Digital Decorating:

Finding the Right Heat Press: Part 2

The wealth of heat-pressing options and accessories means the sky’s the limit in terms of what an apparel decorator can do

By Adam Cort, Content Director

A pair of HIX cap heat presses ready for shipment from the factory. Photo courtesy of HIX Corporation

February 22, 2023

In Part 1 of our three-part series on heat presses, we looked at the basic design types and features decorators want to keep in mind when considering a new press. Building on this foundation, Part 2 will look at some of the more specialized heat press types available for those decorators looking to take their product offerings—and by extension their business—to the next level.

Manual dual platen Heat Press for pressing labels on decorated apparel

Geo Knight & Co.’s DK8T Twin Label Press. Photo courtesy of Geo Knight & Co.

Cups, plates, key chains, hats, picture frames, emblems and wide range of hoodies or placket-style apparel—T-shirts represent just the tip of the iceberg in terms of your potential product line and/or the services a committed decorator can offer. That said, as is the case with a conventionally sized flat-platen heat press, the key is to decide in advance the precise kind of heat pressing you have in mind in order to make sure you have the equipment you need to do so successfully.

With this in mind, there are a number of purpose-built heat presses available for those looking to decorate smaller items or thicker or irregularly shaped objects in 3D. Among the most recognizable of these are hat presses—which come with curved platens and pressing surfaces expressly designed to create a combination of even heat and even press across the surfaces to be decorated. Also easily recognizable are the variety of tag and label presses on the market.

Finally, there are hybrid, or multipurpose, presses and/or the various different specialized accessories available for use with, or as an integral feature of those same more conventional swing-away presses described in Part 1.

Heat Pressing Labels and in Small Spaces

Starting out with tag, or label, presses, these can in many ways be thought of as specialized versions of those

Heat Press with dual platens for high production apparel label pressing

The Insta 907 is well suited to higher production volumes. Photo courtesy of Insta Graphic Systems

same clamshell-type presses discussed in Part 1, i.e., highly modified clamshells equipped with diminutive top and bottom base platens, typically measuring 4 inches by 4 inches to 6 by 8 inches. Smaller sizes are available as well, like the 3-inch-by-3-inch bottom platens manufactured by Geo Knight & Co.

No big surprise, in addition to labels, these kinds of presses are ideal for decorating a multitude of other small surface areas as well. Examples include like collars, pockets, socks, sleeves or backups and bags where a nearby seam, zipper or button makes it difficult to ensure even pressure on the area being decorated.

Granted, in a pinch, you could always heat press label with a larger, more conventional press. Same thing with working your way around the zippers and seams on, say, a backpack or duffel bag. However, as STAHLS’ Dave Harding warns, there are “concerns about practicality and efficiency” that inevitably result from taking this kind of approach—concerns that are only going become that much more pronounced if and when you ever find yourself ramping up production volumes.

“For small-volume labeling, it may be possible to use a conventionally sized machine,” Greg Farmer of Insta Graphic Systems says. “However, for high-volume jobs, decorators will always be better off with a dedicated label press.”

Heat Press for cap decoration with digital controls

The Hotronix 360 IQ includes a fully integrated heated lower platen. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

“The issue is that the bottom tables are too large, and you end up pressing a large part of the garment, and making a large stamp mark, all for a transfer that is very small,” agrees Aaron Knight, vice president of Geo Knight & Co.

Note, in a neat twist for those running higher production volumes, there is also the option of what Geo Knight & Co. calls its DK8T Twin label press: a system in which the heated top platen pivots back and forth between a pair of pedestals/lower platens. Similarly, there’s Insta’s air-operated 907 Dual Station Shuttle, which offers this same kind of pivoting performance in combination with fully automated pneumatic functionality for optimal efficiency at especially high production volumes. The Insta 907 comes standard with a 6-inch-by-6-inch platen. However, 2.5-inch-by-2.5-inch platens are also available.

Decorating Hats and Caps

Moving on to hat presses, these are, of necessity, slightly more complex given the nature of the curved surfaces being decorated. However, the ultimate goal remains the same as with any other heat press, i.e., to provide a consistently predictable combination of time, heat and pressure to both the design and surface being decorated.

