What Is The Difference Between Sublimation Paper & Heat Transfer Vinyl?


If you are already a craft expert who has dived into crafting activities for couple of years, I believe that you has made it clear in your mind. However, as for a newbie who just steps into the wonderful crafting world, you are probably confused about that, especially when you shop around the craft store to get some materials you need but have no idea of which one to choose. This blog is here to help explain everything in details - to better understand what is the difference between sublimation paper and heat transfer vinyl (also known as iron on vinyl or HTV).

The general DIY heat press process would be like this:
- Design a pattern (designed by yourself or directly download one from some design platforms);
- Organize the design on the design platform to make sure the finish will show on the blank as you want;
- Print it out or cut it out;
- Preheat the heat press machine and the blank (not all blanks need to be preheated);
- Place the design on the blank;
- Layer the Teflon paper/Butcher paper over the design to protect the heat press machine (I know not all craftsperson will follow this step, but it’s still highly recommended to do this);
- Apply press and heat on the design to finish the transfer;
- Move the paper/carrier sheet away, a custom item is beautifully finished! 

The above is the whole from-start-to-finish process of the heat transfer project. Some people will choose sublimation paper, and others will choose HTV to finish the design transfer, depending upon what kind of project their aim will be. I am going to compare the difference between two materials according to the order of steps. 

Design a pattern
The difference of two materials will greatly influence how you design the pattern. Sublimation is a printing and pressing application. To sublimate you print a design in reverse on sublimation paper, using sublimation ink on a sublimation printer. This process is very similar to the normal color printing. You can even upload your family photo and print it out with the sublimation printer. In this case, the printed image is present in sublimation ink.

While heat transfer vinyl is a cutting and pressing application. You will need a cutting machine rather than a printer to ‘print out’ your design. You don’t need the ink but the heat transfer vinyl which is comprised of heat-sensitive polyurethane(PU) material and a heat-activated adhesive backing (carrier sheet). Generally, HTV comes in single colors. Some of them are glittering, gradient or patterned. If you choose a single blue HTV, the output of your design will be only in blue. That is, you can not print out a photo or other similar fine image using HTV which is limited to solid blocks of colors.

Therefore, the design you choose will be limited to which material you decide to use. On the other hand, if you want to heat transfer an image like your cat’s photo, artistic painting with many details and colors on the T-shirt, then you should use sublimation paper to print it out. For some expert hobbyiests, they can layer different colors of HTV to form multi-colored designs, but more layers involved, the harder it is to match up each to achieve the end result. It’s recommended not to use more than 3 colors in HTV transfer. 

Print it out or cut it out
For the sublimation paper, after you print the pattern on the paper, you can skip the weeding step, place the design directly on the blank and start to heat transfer the design. For the heat transfer vinyl, you need to weed out the excess vinyl first. You can only see the complete design after all parts are weeded away. 

Apply press and heat on the design to finish the transfer
The most essential difference between two materials is the transfer process. Sublimation ink is a dye-based ink that when heated, turns from a solid into a gas. This gas dyes the fabric. It’s normal that when the heat transfer is finished, you can still see some ink lightly remaining on the sublimation paper. There is always some ink that is not fully converted to gas due to the insufficient temperature or press applied.

By contrast, when heated and pressed, heat transfer vinyl adds a layer on top of the garment which results in the obvious touch feel. The PU layer will adhere on the garment and the transparent carrier sheet needs to be weeded away.

Another difference worth being noticed is the limitation of the substrate that they can be applied on.

There is a large library of blank products you can decorate using HTV though, it mainly focuses on textile printing (mainly T-shirts). Fabrics such as cotton, cotton/polyester blends, polyester, and canvas work well with heat transfer vinyl. There are types of vinyl that can also be used with nylon and leather. Normally, it doesn’t work with hard surface items.

For sublimation paper, it requires that hard goods have a poly coat and are sublimation ready and that textiles are light in color and contain at least 65% polyester. You will get a good heat transfer result with sublimating on blanks such as mug, magnet, key chain, photo frame, coaster, etc. You can visit OFFNOVA to check more.

So, if you are going to DIY the 100% cotton T-shirt, then HTV is the good choice. But with clear HTV, sublimating on cotton is no longer impossible. Click here to learn more. If you want to make a custom black T-shirt, you can only choose the vinyl material rather than the sublimation paper.

When it comes to the difference of the temperature and time settings, sublimation heat transfer tends to require a higher temperature and a longer time than the heat transfer vinyl. Click OFFNOVA Heat Guide to learn more. 

Move the paper/carrier sheet away, a custom item is beautifully finished
When the heat transfer is finished, the paper/vinyl is moved away, you will see the design adhered on the substrate well. Talking about the durability of the results that come from two different materials, the one(PU) from heat transfer vinyl will have risks of cracking or peeling off over time (normally can last for 3-5 years with care), the one(ink) from sublimation paper is much more durable than the PU, there’s no risk of peeling or lifting because it's infused in the fabric or substrate. 

PROS and CONS of these two materials are concluded as below: 

By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of the difference between heat transfer vinyl and sublimation paper. If you are unsure which type of HTV to use, please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to help you choose the right product for your project. Whichever material you choose, just make sure that you take the time to learn how to use it properly so that you can create stunning designs that will last.    

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