Digital Decorating:

Finding the Right Heat Press: Part 3

The importance of having the right accessories and special features for heat press apparel decorating

By Adam Cort, Content Director

Pillows help even things out when heat pressing items with buttons and zippers. Photo courtesy of HIX Corporation

March 24, 2023

In Parts 1 and Part 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. As part of this discussion, we also looked at the different types of specialty presses now on the market for decorating everything from labels to hats, T-shirts, hoodies, backpacks and all of the above.

Unfortunately, as every veteran decorator knows, the seemingly infinite number of items out there to be decorated means even the best-laid plans of equipment manufactures will occasionally come up short—think the multiple seams and zippers found on many backpacks and hoodies. How in the world are you supposed to maintain consistent pressure when you’ve got a button getting in the way between your upper and lower platens?

A swing away Heat Press for apparel decoration

Craft paper has long been a standby in the industry. Photo courtesy of Insta Graphic Systems

Enter the many accessories and add-ons available to decorators, including craft paper, reusable Teflon cover sheets, various different pillows and pads, and the wide range of specialized platens.

Similarly, for those looking to take their production volumes to the next level, there are a whole host of ancillary features on the market, including everything from fully automatic pneumatic functionality to digital displays and controls.

Paper, Pads and Pillows for Heat Pressing

Among the most common and basic forms of accessories used by heat-press decorators are craft paper, cover sheets (either lose or fitted around a platen), pillows and pads. In fact, so ubiquitous are these items they can be found everywhere from the work areas of casual hobbyists to some of the largest decorating companies around.

In practice, craft paper can serve multiple purposes. These include protecting the upper platen from becoming contaminated with inks or adhesives, helping hold a transfer in place while pressing and preventing scorching. Same thing with Teflon cover sheets. However, the two are not entirely the same.

pads used for Heat Press apparel decorating

Pads provide another means of heat pressing around buttons and zippers. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

In addition to being cheap and by extension disposable, for example, craft paper is better for absorbing inks and the outgassing of dyes. It also works well when pressing designs with a matte finish. A reusable Teflon sheet, on the other hand, works best at ensuring things separate cleanly when you’re finished pressing. It is also, of course, reusable—though it needs to be cleaned between jobs so the ink from one job doesn’t spoil the next job in line.

“Sometimes one is better than the other, like for sublimation Teflon is a bad cover sheet because the dyes will gas into the Teflon,” Aaron Knight, vice president of Geo Knight & Co. explains. “Paper is best for that, since it can be thrown away.”

“Many decorators like the longevity of a reusable cover sheet since it can be wiped down when needed,” says Dave Harding of STAHLS’-Hotronix. “Alternatively, some heat printers simply get in the habit of using kraft paper. Once you see residue, just toss it and grab a new sheet.”

Interestingly, HIX Corporation’s Henri Coëme says on occasions he will actually find himself using a combination of the two in order to get the result he wants. For example, he says he will sometimes use a Teflon cover “in addition to the craft paper as a final protection for the upper casting or (as a Teflon cover) as a protection for the lower pad.”

Specialty platens for Heat Press apparel decorating

A sampling of the variety of specialty platens available to decorators. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

As for pillows and pads, while these two types of accessories may appear similar, they also serve two very different purposes. Specifically, pads—which consist of a foam core wrapped in Teflon—are much softer than padding and when placed underneath or inserted into a shirt or bag serve to accommodate the variations in thickness that result from things like seams, hems or collars: basically, by allowing them to sink into the padding, pillows make possible to still apply the requisite pressure to the area being decorated.

By contrast, pads are a good deal stiffer and serve to raise up the area to be pressed while allowing collars, seams, zippers, buttons and other irregularities to drop off to the side. Unlike pillows, pads which are composed of a simple piece of foam, can also be cut and shaped to size.

“Having pillows or pads allows heat printers to decorate a variety of garments and placements without having to invest in extra equipment or attachments for their heat press,” Harding says. “Whether it’s oversized jerseys or onesies for babies, you can do it all on the same heat press with just a few pillows or pads on hand.”

