By Cassandra Balentine
For textile printing, dye-sublimation (dye-sub) offers many advantages, including vibrant colors and durability. However, the process requires a few steps and multiple components. For digital dye-sub transfer printing, images are printed with inkjet onto transfer paper, which is then sublimated into the fabric using a heat press.
To ensure a quality end product, care must go into each step of the process—this includes the selection of transfer paper. In addition to textile printing, dye-sub transfer processes are also used to output to rigid substrates. Both specialty and multi-purpose transfer papers are available to address the varying needs of the market.
Above: A printed image created using Epson DS Transfer Photo Paper.
Selecting a Transfer Paper
Many considerations go into selecting a transfer paper for digital dye-sub printing. Some are based on printer specifications—whether it is roll or sheetfed, as well as any dimensional requirements or restrictions.
Lily Hunter, textiles and consumable supplies, Roland DGA Corporation, shares that even though transfer paper is thrown away, it plays a crucial part in the outcome of the print service provider’s (PSP’s) end products. Therefore, choosing the right or best transfer paper should be based on what is being sublimated, as well as how it will be sublimated, meaning the type of heat press used. She suggests picking a paper that yields the best results as well as optimizes workflow efficiency and costs.
The proper transfer paper is determined based on a variety of factors. According to Bill Rossi, president, All Weather Products Co. LLC, these include, but are not limited to, the substrate to be embellished—textile or hard surface, inks being used—liquid or gel; heat press method—roll or platen; and color profiling. “The process is more involved than one may think,” he cautions.
Rossi explains that some dye-sub transfer sheets offer high absorption and require more ink but lower handling standards, while other papers feature technical coatings that use less ink with faster application time. However, these tend to require slightly more quality control in production.
In general, “it is beneficial to look for a fast-drying transfer paper to ensure the elimination of any cockling at the printhead, which could cause printhead strikes. A faster drying, high-release paper helps ensure that the maximum amount of ink is transferred to the sublimated item, resulting in image clarity and color sharpness,” shares Tom Hockenberry, director of sublimation logistics, The Mosaica Group.
Chase Pender, marketing manager, Supply 55, Inc., points out that high-quality, well-engineered transfer paper yields reductions in consumption as well as improved quality of the finished product.
Rossi explains that the environment, ink, and paper, combined with proper color control and profile—making sure this matches with the substrate—are the main requirements for obtaining excellent print results with dye-sub.
Specialty vs. Multi-Purpose
For dye-sub applications, many niche media options are available to serve a specific purpose, which is generally reflective on the type of surface to be sublimated, including textiles as well as hard surfaces like aluminum, wood, and resin.
“Specialty papers designed for hard substrates reduce the possibility of curling and warping on the heat press. They are formulated for the best ink transfer and image without leaving a haze or powdery spots on finished materials,” admits Hockenberry.
Multi-purpose dye-sub transfer paper is also available to serve a broader range of applications. The biggest advantage of a multi-purpose paper is the ability to keep one paper stock in inventory. “This avoids confusion among employees, preventing situations where the wrong paper is selected for a job,” shares Hunter.
Multi-purpose sublimation transfer papers are used to transfer images to garments, textiles, or hard substrates such as aluminum panels or wood-based items with a polyester-receptive coating on them, according to Hockenberry.
Nick Buettner, director of technical sales, Advanced Color Solutions, cautions that with a multi-purpose paper you may be sacrificing—to some degree—quality or efficiency with a paper that isn’t optimal for the process.
In some instances, the PSP may have to get creative in finding workarounds if using a multi-purpose paper. For example, when using a flatbed press for thin and/or stretchy fabric, tacky paper is best to avoid ghosting. Hunter explains that a multi-purpose, non-tacky paper can work, but to prevent paper shift, the operator may need to use either fabric spray adhesive or heat-resistant tape to hold the paper down.
Further, the cost may be more compared to other papers. “You’re not going to get the most bang for your buck if the majority of what you do is point of purchase or trade show signs. If you’re doing more mugs and knickknacks it makes sense to go with a multi-purpose transfer paper. If you’re doing high-volume textiles, go with a production paper,” suggests Kara Work, product specialist, S-One Holdings Corporation.
