Heat Press Buyers Guide: How to Choose the Right One

Heat press buyers guide hero imageIf you’re like most modern sign businesses, you’ve already expanded into garment decoration or are considering it. This is an especially lucrative opportunity because you already have most of what you need. If you have a Vinyl Cutter and Vector Software, all you need to add a new profit center is a Heat Press. There are lots of sizes and styles of heat presses to choose from, ranging from under $300 to over $3,000. Making the wrong choice can mean spending too much or buying too little. Both mistakes can stunt the growth of your business. How do you make the right decision?

You could start by pouring yourself a hot cup of coffee and reading our updated heat press buyers guide.  While we can’t cover every feature of every model, we can give you an overview with some general guidelines to point you in the right direction.

Although SIGNWarehouse offers well over a dozen heat presses ranging from the EnduraPRESS CS15 to the Hotronix Air Fusion, you can group them into four basic categories: specialty, starter, intermediate, and professional. Once you’ve decided which type fits your needs, you should be able to select one based on your intended applications. Let’s dive in.

Starter Heat Presses

As the name implies, starter presses are designed to provide an affordable way to start a small scale fabric imprint business. These handy devices are generally simple, compact, and affordable. Although you won’t find any of them here, some starter heat presses still use crude analog temperature controls and offer very limited job control settings.

In keeping with the SIGNWarehouse tradition of exceptional value, the EnduraPRESS models all bring brand name sophistication and features to the market at a warehouse price. All EnduraPRESS models excel at producing consistent heat across the platen and displaying accurate temperature readings on the control panel. Even with professional quality heat presses, the displayed temperature is not always the same as the platen temperature. This can cause some confusion with demanding applications like laser transfers. With the EnduraPRESS models, the displayed temperature is generally accurate to within 5°F.  If you find that the display and platen aren’t in sync, it’s easily adjustable. The control panel provides access to a programmable menu that allows calibration of the display to the actual platen temperature. This level of precision will prevent lots of failed transfer or sublimation applications due to insufficient heat at the platen.

The EnduraPRESS CS15 is a 15″ x 15″ clam-shell design incorporating the same advanced backlit digital control panel. So what is a clam-shell press? The motion of a clam-shell press is like a door opening and closing.  It moves in an arc on an axis at the back of the platen. It’s a simpler motion than a swing-away and lots of good presses use this configuration. But there are a couple of drawbacks. It is possible to singe your knuckles if you’re not careful. And if you press something thicker than a standard t-shirt, you may have more pressure at the back than the front due to the angular motion the heating element takes as it closes on the platen. So it’s not suitable for things like mouse pads and ceramic tiles, and laser transfers. The 15″ x 15″ clam shell design makes it suitable for most small to medium-sized T-shirt transfers. The platen pressure is suitable for applying heat transfer film, aka “T-shirt vinyl”, shirt sublimation, ChromaBlast cotton decoration, print & cut, and DTF T-shirt transfers.

Specialty Heat Presses: Cap, Mug, and Multi-function Presses

EnduraPRESS cap, mug, multi-function heat pressesSpecialty presses for decorating caps and drinkware are also in this category. They tend to be small, simple and affordable. A dedicated cap press is a great way to decorate ball caps with heat transfer vinyl, DTF, and sublimation transfers. These presses have small curved heat platens and curved tables engineered to apply pressure the the crown of a cap. The best also include a spring or other mechanism to stretch the cap over the table to ensure a snug fit and successful transfer. The EnduraPRESS SA-CP36 is an excellent example.

The EnduraPRESS MP5 mug press is a great way to jump into the popular and profitable world of drinkware decoration – custom mugs and tumblers. The MP5 is engineered for standard 11 and 13-ounce ceramic mugs, but can be fitted with a variety of different sized fittings to support transfers on everything from espresso mugs to Yeti tumblers. Both the MP5 mug press and SA-CP36 cap press are affordably priced at under $300, so they make great starter presses. But what if you want to decorate caps and mugs, but don’t have room for two heat presses? Well then you consider an EnduraPRESS MF15.

