Sublimation vs. Vinyl: Which Is Right For You?

While sublimation and vinyl printing both do the same job, they have different qualities that make them more or less suitable for certain applications.

If you’re looking for a high-quality, durable print, sublimation is for you. If you have a smaller budget and aren’t worried about it lasting for years, vinyl is the way to go. However, your choice will also depend on the material you need to print on.

Yep, it’s quite the conundrum! But by the end of this, you’ll come to the right decision. So, let us jump right in.

Sublimation: An Overview

Sublimation printing uses special ink and heat transfer paper to print your design onto the product. While it works best on fabric, it’s possible to print on all kinds of materials using this method.

With that said, sublimation printing on cotton just doesn’t work. In fact, it doesn’t work on any natural fabrics like silk. Garments with a high polyester content will give you the best results.

A sublimation design can be multicolored. However, it’s worth noting that each color has to be transferred separately. Because of this, it works best on stark white or other light-colored backgrounds.

To get the best out of your sublimation printing efforts, you need an excellent printer. Not to mention the specialty inks you’ll need to purchase and the dedicated sublimation paper.

The equipment and materials needed for this method are relatively expensive. However, it’s typically worth it in the long run, thanks to the high-quality, long-lasting results.

We’ll discuss the in-depth process and the recommended materials later. For now, let’s move onto the overview of vinyl printing.

Vinyl: An Overview

Vinyl printing uses a special type of vinyl that can be cut and printed using a dedicated vinyl cutting machine. Once the design is made, a heat press is used to apply the vinyl design to the product (t-shirts, bags, caps, etc.).

The vinyl material is incredibly soft while still maintaining a decent amount of durability. Its flexibility makes it perfect for a range of applications, especially garments like t-shirts and joggers that need to bend and flex with your body.

Remember when we said that sublimation is best for white backgrounds? Well, vinyl printing is the opposite! You will get the best results when printing on black and other dark-colored materials. 

The equipment and consumables needed for vinyl printing cost far less than sublimation. Thus, hobbyists and start-up small businesses tend to prefer this method to get into the craft.

As far as techniques go, vinyl printing is vastly different from sublimation printing. The learning curve is far less steep. However, the output is generally not as hard-wearing and won’t stand the test of time as most sublimation products.

So, let’s move onto the processes of each to give you a better picture of which technique you’re willing to learn.

How Do Sublimation and Vinyl Printing Work?

Vinyl printing is no doubt easier to learn, cheaper when you’re first starting, and simpler to set up. However, sublimation printing’s expensive outlay might be worth it where longevity is necessary.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the processes of each method.

Sublimation Printing: The Process

In short, sublimation is a chemical process in which a solid transforms into a gas without entering the liquid stage. Keep in mind that it is the dye that changes state throughout this process, nothing else; hence why it’s often called “dye-sublimation.”

The process goes like this, with various additions depending on the material you’re printing on:

  1. Print Onto Source Paper — To begin with, the design is printed onto the special transfer paper we mentioned earlier using a sublimation printer. You can’t use a standard household printer as it needs to work with dedicated sublimation inks.
  2. Place On Product — Then, you secure the transfer paper onto the product, making sure it’s in the appropriate position.
  3. Heat Press to Transfer — Finally, you utilize a heat press that infuses your design with the fabric or other material. Depending on the product, the temperature could reach 400 degrees! There are several types of heat press which we’ll discuss later. The one you need depends on the products you wish to make.

It’s at the final stage where the actual sublimation takes place. The heat and constant pressure open the material’s pores and turn the dye into a gas, allowing it to permeate and “become one” with the product. Thus, making a wonderfully durable, non-fading custom design!

Vinyl Printing: The Process

On the other hand, the vinyl printing process works like this:

  1. Create a Design — You start by creating a design using unique vinyl material. It comes in all sorts of colors and textures and can be cut with a machine into any shape.
  2. Apply to Transfer Paper — Once the machine has finished the cut, you can place the vinyl piece on transfer paper to make it easier to place it on the product.
  3. Place the Design — Position the design wherever you like on the product.
  4. Use a Heat Press — Finally, use a heat press to enable the vinyl to stick to the material.

