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The Dye-Sublimation Dictionary

All the sublimation terms you need to know—and a few you may not even have known existed.

The Dye-Sublimation Dictionary

(Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Insights.)

All the sublimation terms you need to know—and a few you may not even have known existed.



Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key(black). This is considered a subtractive color method in which the colors typically are printed in the order implied by the acronym (although this can vary from printer to printer). Cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black) are used because when the CMY primaries are combined, they create secondary mixtures of red, blue, and green. Mixing all three results in a secondary mixture of an imperfect black. This enables printers to create a tremendous number of color combinations, providing nearly limitless opportunities for personalization. Many inkjet printers—and an increasing number of sublimation printers–use this color model.

See also, process color, CMYO, RGB


Stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Overcoat. With many sublimation printers, this ink set is used in lieu of the traditional CMYK color model when printing to a transfer paper, with the overcoat eventually becoming black on the final product. The overcoat—which goes by various names, depending on the manufacturer—also helps make the final product water resistant and prevent discoloration from UV light and air.

See also, CMYK

Input color

The color that is identified in the design software prior to printing.

See also, output color

Output color

The color that comes from the print heads. One common sublimation defect is an incorrect output color, or a color mismatch between the finished product and the original design. However, this tends to be a problem with the input color, rather than the output. This is because a computer monitor typically displays in RGB while the printer typically outputs CMYK, resulting in slight color differences between what you see on screen and what you see on your product. This is why color management tools are an important part of the sublimator's toolbox.

See also, input color

Process color

The four primary ink colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, also known as "key") that are used in most color printing.

See also, CMYK, CMYO


Stands for Red, Green, Blue. This is an additive color model that works on the basis that mixing red, green, and blue pigments in varying proportions results in a wide array of colors. Most screens use an RGB color model, rather than the CMYK or CMYO color model used by printers, meaning there can exist subtle color discrepancies between what you see on screen and the final sublimated product. However, the use of color correction software can help resolve issues related to this discrepancy between screen and substrate.

See also, CMYK, CMYO



A defect resulting from a printer's inability to reproduce a smooth gradation from one color to the next; it appears as noticeable "jumps" from color to color rather than a smooth transition.

Banding also can appear as sections of the final image that look streaky or appear to be missing ink; most often this is the result of clogged or otherwise malfunctioning print heads.

See also, cartridge ink system, bulk ink system


A defect wherein the colors of an image appear to have been "blown" outside of the intended borders, resulting in a smudged effect. This often is a result of uneven or overheating or excessive pressure being applied during pressing. Some awards and personalization professionals use blowout sheets to help prevent this issue.

See also, blowout sheet


The process of breaking a color pixel into an array of dots. This also refers to the process by which the human eye perceives a series of closely aligned dots as a single, unbroken image or color from a distance.

Gassing out

A defect that occurs when a splotch or "burst" of ink falls outside of the intended image area, often resulting from a transfer paper being too loosely held against the final product.


A defect that appears as a blurry image characterized by a strange shadow effect along the edges of the image. Potential causes include shifting of the sublimation paper during application to or removal from the final product; application of a transfer to an already warm substrate, which can initiate the gassing process too early; and using a dirty or worn blowout sheet.

Transfer lines

A permanent defect, appearing as faint lines in a textile that has been pressed, that occurs when the short fibers along the edges of a transfer sheet melt during pressing. Lowering the pressing temperature, shortening the press duration, or cutting the edges of your transfer paper to eliminate harsh lines may reduce transfer lines.

See also, sublimation (transfer) paper

Moisture (defects)

Excess moisture during the sublimation process— introduced during printing or pressing—can result in defects in the final product, including color shifting (when colors lose their accuracy), bleeding, and uneven transfers. This is particularly problematic when using substrates such as ceramic or glass that will not absorb excess moisture.

Often, high humidity levels in the sublimation workspace can negatively affect the final product. The ideal conditions would be a room temperature of 70° F to 80° F with 35% to 65% relative humidity; you can control your operating conditions with a dehumidifier, but be sure to regularly take readings with a hygrometer to ensure you aren't eliminating too much moisture, which can have negative effects on equipment and ink.


Bitmap (raster image)

An image file format designed to store digital images. Bitmap file formats include BMP, JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and PNG. This is the file format customers most often will provide you when requesting custom sublimation work. Because it is made up of pixels (small dots), this file format cannot be infinitely enlarged without negatively impacting the image resolution, which can make working with very small or low-resolution files challenging.

See also, vector graphic


Stands for Dots Per Inch. This is a measure of image quality of resolution that counts the number of individual dots of ink a printer can transfer onto a square inch of paper or fabric; generally speaking, the more dots the printer can transfer, the more detailed and clear the resulting image will be. The DPI of any given printer is affected by the type of print head being used.

Vector graphic

An image file format designed to store digital images. Vector graphic file formats include AI, SVG, DRW, CDR, and EPS. This file format is made of paths, rather than pixels (small dots), and therefore can be enlarged without losing resolution, making this an ideal file format to receive from a customer looking for custom sublimation work.

See also, bitmap (raster image)


3D heat press

This heat press uses vacuum technology and a thin, flexible silicone pad to apply heat and pressure to uneven, misshapen, or otherwise previously impossible-to-press products. Once the product is placed inside the press, an air-forced vacuum sucks the air out of the chamber, constricting a flexible silicone pad around the product being pressed. This heat press enables the user to press a wider variety of items more easily. However, it also can be more difficult to work with than the typical clamp down heat press. And because the technology is so new, some manufacturers' products do not achieve uniform pressure or heat, resulting in a blotchy or inconsistent final product. For this reason, it is important to work with a supplier you trust when purchasing a 3D heat press—and any other—machine.

