What are Sublimation Shrink Sleeves? How Do They Work?

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shrink wrap sleeves

Today I’m going to teach you all about sublimation shrink sleeves. I get asked questions all the time about sublimation shrink wrap so I’m going to answer the most commonly asked questions today and teach you how to use them correctly.

You can learn more about sublimation ovens and which ones I recommend in my sublimation oven guide.

Sublimation shrink wrap sleeves.

What are Sublimation Shrink Sleeves Used For?

This is probably the question I get asked most about sublimation shrink sleeves.

Sublimation shrink sleeves are a heat-resistant material that you place around your sublimation blank and sublimation print that shrinks tight when heat is applied. This provides the pressure needed for sublimation.

When you use a tumbler press, heat press, mug press, etc, those presses apply pressure to the sublimation print and you don’t need a shrink sleeve. When you use a sublimation or convection oven for things like mugs, tumblers, pens, etc, there is nothing applying pressure other than the tape holding the sublimation print into place.

That is where the shrink sleeve comes in. You can watch me walk you through the whole process by pressing play on the video below.

When Do You Use Sublimation Shrink Sleeves?

Sublimation shrink sleeves are only needed when you’re using a sublimation oven or convection oven. When you’re using a tumbler press, mug press, or heat press, you do not use shrink sleeves. Those presses apply the pressure required.

Where to Buy Sublimation Shrink Wrap

Once you decide the size and type that you would like, here are a few of my favorite sources:

How Many Sizes of Shrink Sleeves Are There?

Sublimation shrink sleeves come in a wide variety of sizes. I’ve used them for sublimation pens, soup bowls, dog bowls, shot glasses, mugs, and more.

Here are a variety of the different sizes, this is really just a sample of the sizes. There are so many different options on the market.

Sublimation shrink sleeve sizes.

When purchasing sublimation sleeves, you need to pay attention to how the sleeve opens. Some sleeves open on the short side and some on the long side. This will impact what size blank the sleeve will fit on.

While this sleeve looks like a standard medium sleeve, it actually opens on the long side. This wouldn’t work for tumblers but would work for soup bowls.

If a sublimation sleeve is too long, you can trim it to fit your blank better if needed. This does waste material which isn’t my favorite but you can do it.

As you can see there are very small ones and large ones and lots of sizes in between. What size you need will depend on the blanks you’re using.

Sublimation Shrink Sleeves on a Roll

Heat Transfer Warehouse sells shrink sleeves on a roll. I am a big fan of this because it wastes less material than individual sleeves. With the roll, I can measure out the length I need and cut it to exactly the right length.

Can I Use One Size Shrink Sleeve?

Can you use one size shrink sleeve for all your sublimation projects? Probably not.

You can shrink larger sleeves to fit smaller blanks but if it’s too big you can get a lot of wrinkles which can cause gaps in the pressure. The closer you can get to the size of your blank the better. If you can’t get the right size, a larger one will probably work.

Why is the Shrink Sleeve Melting in the Oven?

If you’re having an issue with your sublimation shrink sleeve melting in the oven, it is probably because you’re using a low-quality shrink sleeve.

I have a few brands that I use and have tested that I know hold up to the heat of sublimation ovens.

I really like the sublimation shrink sleeve roll from Heat Transfer Warehouse.

There are several sizes of sleeves from Conde that all work great.

Artesprix has a small one that is perfect for their little wine tumbler and I’ve used it several times for different blanks.

If you like to order your supplies on Amazon, PYD Life makes a wide variety of sublimation shrink sleeves that are good quality.

These are the brands I stick to because I’ve tested them and know they hold up and work well. These aren’t going to melt in your sublimation oven.

If you use other brands, read the reviews and make sure they’re rated for the temperature you’re going to heat it to.

I also recommend testing it on some inexpensive blanks to make sure it holds up through the whole process. Even though it may say they’re rated for sublimation temperatures they can still melt in the oven, making a mess and ruining the blank.

How to Use Sublimation Shrink Sleeves

To use a sublimation shrink sleeve, you’ll first apply your sublimation print to the blank and then put the whole thing inside the sleeve. You want the sleeve to be approximately the size of the blank you’re using.

