Life and Dye Sub Decisions

Three PSPs offer advice to signshops making the leap to dye sublimation.
Dye Sublimation Printing: Three PSPs offer advice to signshops

In the ever-consolidating printing industry, many signshops seek technology and products that can help them stand out from the competition. Enter dye sublimation, one of the fastest-growing niches in digital printing. With a worldwide market value of $8.4 billion in 2018 and a compound annual growth rate of 10.2% through 2023, Smithers Pira forecasts the market to reach $13.67 billion in the next four years. Fabric signage and displays can be found everywhere – and yet, the market is far from saturated. We could also write an entire feature on rigid dye sub, but we’ll just focus on fabric here.

A SHOW OF GOOD FAITH

Many signshop owners enjoy those occasional jobs that line up with their non-print passions, but how many base their entire business around it? For Jeff Burris, owner of Group Imaging (Mesa, AZ), faith has always played an important role in his life. After spending 10 years serving as a minister, preaching in local churches while photographing and printing wedding and church camp pictures on the side, Burris and his wife, Charlotte, opened Group Imaging as a photo lab for church groups nationwide in 1996 – printing nearly 200,000 8 x 10-in. group photos for 200-plus youth groups each summer. The shop began dabbling with wide-format inkjet in the late 90’s and has since grown to offer screenprinting, in-house exhibit and display fabrication, dye sublimation and more to clients including churches, nonprofit ministries, colleges and mission organizations.

Around 2008, Burris began noticing dye sublimation at tradeshows, “and it was very exotic at that time. There weren’t a lot of people doing it,” he said. “So I researched it, and I bought a 5-ft.-wide set-up.” A few years and many projects later, the shop installed a 10-ft. dye sub printer and corresponding heat press, entering the niche world of 10-ft. seamless graphics.

“The trick with dye sub is not the printing,” said Burris. “It’s the finishing.” He recommends signshops moving into dye sub, at the minimum, invest in a commercial serger sewing machine: “It’s not expensive, and it’s the easiest machine to operate. It puts your front and your back together, and you’ve got to learn how to put a zipper in.” Other inexpensive and helpful tools for dye sub include a hot knife – “You’ve got to cauterize dye sublimation because it’s all polyester. And almost always the polyester will fray,” – and a table to finish the fabric on. However, according to Burris, “You don’t need a seamstress. You just need someone who’s good with their hands, maybe into woodworking, who can learn to sew a straight line.” 

Group Imaging began exhibiting at large church conventions, which led to an ongoing partnership with Pure Freedom Ministries and True Girl, a traveling Christian mother-daughter event for tweens. “We’re happy to help people and groups [that share our values], and at the same time, I get to make a living doing it,” Burris said. The shop has fabricated traveling stage graphics for the organization the past four years, and “every year, they get more complicated.” 

The 2019 True Girl Pajama Party Tour required a custom-fabricated stage complete with a ginormous TV with 5-ft.-tall rabbit ears, expected to be set up and torn down up to 100 times. Keeping in mind True Girl’s existing hardware, Group Imaging fabricated custom frames made of 1.25-in. OD aluminum extrusions, bent with an Ercolina CE430 Angle Roller and slip fitted with an Addison McKee FM-70 Tube End Former. For the dye sub graphics, the shop imaged Jetcol Paper and Beaver Papers transfer paper with their Mimaki JV5-320DS printer and Digifab inks. They transferred the graphics onto Aberdeen 5131 Power Stretch Fabric with an AIT GFO-120 oil-filled drum heat press, finishing with Juki sewing machines and sergers. Burris’s final piece of advice? “If you make something custom, write everything down. When it breaks and they need another one, you have to have a solution to fix it.”

NO EASY STREET

The Flag Shop imaged 248 street banners for “Luzia.”
The Flag Shop imaged 248 street banners for “Luzia.”

The Flag Shop in Vancouver, BC, Canada got its start in screenprinting in 1975, adding digital printing capabilities in the late 2000’s. Specializing in flags and street banners with imagery on both sides, the shop uses direct-to-fabric sublimation in order to penetrate the fabric completely.

