What is dye-sublimation printing? It’s a technique that uses heat to transfer digital images onto textiles, plastic, paper and other sublimation-friendly surfaces. With a simple dye-sub inkjet printer and the right ink, you can print transfers for creating customized clothing, branded signs and flags or bespoke designs on crockery. More expensive machines can print directly onto synthetic textiles.
How does it work? First your sublimation printer imprints your graphic onto a sheet of special high-release ‘transfer’ paper. Then you use a heat press to transfer the dye design onto your substrate – your tee-shirt, mug or banner. The dye turns from solid to gas without forming a liquid (sublimation) and penetrates the substrate material leaving a print that won’t crack or wash out. It doesn’t work with natural fibers so well, but with a high polyester mix the results are vivid and permanent.
The more sophisticated direct-to-fabric sublimation printers take the process a step further by also printing straight onto rolls or bolts of cloth thus dispensing with the transfer stage. These machines are necessarily larger and more expensive, so they tend to be reserved for business use. Don’t confuse these printers with the even more expensive direct-to-garment models which use regular inkjet ink to print on the surface of the actual garment instead of using dye sublimation.
TechRadar has tracked down the five best dye-sublimation printers for printing graphics, logos and photos on transfer paper and fabric. They vary in price and functionality, the simplest being suitable for fun home printing projects and the more serious direct-to-fabric models catering to startups and small to medium business.
We also feature the best large format printers.
Best sublimation printers of 2023 in full:
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This dedicated dye-sublimation printer offers the easiest way to print on fabric and other suitable sublimation surfaces. You simply fill the ink tanks with the special ink provided in the box and print your design onto special transfer paper as you would with a regular inkjet printer. Transfers printed in this way can be applied with a heat source to your chosen surface with reliable results. You get four 140ml T49M bottles of ink (C,M,Y, K) which is widely considered to be the best dye for sublimation. The printer itself is a conveniently compact design, based on Epson’s excellent EcoTank line, and though it lacks a display, it’s easy to use with the accompanying software for Mac and PC.
HP’s high-tech dye-sub printer prints on both transfer paper and directly onto fabric using the same innovative water-based dye-sub ink. The Stitch S500 is ideal for businesses with high print demands because at around 110 m² per hour, it prints quickly and can be automated to work through the night without monitoring. There’s plenty of room for ink and it takes large rolls of paper or fabric, while the thermal printheads can be easily replaced with one hand and recycled. Small fans blow the emerging print job to dry the ink before it is rolled and there’s a touchscreen panel for ease of use. If you need a hardworking dye-sup printer with all the latest features, this is it.
Epson’s step-up dye-sub printer includes everything you need to print on fabric and hard surfaces right in the box. It’s a large-format inkjet printer and can handle all sizes of transfer paper from Letter/A4 up to 24-inch wide rolls. The cutter is built in and it ships with two 140ml bottles of ink for all four colors. This Pro edition also comes with professional software, Epson Edge Print Pro. With that and the large color touchscreen interface, this is dye-sub printing made easy, while its precisionCore MicroTFP printhead ensures the highest print quality.
Sawgrass specializes in sublimation and its latest entry-level model makes the process both simple and affordable. It’s a desktop printer designed to print specially formulated inks onto transfer paper of any size up to Legal Wide (8.5 x 14 inches). It offers high-resolution inkjet printing using the company’s own UHD inks, which work with a wide variety of substrates from polyester fabrics to polymer-coated rigid media such as metal or glass. It comes with everything you need to get started in the box, including a 21ml starter set of ink, Sublisure A4 Paper (100 sheets) and Sawgrass Software.
This direct-to-fabric dye-sub printer is able to accept 64-inch textile rolls which is the most common size in the fashion world. This latest edition prints quickly in full four-color mode at 753 square feet per hour. The one-liter tanks hold enough sublimation ink for you to set it to work on a long print run while you design your next detailed and vivid design. There’s no inbuilt touchscreen interface, but this printer ships with full software so you can control it from your computer. With 900dpi print quality, this relatively affordable machine will suit startups and SMBs in the textile industry.
We also feature the best small business printers.