All About the Dye-Sublimation Printing Process

Written by Mark Rogers

Metal prints are all the rage, but it is one type in particular that has taken the art and home décor world by storm: dye-sublimation metal prints. These prints are made using a process that has been around for decades but has only recently been applied to photography and artwork. The result is a crystal-clear print that has a radiance you can’t achieve with standard printing methods and materials.

These metal prints may look like magic, but it's real - and it's all thanks to the wonder of science.

What Is Dye-Sublimation Printing?

Dye-sublimation, as mentioned in our post explaining metal prints, has been around since 1957 when it was invented by French researcher Noël de Plasse of the textile company Lainière de Roubaix. The process, initially developed for textile printing, led to the founding of the company Sublistatis SA, which was dedicated solely to monetizing this new process.

Sublimation is type of phase change in which a solid transitions directly into a gas; the reverse is called deposition. With dye sublimation, specially made inks are able to sublimate — i.e. turn into a gas — directly into a substrate, commonly textiles or plastics. This causes the dye to become part of the finished piece, unlike other printing processes in which the ink sits on top of the substrate.

There are several important parts of the dye-sublimation process:

Graphics software: Before the item is printed — no matter what it is being printed on — the image is uploaded into professional graphics software for editing.

Printer: A special printer capable of printing the sublimation inks onto transfer paper is required.

Ink: The ink is perhaps one of the most important parts of this process. There are two major types of inks, including aqueous dye sublimation ink and solvent dye sublimation ink, but other categories (eco-solvent ink, for example) are growing in use.

Transfer/sublimation paper: You cannot print directly onto the final substrate. Instead, the special printer will print the image onto transfer paper, which holds the ink until it is placed into the heat press.

Substrate: The substrate (i.e. what the final image will appear on) must be able to accept sublimation ink. The most common substrates for dye-sublimation are textiles for garments, along with polyester, non-cotton polyester blends and polyester-coated semi-rigid plastics and other “rigids” (i.e. metal). Many other substrates can be printed on, however, provided they have the right coating.

Heat press: The heat press is the final stage of the dye-sublimation process. The substrate and transfer paper, with the image printed in reverse on the paper, are secured in the press. After some time in the press, the image is transferred to the substrate.

Metal prints for home décor are just the latest use for the dye-sublimation process. It’s far more common in the garment industry — according to Smithers Pira research, it comprises 75% of the dye-sublimation market — as its long-lasting, high-quality appearance is perfect for clothing that has to live through wearing, washing and drying.

Other industries making use of this special printing process include visual communications, which includes marketing signs, tradeshow and event graphics, and promotional materials such as mugs and hats. Technical industries are using dye-sublimation for accessories and parts, while the home décor industry has used it for specialty fabrics for windows drapes and curtains — and now, artwork.

How to Take Care of and Display Dye-Sublimation Prints

With the dye-sublimation process, the resulting metal print is a nearly permanent and durable piece of artwork that has much less chance of damage, scratching and fading. That doesn’t mean you should just leave them alone, though: you still need to clean, store and display them properly.

Clean Your Metal Print

Everything in your home, including your new metal print, will collect dust, while curious fingers will leave oily smudges. Neither dust nor fingerprints will do long-term damage to the print, but they detract from the print’s luster. Clean your metal print on a regular basis with a microfiber cloth and any all-purpose household cleaner (or even simple dish soap and warm water).

If your metal print needs to stay in storage before display, slip it into a GalleryPouch bubble bag to protect both the print and other artwork. Some metal prints may have sharp corners, so it’s important to be careful when storing it with delicate, paper-based art.

Display Your Metal Print

You can display your metal print anywhere inside your home but note that even though metal prints are resistant to fading, they will eventually lose some color vibrancy. Like any artwork, it’s wise to keep them out of direct sunlight. Dye-sublimation metal prints are not suitable for outdoor display, unless the printer has specifically outlined this use.

Enhance your print’s natural allure with the right picture frame for dye-sublimation metal prints. There are several excellent picture frames for metal prints that complement their vibrant colors, bringing an extra touch of sophistication to an already sleek and chic piece of artwork. Frame your print in a two-toned metal frame or make a statement with the bold, wide profile 99 — and let us know how it looks!

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3 thoughts on “All About the Dye-Sublimation Printing Process”

  • Ken Hanson

    I thought for metal prints there was one last step: a protective layer. Am I wrong?
    Breathing Color sells aluminum sheets that accept ink from the more usual inkjet printers (Epson, Canon,...) and their process includes a final protective film, which because of its need for a heat press make their plates more involved than one would hope.

    • Mark Rogers

      Ken, it depends on the process used to apply the print to the metal. The Breathing Color Allure product is coated to accept pigment inkjet ink so it can you protection just like a regular inkjet print and in fact it would not hurt it to put it behind glass in a traditional frame. Metal prints created with dye-sub are pretty durable:

  • Larry Covalciuc
    Larry Covalciuc May 16, 2018 at 7:05 am

    Mark one of the options of Metal Prints is the way they are hung. Larger ones usually are "floated" off the wall with the print being attached via an extrusion of around 1". It looks like a Nielsen or other metal picture frame attached to the back of the Metal Print. Do you know what is used to create the rectangle attached to the back of the Metal Print (Dibond). This is also used on Acrylic Laminations.

    Do you sell the materials to do this? If not who does?

    Thank you

  • Mark Rogers

    Larry, we have considered offering such a product but do not have one yet. I would contact the company you get the print from.

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