, heat transfer and screen positives) or with sublimation ink and the new ChromaBlast heat-transfer ink from Sawgrass. At print time, you choose which ink to print with. Interestingly, the printer’s speed is not affected by this split personality. For folks that already have a 4800, talk to your partner about upgrading your system. DyeTrans 4800 Duo uses ArTainium ink on the left side and either MultiInk (for general purpose printing, heat transfers and screen separations) or the Sawgrass ChromaBlast ink (for cotton transfers) on the right side. Sawgrass 4800 Hybrid uses the SubliJet ink on the left side and ChromaBlast ink on the right. Epson 7800/9800 is for those folks that need to print wider; the Epson 7800 prints up to 24” wide, and the 9800 prints up to 44” wide. These printers don’t print faster than the 4800 and are only practical with roll paper. The sublimation bundle for these printers (both ArTainium and SubliJet) consists of refillable cartridges and liter inks. The 7800 and 9800 can be run in the Duo mode and are an excellent solution for high-volume cooks. Inks & Paper The magic elixir of our cooking process is, of course, the ink. Sawgrass continues to provide two great brands of sublimation inks: ArTainium and SubliJet. People often ask which ink to use, and I tell them that both are excellent; the difference is mainly with regard to the computer. SubliJet inks are for PC only and use the PowerDriver, a print driver with integrated color management that replaces the Epson print driver. ArTainium inks support both Mac and PC and use the Epson driver and professional color management via an ICC color profile. Programs like Photoshop and CorelDraw rely on color management for both printers and monitors and are good fits for ArTainium. Beware of off-brand inks that promise big cost savings, as these usually lack technical support, offer no color management, and have no guarantee regarding printer damage. Any company that says their inks don’t need color management is either lying or doesn’t understand the product they are selling. The purpose of paper in the sublimation process is to carry the ink from the printer to the heat press and then to release the ink off the paper onto the substrate. Since you can’t use plain paper for sublimation, ask your partner to recommend a paper or combination of papers that have the characteristics best suited for your application(s). One very different paper (that is also a substrate) is the new Subli-Dark paper from our friends at Forever. Subli-Dark is a thin white sublimatable patch material designed to use sublimation inks for application to cotton garments and other fabrics. Subli-Dark allows sublimation inks to diffuse through the lower white opaque layer and set into the upper transparent layer of the material, creating an extremely durable transfer. Simply print directly onto the Subli-Dark material, cut away the unwanted material, and press face-down on the substrate. Finishing sheets are used in the fixing process to give the image a gloss or matte finish. Subli-Dark is best used with CorelDraw and a cutter like the Roland GX-24.   Turning Up The Heat As for a heat press, I always recommend that customers invest in a swing-away press instead of a clamshell press, because a swing-away provides consistent pressure across the entire heat platen and can be easily adjusted to accommodate substrates from fabric thickness all the way up to 1” thick. I also recommend that folks consider a 16”x20” platen size, as this large size accommodates some of the most popular substrates in the industry. A great accessory for the Geo Knight DK20S (a 16”x20” swing-away) is the twin shuttle upgrade. This relatively new option allows much greater productivity by allowing you to press one item while setting-up the next transfer. Another interesting upgrade is for the DK3 mug press. For a small fee, DK3 customers can acquire an easy-to-install kit that gives this popular press the ability to press small-diameter items such as aluminum water bottles.   Oven Cooking For many years, traditional ovens and toaster ovens have been used for sublimation transfer. Used in conjunction with a wrap, ovens are a great way to produce large quantities of mugs and also cylindrical products, such as dog bowls, that won’t fit in a regular mug press (see James Ortolani’s article in this magazine). Before I continue, it’s important that I be perfectly clear about this: I strongly recommend using a dedicated oven for sublimation—not the oven that you use to cook food in! To transfer to a mug using a wrap, simply place the transfer and a protective sheet of paper around the mug, secure the wrap around the mug, and bake in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. For high-volume customers, I recommend that three sets of wraps be used in rotation, so that one set can be prepared while one set is in the oven and one set is cooling off. This approach will yield maximum volume. Follow your wrap’s instructions to the letter, as misuse will shorten its life. Also new is a stainless steel wrap for heavy-duty use.   Gadgets & Accessories No kitchen is complete without lots of helpful gadgets. I consider the following stuff standard: heat tape and DyeTrans Pro Spray for securing transfers, Nomex pads for pressing ceramic tiles, green pads for pressing glass, Teflon pillows or Vapor Foam for pressing shirts, and uncoated butcher paper (or the equivalent) on the top and bottom of every product pressed. I do not use Teflon sheets very often because they need to be cleaned after each pressing. The uncoated butcher paper is much easier. Another inexpensive and easy-to-use transfer aid is called the Perfect Transfer Tool. It is an overlay that’s placed on top of a shirt to provide accurate and consistent transfer placement.   