With this in mind, commercial quality hat presses typically come standard with multiple, interchangeable lower platens (or at the very least can accommodate multiple platens) to fit the demands of, say, both youth and adult sizes or higher- versus lower-profile items.

Heat Press for cap decoration showing hold-down feature

The hold-down bracket and strap can be easily seen in this shot of the HIX B-250. Photo courtesy of HIX Corporation

At the higher end of the performance spectrum, the upper and lower platens are both heated to facilitate the pressing of dimensional emblems on a range of cap surfaces. Examples of this kind of press, or feature, include the STAHLS’ Hotronix 360 IQ press, in which the heat settings of the upper and lower platens are controlled independently; and Geo Knight & Co.’s DKA-35BHT 3 x 5 “Curved Cap Bottom Heat Fixture,” which can be integrated into the company’s DK7, DK7T, DC-CAP, DC7 models.

Something else to look for are the fully integrated hold-down systems found on most quality hat presses, which serve to keep a cap or hat in place throughout the pressing process—one of those things that can be especially helpful over the course of longer production runs when fatigue becomes a factor and consistent precision can easily fall by the wayside.

The HIX Evo Touch B-250 Cap Press, for example, includes both a hold-down system for the cap or hat being decorated and an integrated hold-down strap to secure the transfer being applied to ensure everything stays in place. Similarly, the Geo Knight DK7 includes a hold-down device that pulls the rear strap of whatever kind of hat is being decorated down against the pressing surface. Same thing with the STAHLS’ Hotronix MAXX Cap, 360 IQ and Auto Cap, the HPN Black and Signature series cap presses, the Insta 418 hat press and the Ricoma line of hat presses, all of which come equipped with a kind of lever-operated hold-down system.

Heated lower platen for a Heat Press for hat decoration

An example of a heated lower cap platen, from Geo Knight & Co. Photo courtesy of Geo Knight & Co.

Hold-down features like these are “very important,” says Geo Knight & Co.’s Knight. “Without [them] the cap is too loose on the bottom table and can move around and cause a lot of handling issues and time lost.”

“Our customers especially treasure the hold-down bracket and strap,” says HIX Corporation’s global graphics sales manager at HIX Corporation Henri Coëme. “It firmly secures the transfer in place prior to releasing it, i.e., removing your fingers, and closing the press. Without this hold-down device, removing your hand from the transfer with nothing else holding it down is hit-and-miss.”

As is the case with a conventional clamshell press, overall construction quality is also key when evaluating these kinds of presses. Granted, there are plenty of inexpensive, foreign-made presses out there available on, say, Amazon. However, while this kind of equipment may work great for hobbyists, it will inevitably—and often very quickly—come up short for professionals, the same was with a conventional flat-platen press.

Platen quality, for example, is again critical to ensuring you get even, consistent pressing temperatures across the entire design throughout even the longest production run. The key here is a platen with a dense heating element traversing the entire pressing area, as opposed to a much sparser pattern that all too often results in cold spots.

A swing-away Heat Press for apparel decoration

The DC16AP Digital Combo swing-away heat can also be used to press caps, labels, plates and mugs. Photo courtesy of Geo Knight & Co.

You could even argue, STAHLS’ Harding says, that platen quality, which in this case includes the engineered curvature of both the top and bottom platens, may be even more critical in a hat press than a conventional press. The reason? Because you no longer have the option of employing heat printing pads or pillows to make things work.

“With headwear, particularly baseball caps, you must pay close attention to support of the blank hat,” Harding explains. “For example, the crown of a cap is susceptible to creasing or folding when the upper platen’s pressure is applied during heat application, so it’s important to have a quality lower platen that properly fits the blanks. Otherwise, decorators may encounter issues with transfer adhesion or even ruin the integrity of the hat.”

Beyond that, look for rock-solid construction quality overall, especially in the system’s base, handles and pressing linkages. Note, this is another situation in which you 1) get what you pay for 2) would be well advised to go with a system made here in the United States and 3) should make sure the press you’re purchasing comes with both a warranty easy to access customer support. The latter, in addition to the build quality of domestically produced brands, is one of the main reasons to go with “Made in the U.S.A.” If or when your press goes down in the middle of a rush job, the last thing you’re going to want to have to deal with is a company on the other side of the world, or a company that won’t answer the phone!