“Generally speaking, a decorator will see the best results using a platen as close to the size of the transfer they are placing as possible,” says Greg Farmer of Insta Graphic Systems. However, he adds, “When this is not feasible either due to cost restrictions or availability of such a platen, then pads and pillows can be a potential alternative.”

Custom Platens for Heat Presses

Of course, the downside to pillows and pads is the fact they need to be carefully positioned with every item you press, which means more work. Enter the purpose-built or custom lower platens, which can take the

A specialty platen for Heat Press decoration of koozies

This platen has been specifically configured for heat-pressing multiple Koozies. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

form of everything from a diminutive rectangular platen that serves to isolate a smaller pressing area to any one of a number of specialty platens now on the market.

STAHLS’-Hotronix, for example, offers a wide range of specialty platens, including everything from dedicated sleeve and pant-leg platens to shoe platens, round platens and platens designed to press multiple can koozies simultaneously. Especially, fun is the company’s “Tag Along HP Platen, which allows decorators to press the front of a T-shirt and the tag area simultaneously.

Also offering a wide range of platen types, including custom-made platens, are HIX Corporation, which includes a “Specialty Replacement Platen” in its lineup for printing of shoes, socks and other small or irregular surfaces; Geo Knight & Company, which offers everything from cap-bill to Koozie, shoe and sleeve platens; and Insta Graphic Systems, which counts a double-sleeve platen and shoe platen among its options.

Dual Shuttle Heat Press for high volume production apparel decoration

Insta’s 780 Dual Shuttle Heat Press includes the option of foot-pedal control.

Of course, platens cost substantially more than pillows or pads, which naturally leads to the question of when it makes sense to make the added investment. The answer? It depends on how much decorating you’re doing.

“It’s easy to recognize when you have a need for a new platen,” says STAHLS’ Harding. “If you have consistent order volume in one specialty area, such as jerseys, leggings, or left chest logos, then you can justify the investment of a specialized platen. Just a few repeat orders that you can count on will pay off the platen in no time and speed up your production, so don’t be afraid to make the leap.”

“Decorators who are doing any kind of volume will certainly pay for the platen with their first job or two,” says Farmer. However, he adds it’s not a bad idea to start out with a pillow or pad first. “If [decorators] can

dual shuttle Heat Press for high-volume T-shirt and apparel decoration

The HIX SideKick 20 (left) offers a combination of manual operation and twin lower platens.

achieve high-quality results in a timely manner with a pad, they may be OK to stay with that solution. If their volume goes up, or they aren’t getting the quality they need from a pad, it is best to upgrade to an accessory platen.”

At the same time, HIX Corporation’s Coëme warns not every project that can be accomplished on a replaceable platen can also be done with cushions or pads. “As an example, a variety of lower platens on a cap press will allow the operator to work easily on curved surfaces of various sizes or work with various size transfers—hard to duplicate this with pads,” he says. “Replaceable platens can also provide better pressure and would therefore be more adequate for those projects requiring higher pressure than what cushions can provide.”

shuttle dual platen automatic Heat Press for high-volume apparel and T-shirt decoration

The STAHLS’ Dual Air Fusion IQ accommodates even the largest production runs.

Still on the fence? For those hesitant to make the necessary investment, Geo Knight & Co.’s Aaron Knight offers a last bit of advice. “Dedicated platens involve zero extra material handling. Load the work piece, press and done. Pads and extra inserts and other materials add a lot of handling and time, which slows the pressing process down, sometimes considerably. Decorators have to be on the watch for “settling” for a method that is taking far longer and costing them more in lost time.”

Special Features

Moving on to some of those more exotic features found on today’s higher-end heat presses, as anyone who began heat-pressing as a hobbyist knows, it takes very little in terms of equipment to get started. However, as those who’ve created successful businesses also know, if you don’t think ahead, you may soon find yourself being held back by a more basic piece of equipment.

a high-volume shuttle Heat Press with dual platens for apparel decoration

The Geo Knight and Company DC16AP allows operators to maximize output.

