Setting Up Shop

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

mapIn our world of personalized products, every product is different, every product is custom and in some shops, every graphic placement is different as well. Efficiencies in personalization can be hard to achieve, especially in higher-volume atmospheres. Even in the perfect system with perfect rules and perfect utilization, there can be money and time lost simply in how an order flows through production. For this reason, decorators are constantly rethinking, reinventing and rearranging in order to achieve the best solution based on their variables. Here are a number of ideas that have been proven to work in personalization business models that utilize a vinyl cutter or printer/cutter in conjunction with a heat press.

File preparation and printing/cutting

One of the largest problems in shops is that the person setting up the art does not actually see the job come out of the printer or cutter. This is a problem because they cannot monitor waste that they create when setting up the file. Waste impacts cost significantly in transfer applications. If you can place your printers/cutters inside an office space with your artist, material utilization will improve. Printer performance will also improve due to its office-space environment versus on a shop floor for the simple fact that there is less dust and debris. In your office space, consider a laminate or tile floor rather than carpeting to prevent fibers from getting into the print heads, causing an increase in the frequency of cleanings and/or ruined prints.

Next, consider having a lead artist send directly to the machine loaded with the proper material by networking the printers to one main computer. Having a dispatch hub of sorts that sends to all printers can improve speed and reduce the amount of staff that needs to be trained to drive the units.

In efficient layouts, printers/cutters are the farthest item from the heat presses; printing/cutting is the first production action and heat press is the last. Most will line the units against a back wall in their shop. This is conducive to networking them and plugging them in. If multiples are used, position them perpendicular from the wall to allow front and back access to make it easy to load new rolls of material as well as to unload a print. Be sure to keep enough walking and working space between the printers.


Most commonly, the next step is weeding away the excess film from the print and then, for digital transfers, applying a mask. The weeding and masking stations should be separate. While both can be set up on one large table with each task completed on an opposite side, you generally don’t want weeding scraps near the sticky mask as this can waste time and causes problems when transferring to garments. When specifying a table, note that weeding speeds seem to improve when the employee is standing and when it’s an experienced employee. Although a redundant task, it does take quite a bit of practice and skill to become good at it. You don’t want high turnover at this position since a seasoned employee can yieldi much improved times over a rookie.

Therefore, consider requiring the employee to stand on their feet but not for an entire shift. A multi-tiered table works well or one with higher chairs for sitting and standing is a nice compromise. You’ll see fast production and still make it comfortable for employees. Another piece of advice is to add a foam floor pad stretching completely around all sides of the table. Although simple, this helps keep feet more comfortable when standing. Other tips include allowing a radio with fast-paced music to induce faster weeding speeds.


Digital prints require application of transfer-tape after the design is weeded. (If it’s just a design cut out of heat-applied film, skip this step.) There are many ways to mask a transfer. If all printed goods are compatible with one style of mask and match the width of the mask, consider a cold laminator. Position the laminator near a table designated for trimming and staging masked prints. Simply load the roll of mask and feed in the job to be laminated. Once complete, trim apart the designs and match them to the appropriate work order. Printing technology makes it possible to print a barcode with each print to simplify the process of matching the print to the corresponding garment later.

If you don’t want to go the laminator route, you’ll need another large, flat table to handi-laminate mask to several prints at a time. Be sure to have something very flat and smooth as your work surface. Also, have plenty of squeegees on hand. Equip one side of your table with a cutting board surface and Exacto knives for easy separation of masked designs.

Heat pressing

The heat press station should be the last step in the actual production of the garment, prior to final inspection, packaging and shipping. It’s important to have adequate space for each heat press operator to have their own cart of blank goods, table space for transfers/work orders that are ready for application and a place to load finished garments. A Rubbermaid cart or two will do the job and make it easy to transport garments around the shop between departments. The heat presses will need to be near a wall or have electric dropped in to service them. In high-production scenarios, don’t limit space by placing against a wall. Back-to-back and side-by-side heat press configurations make sense. The advantage of setting them up side-by-side is that one operator can easily use two presses with some applications. Also, having one press set up for sleeves and one for front/back designs can save valuable time.

A dedicated 20-amp circuit should be allotted for each press. Also, consider running house air if you intend to produce at higher volume and want an air swinger. For eight-hour shifts on the press, a swing-away air-operated press is recommended and, at that, a left swing and a right swing would be ideal so they can be butted against each other for maximum space usage and production volume. This will save the operator a step if operating two machines.


The inspection of finished goods is a very important piece of a personalization shop. The inspection area should be the final link between the garment and the package. Once inspected, it’s ready to box and ship. Keep in mind here, if you are operating in a one-off personalized garment world, you’ll want to spend some time looking into an efficient software system that prevents you from having to hand type each address into the computer. Consult with your web developer and shipper of choice to consider your options.

Personalization may be easy with today’s decorating technologies, but setup for mass customization is not. Heat-transfer technology can allow for many customization options, so a well-constructed plan for production is a must.