A Short Course Book
Displaying & Sharing
Your Digital Photos

Photos on Smooth Surfaces

A mug embellished with photos courtesy of Sony's Imagestation.
By first printing on vinyl, an image can be transferred to a vehicle such as this bus.

You may have seen images on glass or ceramic plates, coffee mugs, car bumpers, windows, and other smooth, shiny, nonporous surfaces. When you have a store or on-line service print your images onto ceramic, glass, or metal objects their first step is to print the photo using special transfer paper and a sublimation printer. This printer works just like an inkjet but uses sublimation inks that can be transferred to any object that has a specially coated surface. To do so, heat is used to vaporize the inks on the transfer paper and the colors are absorbed into the coated surface on the object. The results can be much better than what you get from your home inkjet printer. If you search the Internet for photo sublimation you'll find an amazing assortment of products people will print your images onto. In addition, here are some things you can do yourself:

  • Waterslide decals. The images on most commercial glass and ceramic products are applied as waterslide decals. When you image is printed onto these papers it slides off when the paper is soaked in water. There are various kinds of decals, but they are either designed to be fired in a kiln at very high temperatures or not. Those that are fired are permanent and even dishwasher safe. Since they require special printers and a kiln, you'll need to find a service to do this for you. Usually there are minimum quantities required.

    Semipermanent decals that are not designed to be fired can be printed on an inkjet printer and applied to a glass or ceramic surface. To begin you print your image on waterslide (sometimes called waterslip) decal paper (white paper for colored objects and clear paper for the white or transparent ones). You then spray the printed image with fixative spray following the manufacturer's instructions so the ink won't run. When the paper is dry, cut out the image and soak it in water until the paper curls and the decal lifts off. Slide the decal onto the object, blot it lightly, and let it dry. You can't wash it in the dishwasher, but with careful hand washing it should last a long time.

  • Window decals are clear sheets with a low tack adhesive. Although you can use waterslide decals for windows, they have to be scraped off and are ruined in the process. Decals with a low tack adhesive can be removed without leaving a gum buildup and even repositioned or stored and reused. After printing, simply peel off the backing and apply the image to your window.
  • Static cling media is a clear or white media that adheres due to static electricity rather than an adhesive. It can be removed without leaving any traces behind.
  • Magnetic inkjet paper works just like regular inkjet paper but is magnetic. Once printed, it can be cut and trimmed and will adhere to any steel surface. It's an easy way to add photos to your refrigerator gallery. There is also magnetic waterproof paper so you can attach photos to your car—kind of a traveling gallery of your work.
  • Self adhesive inkjet paper has a peel-off back that lets you stick the printed image to any smooth surface. If you may want to remove it at some point, look for paper with a low tack or repositional adhesive.
For outdoor use, you can print on waterproof vinyl or other waterproof material. The ink is absorbed into the surface and won't wash out. You can spray the finished piece with a waterproof coating for an added layer of protection. Some of these sprays also protect against fading from UV exposure.
To print images on coffee mugs, and all of the other products you find them on, a heat transfer method is used. The components you need to do this, in addition to your computer and graphics software, include:
. Printer with sublimation ink.
. Heat press to apply the transfers.
. Imprintable items with a coated surface that will accept the transfer.

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