January 12, 2023
One of the most appealing things about heat-pressing as a means of apparel decorating is its relatively low barrier to entry in terms of the skills required and equipment costs. At the end of the day, successful heat-pressing depends on the consistent, predictable control of just three fairly straightforward parameters: heat, time and pressure. That’s it.
Or is it?
While it may be true that heat-pressing is a great way of gaining entry into the decorated apparel industry (and decorating business in general: think promotional items, like cups, mugs, handbags, etc.) the devil is in the details. Hobbyists or casual part-timers may be able to accommodate inefficiencies or a feature (or lack thereof) in a heat press that may be “annoying” in some way. But professionals looking to take their game to the next level shouldn’t—and ultimately can’t—tolerate these kinds of things if they want to be successful.
Same thing with build quality. Again, “making do” with a flimsier heat press may be fine if all you’re doing is decorating a few dozen shirts on occasion for friends and family. But building a thriving decorating business means having systems in place capable of dealing with higher volumes and a variety of product types over the long haul.
What follows is a brief introduction to some of the more important design features you’re going to want to keep in mind in order to purchase the heat press that’s right for you. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at some of the accessories and specialty presses now available for handling the ever-growing variety of products that can be decorated via heat pressing.
Basic Heat Press Configurations
The first and most obvious question every decorator must face when selecting a new heat press is which of the three major types to go with, i.e., clamshell, swing-away or slide-out drawer. (A fourth type, multifunction, will be covered in Part 2 of this series.)
When weighing the pros and cons of these three heat-press types, it’s vital you start out by considering things like your workspace, the kinds of pressing you plan (or hope) to do and production volumes. While it’s true there’s a good deal of overlap between, say, a robustly built clamshell model and a swing-away press, you still need to be sure and think long and hard about which will make the best fit.
Clamshell presses like this auto-release model from HIX Corporation take up a minimum of space. Note the generous work area toward the back of the platen.
“Some good early questions to ask are, ‘How much room do I have to work?’ and ‘How many orders will I have to start?’” says Dave Harding of STAHLS’, manufacturer of the Hotronix line of heat presses. “Looking ahead to future business goals or desired growth is also important, as it may impact your decision to start with a larger, more capable heat press rather than a smaller model.”
With respect to size and space issues, Henri Coëme, global graphics sales manager at HIX Corporation, suggests decorators ask themselves things like, “Do you need a tool that can fit on your kitchen table and also be easily transported to outdoor events or other locations? Or are you looking to create all-over prints on short- and long-sleeved textile pieces or on larger non-textile substrates such as aluminum plates or wooden tabletops?”
Looking at the specific pros and cons of the different types, the major advantages of a well-built clamshell-type press include its portability (for smaller models, especially), its affordability and the fact its up-and-down movement requires a minimum of working space.
Harding notes there are also a number of clamshell models on the market that include an “auto open” feature, which not only helps speed up production, but ensures you employ the correct press times (one of the three parameters mentioned at the beginning of this article), no matter how distracted you may be by whatever else might be going on.
On the downside, the hinge-like movement of a clamshell press means it can generally only be used to press thinner items, since the height range over which the mechanism can be adjusted is necessarily limited (though HIX’s Coëme notes presses are available with a “floating” lower platen that tilts slightly front-to-back when closing, allowing the press to self-align under pressure).
The 16-inch-by-20-inch surface area of the platen on the Hotronix “Auto Clam” is ideal for pressing larger designs.
Also problematic, a clamshell press’s hinge-like functionality limits freedom of movement toward the back of press, increasing the chance of burns (though one of the marks of a higher-quality press is a little extra room in which to work toward the back of the unit). Granted, this might not be a problem if you’re only pressing a couple of dozen garments at a time. But as production levels grow, the lack of space can become increasingly burdensome.
By contrast with a swing-away press, you have all the room in the world. No more burned knuckles! The top-down linkage employed by swing-away presses also makes it possible to accommodate a much wider range of apparel and items while maintaining strict control of the amount of pressure being applied. This includes everything from the thinnest T-shirts to things like coasters and mousepads.
