Digital Decorating:

Sublimation Rising

By Christopher Bernat, Contributing Writer

Stahls’ often presents innovation in the manual press market. When using a heat press for sublimation transfers, profit is key and you should seek unique features on your heat press to ensure success.

March 11, 2015

(Editor’s Note: The recommendations in this article are solely from the perspective of apparel sublimation.)

Sublimation continues to grow rapidly in today’s marketplace — and why wouldn’t it? The process is customization friendly; it can be applied to an array of blank apparel options available in the marketplace; and more and more people are buying performance apparel.

With these elements in place, the only thing stopping you from long-term success with sublimation is your own operational skill set and commitment to effectively implementing the technology.

Let’s first address the heat press and focus on the features you should seek. I also will take a look at how a unique heat-press configuration actually can increase your margins by reducing labor. Most of these tried-and-true methods show their positive impact (or lack of existence) on the press and can improve your likelihood of success.  

Taking the time to do things in an organized and consistent way will pay off in predictable quality and happy customers. So before we dig into presses, here are a couple of thoughts on printers and consumables (ink and paper).

Large-format (42 inches and above) sublimation printers are the backbone of a profitable and flexible sublimation platform. Ink and paper costs are lower on a per-square-foot basis and color control is more precise. If you want to do output in multiple ways (spot-hit, allover print (AOP) or oversized printing), then you will need a printer that is big enough.

Perhaps the greatest advantage to a large-format printer is access to “tac” or “tacky” transfer paper, which affixes itself to the garment after the press has been applied. This prevents “ghosting,” one of the most frustrating issues for sublimators and a major cause of high error rates.

Tac paper is only good for fabric-based substrates and will cause issues with hard goods and ceramics. It is not available in desktop sublimation systems because it can’t effectively make its way through the carriage and is susceptible to the temperatures inside the printer.

A larger printer offers you the size to effectively perform sublimation in three unique ways: spot-hit, AOP and cut-and-sew.

Sublimating apparel makes every other type of heat-transfer process look easy. There is no other substrate-print technology combination that can be more challenging to perfect. But the reward of consistent quality can be quite high. Let’s take a look at prepping garments/fabrics for each of these three production types.

Identifying the right press for sublimation is perhaps one of the most important decisions you can make. While most decorating technologies will work with just about any heat press, sublimation is a bit more challenging. Picking the wrong press can set you up for failure, while choosing the right one will make you smile every time you use it. (Note: Remember to identify profit segments — places where value for the garment’s end consumer is significantly higher than the cost of goods.)

When it comes to price versus cost, many people try to start with the least-expensive press. “Why not?” they think. Everyone wants a deal. But presses should be investments. Buying a higher quality press will make production a more profitable long-term process.

You and your employees will look forward to using the right press. The wrong press, however, will fail you when you need it the most. Remember that Murphy’s Law is part of every business. So before you decide to “save” that $300 or $400, reconsider your purchase decision.

Spot-hit sublimation is one of the most profitable ways to enter the market. While many people are focused on AOP, there is tremendous margin opportunity in 13″ x 19″ spot-hit production. This type of sublimation for apparel has
become a profit segment with the use of colored garments, which have a higher retail price point and dominate the retail racks from which consumers select products.

The ideal spot-hit press should have reliable, even heat throughout. This is universal for all presses. Try to find current large-format press users to get their feedback on how their equipment is working for them. Other key factors for spot-hit presses are:

Manual Function: You want a manual press that allows you to control the amount of pressure you place on the garment. Using foam and Teflon for perfect pressing has become an increasingly prevalent industry trend. This is only possible with a manual press.

Swing-Away: Swing-away heat presses provide even downward pressure more reliably than “pop-up” models. Sublimation can have a significantly higher error rate with a pop-up or clamshell press over time. Swing-away presses do not have this issue.

Clean Machine: Some heat presses have less-than-ideal fulcrum points. They produce a buildup of oil or lubricants and, as a result, garments can be negatively impacted. Having a machine that runs clean is important. Inspect all aspects of the press before you move forward with your purchase.

Is 20″ x 25″ the new profit spot? Anyone who has been “on the press” before knows that AOP labor costs are much higher than those of spot-hit printing. The problem is that the market wants large, full-color graphics now.

Customers want full coverage as well. For a substantial part of the market, a manual 20″ x 25″ press could provide the best of both worlds.

This includes huge graphics — big enough for AOP on youth garments and 18″ x 23″ graphics for adult tees. Also, it helps with spot-hit workflow. More shirts per hour, and lower ink and paper costs, make this a great area of profitability.

Finally, don’t forget the foam. All of these presses offer a solid platform from which to build sublimation success. They also meet the requirements of the modern apparel sublimator. And they all can be made better with the use of sublimation foam systems that will help you eliminate retail-limiting press lines and production imperfections.

The market has a number of foam pillow and foam kit solutions available. Make sure you don’t leave out this key ingredient to your sublimation success.

Chris Bernat is chief revenue officer at Vapor Apparel. He is a current SGIA board member, and he speaks and writes on sublimation and mass customization. For more information or to comment on this article, email Chris at

(Editor’s Note: Visit to check out a video about using colored garments engineered for sublimation.)