Guide to Sublimation on Aluminum

A Comprehensive Guide to Sublimation on Aluminum

Dye sublimation has been pretty popular among artists and designers. It has been a source of some extra cash for many by designing DIY projects. Most people think sublimation printing is only useful for t-shirts or coffee mug printing. But recently, sublimation on aluminum has become quite a trend. The design remains pretty elegant and durable.

In this guide, you will learn everything about sublimation on aluminum.

Let’s get started.

Sublimation Printing – Hobby vs. Small Business

Sublimation Printing - Hobby vs. Small Business

There is a significant difference between doing something as a hobby and doing something to make a living. But most people think that if I’m making money from something, it’s my business. But that is not always the case.

If you work full-time and do sublimation printing as your hobby, it’s just a side gig for you. So, how can you step over the line and turn your hobby into a business?

From a legal perspective, you need to reach a certain earning threshold. But in reality, you need to have the right kind of mindset to run a business. Therefore, it turns into a business when you decide to do this as your full-time job.

Here are some reasons you should turn this into your full-time job.

  • If you spend a lot of money on DIY sublimation projects, you need to turn it into your business.
  • You have managed to create a catalog of different items, and you are getting regular orders.
  • You have noticed that the profits are significantly more than what you are gaining from your full-time job.
  • Doing sublimation printing seems to be more interesting for you than your full-time job.

What’s Sublimation & What’s Needed to Get Started?

What is sublimation on aluminum?

Not being too technical, sublimation is transferring designs with the help of special ink onto a surface with the help of pressure and heat. With the pressure and heat, the ink will transform into gas and dig into the surface of the materials onto which it has been transferred. Therefore, the ink stays onto the materials and doesn’t wash away or fade over time.

Sublimation on aluminum gets a 3D appearance. This process can produce some of the most visually appealing designs ever.

What is required for sublimation?

For any sublimation printing process, you will need the right kind of equipment. Similar is the case with sublimation on aluminum.

With sublimation, most people only consider the polyester fabric and polyester-coated ceramics to be the ideal canvas for printing. But sublimation printing can be done on aluminum.

Here’s what you will need for sublimation printing.

Heat press

Heat press for sublimation

First of all, you will need a heat press to transfer those designs into the aluminum surface. And this will come at a pretty hefty price. So, make sure to go for a heat press that you can use comfortably. Also, make sure that you don’t rush through the process of transferring the design to your surface.

Choose a flatbed heat press for aluminum sublimation printing. And the best part is that you can conveniently use it on other materials like fabrics and ceramics.

Therefore, there is plenty of room for you to grow here if you decide to expand your business later. Your heat press should be large enough to support the size of your design onto whatever substrate you would use.

Sublimation printer

A heat press or sublimation printer will be the most expensive yet essential equipment for sublimation. With it, you will get your design from a digital platform right onto the sublimation paper and then onto the surface using the heat press.

Sublimation paper

Sublimation paper

This is a special kind of paper designed to release the ink from its surface and transfer it to another surface. There are two kinds of paper available: light and dark sublimation paper.

Light paper is used with light backgrounds as it blends very well with those lighter colors. This is the ideal choice for sublimation on aluminum. On the other hand, dark paper is better suited to work with darker backgrounds. This background will make the colors more vibrant. But the dark form has limited use and is not the ideal choice for beginners.

Design software program

Software program for sublimation

Some printers are suitable for professional use. They also come with different programs that you have to install into your computer to print those designs. Again, there are different programs available on the market. The most popular of these design programs are Adobe Photoshop and Corel Draw, etc.

Thermal tape

You might think that parchment paper will work for heat transfer, but it will not be enough. Therefore, you need to go for Teflon or thermal tape. This tape is handy for sitting between the heating element and the surface and prevents heat damage or burning. You can also hold the sheet in place with the thermal tape as the heat transfers the ink.

Heat resistant gloves

You are dealing with very high temperatures in excess of 350F. Therefore, there is a risk of severe burning if you are not carefully handling the heat press. Hence, you will need your heat-resistant gloves to keep you safe from any accidents.

What Substrates Can You Use for Sublimation?

There are different substrates that you can use for sublimation. These are as follows:

Glass

This substrate is one of the most underused and overlooked opportunities when it comes to sublimation. You can design your personalized vases and drinking glasses. Therefore, you need to have the right equipment and cool designs. And glass is a pretty useful option for sublimation.

Ceramic

Ceramic mugs and other ceramic decorations can work well for sublimation and are great gift choices. You can either transfer your designs to tiles. The only thing that you need to consider is the glaze that coats those tiles and is compatible with sublimation.

Polyester

For fabric printing, this material is the best, which is still quite popular among the masses. Of course, the process of sublimation printing is quite different on polyester than on aluminum. But in most cases, you can use the same ink and press.

