Craft trends can be tricky- they’ll sneak up on you and then suddenly seem to explode in popularity. For a long time, when I saw people mentioning sublimation printing, I had no idea what they meant or why the average crafter would think it’s worth the start-up cost just to try it. Sublimation also seemed like a lot to figure out, which intimidated me. But there are so many cool things to make. And I hate not being able to make something I see. So I got the sublimation printer and figured it all out. And I thought it would be helpful to give beginners the basics of how the sublimation printing process works, what you need to know, and answer the common questions people usually have about sublimation and Cricut.
Table of Contents
Basics of Sublimation
What is Sublimation?
Basically, for our purposes, it’s a chemical process where the liquid ink goes from a solid state to a gaseous state when it’s heated at high temperatures. The magic happens when it’s pressed against an object with a special coating as it’s heated- the sublimation dye goes into the surface of the object.
However, not every surface will accept the ink. That’s where knowing more about what can and cannot be sublimated comes in (see list below).
Why is Sublimation Suddenly So Popular?
Interest in sublimation has been simmering in the craft world even BEFORE Cricut introduced its Infusible Ink Transfer Sheets and markers. But with the advent of the Cricut EasyPress, Mug Press, Hat Press, and AutoPress, this interest has skyrocketed.
Now you can combine your cricut crafts with sublimation crafts and get incredible vibrant colors on your mugs, keychains, hats, tee shirts, tote bags, and more.
One of my biggest frustrations with using iron-on vinyl (htv) is that it can peel off over time, which gives anything I make with it a shelf-life of sorts. Cricut’s Infusible Ink does not sit on top of whatever item you have it on, but the dye actually goes into the material, “infusing” it with ink.
As a crafter, think about it as dyeing a shirt vs. using an iron-on transfer.
It makes your image dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe, and laundry-safe. No wonder Sublimation is so popular, right???
This ability for the ink to go into the object’s surface makes Infusible Ink and Sublimation great solutions to the problem of your vinyl peeling off over time as you wash it.
Another limitation of heat transfer vinyl is that you’re limited to the colors that the vinyl comes in, and the colors need to be layered. With sublimation, you can get full-color design. And because you’re not using vinyl, you don’t need to use your cutting machine to cut it into shapes before you apply it.
DIY Sublimation vs. Cricut Infusible Ink
Here’s the main difference between Cricut’s Infusible Ink sheets and printing your own sublimation designs.
Infusible Ink transfer sheets have the dye pre-printed onto the sheets.
Sublimation printers let you take this a step further and print your own designs for the sublimation transfers.
With a Sublimation printer and sublimation ink, you can print any design you want. In any colors you want. Boom, mike drop right?
This means you aren’t limited to the colors and patterns that Cricut manufactures their Infusible Ink sheets in.
You also aren’t limited to using basic cut or draw designs and can use any image from photos to artwork.
How Hard is it to Learn How to Sublimate?
Not hard at all! You just need the right tools and materials and a basic understanding of how dye sublimation works.
Taking the time to really learn about how sublimation works helped me, so I wanted to help you wrap your head around it too. So the rest of this article will go on to explain more about what you need to sublimate, the designs you use, and how to actually sublimate.
Although sublimation may sound scary, it really isn’t. Remember, if you’ve used Cricut’s Infusible Inks, you’ve already sublimated!
What Do I Need for Sublimation?
Six Things You Need to Start Sublimating
- A Sublimation Printer (either a converted printer or sublimation printer)
- Sublimation Inks
- Sublimation Paper
- Sublimation Designs (these are often PNG or JPEG vs. SVG which is just outlines)
- An Object that Will Absorb Sublimation Inks (i.e.sublimation blanks or polyester)
- A Heat Source (Like a heat press, Cricut Easy Press 2, or the Cricut Mug Press)
Note: I go more into depth and give my recommendations for each of these things (plus, some good alternatives) in the post below.
This post does contain affiliate links. These product links make it more convenient for you to figure out what I recommend, and if you purchase something they give me a small commission at no additional cost to you. Win/Win!
What Can I Make with Sublimation?
What can’t you make? One of the best reasons you may be looking at sublimation is to make products that need to be dishwasher-safe, or that will be laundered. Because the ink goes into the surface of the item, you won’t worry about it peeling off, like vinyl projects will.
