Sublimation or Vinyl, what is the Best for my Small Project?

Sublimation Printing and Vinyl

It is very common that a customer ask us if 1 or 2 shirts can be screen printed, unfortunately runs that small aren’t very cost effective. In these situations we recommend either vinyl heat press , Sublimation printing for one off and very small runs .

Sublimation: How it works

Sublimation printing is a process that creates a high quality print using specially formulated inks on heat transfer paper. Because each print is transferred to the garment on a one to one ratio. We can print as few or as many full color transfers as needed. Sublimation is the most efficient for printing small quantities of an image on white shirts.

Quality with a Sublimation printer depends greatly on the printer that is being used. Sublimation printers can vary in price from $1,000 up to millions of dollars. At ABR Print we use a state of the art Roland sublimation printer to produce images on sublimation transfer paper with specialty ink. The sublimation paper is then placed into a heat press with the material and exposed to high temperatures of about 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit under high and consistent pressure for an extended period of time. This is when the ink on the transfer material turns from solid to gas. Once the ink is in a gaseous state, it will permeate the fibers of the material. Not only does the heat release the gas from the sublimation ink, but it opens the pores of the material you are transferring the image to. Once the pressure and heat are released, the ink that has permeated the fibers solidifies and is locked permanently into place by the transfer material.

Some things to consider with Sublimation Prints , This process works best on a white, high Polyester content materials. White shirts will show the best color transfer, Sublimation ink is translucent and will look muddy or not show up well on colored and dark shirts. This is the same reason we suggest a white base layer for full color screen prints. The color of the base the ink sits on will determine if the images will POP! or not.

Vinyl Heat Transfer

We suggest Vinyl as an alternative for darker shirts that cannot be sublimated on. Like Sublimation Printing, vinyl has no minimum order amount.

Vinyl does have a few drawbacks. Heat pressed vinyl tends not to hold up as well as Screen Printing or Sublimation over time . Thicker older formula vinyl’s can crack or peel off of shirts with heavy wear, washing and sun exposure. Vinyl is typically used to personalize orders as a cheap alternative to embroidery. IE, We get a request to print 30 Team Shirts and each is customized with a name on the chest or back.

The Process to apply Vinyl to a garment requires that artwork given to the designer. It then must be digitized into a vector. Each color layer must then be separated and traced into a cutpath. The vinyl is then cut, weeded, and carefully lined up on the garment before it is transferred via a heat press.

Newer Vinyl formulas are now available on the market that have a longer and more robust wearability. In 2020 we did some experimenting with some newer formulated Siser Products. The new printable formulas are easier to print on, weed cleanly , and transfer brightly to even dark garments.

Some Reasons you may want to use vinyl or a combination of Vinyl and Dye sublimation for small or custom orders are, the variety of colors and textures that you can get with vinyl. Vinyl comes in Glitter, metallic, reflective, flocked, patterned and Glow in the dark single color rolls. The Siser Glitter Vinyl can be dye sublimated on top of the application. So, if you would like to design a shirt with a simple design but add a glittery element with a lot of detail. The shirt can have the vinyl design applied first and details added with dye sublimation.

Further Reading:

Best Sawgrass Sublimation Printer – An In-Depth Analysis with Buying Guide by Stacy

A good overview of some of the types of Sublimation printers by Sawgrass .

Roland Dye-Sublimation Printers

ABR Print uses Roland Printers for our Dye Sublimation, Vinyl and Banner Printing process.

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