See also, swing-away heat press, clam-shell heat press, mug press, heat wrap

Clam-shell heat press

A heat press on which the top platen opens and closes from a hinge aligned at the rear center of the machine while the bottom platen remains stationary, mimicking the way a clam shell opens and closes. This type of heat press typically takes up less counter space because it is essentially built up, rather than out, making it ideal for light sublimation users. However, it cannot provide uniform heat and pressure to uneven surfaces. In addition, the top platen will be in contact with the surface closest to the hinge for longer than any other area of the product being pressed, potentially resulting in an inconsistent product if not carefully used.

See also, swing-away heat press, 3D heat press, mug press, heat wrap

Dye diffusion thermal transfer printers

This is just another name for sublimation printers!

Heat wrap

A flexible sheet, often made from silicone, that can be wrapped around an oddly shaped substrate, like a pet's water dish. Some can be used with 3D heat presses and others can be used in in convection ovens.

See also, mug press, 3D heat press

Mug press

This type of heat press—or heat press accessory—that wraps around cylindrical objects (such as, you guessed it, mugs) to uniformly apply heat and pressure around curvatures.

See also, swing-away heat press, clam-shell heat press, 3D heat press, heat wrap

Print head

The component of an inkjet printer that places the ink, in the desired design, onto the paper that later can enable transfer of the design to the final substrate.

Swing-away heat press

A heat press on which the top platen can be rotated 360 degrees around the stationary bottom platen. This type of heat press requires greater clearance around the machine to ensure full movement of the arm, and so requires more counter space to store and use. However, because it closes flat, it applies direct heat and pressure to every part of the product being pressed— although, like the clam shell, it cannot apply uniform heat and pressure to uneven products.

See also, clam-shell heat press, 3D heat press, mug press, heat wrap


Bulk ink system

System in which sublimation ink comes in—and is installed into the printer as—large bags. Because they do not require frequent replacement, bulk ink systems are typically used by heavy sublimation users.

See also, cartridge ink system

Cartridge ink system

System in which ink comes in—and is installed in the printer as—individual cartridges. Because the cartridges may require more frequent replacement, this system tends to be used by lighter sublimation users.

See also, bulk ink system


The liquid, often water, in which dye sublimation pigments are suspended.


Blank (substrate)

A blank (or substrate) is a generic term for any product the awards and personalization professional intends to decorate with sublimation.

Blowout sheet

A sheet or pad, often made of Teflon, that is designed to hold transfers in place and prevent temperature variations across your platens, helping prevent blowout defects on the final product.

See also, blowout

Sublimation (transfer) paper

Sublimation (transfer) paper's special coating prevents sublimation ink from saturating the surface. Once printed on, the paper is applied to the substrate and heated in a press—much like other forms of heat transfer paper— so that the ink will embed into the fibers of the substrate. The paper, which now shows a washed-out version of the graphic or logo, is removed and discarded.

See also, sublimation coating

Sublimation coating

A special solution that facilitates sublimation printing onto natural and untreated surfaces such as wood, metal, stone, glass, and certain textiles. The coating is a polymer-based, sublimation-receptive solution that when applied creates a surface into which sublimation inks can embed.


Heat set

Pre-shrinking material prior to placing it in the heat press, thereby ensure no defects are created by additional shrinking occurring during the sublimation transfer process.


Often used with textiles; heat pressing the substrate prior to sublimation to remove moisture, wrinkles, or other inconsistencies that could result in defects in the final product.



In science, sublimation is the process undergone when a substance transitions from a solid directly to a gas without first passing through a liquid stage when exposed to heat or pressure.

In awards and personalization, sublimation describes a printing method in which ink is applied to a substance and then exposed to heat and pressure, which forces the ink to transition to a liquid then gaseous state so that it embeds itself into the fibers of the final product before turning back into a solid, improving its color, clarity, and durability. This process originally was called "sublimation" because users thought the ink did not enter a liquid stage, although this later was found to be incorrect—except in the case of heat transfer imprinting printers that utilize the CMYO color method. The ink used in these cases does sublimate, or transition from liquid to gas without first becoming a liquid.

Sublimation printing offers many benefits over other printing types, including that it can replicate continuous tones previously only found in photographs; the colors produced can be extremely vibrant; dye does not build up on the fabric; and the images are nearly permanent, with no peeling or fading (unless the product is exposed to environmental elements such as UV light).

UV resistance

The ability of a product, solvent, or mixture—including many pigments, dyes, and textiles—to withstand the effects of direct exposure to ultraviolet radiation, such as that emitted by the sun. Materials with low UV resistance may fade, crack, or disintegrate as a result of prolonged exposure, making this measure an important consideration for any project that will be used outside or in environments exposed to high levels of natural light.

Some UV inks do have high levels of UV resistance, but like with other decorated products, sublimated items will fade over time if exposed to direct sunlight. For this reason, it is important to consider both the intended use and your ink's UV sustainability when accepting any sublimation job.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds are natural chemicals that have extremely high vapor pressures—resulting from low boiling points—at moderate temperatures (such as room temperature). When exposed to higher temperatures, these chemicals evaporate or sublimate from a liquid to a gas form. Once gaseous, these chemicals can enter the surrounding air, a trait called volatility. Although sublimation printing does not actually involve the scientific principle of sublimation (that is, evaporation from a solid directly into a gas), sublimation ink's ability to quickly liquefy, cling to the fabric, then become a solid like a volatile organic compound—essentially making the print a part of the substrate's fibers—is what makes this form of printing so unique!

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