Aluminum

You can also use aluminum for sublimation printing. Most people don’t even associate metals with sublimation printing.

But aluminum is an exception. You can use this metal for sublimation printing to get extraordinary results.

As you heat the inks and press them on an aluminum panel, the designs will be very robust and will look pretty cool.

Benefits of Sublimation on Aluminum

There are various benefits of sublimation on aluminum. Dye sublimation on aluminum, when done carefully, comes out completely resistant to scratch because the dyes are infused under the exterior coating. So, the designs will be more durable and won’t be easy to scratch or peel.

Modern finish options are also available, and you can display your design in contemporary and conventional frames.

Here’s the best part.

These prints will be wipeable, and you won’t have to worry about those fingerprints. In addition, this process allows you to work on larger formats and create bigger designs. These designs are highly durable yet lightweight.

You can also use fire-retardant aluminum sheets for your designs and make them even more durable. In addition, you won’t have to use any UV acrylic treatment on your sheets, and it’s ready to use right after the print.

What’s the Process of Sublimation on Aluminum?

Process of Sublimation on Aluminum

Sublimation printing has been prevalent for many years now, but sublimation on aluminum only is reserved for some businesses. This was primarily because the technology was not readily available, and it was not explored as much as now. The process, however, is a little bit complicated, and it involves four different phases.

Designing and printing

The first step is to create the design and then get the print on the sublimation print. Then, you can use your computer and the designing software program. After creating and saving the design, you need to print it on the sublimation paper.

You need to go to the file and then add it to your job list. After that, you will have to select your image and then hit open. Now check your image and then select the sizing.

Also, select the media thickness and then adjust the print quality. From there, go to the input resolution and set the resolution that you want. Now click on the layout and choose the height and width. Finally, check that mirror image box and then print it out.

Preparing the heat press

The heat press has to be preheated before you can use it. The exact temperature is going to depend on what type of aluminum you are going to use. In most cases, the preheat temperature needs to be 400F. Then, when the heat press is getting ready, you need to prepare the substrate.

You have to make sure that the surface is clean. Then, as the press is heating, you need to place the metal sheet on it and make sure that you use the transfer sheet, which is a bit larger than the aluminum sheet on which you will be sublimating. 

You need to cut a piece of paper and pull back that film on your metal sheet carefully. Now make sure to line up the panel sheet with the image. Now grape the heat tape on the sides of the metal sheet to hold its place adequately.

Pressing

You have to apply some moderate pressure when pressing, and it should need a moderate effort to close that heat press. The time that you keep it pressed will depend on the metal that you’re using. But in general, for aluminum, you will need to hold it from 90 to 120 seconds.

During this time, the ink will penetrate the aluminum surface and will become durable. If you dwell it for any longer, then the designs will be lost, so begin with 90 seconds and then increase the timing to 120 if you need it.

Removing the sheet from the heat press

Always use those heat-resistant gloves when you remove those aluminum sheets from that press. Also, avoid warping your aluminum sheet, then allow it to cool down while it’s facing down. Then, if the design gets a bit too warped, you can go for the second press and let it cool again.

Don’t bend the sheet to straighten, or it will damage your design. Sometimes, your colors will look a bit too smudged, and they will look like they are a bit blown out of theory borders.

Blowout occurs due to overheating, uneven heating, or too much pressure. You can use a Teflon sheet or heat-resistant tape to prevent blowout.

Finish Options

If you want to take your sublimation on aluminum to a whole new level, you can go for different finish options. For example, pre-treated aluminum comes in six different finishes.

White finish

The white finish is one option, and it has a white layer at the base or the bottom. The images will appear just like they would on a white-colored photo paper. There are three different gloss types available in this white finish.

You can either go for white gloss, white semi-gloss, or white matte. The white front has a glass-like finish and vibrant colors where blacks are deep and most 3D. In white matte, the air has softer images, and you won’t see any reflection.

These are great for natural sunlit areas, and the finish is pretty durable. This is a top choice for vintage artworks. White semi-gloss provides you with a mixed blend of matte and gloss. This finish will have better color density and will be less reflective.

Gloss and semi-gloss finish

The clear finish will look like what you will get on a glass surface. Your images will transform into metal sheets. There are three different options here as well. The clear gloss has that silver property of the aluminum, particularly on those light and white areas. You won’t see any white on your designs.

And then, there is a clear semi-gloss option available. There are the same silver properties that you will see in clear gloss. However, the color density will be better with lesser reflective properties of clear matte.

Matte finish

The matte finish won’t have any glare at all and will have softer tones. This finish is a top choice for natural sunlit areas, but there are no dense colors here.

Storing Finished Designs

Allow the sheet to cool down as doing this will set the inks and trap them behind the coating. Now it’s time for you to store the sheet until you want to use it. Again, you have to be very careful when holding these finished substrates.