Software Unless you’re using sublimation crayons (yes, they do exist), you need a computer and software. Although I offer tech support on just about any graphics or photo software available, my favorites are Adobe Photoshop and CorelDraw. I consider CorelDraw to be the Swiss army knife of our industry (CorelDraw X3 is the latest version for PC and CorelDraw 11 is the latest for Mac), but I use Photoshop for front-end photo preparation. If you have an older version of CorelDraw, consider upgrading—you’ll find that the cost is quite low. If the new Photoshop CS3 is too much for you, Photoshop Elements 5.0 is a great bargain, and all that most folks need. A useful group of Photoshop plug-ins comes from the folks at onOne Software, Inc. One of them, Genuine Fractals, is used for intelligently increasing the resolution of digital images. I consider this plug-in mandatory for folks that are doing murals. The other three plug-ins assist in cutting backgrounds from photos, creating attractive frames, and photo enhancement. As has been the case for many years, Smart Designer from Digital Art Solutions takes CorelDraw to a new level of functionality. The software adds many new features to CorelDraw, allowing a beginning user to do more and an experienced user to move faster. They also have some excellent professional clipart.   Taste Is Everything Color matching is without a doubt the number-one topic of discussion with digital decorators. When we print, we print two kinds of things: images and spot colors. Images are photographs, and spot colors are any colors that we select (like text color or the color of a vector object in CorelDraw). An article I wrote for the 2005 Sublimation Almanac entitled Street Smart Color Matching describes how to build a swatch chart from your favorite/most-used color palette. This swatch chart can be printed and transferred onto a substrate so that it can be used as a reference for selecting future spot colors. I have posted the article in the support section of www.conde.com.   Cookbooks & Lessons Equipment, ink, paper, substrates, software, marketing, training and confidence are too complex to use the trial-and-error method of success. There are many resources to tap into that are inexpensive or even free. First and foremost, tap into the loads of resources available through your partner. Here is a summary of some of the resources that are available: Instructions: Sublimation instructions are a daily reference guide for transfer technique. Since improvements are regularly made and new products continually added, the instructions are updated every few weeks for accuracy. You should get in the habit of checking for updates regularly. Training Videos: New Training DVDs are an excellent and convenient resource to learn from and to use for training new folks on your staff. Books: There are several informative books out now, including “125 Ways To Make Money With Sublimation,” that focus on unique markets filled with potential customers and product lines, “Sublimation How To: Color Techniques That Work!” is a basic introductory handbook for sublimation, and “Sublimation Target Marketing” is a multi-part business system that covers economics, design, pricing, marketing, and other general business topics in regards to schools, team sports, and religious organizations. Training Seminars and Workshops: Contact your partner for dates and locations of the many training seminars taught around the country. The Sublimation Academy offers a four-day session, held twice a month in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that covers CorelDraw, Corel PHOTO-PAINT, Adobe Photoshop Elements, industry marketing, and hands-on technical issues. A hands-on, CorelDraw seminar is offered by Dave Demoret at several locations around the country. More information on his training can be found at www.prolinkgs.com. And we are starting to see web-based instructional videos from www.sublimationtv.com and from Dave Demoret.   What's New On The Menu? At the heart of sublimation are hundreds of exciting products formed from materials, including fabric, metal, plastic, ceramic and glass. It seems that with the dawn of each new day we see more substrates and new markets to pursue. Paul Neumann, the President of Unisub (one of the oldest and best-known substrate manufacturers), is without a doubt the man responsible for much of the growth of sublimation. Unisub’s new and innovative line of Chromaluxe products is directed towards professional photographers. There are lots of other new innovative products. Pick a substrate like metal, which includes an aluminum crossing sign and clock, a mini-refrigerator front, and a license plate clock (for hanging on the wall). Support After 12-plus years of teaching and supporting sublimation customers, I’ve decided that support is the most-important ingredient to sublimation success. When you call for help, you want to talk to someone that really knows sublimation and does it for a living, not someone reading from a computer screen. There is no substitute for real world experience! Getting your system operating correctly and keeping it going are what support is all about. Our instructional materials consist of written and DVD video resources, and we do many of our installations and support via a remote desktop connection. This allows us to insure that everything is configured properly and quickly. Many folks just give up when things go wrong, like when their printer won’t work. Problems are often solved in seconds if you’re talking to a knowledgeable partner.