Take the auto-release feature available on many higher-end clamshell type presses. Sure, you can also wait for the beep and then open the press up on your own. But what about if you get distracted or want to multitask? Next thing you know, if you’re not careful you’ve got a bunch of scorched high-performance soccer jerseys on your hands!

Same thing with having multiple, programmable pre-sets for going back and forth between productions runs; digital readouts and settings; dual-stage timers for pre-pressing or two-step applications; the ability to work in either Fahrenheit or Celsius, thereby avoiding confusion with a transfer “recipe” that employs units you’re not familiar with; easy-to-use touch screens; and cycle counters.

Another important and sometimes underrated feature is being able to “thread” a garment around a press’s lower platen, thereby exposing only the portion of the garment you want to decorate to the top platen’s

Heat Press with threading capability for apparel decoration

The “Spitter Stand” allows decorators to thread their garments around the lower platen. Photo courtesy of HIX Corporation

pressure and heat, while keeping the other side of the garment safely out of the way. Note that while this feature is inherent in many high-quality presses on the market, it can also be integrated into some otherwise non-threading presses through the use of add-ons or accessories. Examples include HIX Corporation’s Shirt Splitter or the STAHLS’-Hotronix Heat Press Caddie or Heat Press Caddie Stand.

Finally, there’s the option of going with a fully automated pneumatic swing-away system or a system that incorporates not one but two lower platens—both important features for any shop having to accommodate major production runs. The advantages of a pneumatic system are self-evident: less fatigue than with a manual press and the same auto-release performance found on higher-end clamshell models, a feature that is unavailable with a manual swing-away system. Examples of these kinds of pneumatically powered heat presses include the STAHLS’-Hotronix Air Fusion IQ Heat Press; the Insta 718, 728 and 828; the Geo Knight & Co. DK20SP and DK25SP; and the HIX N680 and N880.

controls for a Heat Press for apparel decorating

Digital controls can be hugely helpful when dealing with contrasting transfer types. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

As for a dual-platen arrangement, the main advantage lies in the fact you can set up a second garment for decorating at the same time another garment is being pressed. Examples of these kinds of systems with fully automated functionality include the Insta 780 Dual Shuttle Heat Press; the Geo Knight & Co. DC16 APT Twin Automatic Digital Combo and 394-TS Air Operated Shuttle Press; and the STAHLS’-Hotronix Dual Air Fusion IQ Heat Press.

Interestingly, twin-lower platen operation is also possible with a manual press. HIX Corporation, for example, recently released what it calls its Evo Touch SideKick 20. Along these same lines, Geo Knight & Co. offers what it calls its DK Twin Shuttle Attachment, which can be added to both its swing-away and clamshell models.

As is the case with platens, knowing when it’s time to invest in these pricier systems depends on your production volumes. However, for those companies already seeing their business grow, making the jump needn’t be as scary as it may at first appear.

“There is room and reason in the market for manual presses, even analog ones. They serve the beginning decorator, or as a backup for a more expensive press,” says HIX Corporation’s Coëme. However, Coëme also warns a “mismatch” can occur “when the customer incorrectly describes his needs or underestimates his market. In that case, a low-balled investment will quickly be highlighted.”

Along these same lines, STAHLS’ Harding says, “If you have orders coming in, and you’re having trouble keeping up, consider another heat press to help with the volume…There are a ton of options out there for consumers. Keeping up with the competition starts with having the right equipment. Don’t be afraid to make an investment that is going to genuinely upgrade your production.”

“Once customers upgrade to an Air Automatic press, there are often customer-voiced sentiments and complaints of regret that they hadn’t done it sooner,” Geo Knight & Co.’s Aaron Knight says, adding he’s also heard of instances of “operators arguing over who gets to use the automatic press and who is stuck with the manual press” which can be “quite entertaining!”

Ed Note: This concludes our three-part series on heat presses. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series for more on heat presses for apparel decoration and heat pressing in general. This article was updated April 17, 2023.