Use Heat to Shrink the Sleeve

Once the blank is inside the sleeve, I shrink mine with a heat gun. This method works best for me.

You may see other tutorials where they put the blank inside the sleeve and just put it in the oven. That works for them. I get more consistent results by shrinking it first.

Use the heat gun to shrink the sleeve and get out all of the wrinkles. Don’t hold the heat gun in one place for too long or it can burn holes in the sleeve and those areas won’t sublimate correctly.

Shrink wrapped water bottle with heat gun.

When the whole thing is shrunk tight and the wrinkles are out, place it in the sublimation oven and heat it for the full time and temperature recommended for the blank you’re using.

Convection oven with sublimation water bottle inside.

How to Remove Shrink Sleeves

You want to remove the shrink sleeve while it is as hot as possible to make it easier. I remove it immediately after taking it out of the oven. It is much easier to remove the shrink sleeve while it is hot.

When it’s all removed, you can remove the sublimation print and you have a completed design.

Remove shrink wrap from finished mug while it's hot.

Can I Reuse Sublimation Shrink Sleeves?

Shrink sleeves are not reusable. They don’t come off in one piece so you can throw it all away as you remove it.

How to Use a Large Shrink Sleeve on a Small Blank

If your sublimation blank is smaller than the shrink sleeve, you’re using I have some tips on the best way to do that.

I pull the sleeve tight to one side and start applying heat to the other side. Move your way around the blank trying to get out as many wrinkles as possible.

If the sleeve is really large compared to the blank, it can get bubbles or wrinkles. Those can cause the sublimation print to not transfer correctly.

How to Use a Shrink Sleeve on Blanks with Handles

When working with sublimation blanks that have handles you will need to cut a small slit in the sleeve. Start small so it’s just big enough for the handle to fit through.

Cut slit in shrink wrap to fit handle through.

When the handle is through use heat-resistant tape to close the hole pulling it tight together so it doesn’t pull apart when heat is applied.

Tape shrink wrap with heat-resistant tape under the mug handle.

Use the heat gun to apply heat to shrink the sleeve starting on the side away from the handle. This will put less stress on the taped side and help ensure enough pressure is applied to the whole sublimation design.

I have tested cutting the sleeve completely apart and then taping it on the handle edge and it did not work. It pulled on the tape too much. Stick to cutting a hole for the handle to fit through and you should be good.

When the shrink sleeve is shrunk to the surface, you’ll add it to your sublimation oven just like you would blanks without a handle.

What if My Heat Gun Puts a Hole in the Sublimation Shrink Sleeve?

If you accidentally put a hole in your shrink sleeve by leaving the heat gun in one place for too long, add a piece of heat tape over the top as tight as possible. This can help correct the hole but I generally remove the entire shrink sleeve and add a new one.

I don’t get consistent results once I get a hole and I don’t like to risk the sublimation blank when I can just use a different sleeve.

Final Thoughts on Sublimation Shrink Sleeves

Shrink sleeves are necessary if you are using a sublimation oven for sublimation projects. I recommend keeping a variety of sizes on hand for the types of projects you want to make.

Since I like to sublimate 20-ounce and 30-ounce skinny tumblers I keep sleeves on hand to fit those. I also like to keep a size on hand that works for the little wine tumblers because they fit other blanks as well.

Since I have a mug press, I don’t usually do mugs in my sublimation oven. When making full-wrap mugs, I use my sublimation oven so I keep sleeves on hand that will fit those with a hole cut in the side.

As I mentioned before, I don’t like wasting material so I am a big fan of the shrink sleeve on a roll. It fits different-sized blanks that I use often and I can cut it to the exact size I need.

My best recommendation is to look at the sublimation blanks you want to use and make sure you have sublimation shrink sleeves on hand to fit those blanks. Having a variety of sizes is preferable to just keeping large-size blanks on hand.

I hope I’ve answered any questions you have about using sublimation shrink sleeves. If you have additional questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them for you.

shrink wrap sleeves

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