Starting a sublimation mug business is a great way to earn income without a large up-front investment. This business opportunity can follow a print-on-demand model to reduce inventory costs and can start at home or be expanded to become a larger operation with employees and a business location. Materials needed include mugs, machines to sublimate and ink, among other items.
Dye-sublimation printing is a process that uses heat and pressure to infuse special dyes into a prepared blank surface, such as a mug or T-shirt. This process uses special sublimation ink, which can convert from a solid to a gas without going through a liquid state, similar to dry ice. This conversion is called "sublimation".
To create a design on a mug, the surface has to be prepared with a special polymer coating that will accept the sublimation inks. The sublimation ink itself consists of fine dry granules suspended in liquid. These are printed with an ink-jet printer onto special sublimation transfer paper. The paper is then fixed onto the mug with heat tape and is then heat pressed.
This can be done in a mug press or in a mug wrap that goes into the oven. The dye then sublimates from a solid state directly into a gas, and the heat and pressure force it to become embedded in the surface of the mug. As the dye cools, it turns back into a solid that has bonded with the polymer molecules in the mug's coating. The image is now permanently embedded in, not on, the surface of the mug.
To start a sublimation mug printing business, you will need some special equipment.
- A mug press kit: The sublimation mug press is one of the central pieces of equipment. Beginner models that only make one size of mug and one mug at a time can cost as little as $129, but as you scale up, you can purchase presses that make multiple mugs and sizes.
- Blank mugs: Many websites sell blank white mugs with the appropriate coating. These must be coated in a factory, and you cannot do it yourself. For a business, it's best to buy in bulk to reduce the cost per unit.
- Sublimation ink: This special ink comes in bottles instead of cartridges. It's worth it to pay for brand-name inks, as they are less likely to cause issues with the printer and often come with calibration software that helps you waste less time and ink on setup and troubleshooting.
- Tank-based ink-jet printer: This is the other major piece of equipment. Even if you already have an ink-jet printer, it's worth it to have a separate one dedicated entirely to sublimation ink printing.
- Sublimation transfer paper: This is the paper on which you print the design and then affix to the mug with heat tape. A standard A4 size is sufficient for printing on mugs.
- Heat tape: This tape holds the design in place on the mug while it is heated and pressed. It can withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Paper cutter: It's best to use a paper cutter rather than scissors to make sure your cuts are clean, consistent and accurately measured.
- Soft measuring tape: Get a soft measuring tape of the type used for sewing so it can wrap easily around the mug for measurements.
- Shipping boxes: Get mug boxes with Styrofoam mug supports for shipping so your mugs get to your customers in perfect condition.
All of this equipment, including a store of blank mugs, can fit in a normal home office.
You will also need graphics editing software. Some printers come with adequate software, but you can also purchase software such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW, especially if you plan to make your own designs. There are mug templates available on the web to appropriately size your designs.
To create a mug, choose your graphic and print it on the sublimation transfer paper with the sublimation ink. Remember to check the "mirror image" box; your design will be flipped when it is transferred, so you need it to be mirrored to start. Trim the paper so that it is slightly smaller than the mug and tape it in place with heat tape. Measure to make sure it is placed accurately.
Adjust the mug press settings according to the manufacturer's recommendations and place the mug in the press. Make sure to not crinkle the transfer paper because any slight crease in the paper will ruin the final design. Once the mug is pressed, remove it and allow it to cool.
Remember that the cost of creating the mug itself (the cost of the mug, ink and paper) is only part of your operating cost. Calculate your true overhead costs, including depreciation on major equipment such as printers and presses, any utilities, insurance and a wage for yourself.
Factor this into how much you charge per mug. It's also a good idea to have a variety of designs so you can follow the print-on-demand model and print the mugs after they are sold.