We also offer good specialty presses from Geo Knight and Hotronix, including the Geo Knight DK7 cap press, Knight DC3 mug press,   Hotronix Maxx Cap Press and the unique Hotronix Sports Ball Press.  These tend to be more expensive solutions, but they’re made in the USA and have excellent warranties.

The EnduraPRESS MF15 Combo heat press is a multi configurable five-in-one press with a 12″ x 15″ swing-away platen. It has the requisite EnduraPRESS backlit LCD control panel and digital time and temperature displays. It also excels at providing even pressure across the platen and is robust enough even for demanding laser transfer applications.  The platen goes from zero to 390 in about 12 minutes and maintains consistent temperature very well. The swing-away design allows you to work on the lower platen without worrying about singed knuckles. And, since the press closes vertically instead of at an angle, it’s ideal for decorating thick materials like mouse pads and ceramic tiles.

But the best thing about the MF15 is its multi-function capabilities. The mug, cap, and plate attachments are easy to install and remove using the aviator style connector and simple tools. These attachments enable the MF15 to decorate shirts, caps, mugs, plates and much more. In terms of possible applications, it provides the most bang for your buck.

Intermediate Heat Presses

What do you do if you need something a little larger or more capable than a starter press, but don’t have the budget for a professional model? You order up one of these models and enjoy the productivity and reliability of an almost professional quality workhorse. These are not inferior products. They’re just simpler by design and therefore more affordable than the fully equipped high zoot range-toppers.

 

Stahls Maxx Clamshell Heat Press

Stahl’s makes the Maxx in 3 popular sizes

The Stahls Maxx Clamshell line debuted in spring of 2009 replacing the Mighty Clam and Mighty Clam Lite, which were very popular starter clam-shell presses. But the Maxx is a very reliable, simple, and affordable machine offering three models suitable for most garment applications. It comes in 11” x 15”, 15” x 15”, and 16” x 20” sizes ranging from $800 to $1,35.00. Maxx presses feature digital time and temperature settings, a heavy-duty laser cut frame, and interchangeable lower platens to accommodate different sized garments.The Maxx comes with a lifetime warranty on the heating element and one year on the frame and casting.
The old adage about getting what you pay for applies here. What makes these machines so affordable is their simplicity. If you’re running a high volume shop and will need to be able to quickly change from one type of film to another, all of those changes have to be remembered and performed manually. This makes changing films less efficient and more prone to errors which can ruin shirts. You won’t find the features that support special applications like direct to garment printing, or sublimating mugs and caps in any of these models.
And, since they’re built to be affordable, they’re not as rugged as their more costly alternatives. If you’re planning to crank out shirts for four or more hours per day, you will find that these units are not quite satisfactory. If that’s your environment, a more professional-grade press would be a better choice.

GeoKnight DK14S. The new DK14s heat press from Geo Knight is their replacement for the discontinued JetPress line of starter heat presses. It has a more advanced digital control panel than the JP14’s analog dial, so it belongs here in the intermediate category. The DK14s is essentially a smaller, more affordable version of the professional-grade DK series heat presses. It offers similar levels of quality and reliability, a lifetime warranty on the heating element, and is made in the USA. The swing-arm design also supports decorating thicker items like mouse pads and sweatshirts. Plus the vertical closing mechanism produces even pressure across the platen, which makes it suitable for laser transfers. The main drawback is the smallish 12″ x 14″ heating element. But, at $675, it’s still a good value.

EnduraPRESS CS16 & CS16-AR

The EnduraPRESS CS16 and CS16-AR are in the same category and offer many of the same benefits as the Maxx presses. These are both 16″ x 20″ clam-shell heat presses with backlit LCD control panels and advanced features like temperature calibration and a programmable auto shut-off setting. The platen on these models is configured in a landscape orientation, which reduces the reach from the front of the press to the handle. The CS16 is an essential clam-shell suitable for HTV, apparel sublimation, print & cut and DTF transfers.

The EnduraPRESS CS16-AR adds a convenient, magnetic auto-release feature that releases and raises the press at the end of each cycle. Auto-release heat presses free operators from the chore of loitering by the press through the cycle to manually raise the platen and remove the garment.

