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Breaking into the heat printing business

Some Like it Hot

Jason Murphy is national sales manager for GroupeSTAHL Sales Alliance. He has been active in the imprinted-sportswear industry for the past 15 years. He can be reached at jason.murphy@gssalesalliance.com.

For cash-strapped newcomers to the decorated-apparel industry, the notion of purchasing a relatively-expensive automatic screen printing press or a high-end embroidery machine isn’t always practical. However, almost everyone can afford the $1,500-or-less upfront investment it takes to purchase the equipment and supplies required for a heat-applied graphics business, making this route a viable opportunity for anyone interested in getting started in the decorated apparel industry.

Just as a screen printing press requires screens, emulsions and other supplies, a heat press will require you to purchase a number of accessories. A very handy supply to have is thermal tape for holding an item in position while pressing. (Photo courtesy of Stahls’ ID Direct)

Array of advantages

For the cost of a heat press and some supplies, you can offer a wide variety of products to customers in an equally wide variety of niche markets—team uniforms for the sports market, spiritwear for high schools, T-shirts for bands, you name it. And given that your investment is minimal, at least relative to other types of high-dollar business investments, you can dabble in different markets and in different product lineups to see which work best. If it turns out that the sports arena isn’t your game but you’re perfectly suited for the corporate apparel market, you can easily shift directions without having wasted any of your investment. 

Suppliers offer an array of heat presses, from no-frills, entry-level models all the way up to semi-automatic and automatic presses with digital readouts and other bells and whistles. Again, the advantage you get is the ability to start with an economical model and dabble in the industry before taking the plunge and buying a high-end unit. Once you’ve spent a few months getting comfortable behind the heat press, you’ll likely find that features such as system locks and automatic openers are valuable timesavers that are well worth the extra cash. After all, if they make your business more enjoyable or more successful, then it’s money well spent. 

Another advantage of heat-applied graphics is that small orders can be done easily and economically. You don’t have to make costly screens or fire up a press; you just create or order the heat-applied graphic, turn on the heat press and you’re ready. This point is more important than ever as our industry has changed from one that steadily turned out enormous orders to one that rips out small orders at lightning speed—an area where heat-applied graphics excel. 

When setting up your heat press work station, the height of the table is important. Since the worker may spend hours at a time at this table, you want to make sure it’s the right height so that the person does not have to bend over or strain in any way to use it. (Photo taken by Jen Jackson, Seaglass Logowear)

For small businesses that don’t have the benefit of a large production area, it’s also advantageous that a heat press has such a small footprint, especially in comparison to larger embroidery machines and screen printing presses. Equally small is the associated learning curve—operating a heat press can be learned in a matter of minutes. True, you need to learn which materials work best with heat-applied graphics and how long their respective dwell times are, but that’s about as complex as it gets. However, there are some details to consider.

Heat press

Whether you purchase a no-frills model or a high-end unit, don’t be cheap! The few bucks you save up front aren’t worth it in terms of the aggravation and lost time you’ll endure with a poorly-made press that breaks down easily and doesn’t operate as it should. 

Also, give plenty of thought to the features you want. For instance, if sublimation is in the cards, look at a swing-away press which has a 3" clearance that makes it easier to apply heat to hard goods. 

The press should be large enough for your needs as well. If you’re embellishing football jerseys, for example, you may want a 16" X 20" platen to handle larger graphics. On the other hand, if you’re only pressing T-shirts, a 16" X 16" platen may be plenty big.

Accessories

Just as a screen printing press requires screens, emulsions and other supplies, and an embroidery machine requires hoops, thread and more, a heat press requires a number of accessories. One important purchase is a set of interchangeable platens, which will allow a greater number of substrates to be decorated. For instance, you might get a 7" round platen for bags, as well as an 8" X 10" and a 6" X 10" platen.

Another good purchase: Teflon pillows. These help operators deal with zippers, seams and other raised areas that might otherwise interfere with the pressure. The pillows allow for a more even printing surface. Other items to consider for your shopping list include print pads, heat-resistant tape and thermal tape for holding an item in position.  

Whether you purchase a no-frills model or a high-end unit, don’t purchase a cheap machine. The few bucks you save up front aren’t worth it in terms of the aggravation and lost time you’ll endure with a poorly made press that breaks down easily and doesn’t operate as it should. (Photo courtesy of Hotronix)

Production area

Clear a space that will accommodate a table that’s at least as wide as the press, as well as production space where finished garments can be stacked. Some decorators prefer a table with wheels that allows the press to be easily moved around the production floor as needed. Make sure the table is tall enough so that the press operator isn’t bending over all day. In fact, some even build their own tables to get it at the right height.  

Make sure whoever is operating the press is comfortable standing in front of it for up to several hours per day. It’s not an issue for many people, but some may find it difficult or uncomfortable to stand on their feet for hours at a time, especially in front of a hot press. 

Artwork options

Numerous suppliers offer ready-made artwork for heat-applied graphics businesses. Better yet, it’s fairly easy to manipulate and customize artwork using programs such as CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator, even for those who don’t call themselves an artist. Templates and clipart solutions are often extremely high quality, making them an ideal time-saving option for all but the most unusual of artwork requests from customers.

One way to find customers is to think about what interests you or what you know about. A great example is the pet market. Partner with pet stores by giving them forms that customers can fill out to order personalized pet products and, in return, the store gets a percentage of the profits. (Photo courtesy of Great Garment Graphics)

Transfer media

Options in the realm of transfer materials include plastisol heat transfers—transfer paper that is screen printed with a design in plastisol ink. These can be purchased with stock artwork or orded as custom designs.

Another decoration option is precut letters and numbers, available in everything from plastisol transfers to vinyl. There are also print-and-cut, inkjet, color laser and sublimation transfers. 

Letters, numbers and shapes can additionally be cut from specialty materials such as puff, flock, metallic, glitter, reflective and more. Cutter materials are now available with patterns such flowers, skulls, holiday, animals prints, and many other effects.

Suppliers offer a staggering number of heat-applied graphics solutions. The challenge is to pick the right one for the substrate and customer.

Aptitude

Given how simple it is to operate a heat press, success with a heat-applied graphics business is less about the equipment and process than it is about your selling abilities. A high-end heat press that’s gathering dust obviously isn’t going to make any money. Success will ultimately come down to one’s ability to target and pursue markets for decorated items.

It helps to have a clear vision of the types of customers you’re going to pursue. Instead of firing a shotgun blindly, aim precisely at a particular target. For instance, pursue team sports, lawn care businesses or local high schools. Or you may have a particular hobby, such as boating or horse riding, and your knowledge of this market could be helpful in targeting it for sales. Pick a particular segment or a few types of businesses as a starting point. 

Success will also require determination and creativity. Thinking about pursuing the pet market? It’s not enough to simply place an ad in the Yellow Pages and tell a few friends about your business. Partner with pet stores by giving them forms that customers can fill out to order personalized pet products and, in return, the store gets a percentage of the profits. This kind of business creativity will go a long ways in determining your success. 

No matter what business model you adopt, the world of heat-applied graphics is one that’s rife with revenue opportunities. By purchasing the right equipment and supplies, and asking some tough questions about production setup and selling aptitude, you’re well on your way to turning up the heat on your profits.