Digital Decorating:

Maintaining Your Sublimation System

Use these tips to keep production running smoothly.

By Jimmy Lamb, Contributing Writer

Moisture in the printer, or on the paper or substrate can cause quality problems. If the moisture turns into steam, it can displace the ink and cause issues, as seen here.

January 25, 2019

Sublimation systems come in many shapes and sizes, but each one typically falls into one of the following categories: industrial or desktop. Because they are the most common, let’s look at desktop systems.

In the desktop sublimation printing world, systems are categorized as either adaptive or integrated. With an adaptive system, an off-the-shelf office printer is paired with sublimation ink. The printer was designed to print an image on standard paper using ink created for that purpose. It was never intended for printing with sublimation ink, which chemically is different from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) ink. Thus, the sublimation ink is “adapted” to work in the printer.

While this works — very well, in many cases — the printer doesn’t know what sublimation ink is and how to process it based on its characteristics and chemistry. Thus, any and all maintenance must typically be done manually.

An integrated system is one where the printer was designed for the ink and vice versa. So the two components work hand-in-hand in all aspects, from printing to maintenance.

The first step with sublimation production system maintenance is to read your owner’s manual. Every printer is different, so maintenance requirements also may vary among machines. Make sure you understand the instructions. If you have questions, contact your dealer.

Heads Up
Regardless of your sublimation system’s make and model, the most important aspect of maintenance is keeping the print heads clear. If you routinely print, you will accomplish this simply by letting the ink flow through the heads. But when you go through periods of inactivity, there is the potential for ink to dry in the heads and clog them.

With an adaptive sublimation system, manually perform routine head checks to ensure they are maintained properly. This is a mechanical operation that your printer performs, but the user must activate it.

With an integrated system, the printer is programmed to automatically perform head checks to ensure enough ink flows to keep things running smoothly. All you have to do is leave the printer on.

If a print head becomes clogged, it typically will leave streaks in a printed image, which is referred to as “banding.” To remedy this, first perform a head check to confirm the heads are clogged because low ink levels can cause a similar appearance. A head check often prints a pattern that will show whether a head is clogged.

If the head check shows clogged heads, then perform head cleanings to correct the problem. This is a mechanical operation, so refer to the user’s guide for the correct steps to activate the function.

After the head cleaning is complete, perform another head check to see if the printed pattern now is correct. If not, repeat the steps. Several head cleanings may be required to correct the problem. However, if you don’t see improvements after three to five head cleanings, contact your dealer.

Ink Elimination and Storage
Another aspect of sublimation-printer maintenance is waste ink. Each time the system does a head cleaning, it uses some ink and the excess has to go somewhere. If the system has a removable waste-collection tank, it needs to be changed at some point. A full tank often will stop a printer, so remember to keep a spare waste-collection tank in your shop’s inventory.

Some printers use a built-in tank with a valve that will drain the ink into an external container. Either way, make sure you regularly update your shop’s waste-ink levels and take the necessary steps to manage them.

Sublimation ink works best when it’s stored and used within certain temperature and humidity specifications. For example, some inks have a recommended temperature range of 59˚F-77˚F. Humidity should be kept above 35% relative (no condensation).

However, too much humidity can generate moisture in other key components of the sublimation production process, such as transfer paper and substrates. Moisture will turn into steam when it contacts the heat press, which can cause quality issues in a sublimated image.

So your work area’s climate must be carefully controlled to maintain the proper temperature and humidity. Again, refer to your machine’s user’s guide for specific settings and recommendations.

Keep it Clean
In addition, keep your shop’s production area as clean and dust-free as possible. If any dust or dirt ends up on the transfer paper — especially during printing — it will lead to poor-quality images. Though most printers have some type of mechanism for catching paper after printing, if you periodically see paper fall to the floor, set up some sort of catch container. Once the printed side of the paper comes in contact with the floor, it certainly will be unusable.

If you use a sublimation system with refillable ink cartridges, use extreme caution when refilling. Any dust or dirt that gets into the cartridge not only can affect print quality, but it also can damage the ink-delivery system. Air bubbles in the ink also constitute a serious problem that can occur when manually filling ink cartridges. Try to fully understand the process and ensure that no foreign particles end up in the system.

In reality, modern desktop sublimation printing systems are easy to maintain. The most common issue is clogged ink heads, which should not happen if proper maintenance protocol is followed. The key thing to remember is to keep the ink flowing.

Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb has more than 25 years of apparel-decoration experience. He currently is manager of communications for Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston, S.C. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jimmy at

Electrical Engineering

A sublimation printer is a sophisticated electrical device that is susceptible to power surges and voltage fluctuations. Consider using a surge suppressor as a minimal way to help protect your investment.

Better yet, invest in a quality uninterruptible power supply (UPS), as it will feature a built-in surge suppressor and will keep power flowing temporarily in the case of an electrical failure in your facility. It’s much healthier for the internal circuits if you manually shut down the printer, rather than having it shut down abruptly due to a power outage.