EnduraPRESS SD20

EnduraPRESS SD20 Swing-arm heat pressEnduraPRESS SD20: The EnduraPRESS SD20 is the star and sales leader of the EnduraPRESS product line. It offers features found in professional quality heat presses costing hundreds more. The SD20 has a full sized 16″ x 20″ platen, so it’s up to the task of pressing your largest transfers. It’ll handle anything from laser transfer to heat transfer vinyl for Spirit jerseys.  The large table is solidly constructed to provide even pressure across the lower platen.  The heating element is consistent across the entire platen and the LCD control panel’s displayed temperature is accurate to within 5°F. The spring-actuated lever allows you to open the press smoothly, even on high pressure settings. And the base includes extendable brackets to provide more stability when swinging platen open.

All of these features make it an excellent choice for demanding heat transfer applications, including two-step white toner laser transfers. As good as the EnduraPRESS SD20 is, it’s still a fairly simple design without some features that enable high volume garment decoration. If you’re planning to equip a busy shirt shop and need something designed for maximum versatility or efficiency, you might need to consider a step up to a high-volume, professional-quality press.

Professional Heat Presses

If you’ve built a growing decoration business and are ready for a press that supports higher volume with more efficiency, a professional quality heat press is what you need. Likewise if you’re an ambitious entrepreneur and your business plan demands more volume and faster returns. If your budget allows, this is where you start. These products are engineered to be more efficient, more productive, and more durable.

SilverBolt Heat Presses

SilverBolt heat presses are designed for efficient, high-volume production of heat transfers. Whether you’re working in sublimation, laser transfer, DTF transfers, or good old HTV, we have a SilverBolt press that will help you take your business to the next level. They’re also sturdier, built from the ground up for years of daily use.

SilverBolt MUGPRO 5: The SilverBolt MugPro 5 heat press is a unique five-station mug press with five separate chambers for decorating mugs. Each station can be controlled with its own time and temperature settings. This allows you to load it up and sublimate your mugs in something akin to an assembly line environment. One mug can be removed and finished while the next one is still in the chamber. It’s a great way to boost productivity and profit. And, for only $499, it’s a no-brainer.

SilverBolt Clamshell heat presses: The SilverBolt line also includes two 16″ x 20″ clam-shell presses. The SilverBolt 1620CSD is a clam-shell drawer press with a magnetic auto-release mechanism. The auto-release frees up operators for multi-tasking and the pull-out drawer design on the lower table makes loading and unloading garments easier. The SilverBolt 1620CSM is a unique heat press designed to combine the two most profitable heat transfer operations in one space-saving unit. The 1620CSM is a clam-shell shirt press with a free-standing mug attachment. Just connect the aviator cable and flip a switch to go from shirts to mugs.

SilverBolt 1620PASilverBolt Swing-arm Heat presses: The standouts of the SilverBolt product line are the two swing-arm models. These are engineered for maximum efficiency and productivity. The SilverBolt 1620SA is a premium 16 x 20 heat press with an advanced 6″ control panel that incorporates job control features not found on anything else in its price range. The menu includes a digital pressure readout and a configurable customizable menu for storing, editing and naming presets for your go-to heat transfer applications. It’s a great time-saver for busy decorators with diverse applications in their repertoires.  A rolling aluminum caddie is included.

The SilverBolt 1620PA is our most appealing model. It features an advanced electrically actuated automatic close and open mechanism that takes all the gruntwork out of heat transfer. Push button close and open reduces the workload on operators. The 4.5″ backlit control panel includes a digital pressure readout and the 2″ opening supports decorating thicker items than beginner and intermediate presses.

 Digital Knight DK Series heat presses

The DK series is Geo Knight’s professional quality presses. They include both clam-shell and swing-arm designs. The product line ranges from the DK16, which is a 14” x 16” clam-shell, to the DK20SP, a pneumatically powered auto-opening 16” x 20” swing-away. All Digital Knight models have an intelligent control module that supports up to 70 programmable presets. This allows users to quickly change the heat, temperature, and pressure settings from one type of film to another with repeatable accuracy. You can also vary the end of cycle alarms and monitor pressure by a digital readout on the control panel.

