Shrink wrap film sleeves for sublimation transfers offer product decorators an inexpensive way to get into 3D subbing without investing in expensive wraps or a vacuum press. Overall, they take some practice to use correctly with different substrates, but can be a valuable addition to any shop.
I first heard about shrink wrap for sublimation transfers back in October at SGIA Expo. I was speaking to someone at the Joto booth about these cool new growlers they were showing (stay tuned for a review in our Cool Products section!).
I asked how you would sublimate them, since they were obviously too big for a press and most wraps that I had seen. The Joto rep told me they offer a shrink wrap material that they recommend for sublimating the growlers, but he didn’t have any samples for me to look at.
A few weeks ago, I came across a Condé Systems video about sublimating stemless wine glasses (very cool product, by the way). They used the shrink wrap film, which, honestly, kind of blew my mind at the time. It also generated lots of questions.
After doing some research, I found several different sizes of shrink wrap film through Condé Systems and Johnson Plastics Plus. I bought some and ran tests on metal and ceramic camp mugs, 11- and 15-ounce ceramic mugs, and two types of shot glasses.
Here are my results and conclusions.
When you order shrink wrap for sublimation transfer, you will get a package of 50 sleeves. This means they are closed on the sides and open on the ends, so you slide it over the product you’re imprinting. Think of it as a rectangular bag with no bottom. This also means there are limitations on what you can use for each size sleeve.
For example, I started with the 6.875″ X 9.8125″ sleeves from Condé. They are a good, large size that fit my metal camp mugs and my standard ceramic mugs. I was even able to cut one sleeve in half to sublimate 2 camp mugs.
However, the sleeves were too small for my ceramic camp mugs, which led me to test what happens if you cut open the side of the sleeve and use heat tape to close the material around the mug. More on those results later.
My experience with the large sleeves led me to order a variety of smaller sizes from Johnson Plastics Plus, particularly the ones meant to fit shot glasses. I had never sublimated shot glasses before because you usually need either a separate attachment for a mug press or a vacuum press. I’ve even seen people online experiment with making their own vacuum press effect with a FoodSaver, tubing and a convection oven. Cool stuff!
When I saw that I could use the shrink wrap sleeves for shot glasses, I thought I’d give it a try. Incidentally, there are also silicone wraps that you close with heat tape available for shot glass, pint glass and water bottle sublimation. I ordered shrink wrap sleeves in 9.8″ x 5.9,” 9.8″ x 4.9,” 6.5″ x 4.1″ and 3.5″ x 3.1″ sizes.
The material is thin and filmy, and it shrinks nicely with a regular heat gun you can buy either from a dealer, through Amazon or a home improvement store. I liked the simplicity of applying the wrap using heat tape and a heat gun, rather than with the ratchet I use with my silicone rubber-and-screw wraps (by far my favorite type for press quality) or the hard time I always have using my Hix Quick Release wrap.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the Hix wrap very difficult to put on. And when you’re handling a mug that has spent nearly a quarter of an hour in a 400-degree oven, having to unfasten a long screw quickly takes time and skill to not get burned. Given all this, I was excited to test out a wrap alternative.
Sublimating Metal Camp Mugs
I experimented with metal camp mugs sometime last year, with mixed results. I was never able to get a satisfactory image transfer when using my mug press, and the mug wraps I had were too large.
I was able to improvise with a smaller wrap I had gotten for sublimating on ceramic beer steins and got decent, but not great results. A great many mugs were sacrificed during my learning process. This is another reason I really liked the idea of the shrink wrap sleeves.
Using 2 styles of camp mugs I had in stock from RPL Supplies, I printed out a cute kitty design and taped them onto the mugs. I cut down one 6.875″ X 9.8125″ sleeve in half to make 2 smaller sleeves, one for each mug. After taping the sleeve to the top and bottom of the mugs, I used the heat gun to activate the shrink wrap.
I followed the instructions for baking the mugs with a regular wrap. When they were done, I found I needed scissors to cut through the sleeve and peel it off the mug. There is a bubbled up area on both sides of the handle where the shrink wrap doesn’t hug the contour of the mug. You won’t get any transfer in this area, but it’s a good place to slice the wrap open and start peeling away the rest.
I have to give a word of caution to everyone about handling hot wraps. As Melissa Beech Evans, who is currently using shrink wrap sleeves for her products, says: “The shrink wrap is hotter than the devil when you are trying to peel it off in a rush. I’m pretty sure that I have lost some fingerprints.” This is especially true with metal substrates, like these camp mugs and stemless wine glasses.
Widget, our resident kitty heat press aficionado and overseer of all things related to sublimation production, thoroughly inspected the camp mugs after the film and transfers were removed. We found some color differences, as you can see from the image below.