“From a production perspective, printing street banners is like walking a circus tight rope,” said Ron Reyes, production manager. Take, for example, a recent job for Live Nation and Cirque du Soleil’s “Luzia” show in Vancouver. “Many new designers like to build in the smallest of subtleties throughout their designs: Small details, text, complex gradations, transparencies and a full spectrum of colors ranging from the softest pastel highlights to the deepest rich shadow colors, describe the Cirque du Soleil banners perfectly.”

While this may not be such a feat for vinyl graphics or other non-textile media, “printing on a single layer of fabric that must appear the same on both sides is a challenge,” Reyes said. “Color management and pre-press file management are paramount.” An added stretch for street banners, which may be viewed by tens of thousands of passersby every day, is that they must look vibrant during both bright, sunlit days and foggy or particularly dark evenings. The Flag Shop put their experience and expertise to work for “Luzia,” imaging 248 street banners with an EFI VUTEk FabriVU 340i dye sublimation printer onto Polyester 200 Denier Dacron fabric. Two installers using a lift truck placed the banners along Vancouver streets over three days.

Susan Braverman, president, offered signshop owners considering dye sub these words of advice: “With textiles, it’s a different world. It might look the same, but it’s not.” Braverman suggests sign printers start small and figure out what kind of textiles they want to print – just because you can print something doesn’t mean you should. Take the time to develop a specialty – or, perhaps, a small selection of dye sub offerings – rather than wasting enormous amounts of time trying to figure out how to print some obscure, small order. (Added Braverman: “We won’t print just one yoga mat. We can’t be everything to everybody.”) “We’ve known sign companies that bought a textile printer, and a few years later, it’s for sale,” said Braverman. “For sign companies, it’s so important to learn about the technology and color management. You have to learn everything – but know that you’ll never know everything.”

LEFT THE STATION

“I was always inspired by art and the printing industry,” said Michael Santiago, co-owner of The Sublimation Station (Orlando, FL). After owning a low-voltage cabling company for some time and frequently traveling for work, Santiago wanted to be able to stay home more often to spend time with his daughter. “I spoke with Khrystine [Roman, the other co-owner of The Sublimation Station] one night about starting a printing business. Not just any printing business – a sublimation business,” said Santiago. “I noticed the market was still young and it wasn’t as saturated as the traditional sign industry.”

And just like that, a former teacher and electrician became dye sub business owners in October of 2015. Four years later and the shop has five full-time and three part-time employees, upward of $150,000 in sublimation equipment, a bigger location to call home and even offers live dye sub and screenprinting for events. The shop specializes in custom merchandise, ranging from apparel – “Most of our business is apparel in the ecommerce space,” said Santiago – to blankets, aprons, bags, flags and table covers.

Khrystine Roman and Michael Santiago of The Sublimation Station.
Khrystine Roman and Michael Santiago of The Sublimation Station.

An example of a unique dye sub project? A local event company turned to The Sublimation Station for a “slime time” fitted table cover for a child’s birthday party. The shop used a Roland Texart RT-640 dye sub printer to image the transfer paper, running Ergosoft RIP software and an X-Rite i1Display Pro Monitor Calibration Device to ensure color matching with other event props, then an Eastsign calendar heat press to sublimate the graphic to Fisher Textiles’ 600 Poly Duck fabric. The shop’s seamstress seamed the front and back together and hemmed the bottom to create the fitted table cover – an exclusive, customized product that made a child’s day.

So, why dye sub? “The big advantages of sublimation are the durability and longevity of the print,” Santiago said. “When you sublimate a T-shirt, the shirt itself will deteriorate before you ever lose the quality of the printed image. The one and only downside of sublimation is that it only works on polyester.” And with more and more OEMs expanding their lines of dye sub fabrics, this downside may soon be overcome. However, that doesn’t mean just anyone can immediately succeed with dye sub printing. Santiago’s advice for signshop owners looking to expand into the market? “Know the ins and outs of sublimation, be hands-on and learn as much as you can before you start. Sublimation has great margins, but one small error in the production line can cause major losses.”

With dye sub on the rise in the US, Santiago sees The Sublimation Station growing with the market. “We believe in the next five years, dye sub will probably have growth of over 50%,” he predicted. “The possibilities are almost endless with sublimation.”


For “Dye Sub and Fabric Printing Tips from the Pros,” the online-only sidebar to this story, click here.

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