Geo Knight DK20S heat pressIn addition, the DK series offers an Auto release option that automatically raises the press at the end of the cycle. The Digital Knight auto release mechanism also has a hover function that makes it ideal for use with white ink direct-to-garment applications. The hover mode allows you to flash cure the ink before applying pressure. This reduces the likelihood that the color layer and the white under-base will smear as the press is closed.

The ultimate in versatility in the Digital Knight line is the DC Combo. This is a unique swing-away model with interchangeable platens and heating elements. Its default setup is for shirts and tiles. Optional attachments for mugs, caps, plates, and cubes can be purchased for about $300 each. This versatile engineering means you can buy one press that performs as a shirt, tile, mug, and cap press for less than $1,700. The convertible table may produce slightly inconsistent platen pressure, so this is one of the only swing-arm presses we can’t fully recommend for demanding white toner laser transfers.

For these jobs, the DK20S, a digital Knight 16″ x 20″ swing away press would be a better option. At $1,850.00, the DK20S is an excellent value. The ultimate Digital Knight solution for laser transfer would be the DK20SP, which adds an auto-release function and an analog pressure gauge. The pressure gauge allows you to produce the precise amount of platen pressure time after time. This takes the last element of guessing out of laser transfers and will eliminate waste due to inconsistent adhesive coating. The pressure gauge function requires the use of compressed air. The DK20SP uses a self-leveling airbag that produces up to 3,000 lbs of force and can be operated with a five gallon 1/2CFM compressor. The DK20SP can be yours for only $2,950.00 plus shipping.  All Digital Knight presses come with a lifetime warranty on the heating element, three year warranty on the controls, and one year on the frame and mechanics.

Stahls Hotronix Fusion Heat PressThe popular Hotronix Fusion IQ heat press is the professional grade Hotronix heat press.  Like the Geo Knight DK series, the Hotronix line has programmable presets that allow for quickly changing settings for different applications. On the Fusion, these changes can be made on an advanced, user-friendly touch screen with a digital keypad that even allows users to program when the press powers on and off.

The Fusion also overcomes the limitations of the clam-shell function for a dual configuration. The Fusion can be used as a swing-away or a drawer press; hence the name “fusion”.  The drawer option allows users to leave the heating element in place and load and unload the platen by pulling it forward (like opening a drawer). This supports threadability; the ability to load garments from the front so that you’re not working on the garment upside down. It also allows you to flip the shirt to decorate front and back without removing it from the press.  The Fusion also offers significantly better warranty protection than the Maxx. Hotronix offers a lifetime warranty on the heating element, a five year warranty on the frame and casting, and two years on the circuit board.

The Fusion seems to have all the bells and whistles anyone could want. What could possibly make it better? How about an auto-open feature for hands free production? For that, Hotronix offers the Air Fusion. Like the Geo Knight DK20SP, the Air Fusion uses compressed air to power it’s automatic open function. It also comes on a sturdy space-saving floor stand and has all the class-leading electronics of the Fusion in its touch screen LCD.  Changing from thin to thick material on a normal swing-away press requires significantly reducing the pressure to accommodate for the increase in material thickness. Not on the Air Fusion. It compensates automatically, and even includes an auto-swing mechanism. It does everything but make your coffee. That old ‘get what you pay for’ adage applies here too. The Air Fusion tops the range and costs $4,750.

Which heat press is the right one for you?

So how do you pick the right press?  Take your time and consider your goals, not just the price. If you’re only going to do a few shirts a day, a starter unit like an EnduraPRESS CS15 is a good option. Obviously if you’re getting requests for customized caps, and shirts and planning to sublimate mugs, tiles and plates, a dedicated mug or cap press, or a combo press like the EnduraPRESS MF15 is the logical choice. If you’re startup is based on laser transfer and two-step self-weeding paper, you may need an intermediate level press like the EnduraPRESS SD20. For high volume production and/or demanding applications,  you’ll really need a professional press like the SilverBolt 1620PA, Geo Knight DK20-AR or Hotronix Fusion.  Any of these more robust machines will cost a little more at point of purchase but it’s better to pay more up front for the right equipment than pay more daily in lost production, ruined shirts, or lost sales.

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