Once you’ve completed the process, you’ll feel a slightly raised layer of vinyl on the product. These designs often crack and peel after a few uses since they are simply stuck onto the fabric, not infused like the sublimation designs.

What Products Can You Print On?

Both printing methods allow you to decorate and customize a variety of products, as we’ll show you below.

Products Perfect for Sublimation Printing

You can print on a vast array of materials and products using the sublimation method. However, you’ll need a different heat press dependent on the type of products you wish to use.

As a general rule, sublimation printing can be used on:

  • Signs — Signage found on buildings and shopfronts is typically made using the sublimation method.
  • Polymer-Treated Products — In other words, products that aren’t bendable, such as glass, aluminum, fiberglass, and plastic.
  • Blank Rigid Products — These materials are usually available to buy in bulk, including mouse pads, drinkware, and cell phone cases.
  • Home Decor — Think ceramic floor tiles.
  • Polyester — Fabrics are the most popular items to sublimate. It includes knitted polyester products like flags, banners, and table covers, as well as woven items like tents and tote bags.

Products Perfect for Vinyl Printing

Truth be told, you can use vinyl printing on many of the products we discussed above. However, always keep in mind that it isn’t made to be overly durable. Because of this, we prefer to use it on items such as:

  • Customized T-Shirts — Whether for a hen do, stag party, 21st birthday, or a gag gift, themed customized t-shirts don’t really need to last a lifetime. 
  • Mugs or Tumblers — Again, mugs and tumblers made with a specific one-day event in mind won’t necessarily be used often, making vinyl the perfect application.
  • Car Decals — A high-quality sheet of vinyl works well for car decals, especially when placing them on the inside of the windows.

Vinyl printing works best on t-shirts and other apparel. And with the correct care, it can last a little while. However, you shouldn’t expect it to look as good as new after multiple washes.

Sublimation vs. Vinyl: A Pros and Cons Comparison

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method for printing. Both sublimation and vinyl techniques have advantages and disadvantages, which you can find below:

Sublimation Printing

Vinyl Printing

Pros

  • Very durable and long-lasting, the ink will last as long as the fabric
  • Prints incredibly rich, bright, eye-catching colors
  • Offers an extremely high-quality image
  • Great for small batches of printing
  • It’s far cheaper than sublimation printing to set up
  • It’s less expensive than sublimation to  operate consistently
  • Easy to use

Cons

  • Limited to printing on white and other light surfaces
  • It’s expensive to get started
  • The inks continue to be costly, so when you run out, you’ll have to fork out for another bottle
  • The process is pretty time-consuming, making it unscalable if you’re looking to take on big orders or larger projects
  • Isn’t long-lasting or durable
  • Cracks and peels appear after just a few uses or washes (generally speaking)
  • Cannot print complex graphics
  • Lower quality image

When to Choose Sublimation or Vinyl

We’ve thrown a lot of information at you. So, to help you choose which printing method you should use once and for all, take a look at our handy checklists.

Choose Sublimation When:

  • you have a larger budget.
  • you want to print on light-colored materials.
  • you want the highest quality image.
  • you want to create a long-lasting product.
  • you need to print on a wide range of materials.

Choose Vinyl When:

  • you have a smaller budget.
  • you want to print on dark-colored materials.
  • you are mainly printing on fabric.
  • you are fulfilling smaller orders or just printing for fun.
  • you are just starting out with printing.
  • you have a longer time frame to complete the piece(s).
  • you don’t need the item to stand the test of time.

You’ve Chosen. Now What? A Brief Start-Up Guide

Arguably, this is the most fun part (we’re all about saving the best until last!).

Whatever method you’ve chosen, you will need to purchase the basic equipment. It can be tricky to pick the best brands and models (especially for sublimation printing), so we thought we’d take the hard work out of it by giving you some tried-and-true options.

