Sublimation vs Heat Transfer

Sublimation vs Heat Transfer

In the vast and fast-evolving printing world, sublimation and heat transfer methods are the two most commonly used printing techniques used by professionals and hobbyists alike. But the question is if you have to choose one out of the two, which one should you go with?

The debate on sublimation vs heat transfer is ongoing. Many opt for sublimation printing while others prefer to heat transfer. If you ask us, we would say, both techniques have their own set of pros and cons to offer and work best for different substrates and prints.

But if you are finding it hard to decide, you have landed on the right spot because today in this article we are going to be discussing the difference between sublimation and heat transfer. Once you have all the knowledge that you need, it will become quite easy for you to make a decision that best fits your needs. So, let us jump right into the details.

Heat Transfer vs Sublimation

What is Sublimation?

Sublimation Definition

First things first, you need to understand the two processes. Let us start with sublimation. You might have heard the term in your chemistry class in high school. Back then, we are sure it sounded boring but today, with the advancement in technology, we can create remarkable printed products using sublimation.

For those of you who are unaware, sublimation is a printing technique that uses specialized sublimation dyes that fuse with the particles of the substrate when converted into a vapor state under controlled heat and pressure.

Specialized printers are used to print images/texts onto sublimation paper using sublimation dyes. When done right, sublimation can provide bright and vivid prints, with quality that is far superior to any other printing technique. Furthermore, if not exposed to harsh conditions, the prints can last you for years to come.

Related: Best sublimation paper for dark garments

What is Heat Transfer?

What is Heat Transfer

Moving on to heat transfer, it is much similar to sublimation. But unlike sublimation, it doesn’t work as a chemical formula. Instead, it is as simple as printing an image on transfer paper and pasting it onto a substrate such as fabric using heat.

For heat transfer, specialized printers are not required. You can print an image on a heat transfer using your regular inkjet heat transfer printer and transfer it to any material using heat. The colors of the image act as wax and reside on the substrate.

With heat transfer, there are no limitations. You can print any image and transfer it to any substrate such as wood, ceramics plates, fabric, plastic, stone, etc. You might need to cut the edges, but that isn’t much of a problem especially if you have a more structured and defined print.

Difference Between Heat Transfer and Sublimation

The difference between sublimation and heat transfer is the startup cost, durability, color combination, weeding & substrate choices. Now that you know about the sublimation and heat transfer printing methods, let us move on to the major differences between the two with facts and figures. Here is a little comparison table that gives you an overview of how the two printing techniques vary from one another.

FactorsSublimationHeat Transfer
Startup Cost$500 to $3000$300
Color CombinationsFull ColorsLimited
Substrate ChoicesLimitedUnlimited
WeedingSelf-WeedingManual Trimming

Moving on, let us discuss each factor in detail so you can get a better understanding of each one of them. After this, you should be able to pick a side between sublimation printing vs heat transfer.

1. Startup Cost

As compared to other printing techniques, both sublimation and heat transfer have minimum startup costs. But if you compare the two then heat transfer is the cheapest option as you only require heat transfer paper and a heat press to get the job done. It will cost you less than $300.

In the case of sublimation, you will require a specialized sublimation printer, software, heat press machine, and specialized dyes. Therefore, it can cost you between $500 and $3,000 depending on the kind of printer you opt for.

Related: Step by Step Guide on Wood Sublimation

2. Color Combination

Sublimation offers full colors, whereas heat transfer offers limited colors. The reason is that in sublimation, colors have the luxury to diffuse with one another and give you rich vibrant shades. On the other hand, for heat transfer, you will only have access to colors that your inkjet or regular printer can print. 

3. Weeding

Since in the case of sublimation, only the colors are transferred to the garment hence it is naturally self-weeding. But heat transfer isn’t. It physically adds a waxy layer onto the garment which is very prominent. Therefore, in case of heat transfer, you have to manually trim the edges to get a clean and sleek look.

4. Substrate Choices

In terms of substrate choices, sublimation offers limited options. You can only sublimate 100% cotton and polyester fabrics. Whereas heat transfer paper allows you to transfer prints on a wide range of fabrics (almost all) without any limitations.

5. Durability

Sublimation prints are much more durable as compared to heat transfer prints. The reason is that in sublimation, dyes become a part of the fabric whereas, in heat transfer, ink is added to the fabric in form of an additional layer that you can physically feel. Therefore, over time, depending on the frequency of the washes, heat transfer prints will fade away and become cracked even.


What is the difference between sublimation and heat transfer?

Sublimation and heat transfer are two different transferring methods. The major difference between the two is the chemistry behind both techniques. In sublimation, solid dyes are converted into a vapor state without going through the liquid phase. On the other hand, in the case of heat transfer, a solid layer of wax is transferred into the substrate and not just the colors.

There is a difference between how the end results of the two techniques feel. In sublimation, colors become a part of the substrate (fabric) whereas, in the case of heat transfer, colors are transferred to the substrate in form of another later.

Lastly, sublimation is expensive and comes with printing and substrate limitations as compared to heat transfer. But the end results of sublimation, in terms of image quality and durability, are far superior to heat transfer.

What is better heat transfer or sublimation?

Both! Whether one opts for one or the other depends entirely on one’s personal choice and required results. Sublimation works best for polyester and cotton fabrics whereas heat transfer is suitable for all fabrics.

Similarly, heat transfer is easy and simple. It requires minimum cost and can be easily done at home. On the other hand, sublimation requires specialized equipment, thus can be a little expensive but is worth it in terms of color combinations and durability.

So, if you want high-quality results, we suggest you go with sublimation. But if you have a large order, we suggest that you go with heat transfer as it is much quicker and easier to get done.

Is sublimation a heat transfer?

Many people often get confused between sublimation and heat transfer. A few believe, that sublimation is a type of heat transfer, which is true more or less as you need tend to use heat to transfer the image. If you look at it, the process is the same. You are just using different printing papers—sublimation paper vs transfer paper. But at the same time, it is not the same process. The transferring method used in both techniques varies. Therefore, sublimation isn’t a heat transfer. It is just a similar process to heat transfer.

Which is Better?

In terms of results, sublimation without any question provides much higher quality prints. The colors are vivid, bright, and highly prominent. You can test it out as well if you are planning on launching a business. For this, you would need a printer, sublimation paper, and heat transfer paper.

Now pick out an image, print it on both papers and transfer it to a t-shirt. Now compare the results. You will notice that the end product of sublimation is much superior in terms of quality and durability as compared to heat transfer.

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