Breaking it Down
Beyond printer specifications, transfer papers are primarily selected based on application surface. “You want to pair a specific transfer paper to the right substrate—be it rigid, like metal; fabric—slick or not; and knickknacks like keychains and mugs,” stresses Work.
Eric Holm, media specialist and Jeff Smith, product manager, professional imaging, Epson, agree, noting that different industries look at dye-sub the same way, it’s the applications that drive the decision making process. “In the textile market, the same papers can go with garment, signage, and décor. The paper is selected based on the printer and heat press settings, color profiles, and ink loads that will bring you to the desired outcome.”
The amount of transfer paper used is dependent on the job requirements. “For some jobs a small logo is needed, while for others an entire garment is sublimated front and back,” says Rossi.
As previously noted, the differences in paper generally include thickness, ink receptiveness, and speed. “For instance, a thinner paper will go faster and you can fit more on a roll. But it’s more dependent on what you’re transferring too,” offers Work.
Holm and Smith point out that lighter weight paper is more productive, mostly because more media can fit on a roll. “Thinner paper costs less and the rolls are longer. When time is money and you want to get it out the door fast, you don’t want to be spending time changing rolls. Big production shops want bigger rolls to really get the productivity,” they comment.
Many industries use digital dye-sub transfer printing, including graphics/signage, décor, and garment. While transfer paper is best narrowed down by the specific application surface, there are features common to varying markets as well.
Multiple types of transfer paper are used for graphics and signage applications. Buettner suggests that lighter weight papers are used in this market for cost savings, while heavier weight transfer papers support heavy ink loads and saturation.
For a fabric-based signage application, Work suggests PSPs could use a backlit fabric, block out fabrics, or stretch fabrics. “Or, you go with a fabric optimized for flags—thinner and breezier.”
Hockenberry points out that the soft signage market has grown tremendously, and the wide format market uses 126-inch width dye-sub papers of various lengths from 400 foot rolls up to larger 1,000 meter rolls and beyond.
It is also worthwhile to note that dye-sub is used on hard signage in this market as well, including include permanent display signage, exhibits, wall murals, dry erase boards, decorative flooring, and tabletops. “For instance, a transfer paper to transfer images onto aluminum photo panels is going to be robust and accept more ink,” shares Work.
Garments are another area where dye-sub is popular, including apparel for jerseys, uniforms, and dance and race wear. Most garment manufacturers use thermal tack or tacky paper for these applications. Tack is an adhesive built into the paper to keep it stable during the heat transfer process.
“Some manufacturers offer different strengths of tack paper, advertising low- and high-tack, giving the end user an option to try which one is best for their specific application,” points out Hockenberry. He says for sportswear applications, fabrics containing at least 60 percent polyester are best. “There are many wearable poly-performance fabrics being digitally transferred, giving the user the ability to customize team jerseys and race wear for mass customization or one-offs as necessary.”
Garment jobs also range in size, from as little as 3×3 inches for a pocket transfer or as much as two linear yards for some of the larger dye-sub clothing cut-and-sew applications, offers Buettner.
He often sees transfer papers ranging from 60 to 140g, with and without tack, used on garment applications. “Lighter weight paper tends to be difficult to use for garments due to saturation levels,” notes Buettner.
Dye-sub transfer paper is also used in the décor market, creating applications like pillows, bedding, tapestries, blankets, wallcoverings, runs, and shower curtains, to name a few.
Buettner points out that décor jobs range in size, but would rarely be less than several yards and can be thousands of yards.
Due to the variety of potential décor applications that utilize dye-sub, this market relies on a range of transfer papers. “Certain home goods will use a tack paper to eliminate ghosting and others will use the thinner weight papers for high-speed applications,” shares Hockenberry. Additionally, the grammage weight of the transfer paper and different coatings can vary greatly. “High-speed printers today can use grammage weights from 105 down to 45 gsm or lower.”
The Right Fit
Choosing the right transfer paper is a critical element in obtaining a quality dye-sub print. “You choose the paper that makes sense. Dial in on color and settings on the heat press, tinkering with these factors to get the desired outcome,” recommend Holm and Smith.
Using a quality transfer paper well suited to the job at hand helps ensure successful dye-sub output.
Nov2019, Digital Output