Because of the abundance of blank products that can be sublimated there is a HUGE variety of projects you can do when you use sublimation. I have a partial list of sublimation project ideas for you below!
What are Sublimation Blanks?
Sublimation Blanks are blank objects that either coated with a special coating that accepts the sublimation inks or made with material (like polyester) that sublimation inks can absorb into the pores of the fabric.
Many of the sublimation products have a white background to make sublimation printing stand out better. And while you can sublimate on other color blanks, specific colors work better dye sublimation than others. For instance, black shirts don’t work at all for straight-up sublimation because the dye absorbs into the fabric, but you can’t see it. For best results, use white or light colored fabrics.
A Sampling of Sublimation Blanks
Remember, this list is just a sampling of what you can sublimate on. You guys, this just scratches the surface. Mind blown right?
As an Amazon affiliate, I may make a commission on purchases made through my links. This doesn’t impact your cost at all. And thank you for supporting my small business.
Recommendations for Sublimation Printers, Paper, & Inks
What To Look for in a Sublimation Printer
You don’t need an expensive sublimation printer, inks, cricut machine, or heat press to try this hobby! In this section, I give the types of printers, papers, and inks that are the most highly recommended options and explain the pros and cons of each. But did you know you can sublimate without a printer? There are sublimation ink pads, coatings, ink transfer sheets, acrylic paints (artesprix), and more.
To Print with Sublimation Inks, You Need a Printer- there are TWO options:
- A Converted Regular Printer
- OR A Sublimation Printer
Best Sublimation Printer If You’re a Crafter Just Starting Out
Many crafters start with the Epson Eco-Tank 2720 and use sublimation inks because it’s a good entry-level machine that’s less expensive than professional sublimation printers.
And because of the tanks, it’s easy to add the special ink to Epson printers as well.
Just don’t add your regular printer inks- add the sublimation inks.
Best Sublimation Printer Option If You Have a Small Business
If you plan to add sublimation products to your handmade business, you may consider going with a Sawgrass Sublimation Printer (click on the link for the current price).
You’ll be able to make bigger prints than you would with a standard printer that usually only prints on letter-sized or legal-sized paper.
You can also use print cartridges to refill rather than filling tanks if that’s an option with the model that you purchase.
My Buy for a Sublimation Printer
I have an Epson ET-2720 (purchased at Costco). You can use an old Epson ecotank printer, but you have to go through the process of cleaning the printer heads and the tanks. And you can’t ever use it again as a regular printer unless you redo the process of cleaning it all.
You do not want to use sublimation inks WITHOUT thoroughly cleaning your printer of old ink first. Buying a new printer means you don’t have to clean your printer before adding the inks.
Look to YouTube for tutorials on how to convert your model of printer into a sublimation printer.
Note: Be aware that using third-party inks may void your printer’s warranty. But maybe not, you’ll have to check the manufacturer’s warranty for your printer- then decide how bad you want to use it for sublimation.
What Sublimation Inks Should I Buy?
Two Most Important Things to Think About When You Consider Inks
Other Factors to Consider When You Choose Inks
Do you need UV-Resistant inks?
What about cost?
Also, it is generally recommended that you stick with one type of ink for your printer. So it’s good to really consider what you want to use in your printer before you purchase.
*Note: No idea what a color profile even is? No worries- I explain it below.
How Do I Add Sublimation Inks to My Converted Printer?
Depending on your printer, you will either use syringes to add the ink to the tanks (or cartridges) in your printer, or you have to buy inks that come in containers that are compatible with your printer. You can watch videos specific to the printer you purchase on YouTube to see how this is done.
If you purchased a sawgrass printer you may use sublimation ink cartridges instead of liquid refill bottles (for tanks). This depends on the model of the printer you choose
My Buy for Sublimation Inks
When we first looked at Sublimation Inks my husband did some research, and for our Epson Eco-Tank, he decided he didn’t want to mess around with syringes every time we add ink and he wanted the ink to closely match the native ink for our Epson printer.
He decided on the Cosmos Sublimation Inks for Epson. They have bottles that are compatible with the Epson Eco-Tanks. Plus, their “recipe” for their sublimation dyes closely matches the Epson color profile.
A less expensive option, Printer Jack’s Sublimation Inks can also be purchased with the Eco-Tank compatible containers. They also have really good Amazon reviews.
Many sublimation crafters recommend Hipoo inks for the converted Epson printers as well.
