How To Heat Press A Sublimation Transfer

Posted by Kara Thompson on

99% of our customers end up totally ecstatic with our sublimation transfers, and there's a very good reason:  We use only the best printers, the best ink, and the best sublimation transfer paper. 

So I'm sure you're asking... What about the other 1%?  Why aren't they satisfied?

Well, the answer is simple.  They don't follow the easy and simple rules for properly heat-pressing a sublimation transfer. So we thought we'd make it easy for everyone and write those rules down so we can achieve 100% satisfaction.

How To Heat Press a Sublimation Transfer To A Shirt

Rule #1: You MUST use a polyester shirt

We just can't stress this point enough.  The shirt must be 50% polyester or more.  At 50% it's still going to look "distressed" or faded.  There's nothing we can do about this, it's just science.  Polyester fabric has pores that open at high temperature that allows the sublimation ink to enter.  The less polyester, the less open pores, and the less ink transferring to the shirt. 

70% or more polyester is recommended.  90% is ideal.  If you want a bright and vibrant shirt, then use 90% or 100% polyester.  It's that simple.  

Rule #2: You MUST use a heat press

Sorry, but an iron won't work.  Not even if you're really careful and you press really hard.  Again, this is just science.  I'll explain those details in another article for the curious-minded, but you'll have to trust me on this.  Heat press only!

Rule #3: Shirt must be light color

White shirts are best.  Keep in mind, sublimation is an ink transfer, so it's pretty much like writing with an ink pen on a piece of paper.  All ink colors look good on white, cream, and light gray.  Green ink on green paper won't show up well at all.  And ink won't show up at all on dark colors.  Imagine writing with a pen on a navy blue piece of paper - it's won't look good at all.  That's what your shirt will look like if you try it - so don't!

Steps For Heat Pressing a Sublimation Transfer

Step #1: Place shirt top side facing up on heat press

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Step #2: Put parchment paper inside shirt

This step ensures that no ink bleeds though the top layer of the shirt onto the back side.  This bleeding is pretty rare, but it's been known to happen on certain materials.  Better safe than sorry.

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Step 3: Pre-heat Shirt at 400°F for 5 Seconds

This step is not required, but it has two benefits.  First, it makes sure there are no wrinkles on your shirt, which will ruin your sublimation.  Second, it removes any lingering moisture from the shirt, which could reduce the brightness of the sublimation result.

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Step 4: Place Sublimation Transfer Sheet Face Down On Shirt

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Step 5: Place Parchment Paper On Top of Transfer Sheet

This ensures no sublimated ink gases escape the space between the shirt and transfer sheet, which could cause discoloration of the shirt and potentially stain the heat plate on the heat press.

But don't worry, this sounds scarier than it really is.  Just use the parchment paper and you have nothing to worry about.

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Step 6: Press at 400°F for 50 Seconds Under Medium Pressure

If your heat press doesn't measure pressure, don't worry.  Just tighten it so it's not super hard to close, but not too easy either.  If you use the same pressure as you do vinyl pressing, it will work just fine.  We've done experiments under different pressure and there's no real noticeable quality difference until you're either super tight (could barely be closed) or super loose (almost no pressure at all). 

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Step 7: Open heat press and immediately remove transfer paper

Pull the paper off quickly and while it's still hot. Don't worry, we've never actually seen where the ink smeared because we didn't do this quick enough or smooth enough.  The sublimation process is over by the time you take the paper off, so there's really no risk.  But just to be sure, we like to pull it off quickly.

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Step 8: Shake Shirt Vigorously

Once the sublimation transfer sheet has been removed, and while it's still hot, we like to take the shirt and shake it vigorously for about 10 seconds. It helps remove any wrinkles or creases around the design, especially around where the four edges of the transfer sheet we touching the shirt. 

This step isn't really that important, but we find it to be a fun way to celebrate our new DIY shirts, and we think you will too. 

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