Digital Decorating:

Don’t Stop the Press

Follow these tips to maximize time and efficiency when using a heat press.

By Bob Robinson, Contributing Writer

When weeding heat-transfer vinyl, a heated surface can cut the time required for this step in half.

September 4, 2018

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “Work smarter, not harder” in reference to many applications, but none rings truer than when it comes to apparel decoration. We’re not looking for ways to be lazy; instead, the goal is to improve processes and make our shops more efficient.

Time is money, which makes it your most valuable commodity. Spending less time on the production process will allow you to spend more time selling jobs and increasing production capacity. This will allow you to take on additional work, thus increasing profits.

Let’s take a look at some ways decorators can make their lives easier, starting at the most obvious place.

The Heat Press
Working with a reliable and accurate heat press can improve efficiency simply by eliminating returns of failed applications and minimizing the need to redo the work. You need to be confident that if you pressed a heat-transfer material onto a garment, it will stay there.

To get the most out of your operator, consider an auto-open press. While a simple auto-open, clam-style press will allow the operator to multi-task and be more productive during the dwell cycle, consider upgrading to a pneumatic or air-actuated press. This reduces fatigue, as only two buttons need to be pushed to engage the press, then the operator steps on a pedal to allow the machine to complete the process.

Also, having a press with presets that, once selected, automatically set it at the proper time, temperature and pressure can be a major time saver, as well as ensure accuracy.

Regardless of which heat press you use, choosing one with “threadability”— allowing you to open the garment and slide one layer over the lower platen — makes a big difference in speed and will help to ensure a quality print.

In conjunction with threadability, choose a heat press that allows for platens of multiple sizes and shapes. The benefit is that you can target application areas and eliminate pressure issues without using pads or pillows.

Some specialty platens actually can allow you to embellish items that would otherwise be nearly impossible to decorate using a heat press. In a repetitive situation, this is a tremendous help; the right platen, combined with threadability, will provide a production boost.

A simple add-on for increased efficiency is the non-stick, lower-platen cover, which has two functions. It protects the lower platen from prematurely deteriorating and allows you to thread the garment without friction and resistance from the lower platen. If you are decorating a garment’s front and back on the same press, you now can pull the threaded garment back slightly and spin it to allow the other side to be decorated.

Get it Straight
Too often, in an effort to ensure perfect placement and alignment, decorators spend a lot of time measuring, adjusting and readjusting. While ensuring designs are aligned and in the proper location is critical, there is a better way.

A simple device that projects multiple laser lines onto a garment that is loaded onto a heat press is available. Spending a little time beforehand placing registration lines exactly where you want your image will greatly improve production efficiency, and you’ll be confident the customer is getting a quality product from the first to the last pressed item.

The Least-Favorite Process
If you are cutting your own designs from heat-transfer vinyl (HTV), the process consists of three steps: cutting, weeding, and pressing. Few people say weeding is their favorite task, but it must be done.

Thankfully, there are tools and techniques to get it done faster. If you are using HTV with a sticky carrier — which usually means it’s a hot-peel material — weeding it on a heated surface typically can cut the required time for this step in half. It softens the adhesive carrier just enough to reduce resistance and make the unneeded vinyl peel off like butter.

While the sticky carrier allows fine detail in the cutting process, the resistance can slow the weeding process. The most popular heat-transfer vinyls use a sticky carrier, including solid-colored HTV and especially glitter materials. Getting this task done in half the time goes a long way in streamlining the production process.

When heat printing larger jobs, especially those with multiple presses per garment, consider breaking the job up so the same operator is pressing the same logo in the same place repetitively. Once that segment is complete, the garment can then be passed to a second operator, who repetitively applies the next design on the same garment. Alternatively, the item can wait for a single operator to apply subsequent designs.

This decorating style has proven to be most effective in that performing the same task repeatedly increases production speed and minimizes errors. It is the same assembly-line concept that manufacturers have successfully employed for years.

Simple But Effective
There are a number of time-saving practices that, while simple, are worth noting. Minimize the number of steps the heat-press operator must take to complete a job. Move the trash can closer, stage blank garments on flat, wheeled carts and use the same type of cart for finished goods so they easily can be moved to the packing and shipping area. The list goes on, but the point is to streamline production efforts so that efficiency is maximized.

With all of these ideas in mind, it’s time to evaluate and revise the way you run your heat-press production. Adding some time-saving tools or simply using what you have in a more efficient way will make your business more productive and, ultimately, more profitable.

Bob Robinson is sales and education specialist at Stahls’. He has more than 20 years of experience in both the sales and production sides of the apparel-decorating business and is a valuable resource for apparel decorators. For more information, visit

Know Your Heat Press

The two standard heat-element sizes for heat presses are 15″ x 15″ and 16″ x 20″. If you’re in doubt about which size would be best, choose the larger one; you always can press smaller designs with a larger machine. For oversized garment decoration, heat presses also are available in 20″ x 24″, 30″ x 40″ sizes and larger.

Swing-Away or Clam-Shell: Another decision to make is whether to choose a clam-shell heat press or a swing-away model. A clam-shell design has hinges at the back and opens like a clam’s shell, as the name suggests. These presses are popular in retail stores since they take up less counter space and can be faster in production, as the heat element remains stationary.

Athleticwear and team-uniform decorators usually prefer swing-away presses because the heat platen can be moved in order to lay out player names and numbers on a jersey before heat pressing. Sublimation decorators also prefer this model because the heat element locks down horizontally, reducing the chance of the transfer slipping when heat printing thick items such as wooden plaques and ceramic tiles.

Air-Operated Automatic Presses: This heat-press type is considered the top-of-the-line. Air-operated heat presses offer superior downward pressure, minimal operator fatigue and precise repetition from garment to garment.