Heat Press

Make Sense of Heat Press Options

Aaron is a garment decorating and personalization expert. He's been in the digital printing industry since 1997 and actively involved in industry trade shows via speaking, attending, and exhibiting. He writes on marketing, social media, the personalization market, and garment decorating topics for industry magazines. He's dedicated to helping small businesses grow and co-hosts the 2 Regular Guys podcast. For more info, visit aaronmontgomery.info.

There are multiple heat press manufacturers and several options from each, resulting in many different choices when contemplating which heat press is right for your business. In this article, we will explore the four main characteristic differences that will help determine which heat press will best meet your needs. The four major areas of consideration include:

  • Clam Shell or Swing Away (Bonus: Draw Presses too!)
  • Manual or Auto Release
  • Standard or Air Operated
  • Small Format or Wide Format

Clam Shell or Swing Away

These first two options are probably the most common types of heat press in the industry. They are the most affordable options available. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of personal preference—a “Mac versus Windows” debate. Both net a similar end-result, but getting there takes a different path.

The clam shell style press is typically the least expensive option in the industry—but don’t let the price tag fool you. These heat presses typically have the best thread-ability (ability to quickly load and unload a T-shirt) and tend to be fairly easy to operate. For the most part, they have the smallest footprint of the bunch, as the heat platen lifts up from the base, so no additional space is needed to operate the machine outside of where it sits.

These units may typically be equipped with an auto release mechanism (see the next set of characteristics below) and are great for T-shirt decoration, such as vinyl lettering/numbering, plastisol transfers and curing direct-to-garment prints.

The drawback to a clam shell style unit is that the heat platen is directly above your work area, so it’s possible to burn the back of your hands, especially as you are working toward the back of the machine where the heat platen is closest to the base. Also, since heat is directly overhead, it can be difficult to lay out projects using transfer paper because the transfer paper has a tendency to curl from the heat above it.

The swing away style press is typically slightly more expensive than a clam shell style. They are very well built heat presses that can be selected with a wide range of options and provide years of use. These heat presses afford users the ability to press thicker items, such as awards and plaques. Also, they provide an easier surface to lay out trickier garments, such as polos, button-front jerseys, and so on.

These styles move the heat platen out, away from the base (hence the name swing away) which provides a much safer environment for laying out your heat pressing project. This style press works well for heat transfer paper, multi-layer vinyl projects, rhinestone transfers and mixed media projects.

The drawback to the swing away style press is the need for a bit larger workspace to allow for the heat platen to swing away. Also, it requires a little more physical work for the operator as you have further to reach to get the heat platen back and forth.

Bonus!— There are also so-called drawer presses available in the industry. These have a bottom platen that pulls out like a drawer, so you can work without the heat above you. In addition, there is less physical work since you do not have to swing away the heavy heat platen. Further, there are presses that swing and draw pull, so you can have both together.

Manual or Auto Release

These options are just as simple as they sound. Do you want to manually lift up the heat platen every time the timer goes off or do you want the unit to release automatically when the time is up? Below are the factors to consider.

The manual-release presses are typically $150 to $200 less expensive than their auto-release counterparts. Also, the auto-release feature (outside of the air operated, which we will cover next) is only available on clam shell style presses. Therefore, those who want a swing-away style press will need to go the manual route.

In the case of a manual press, typically, it is not difficult to release the heat platen at any time. However, to stop an auto-release in mid-cycle, the user has to release it via a switch-type release. This can be difficult or dangerous.

The auto release feature is a great option for larger production as it increases the rate of work since you do not need to wait by the press to open it. Also, this feature is great for smaller shops, where the owner or employees wear many hats and can sometimes be pulled away from their heat press duties unexpectedly. When the timer goes off, the press releases. So, users can be away from the press without worrying the garment or item will be scorched.

One major drawback to the auto-release is that the pressure of the top releasing part is not as smooth as opening the press manually, which can cause the item you are pressing or the transfer to shift. Such shifts result in ghosting, especially with sublimation transfers.

Standard or Air Operated

These two options can make a big difference in the amount of physical strength required to operate a heat press. These features can also put a large amount of strain on your wallet, so choose wisely.

A standard heat press works with leverage, springs and shock absorbers. The up and down movement of a clam shell, the downward pressure of a swing away and drawer, as well as the side-to-side movement of the swing away are all “powered” by the human body, but aided by springs, levers and shock absorbers. The units are the most cost-effective and are typical selections in most personalization/decorating shops.

It is important to consider the ergonomics of using a standard heat press. The table height, space around the machine and general comfort of the workspace are key factors in ensuring the operator’s ability to use a standard press on a regular basis. Note that incorrect table height for an operator can impact the leverage needed to apply the correct amount of pressure.

Then, there are air-operated presses. These presses work with a press of a button and can typically apply much more pressure than a standard heat press. They work well for those doing a high volume of heat pressing, as well as those applying laser transfer papers, as the more force you get the better the transfer will be.

You can set specific pressures, and the machines will adjust to the thickness of the item you are pressing. This eliminates fiddling with a knob or crank when changing types of garments or items. Also, these units are great for those with physical limitations that keep them from operating a standard press at a high production rate.

The downside to the air operated press is they are typically a little cost-prohibitive. They can run approximately $2,600 for a 15" X 15" unit and as much as $5,000 for a 20" X 25", which usually does not include the air compressor. It should be noted, this type requires an air compressor to operate, and such units can be very loud and obtrusive if you do not invest in a higher-end air compressor.

Small or Wide Format

Another set of options is one of pure size requirements—the size and types of items to be pressed. A small format press is typically considered units ranging from a very small 6" X 6" press or the 9" X 12" hobby-style presses, on up to the 16" X 20" presses. This category can also include some of the larger units like a 20" X 25" press. These are the bulk of the heat presses that are in the industry today and most jobs can be accomplished with a 16" X 20" press.

A wide-format press typically starts out at the 30" X 40" size and goes up into the super large size. i.e. a 60" X 120" in terms of platen models. These large format presses are for all-over style garment pressing, as well as for flags, banners, floor mats and more.

The pressing function on these units can be more efficient as it allows users to press several items at one time. Also, wide format presses can have heat platens on the top and bottom, so users can press all-over printed garments, front and back at the same time.

Almost the entire wide-format press category is air operated. If not, I suggest being ready for a daily workout of epic proportion! The drawback to these units is the cost. They can start around $10,000 and increase in price quickly depending on size and features. These units require a great deal of power and will most likely need to be specially wired into your facility. You cannot just plug them in normally.

All considered

Again, there are a number of options and features to consider when selecting a heat press. The four main characteristic differences noted above are what I consider to be the most important factors in choosing a heat press. Heat presses typically last a long time, so make sure you factor that in when looking at your budget for a heat press purchase. Happy heat pressing!