Jennifer Castronovo creates customized mugs that she sells in her Etsy shop, Penny Prints Creations. After starting out using a print-on-demand service, she invested in a sublimation heat transfer mug press.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Castronovo
Etsy shops selling customized mugs, apparel, and other items are all the rage. The popular technique called sublimation or heat press printing is behind it all. How does it work? A special printer prints sublimation ink on paper, and a heat press transfers the image from a solid-state to a gas without ever turning to a liquid. When the ink cools on the transfer product, it gets properly fused and turns back into a solid for long-lasting designs that can go in the dishwasher.
Jennifer Castronovo and her boyfriend started their custom mug business, PennyPrintsCreations on Etsy, in December 2020. By January 2021, they’d made their first sale. Though their business is still in its infancy stage, their goal is that the business would grow to become a full-time endeavor. “We generally process 10 to 15 orders per week,” Castronovo says. They currently fill Etsy orders out of her garage in New Jersey. Castronovo works part-time as a waitress and is finishing up her Associate’s degree, while they work on getting their own website up and running.
Due to a customer’s request, they now offer bulk orders of mugs with the same custom image on them. “Starting out, we never believed we’d be receiving $500 bulk orders for the product that we sell, but as we have been growing, it’s becoming a major part of our business.” Coming into the 2021 winter holiday season, Castronovo says they are prepared and hoping to be busy with filling orders.
“For other holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, we had a huge increase in sales.”
For printing mugs, they currently use the HPN Signature Series Automated Sublimation Heat Transfer Mug Press. “We dove into a lot of research before finally choosing our press,” Castronovo explains. “There are many options out there, but we went with this one because it had a lot of positive reviews between blogs and YouTube videos, and the price was in our range.” They design custom illustrations for the mugs using an iPad.
Before they invested in their own heat transfer mug press, they used print-on-demand (POD) companies for about 6 weeks to fill orders. “That’s why I say you really need no equipment to start in this business since they can do the manufacturing and shipping for you,” Castronovo says. When they learned it would be financially beneficial to cut out the middle man, they quickly switched to pressing and shipping in-house after making enough profit from their products to purchase equipment and supplies. According to Castronovo, you can start this business with just an idea and some motivation. “A business plan would be ideal, but we didn’t have one,” she says. “We just started posting and experimenting. Having a little savings cushion to protect yourself is always beneficial.”
Castronovo feels their growth potential for the business is limitless, though there have certainly been challenges along the way—like finding the right printer to use with sublimation ink. “To me, the technology is the part I like the least, because we spend the bulk of our time and money on these machines that require constant adjusting and updating,” she says.
Thankfully, the creative aspects of the business outweigh any technology headaches for Castronovo. “I think the whole business revolves around creativity, from mapping out the perfect social media posts, to designing the website to creating custom illustrations for customers.” As they expand into new designs and product lines, Castronovo is excited to see her creative potential thrive in this business.
Frisco, Texas graphic designer Suzanne Jordan started selling Scrabble tile jewelry on Etsy in 2009, then expanded to personalized metal stamped jewelry a few years later. It wasn’t until April 2020 that she expanded her Etsy shop WickedlyMod to include sublimation printed mugs, mousepads, and ornaments. She and her husband realized they were in over their heads when they had more than 500 orders in one week during the peak Christmas holiday season! “I had to shut down my shops for several days to catch up with orders,” Jordan says.
Personalized mug by WickedlyMod Inc. Customized items like this one are especially popular as gifts.
Photo courtesy of Suzanne Jordan.
Planning for growth
A major challenge of the heat press business is how much one person can handle making at a time. As Jordan explains, most of her income is made during peak buying seasons and holidays. So at the beginning of 2021, she began outsourcing orders to a boutique print-on-demand company that also handles packaging. “My customers love the presentation when they receive their items,” she says. “Honestly, my husband and I just couldn’t physically ship due to the limitations of our bodies. Shipping mugs is physically demanding, which isn’t something we expected.”
When pressing mugs at home, Jordan uses the TransPro Mug from ProWorld. “I had to purchase a second one to keep up with our volume,” she says. For other items like ornaments and mousepads, she purchased the Heat Press Nation CraftPro 15”x15”. Jordan recommends choosing a heat press to fit the items you want to sell (for instance, a larger press for shirts). Heat presses can cost thousands of dollars, but most sellers won’t need to spend that much to get started.
“You can start with a somewhat basic machine and then upgrade as you sell more,” she says.
The other items needed for running a heat press business from home are a sublimation printer, like the Sawgrass SG500, ink (often included with the printer), sublimation paper, and heat tape. “I also recommend heat-resistant gloves to protect you when you remove the paper from your heated item,” she says. “Another nifty tool that I use for lifting paper from the mug is a hook weeding tool. And of course, you will need shipping supplies. We also use cooling baking sheets to place our hot item on while it cools down.”
Jordan’s shops serve as her full-time business, and she runs everything out of her home studio, which means taking over much of her family’s living space. She sells through her own website, WickedlyMod.com, as well as Etsy. “Just the other week, I launched a design shop on Etsy for PNG sublimation designs I create,” she says. “I have received many messages asking me where I get my designs, and so now other sellers can use them for their own shops and websites.” Jordan is also in the process of launching two more product shops; both will offer custom-printed items—just tailored to a specific niche.”
Overall, Jordan loves the creativity that this business affords her, in creating and selling the designs. And with unlimited growth potential for her print-on-demand company, she looks forward to seeing what’s next around the corner.
Lindsay is a modern quilter, writer, and editor. A multi-book author with C&T Publishing, her latest project was designing sampler quilts for FreeSpirit Block Party (Stash Books, September 2018). She also works with Craftsy and Baby Lock sewing machines, and is an editor for Frommer’s Travel Guides. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband, son, and two cats, who were the inspiration for her adult coloring book and Kickstarter “Project of the Day” Lazy-Ass Cats. www.lindsaysews.com, www.lazyasscats.com