As Aaron Knight, vice president at Geo Knight & Co. explains, “The platen of a swing-way press is perfectly parallel regardless of the thickness of the product…If [on the other hand] you put a very thick product in a clamshell press, you will hit the back of the product more than the front.”
Swing-away models like this HIX press provide easy access when positioning items for decoration.
Of course, for those with limited space, this same swing-away functionality can be a liability due to the room required. Swing-away presses are also heavier and less portable than their clamshell counterparts, that and a little more time-consuming to operate because of the extra swing-away motion. They tend to come with a heftier price tag as well.
On the plus side, a number of swing-away presses are available with automated, pneumatic functionality, obviating the need to muscle the platen up and down over the course of an especially large production run. Be warned, though, this kind of functionality doesn’t come cheap.
Finally, there are those heat presses featuring slide-out lower drawers, or platens. This approach in many ways represents the best of all possible worlds in that you get the speed of operation and compact footprint of a clamshell press in combination with the enhanced flexibility of a swing-away model.
As is the case with swing-away presses, many heat presses featuring sliding-drawers, or platens, can also be operated pneumatically. Same thing with their high-production-volume cousins, multi-stage presses, like the STAHLS’ Hotronic Dual Air Fusion IQ and Geo Knight & Co.’s 394-TS Air Operated Shuttle Press. For those interested in the efficiency of a twin-platen system with the rock-solid functionality of manual operation, there’s the HIX Evo Touch SideKick 20 (see page 12 for more details on this newly released model).
Heat Press Platen Sizes
Moving on from basic press configurations, the next issue is platen size. For obvious reasons, having a larger platen means being able to heat press larger transfers. However, larger platens also cost more, and heat presses with larger platens require a larger work area. In general, you can press images roughly up to the size of whatever size platen you’re using. For more compact designs, there’s no real limit to how small you can go with a larger press. However, using an oversize platen to press a patch the size of, say, a business card isn’t exactly a model of efficiency.
Because the top platen is lowered in a straight line from directly above, swing-away presses like the Geo Knight & Co. K20S are ideal for pressing items both thick and thin; note this press’s robust construction, as is evident in the all-metal linkage.
“How large of an area do you have to press?” Knight says. “How large of an area is your design going to be? How large of an area is the live printing zone on your product? Do you just need to print designs onto caps? Do you print garments? Then you need a T-shirt press. At that point you have narrowed down your choice between dozens of different models to just a few.”
“Figuring out your max image and garment size is very important,” agrees Jared Barbosa, a tech expert with HeatPressNation.com, which distributes a wide selection of heat-press types, including those in its own HPN line. “You always want your press to be about one inch bigger than your largest graphic in each dimension. And while you can press a 3XL shirt on a 9-inch-by 12-inch heat press, doing so is very cumbersome compared to putting that same shirt on a 16-inch-by-20-inch machine.”
In terms of the different sizes currently available, starting at the smaller end of the platen spectrum are those found on “label” presses measuring as little as 5-by-5 or 6-by-8 inches. Moving up a notch, you get to smaller format presses, or those that tend to be marketed to hobbyists, measuring 9-by-12 to, say, 12-by-15 inches. From there, what might be classified as “standard” size heat presses for true production work can be found in sizes from 15-by-15 to 16-by-24 inches. Finally, large format platens measuring anywhere from 26-by-32 to 44-by-65 inches (and more!) are available as well.
As a practical matter, platens in the “standard” range are considered standard for a reason: because they provide a heating element sufficiently large for the vast majority of applications most professional shops encounter, at a reasonable cost and without being too cumbersome or requiring an overly large work area.
That said, if you’ve got the room (and the budget) you might want to consider something a little larger in order to expand your options. “A larger 20-inch-by-25-inch [platen] can nearly simulate an all-over print on a garment,” HIX’s Coëme explains. “This over-size is also ideal to ‘gang up’ a number of smaller projects that can all be sublimated at the same time…such as tiles, ceramic ornaments, smaller plates, sublimatable bottle openers and other small, flat substrates.”