Best Products to Start Sublimation Printing

PRODUCTFEATURESLATEST PRICE
1. Sublimation Printer: Epson WorkForce WF-7210
  • Versatile paper handling
  • Economical
  • Get Performance Beyond Laser
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2. Sublimation Inks: Epson 252 Series Inks
  • Worry free handling
  • Better quality than the lab
  • Contains Pigment Ink
  • Convenient individual ink cartridges
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3. Sublimation Paper: A-SUB Sublimation Paper
  • Compatible with All Inkjet Printer
  • Inches A4 Sheet Size
  • 100 sheets 125gsm
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4. Heat Press: PowerPress Industrial-Quality Digital Sublimation Heat Press
  • Silicon Gel Base Board
  • Pressure adjustable
  • LCD Control Board
  • Teflon coated heating plate
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5. Sublimation Blanks: KLAQQED 12pcs 3.8 inch Magnet Blanks
  • High-quality material
  • You can print rich patterns
  • You can DIY special patterns or texts to decorate your home or office
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#1 Sublimation Printer: Epson WorkForce WF-7210

At an affordable price point than most sublimation printers, the Epson WorkForce is fantastic for beginners. It’s economical and efficient, allowing you to print on a variety of fabrics and products.

#2 Sublimation Inks: Epson 252 Series Inks

If you purchase the Epson printer, you must use the Epson brand inks to ensure everything works smoothly.

#3 Sublimation Paper: A-SUB Sublimation Paper

This paper is perfect for just about any design and ink. You don’t even have to wait several hours for it to dry! 

As for printer compatibility, the A-SUB Sublimation Paper can work with any inkjet printer with sublimation inks.

#4 Heat Press: PowerPress Industrial-Quality Digital Sublimation Heat Press

The PowerPress model is fantastically easy to use. Not to mention that it consistently gives brilliant results.

The maximum temperature is 500 degrees, which is enough to handle all kinds of projects, including professional pieces. Our favorite part is the adjustable pressure, which allows you to treat each material in the right way.

#5 Sublimation Blanks: KLAQQED 12pcs 3.8 inch Magnet Blanks

These magnetic coasters are a great way to start your sublimating journey. Although, feel free to try other blanks if you want to turn your hand to lots of different materials.

Best Products to Start Vinyl Printing

PRODUCTFEATURESLATEST PRICE
1. Heat Press: Cricut EasyPress 2
  • Travel With Ease
  • Everyday Iron On Essential
  • Professional Results
  • Perfect Companion
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2. Printable Vinyl: TransOurDream Heat Transfer Paper
  • Easy To Use
  • Transfer Text, Images, Photos And Pictures Onto Black And Dark Color
  • Tru-transfer Paper
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3. Cutting Machine: Cricut Maker
  • Endless Project Possibilities
  • New Rotary Blade For Fabrics
  • Access To Hundreds Of Digital Sewing Projects
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4. Transfer Tape: YRYM HT Clear Vinyl Transfer Tape with Alignment Grid
  • Easy Release No Residue
  • Clear Red Grid
  • Medium Tack
  • Wide Application
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5. Weeding Tools: CLOYAN 33pcs Weeding Tools for Vinyl
  • Practical Function
  • Premium Quality
  • Wide Applications
  • After-sales Service
Check Price

#1 Heat Press: Cricut EasyPress 2

This well-known brand is the perfect option to get yourself started with vinyl printing on t-shirts and other flat surfaces.

#2 Printable Vinyl: TransOurDream Heat Transfer Paper

Compatible with most printers, the high-quality vinyl gives your design as much longevity as possible.

#3 Cutting Machine: Cricut Maker

While you can use scissors to cut your vinyl, purchasing a cutting machine like the Cricut Maker will make your life a lot easier.

#4 Transfer Tape: YRYM HT Clear Vinyl Transfer Tape with Alignment Grid

You can opt for completely clear transfer tape. However, we prefer the grid options as it makes aligning the design on your project simpler. After all, you don’t want to end up with a wonky t-shirt design!

#5 Weeding Tools: CLOYAN 33pcs Weeding Tools for Vinyl

Weeding tools are essential for accurately removing and keeping various parts of your vinyl. Without them, you’ll find it much harder to make clean designs.

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