Make sure that you don’t store them in direct contact with one another. From one piece to another, inks can move with time, and this will even happen if the sheets are cold, so you need to be very careful in handling them.

Don’t store them in plastic or use shrink wrap when shipping the sheets. Make sure to go for paper sheets for extra protection.

Any Special Ink is Needed for Sublimation on Aluminum?

Special Ink for Sublimation on Aluminum

When you are using specialized printers, you need to use special sublimation inks. These inks are heated and suspended in their liquid form that goes through a thin layer of a protective coating onto the aluminum.

This can only be achieved with specialized inks. There are a few different types of sublimation inks. You need to pick one based on your end goal needs. Aqueous inks are better suited to work with large-scale printers.

But you can also go for other solvent inks that go well with wide head sublimation printers. Solvent inks are better for smaller designs. In contrast, for larger prints, aqueous ink is better.

But the question here is whether you can use those garment sublimation inks on metal sheets?

Yes! You can use the same ink on two different substrates.

However, you will have to do a pretty fine job when it comes to color matching. This is because those colors are going to have a different appearance on fabric as compared to metal. So, you need to keep this in your mind when you are going for sublimation on aluminum.

Digital Printing vs. Dye Sublimation

Digital Printing vs. Dye Sublimation

Some people use these terms interchangeably, thinking that they both are the same but not. But, on the contrary, they are two completely different processes, and they also yield different results.

In digital printing, you are printing the images directly onto the stage of the metal sheet panel. You can use metal sheets like aluminum for digital printing, but you need to work with specialized printers.

In addition, the looks and overall quality of the designs will be much different. This is because the design is printed on the protective layer on that sheet.

On the other hand, ink is heated in dye sublimation and then passes through a protective layer. After that, ink is trapped under the protective layer once it is cooled. This will make the design look great, and it provides better protection.

How to Make Those HD Aluminum Prints?

Dye sublimation has been in use for many years now, and with the inclusion of more options, it is gaining rapid popularity after all these years. Sublimation on aluminum sheets is one of the reasons why it is gaining so much momentum in recent times.

You need to deal with several variables to get the perfect HD aluminum prints.

You need the customer ICC profile to get the right colors for the sheet. This is to make sure that your design output matches the print on your aluminum sheet. Your temperature, pressure, time, printer, ink, and paper thickness are considered for the printouts with this ICC profile.

During the print, the ink is transformed into gas and mirrored onto the sublimation paper with the help of the sublimation printer and sublimation ink.

From there, it is going to go onto the aluminum sheet. This has to be done because if you directly print the ink on the metal sheets, it will scratch or peel off pretty easily.

In the process of dye-sublimation, a layer of thin coating is applied at the commercial level to that aluminum sheet, and it hardens to form a wear layer on your aluminum sheet.

This coating softens and allows the dye ink to infuse in. The dyes are clocked in when this coating cools down, and your design is printed on the metal sheet.

This is precisely why you have to be very precise when printing. The temperature and pressure need to be highly accurate. If you are not careful, a blowout will occur, damaging the final look of your print.

Don’t over-pressurize your heat-press, and don’t go for extremely high temperatures as well. Also, make sure that you keep the press pressed for about 90 to 120 seconds and nothing more.

FAQs

What kinds of aluminum sheets can I use for sublimation?

You can use three different kinds of aluminum sheets. One is unisub aluminum that needs to be preheated for 400F and then set to medium pressure. It requires 60 seconds of adjusting time to produce the best results.

Dynasub aluminum is another option, and it can be preheated to 385F and set to medium pressures as well. The adjusting time required for this aluminum sheet type is 60 seconds. TCS aluminum is another kind, and it is required to be preheated for up to 375F with medium pressures. The adjusting time for these sheets is 50 seconds to produce the best results.

Is there any difference between aluminum sublimation and aluminum printing?

In aluminum printing, the ink is directly applied to the aluminum surface, and it goes directly on the plate. So, although you can feel this ink on the sheet, the light gray color of the aluminum will remain visible.

Otherwise, the sheet is sprayed with a white top layer, and then an image is oriented on that top layer. Sublimation is different because ink or dye is introduced into a coated layer using heat and pressure. The colors remain bright, and you won’t see any aluminum grey in your image.

What kind of coating goes onto the aluminum sheet for sublimation?

Different manufacturers have different preferences regarding the thickness of this coating and how many layers go on top of each other. The number of coated layers can be anywhere from 2 to 9. The thicker coating layer ensures more durable designs with better color outputs.

Conclusion

Sublimation on aluminum seems to be something out of the blue, but it’s not. It has been going for many years at the commercial and industrial levels.

To get vibrant results, you need to go for the right kind of aluminum sheet, specialized ink, printer, and sublimation paper.

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