As always, the key is to think long and hard about where exactly you think your business is going to take you before making the final decision in terms of the heat press that’s right for you.
Heat Press Build Quality
Of course, all this talk of basic configurations and platen sizes means nothing if you end up with a cheaply made heat press that isn’t up to doing the job of actual pressing.
First and foremost, no matter what kind of decorating you have in mind, you want to go with a top-notch cast-aluminum heating plate to ensure you get the kind of heat you need. The goal here is even, predictable heat across the entire surface, no matter how long the press run, as opposed being stuck with a cheaper platen plagued by “cold spots” across its heating surface and inconsistent temperatures overall.
“Many cheap or import models have a ‘Z’ pattern for the heating coils,” Harding says. “Instead, look for a heat press with heat coils that zigzag across the entire surface of the upper platen. This feature ensures even distribution of heat and zero cold spots that can lead to peeling transfers or failed attempts.”
HIX Corporation’s Coëme agrees, emphasizing a professional-grade heat press needs to be able to reach and sustain an “even” temperature of up to 400°F across its entire surface.
“The best heat presses will have heating rods embedded into (rather than attached to the surface of) the heat casting,” he says. “Embedding the heating rod needs to happen in a foundry whereby aluminum is poured in a cast that already contains the heating rod. As such, once the aluminum cools, the heating element is permanently and firmly embedded, and can provide consistent heat over the entire platen surface.”
“Once your heat press breaks the 30- to 40-hours-per-week threshold, that’s when you’ll want to consider a more heavy-duty commercial machine,” HeatPressNation.com’s Barbosa says. “For that, I’d recommend a solid U.S.A.-made brand like Geo Knight, STAHLS’ Hotronix, HIX or Insta [Graphic Systems].”
To ensure you get the kind of quality press you need, look for “Made-in-the-U.S.A.” Note the all-steel components going into this HIX model.
In addition, Barbosa says, “If a press has a 30-day warranty or none at all. Steer clear! Can you call the manufacturer and get technical support? Do they even have a phone number listed? If you can’t get a hold of a live human on the phone, I would avoid that company at all costs. Good heat press manufacturers and retailers back up their products. Bad ones make a quick sale and then avoid their customers.”
Finally, complementing platen quality, no matter what the exact type of heat press, you’re going to want to go with robust construction overall, which in turn means a well-built base, linkage and controls. More often than not, you get what you pay for, but not always. Take a close look at whatever press you’re considering. Better still, check it out firsthand, either by visiting your nearest distributor or seeing what’s on hand at a trade show.
“An inexpensive press can be robust. An expensive press can be flimsy. The price of the press tells some but not the entire story,” Coëme says. “A good quality, robust press is made of steel, not plastic…the handle and leverage mechanisms have little to no idle movement and ‘feel’ right when opening and closing. The closing mechanism works with ease, even if fully manual.”
Along these same lines, Knights says, “The overall weight of the press is a great indicator of whether it is of plastic or sheet-metal constitution, flimsy and light, or a heavily built and heavily welded structure that will stand the test of time. Reputation and online comments and reviews will also indicate quite colorfully whether a press is ‘made like a tank’ or made like a ‘paper tiger.’”
Ed Note: For more on heat presses and heat-press decorating be sure and see Part 2, and Part 3 of this three-part series in which we examine the many different control features available on today’s presses as well the various pressing accessories and specialty presses on the market these days. This article was updated April 17, 2023.
March 24, 2023 | Heat Transfer
In Parts 1 and 2 of this three-part series, we talked about how the three main variables in heat pressing are temperature, time and pressure. We then went on to look at what to look for in a heat press to ensure you meet these conditions consistently.
February 22, 2023 | Heat Transfer
In Part 1 of our three-part series on heat presses, we looked at the basic design types and features apparel decorators want to keep in mind when considering a new system. In Part 2 we look at speciality presses for decorating caps and applying shirt labels, and also multi-function presses
February 21, 2023 | Heat Transfer
As people across the globe continue to work from home, their wardrobe staples have transitioned from dress pants and blazers to athleisure — think matching sweat suits, leggings and other lightweight apparel.