Full disclosure- I haven’t tried these (except the Cosmos inks) but want to give you guys a second less expensive option.
What Paper Can I Print On When I Use Sublimation Inks?
Although you can use laser copy paper which keeps the ink on the surface of the paper- don’t! Using sublimation papers will give you better quality and a more saturated transfer. This special paper is designed to hold the ink when you print but then release the ink when you heat it. If your sublimation printed design doesn’t seem as vibrant as you want, it may be the paper you’re using.
Tip: Be sure to have your printer set to premium paper so that it holds more ink.
My Buy for Sublimation Paper
I purchased A-Sub Sublimation Paper and have my printer set to the premium paper setting to add more ink to the paper’s surface. The A-Sub paper can handle it! I’ve also heard great things about Crafting Besties Transfer Paper, but it’s sold out whenever I check the website
What Can I Use for a Heat Press?
You can use a regular heat press with attachments (for things like different-sized mugs, hats, t-shirts, etc.). Or you can use the Cricut Easy Press or Cricut Mug Press. These Cricut products are SUPER easy to use but are limited to either flat surfaces or specific mug blanks.
Note: All heat presses have recommendations and warning so be sure to research those specifics for the heat press you have or want to purchase.
Which Heat Press is the Best Purchase?
This depends a lot on what you want to sublimate, how much room you have, whether you trust the brand, as well as cost. I would look at the safety, the user reviews, your cost, etc. Some heat presses are really large too, and so it makes sense to know where you plan to store it and if you have room.
My Buy for Hot Heat Presses
I already had the Cricut Easy Presses for other projects so I’m happy to know I can use them for Sublimation as well. The Cricut Mug Press was a little harder to justify as its cost is similar to a 5-in-1 heat press that does more. BUT, I really trust the customer service, and I trust that Cricut machines are designed to be simple and safe for the home user.
If you have any of these, you can use the Cricut Heat Guide. It has a ton of information, as well as some tips for getting a good transfer.
Tip: Although the Easy Press 2 and EasyPress 3 have a higher heat threshold to make the most of Infusible Ink, I’ve used the cheaper original Easy Press for sublimation as well. I put the temp as high as it will go and then press longer. It also really helps to pre-heat the surface of fabric blanks. And did I mention it was less expensive than the Easy Press 2?
Questions About Cricut Products
Do I Have to Use Cricut Brand Products with Cricut Machines like the Mug Press?
No! You just have to find compatible products. For instance, t-shirts that a mix of materials (not 100% cotton). Or mugs that have straight sides.
And you can use metal mugs or tumblers in the Cricut Mug Press, and you don’t have to stick only with ceramic. I used PYD Life Mason Jar Stainless Steel Tumblers and Stainless Steel Camping Style Mugs for a few of my projects.
Can I Use Sublimation Prints with the Cricut Mug Press?
Yes! I think the possibilities of what you can make with the Mug Press lead many of us to consider getting sublimation printers. I know it’s what finally made me decide to get one.
Can’t I Just Use Infusible Ink Instead of Sublimation Prints?
Yes, but Infusible Ink only comes in pre-printed transfer sheets or markers. Many Cricut users are starting with Cricut’s infusible Ink only to get frustrated that they are limited to Cricut manufacturers’ patterns.
You can get some variety in your designs by using Infusible Ink Pens, but you’ll almost always have a hand-drawn look to your project. To get realistic photo images or art with vivid, saturated colors, you’ll want to use a sublimation printer.
Tip: Searching “sublimation blanks” will give you lots of products to choose from beyond the few t-shirts, coasters, and aluminum sheets that are Cricut brand.
Cricut's Official Recommendations for Mug Press Compatible Sublimation Blanks are:
How to Get the Best Sublimation Results
How Do I Get the BEST Sublimation Colors with My Printer?
Many sublimation inks come with an ICC profile (color profile) that you can download for a specific printer.
When you install their recommended color profile, you’re changing the recipe the printer uses to get the best colors when you print. Follow the sublimation ink manufacturer’s instructions for using their custom color profile.
When you purchase inks, look for inks with the closest color profile for your printer.
Because even if you add the ink’s custom color profile, some programs like Cricut and Silhouette won’t let you substitute your own color profile. Although, I read that if you have Windows there is a workaround..
