Do you want to add color to your laser projects, but don't know where to start? Are you tired of paint filling your acrylic sheets, or just want more detailed prints? Read on to learn about sublimating acrylic and why it may be an option for you!
First things first, what is sublimation? At its core and for our purposes, its a chemical process that embeds ink into our substrate (acrylic). How? Using heat. You'll definitely want to invest in a heat press if you don't already own one. Personally I collect machines like I collect acrylic 😆
Okay, so what else do you need? Sublimation prints- you can purchase a printer and make your own, or, and I would recommend this route- start by purchasing prints from someone on Etsy or another maker so you can test it out first and find out if its for you!
And then of course you'll need acrylic. But what kind of acrylic? The AWESOME thing about acrylic is that most any cast acrylic is sublimation friendly. There are no special coatings, no lamination to apply, nothing to do besides buy the acrylic you already purchase. And while most cast acrylic will sublimate, the results will vary based on the acrylic color. I would stay away from darker colors and stick with light & bright for the best results!
The two biggest things I want to note here is that clear acrylic will sublimate with a transparent image, and not all white acrylic is the same. There are varying degrees of opacity within the range of acrylic sheets sold as white. For best results we recommend our 3015 White. The more opaque, the less light comes through and the brighter your design will sublimate.
Alright so we have all of our supplies, what's next?! Turn your heat press on and set it to 375-400 degrees Fahrenheit. This is really where you're going to have to start getting comfortable and testing it out on your own. Trial and error is going to be your friend for finding the best settings for you- including pressure. I prefer high but have heard many have success with a lower pressure point. My recommendation is always to start small and work your way up!
While you're press is heating up, if you haven't already, I would suggest cutting your designs first. One of the biggest issues people have with sublimating on acrylic is warping when you remove it from the heat. Cutting your acrylic, and sublimating a smaller piece(s) usually lessens the possibilities of warping. Generally with sublimation, you'll want to use a heat safe tape to keep the paper design from sliding around. However, you'll have to be careful with your application so you don't wind up with tape marks on the back of your acrylic. One way to mitigate this is to apply the tape on the image, and then to a piece of paper under your acrylic (and not directly on the acrylic itself). The added benefit of a piece of paper under your acrylic is it offers an easy way to slide your pieces directly onto a harder surface for cooling down!
Generally you'll apply a teflon or parchment piece over the sublimation pieces, and press your image for 45-60 seconds (again, lots of trial and error for best timing).
Once the timer is up, immediately slide your pieces onto a hard surface, and apply something heavy on top of them. This is going to help it cool down nice and flat without warping.
After 15+ minutes you can remove the heavy pieces and take a peek at your product! Once you remove the tape and sublimation paper do me a favor and DON'T PANIC if there's a lot of residue- a baby wipe or damp cloth will scrub it right off!
One of the perks of sublimation over other mediums is that once the ink is in there, there is nothing that will remove it. It won't scratch, it won't be damaged by harsh chemicals, it won't rub off over time- it is SET. Of course the disadvantage is that this process is a bit arduous and time consuming, and the warping problem can be hard to scale on a level for higher manufacturing.
NOW- Go have fun! I've sublimated on pastels, mattes, marbles, pearls, and more! Experiment with what you have and you'll be able to create some truly unique pieces!