Dye sublimation printing is one of the best ways a business can use to create professional looking, bright products. The process behind it is relatively simple, and works best used with white 100% polyester garments or polymer-coated substrates that are light in color. However, many people ask if dye sublimation printing can be done on plastic items. The short answer is “yes.”

What Is Dye Sublimation Printing?

Dye sublimation printing involves heating sublimation ink at a high temperature, usually around 400 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the ink from a liquid to a gas and is able to enter the pores of the item being printed on. Once the item is removed from the ink, the pores cool and then close, leaving the ink and image trapped on the item’s surface. This process creates a smooth and permanent application.

The trick to a successful printing is the chemical composition, or a polymeric chemical structure, of the item being printed. It also needs to be able to withstand the high temperatures of the printing process, which can pose a problem for plastic, leather, wood, or glass items.

Printing of Plastics

The high heat the sublimation process uses can cause the plastic to melt or warp, effectively destroying the item. In order to use dye sublimation printing on a plastic item, it needs to be reinforced, usually with fiberglass. Plastic items that have been formed—in other words, they have a specific three-dimensional shape and design—cannot be printed, even with fiberglass reinforcement. A plastic item would have to be flat, but they can be cut to shape later on once the printing is completed.

Keep in mind that not all plastic is made equally. The chemical structure of plastic varies on what its base is. Certain plastics, even with reinforcement, cannot be printed on because of what goes into their production. Anything that is dark in color, or is pre-colored before printing also cannot be used. The dyes present in a colored piece of plastic would interact poorly with the dyes used in the sublimation process. Not only would the printing fail, but it could also damage the product. For any item being printed with dye sublimation, only bright or “true” white items should be used. Light colors, like tans or grays, can be used, but the colors used in the printing dye might be diluted by about 15%-25%.

An alternative method of dye sublimation printing of plastic items is spraying the item with a clear and/or white base coat. This is usually used to print on wood, leather, and glass items that dye sublimation printing normally doesn’t work on or are difficult to print on. The coating is polymer based, so it will allow the process to be successful on non-polymer items. The coloring of the coating, usually white or clear, allows items that, regardless if they’re polymer based, do not meet the color requirements necessary to have a successful dye sublimation printing on its own.