The mug to the left pressed with more of a yellow/orange tint, while the one on the right is more true to the image colors. This could be attributed to the different styles of mugs or the amount of heat in the oven.
We also found that one of the transfers came out sharper than the other. Again, this could be attributed to both the quality of the substrates and/or the oven temperature. I don’t feel that pressure played much of a role in this difference.
We were able to also get the image completely transferred from end to end on the one mug, where the length of the transfer was shortened. You have to account for more of a margin at the handle than you would with a mug press, and certainly more than with a silicone wrap.
On the other mug, the ends of the images were faded at the points closest to the handle because they did not receive pressure along the entire length of the transfer. This is a consequence of having the shrink wrap go over to the handle, rather than through or around it, like with other types wraps.
Ceramic Camp Mugs
The large shrink wrap sleeves were not large enough for my ceramic camp mugs, which hold about 13 ounces but are rather wide. I thought it would be good to test out how the shrink wrap works if you cut open the sleeve and affix it to a mug using heat tape.
I approached this in two different ways. The first was to cut the sleeve completely up the side, so it was a flat piece of film that I could contour around the mug. The second was to cut a notch into the side of one of the sleeves so that the handle could fit through it.
With the flat piece of film, I wrapped it around the mug and taped it to the inside, bottom and through the handle. With the other sleeve, I slipped the film around the mug and pushed the handle through the hole I had cut in the side. I used heat tape to secure the film to the inside, bottom and through the handle.
This method did not produce great results. While the mugs were baking, the wraps continued to and there was a reduction in the pressure applied during the sublimation process.
Though the temperature may have been too hot for these mugs, the transfer of the images was a bit soft and the colors a little off. This could also be attributed to transferring onto ceramic versus metal, but I think it was a combination of pressure and heat issues.
It may also be my more critical eye that sees such imperfections, as so many of us in this business do. I gave the “Pawsome” mug to a friend, and she saw nothing wrong with it.
One other interesting result was the transfer of the sublimation ink from the paper taped to the mug to the shrink wrap film. When using a flat press or even a mug press, I always stress the need for using protective paper, so this ghosted ink doesn’t imprint onto your platens and transfer to the next substrate you press.
The same holds true for silicone wraps, to which it can be tricky to add an additional piece of paper before clamping down and placing in the oven. Because the shrink wrap film is disposable, you don’t have to worry about that.
With these experiments run, I decided to try using the shrink wrap sleeves on an 11- and a 15-ounce mug – the two most popular sizes and widely sold types of mugs. The process was the same, though the results were much better. The flower mug I made came out perfect.
However, the shrink wrap melted directly onto the lip of the 15-ounce mug, and I wasn’t able to get it off. Obviously, too much heat was the issue, though whether it was from the heat gun, oven or both, I’m not sure. Either way, the mug was unusable, and I learned to be more careful with the heat on both accounts.
My final tests were on a set of frosted and ceramic shot glasses, using the 3.5″ x 3.1″ wraps from Johnson Plastics Plus. They fit both shot glasses beautifully, though they were snug on the ceramic ones. I was able to quickly get them on, taped, shrank and in the oven.
The image on the ceramic one came out much better than the frosted one. This could be because of the transparent nature of frosted glass. However, one side of the frosted shot glass pressed darker than the other. This is usually due to either or both heat and pressure.
Getting the wrap off was difficult, and I ended up scratching the polymer coating of both types of shot glass when I used a knife to split the film. I don’t recommend doing that! Rather, you should be able to let the shot glasses cool for a little bit and then attempt to take off the film. I highly recommend heat gloves.
I am still on the fence as to whether I would use shrink wrap sleeves for everyday production. So far in her experience, Evans is loving the wraps, though not so much for shot glasses, either. I would be willing to continue testing and using them for personal items, such as gifts for friends and family. Once I can finalize a process for consistent results, then I would be ok adding them to my workflow.
With all that said, they are easy to apply and you don’t have to worry about ghosting onto a platen or reusable surface during pressing. They can open up doors to adding new products to your business. And the investment is very low – much lower than if you used silicone-rubber wraps or a vacuum press.
Another good use for these is if you have a large order to fulfill. You can shrink wrap all of your products beforehand, then bake them in batches, quickly swapping out hot mugs for cold ones in your oven. With silicone wraps, you’re limited to the number of cool wraps you have on hand. Once a wrap is out of the oven, there is significant waiting time while they cool. You don’t have this with shrink wraps.
I would recommend giving them a try and see how they work for you and your sublimation business.
Do You Use Shrink Wrap Sleeves? Tell Us About it in Comments!