Heat Press Guide: How to Choose the Right One

Blog_HEAT_Press_header_300x300If 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 $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 this basic guide on how to choose the right heat press.  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. As always, we reccomend using a contact thermometer for calibration to ensure accurate platen temperature.

Although SignWarehouse offers over a dozen heat presses ranging from the SignWarehouse Basics Heat Press to the Hotronix Air Fusion, you can group them into four basic categories: starter, intermediate, professional, and specialty. 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.

A Starter Heat Press

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. They’re not designed for high volume production so they may have compromises like slow warm-up times or analog controls that would be frustrating in a high volume sign shop, but acceptable for individual, hobby use, or occasional low volume production.  We offer four products  in this category: the new EnduraPRESS 5 in 1 and CS15.

The EnduraPRESS SA12 is an excellent value in a starter press

The EnduraPRESS SA12 is an excellent value in a starter press

The EnduraPRESS 5 in 1 and CS15 are the new stars in the startup press category. 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, which require very specific temperature control. 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 applications due to insufficient heat at the platen.

The EnduraPRESS 5 in 1 is a 12″ x 15″ swing-away press with an 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.

The EnduraPRESS CS15 is a 15″ x 15″ clamshell design incorporating the same advanced digital control panel. The 15″ x 15″ clam shell design makes it suitable for most small to medium sized T-shirt transfers and the platen pressure is suitable for applying heat transfer film, aka “T-shirt vinyl”, shirt sublimation, ChromaBlast cotton decoration, and print and cut T-shirt transfers. The platen pressure from this unit isn’t quite strong enough for us to recommend it for laser transfer applications. For any other heat transfer process, the CS15 is a great all-around starter heat press. The new CS15-AR adds the convenience of an advanced magnetic auto-release function. This frees you to roam the shop and mind other tasks without having to worry about overcooking a transfer.

An Intermediate Heat Press: Rugged and Versatile.

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 clamshell presses. So what is a clamshell press? The motion of a clamshell 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.

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 $595.00 to $995.00. 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. Lets’ keep looking.

The EnduraPRESS SD20 can handle anything from laser transfers to Spirit Jerseys

The EnduraPRESS SD20 can handle anything from laser transfers to Spirit Jerseys

EnduraPRESS SD20: The EnduraPRESS SD20 is the star of the new EnduraPRESS product line. It offers features found in professional quality heat presses costing hundreds more. The SD20 is a larger, beefier version of the SA12 offering the same benefit with some important additions. It 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. 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 professional quality press.

A Professional Heat Press: Precise and Reliable.

 Digital Knight presses are Geo Knight’s professional quality presses. They range from the DK16, which is a 14” x 16” clamshell, 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.

The DK20SP is the best DK press for laser transfers

The DK20SP is the best Digital Knight heat press for laser transfers

In addition, the DK series offers an Auto release option that automatically raises the press at the end of the cycle. This can be a lifesaver for busy multi-tasking garment decorators. With the DK20-AR, there’s no need to stand and wait by the press.  You can start the cycle and take a phone call without worrying about ruining a garment. 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. Purchasing a shirt press, mug press, and cap press separately would cost over $2,200. This clever and economical design makes the Digital Combo one of our best-selling heat presses. The convertible table may produce slightly inconsistent platen pressure, so the Digital Combo may not be the best choice 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 $1,450.00, 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 $2,250.00 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 heat press is the step up from the Maxx for Stahl’s fans. The primary benefit of upgrading from a Maxx to a Fusion is the change from a manual clamshell to a digital swing-away. 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 clamshell 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, Stahl’s 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 just over $4,000. So as wonderful as it is, it may not be in your budget just yet.

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 or Stahl’s Maxx is a good choice. If you’re planning to press thick items like mouse pads and tiles, an SA12 or JP14 would be more suitable. If you’re startup is based on laser transfer and two-step self-weeding paper, the SD20 is the best choice. For high volume production, you’ll really need a professional press like the DK20-AR or Fusion.
Obviously if you’re getting requests for customized caps, and shirts and planning to sublimate mugs, tiles and plates, the Digital Combo will be your best bet.  Any of these more versatile 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.