Note: When you first take your sublimation print out of the printer it will look washed out- don’t worry! When you heat and apply it to your sublimation blank it will become MUCH more vibrant!
We purchased Cosmos Inks because we could use the printer’s default color profile and still get a great match.
What is a Color (ICC) Profile?
When we send a design or photo to our printer, it’s programmed to interpret the colors into a combination using its inks (CYMK and Black).
When you use the inks that come with the printer, you’re going to get the best color matches because it’s using a color profile created using the inks designed by the printer’s manufacturer to work best with that printer.
It’s like if you were mixing paint. You could mix yellow and blue to make green. But if you wanted a specific shade of green, you’d want to follow a recipe of sorts for that green. One that is maybe one part blue to two parts yellow with a bit of red thrown in.
The “recipe” for the paint match is essentially the color profile for your printer. Each printer has its own native (default) color profile installed.
When you use sublimation inks (and third-party inks), they may not have the exact same combination that the printer is counting on to get the correct colors in your photo. That’s why someone may look orange instead of flesh-toned.
What Base Materials Can I Sublimate On?
If it has a sublimation coating, you can use almost anything.
However, be aware that there are things you can’t sublimate (even if it has a coating) because there are safety restrictions or warranty issues to be aware of.
For instance, I’ve read that you can’t use the Cricut Mug Press with glass. Also, there are size and shape restrictions. For example, whatever you use has to have primarily flat sides so that it can press evenly and heat the surface. Check the Cricut FAQ for other considerations.
Want to sublimate on glass tumblers? I use the PYD Life 2-in-1 Tumbler Press and highly recommend it.
Sublimation Experiments on Alternative Materials
Woohoo for creative experimentation! Yes, you definitely can try sublimating on unusual surfaces, just be sure to check the restrictions and warnings for your heat press first so you can make an informed decision on what’s safe to press.
Recently, I tried sublimating on pre-painted aluminum flashing, and it totally worked. Galvanized metal with its zinc coating did not work. Experiment with different materials, and test them- it’s a great way to find alternative surfaces for sublimation.
What Type of T-Shirts Can I Use for Sublimation?
If you heard there were specific types of t-shirts or specific colors that you need for sublimating, it’s true- for the most part.
For instance, polyester shirts are recommended. When you look for t-shirts that you will generally need a t-shirt to be at least 65% polyester. And white, grey, or light grey seem to show off the sublimation prints to the best effect.
A white 100% polyester t-shirt takes the transfer the best, but many prefer the feel of mixed materials in t-shirts. When I tried t-shirts I got a LOT better results when I pre-warmed the t-shirt for 20 seconds before I applied the sublimation inks.
You can also purchase spray products that will add a sublimation coating to 100% cotton t-shirts so that you can sublimate on them. But by far, the easiest thing to do is buy products that are intended for sublimation.
Can I Sublimate on Black or Dark Colored T-shirts?
Printing on dark materials doesn’t work well because you can’t print white with a printer, but you can be crazy cool and bleach a t-shirt in the place you want to sublimate. Or some people iron-on white glitter htv (which has a polyester base) and then sublimate onto that.
Where to Purchase Sublimation Blanks
My Favorite Sublimation Blanks
Tip: To find the best places to purchase sublimation blanks, be sure to ask in a Facebook group (I have links to a few below.)
Where Can I Find Sublimation Designs?
First thing, you can use any raster-based image (.png, jpeg, etc.)as long as they are good quality (300 dpi is good) and a big enough size for your project.
Many people look to Etsy or Graphic Design Marketplaces like Creative Market, Design Bundles, or Design Cuts for digital files. I like to draw my own sublimation designs in Procreate that I save as a jpeg or .png and then print to 100% scale on my Epson printer. Just remember to flip your designs before you print.
You can find FREE sublimation designs to download in my Free Library.
I have several different designs for lots of different blanks, with more to come!
Ready to Start Sublimation Crafting?
Sweet! I’ve really enjoyed sublimation crafting. It’s just SO FUN to see my Procreate art and photos on mugs, t-shirts, and tumblers. And I’m excited to see what else I can create with it. I’m confident you’ll love what you make as well.
So, I hope this article helped you understand sublimation printing and gave you the knowledge you need to feel confident that sublimation printing is something you’d like to try.
I’d like this to be a complete resource, so if you have questions that I didn’t answer in this post, please ask in the comment box below.