Taking an even closer look at the nuts and bolts of a well-made press, HIX Corporation’s Coëme emphasizes the bottom platen pad is especially important, saying the goal is a “goldilocks middle-of-the-road” compromise between enough firmness to provide proper pressure and enough softness to allow for easy operation.

A pair of heat presses for decorating caps

A STAHLS’ Hotronix Maxx Cap press (left), Hotronix Auto Cap and assorted platens. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

Equally important, he says, is the arm linkage system that allows for a perfect connection between top and bottom casting, a proper pressure on the platen and a smooth handling of the machine in general.

“The quality of the heat press and especially the platen is just as important for cap and label heat presses as standard size presses,” agrees Insta’s Farmer, noting this is especially the case with intricate or detailed graphics—which many back-neck or tagless labels tend to have due to the small size of the text—imperfections in the application can be even more noticeable.

“When it comes to caps, which are curved and often made of stiffer materials,” Farmer says, “you need consistent, even pressure across the entire platen to ensure the transfer applies correctly. The proper distribution of heat and pressure across the platen is largely due to the heated platen itself, but it is also affected by having a quality base for the heat press, the correct silicone pad on the lower platen, and a firm base where the lower platen is attached.”

Finally, as with “label” presses, “hat” or “cap” presses can also be used for a number of other applications beside those for which they’ve been nomically designed. Specifically, in the same way label presses work great for decorating hard-to-isolate places, hat presses also work well for heat-pressing designs on smaller, more flexible items, like handkerchiefs. “Stop looking at a cap press as just a ‘press for caps,’” HIX Corporation’s Coëme suggests. “This is a very versatile machine that can press anything that is curved and small. [It] is light and portable and works great side-by-side with a standard clamshell or swing-away 15- to 20-inch press.”

Bottom line, as with label press, you’re getting that much more bang for your buck in terms of your initial investment—always a good thing!

Deciding on a Heat Press

Speaking of flexibility, for those decorators who want to be able to offer as diverse a product line as possible without having to invest in an entirely separate pieces of equipment, there’s the option of a multi-purpose or hybrid press. As the name implies, these presses—which at first blush look much like a conventional swing-away press—can be used to heat press a incredible variety of items through the use of various add-ons and/or attachments.

Heat Press for mug decoration

A Geo Knight & Co. mug press attachment for use with the company’s “Combo” presses. Photo courtesy of Geo Knight & Co.

Because multifunction presses employ the same drop-down mechanisms found in conventional, swing-away presses, you also have the ability to heat press much thicker items than, say, a hoodie or T-shirt, right out of the gate—in contrast to clamshell style presses, in which height adjustments are severely limited by the kind of linkage employed. The swing-away presses manufactured by Geo Knight &Co., for example, can be used to press flat items up to 2 inches thick, opening up a world of possibility, whether it be decorating gift boxes or picture frames.

Beyond that, with multifunction presses, like the HeatPressNation HPN Signature Series line of 8-in-1 multifunction heat presses or the Ricoma iKonix 4-in-1 multifunction heat press, you have to ability to 1) swap out both the upper and lower platens to create a hat, or cap, press 2) swap out the rectangular top platen with a circular top platen to create a plate press and 3) or attach a dedicated cup or tumbler press via a cable—thereby opening yet more options in terms of the kinds of products you can decorate.

Other examples of these kinds of multifunction systems include the Geo Knight & Co. Digital Combo DC16AP, an air-operated, automatic 14-inch-by-16-inch swing-away heat press that can be paired with everything from a cap attachment, a mug attachment, a plate attachment and a large, heated bottom platen; the HeatPressNation HPN Signature PRO Series of 12-in-1 presses, which includes a host of different cap, mug, plate and platen options.

Granted, for those dealing with high-production volumes across multiple product lines, channeling so many different kinds of decorating through a single machine could result in bottlenecks. But for those smaller shops just now looking to branch out, it could be a great way of testing the water, as it were.

Ed Note: For more on basic heat press construction and accessories go to Part 1 and Part 3 of this three-part series on heat presses for hat, T-shirt, hoodie and general apparel decorators.