Shopping for a Heat Press?

Copyright © 2007 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in March 2007, Volume 32, No. 9 of The Engravers Journal
The DK16 from Geo Knight & Co., Brockton, MA, is a midsize 14" x 16" clamshell press that opens for full access to the bottom table.

     Are you in the market for a heat press? Perhaps you’re new to the sublimation/heat transfer business and this is your first heat press buying experience. You could get a bit overwhelmed by the selection. For years I’ve told people to “buy the best heat press you can afford because they last forever.” And that’s good advice. They do last forever—well, almost. A good heat press, especially a flat press, should last 10, 15, even 20 years with only minimal problems. But forever is a long time, and eventually it will come time to replace that old press with a snazzy new digital model—but which one?
     Or perhaps you’re among the many who rushed into buying a heat press without doing adequate homework and you’ve purchased the wrong press for your needs. Don’t feel too bad, you’re in good company—people make the same mistake every day. This is often a result of listening to the “knowledgeable” sales person rather than checking things out yourself. Whatever your reason, if you’re in the market for a heat press, this article was written with you in mind.

The DK20S from Geo Knight is a 16" x 20" swing-away press and accommodates materials up to 1" thick.  

     First, let’s narrow the field a little because there are heat presses for many different purposes. There are flat presses for garments and various other items such as plaques, name badges and the like, cup presses for making coffee cups, plate presses for making decorative porcelain plates, hat presses and specialty presses that are custom designed and engineered for specific applications. These presses come in a variety of sizes, styles and price tags, but for our purposes, we’ll focus on flat presses which come in three basic flavors: clamshell, swing-away and drawer types. If those terms don’t mean anything to you, they will if you keep reading.
     Flat presses come in all sizes. I’ve used them as small as 3" x 5" and as large as 30" x 40", but there are presses even bigger than that. The largest I know of has a platen that is five feet wide and thirteen feet long, but there are undoubtedly presses even larger. Our attention will be spent on desktop presses like those used in the majority of Recognition and Identification shops around the world. These range in platen size (pressing size) from about 12" x 14" to 16" x 20" or thereabout.
     These “desktop” presses come in three basic designs and it’s important to determine the design(s) that’s best for you long before you consider the price tag. Those who buy based on price almost always buy the same design and it’s often not the best design for their operation, thus they will have to replace the press long before the end of its life cycle. This kind of purchase decision is a form of “false economy.” A good heat press investment will focus on three things before you look at the price:
     1. Which design best fits your needs?
     2. Is the press built to last?
     3. Will the vital replacement parts be available in 10 or 20 years?
     After all, all heat presses accomplish the same basic goal—they get hot and provide heat and pressure. The differences lie more in how well they get hot (maintain accurate temperature) and how long they will continue to get hot (life span) than the looks of the machine or the rhetoric of the salesperson. Of course, some of the decision-making just comes down to personal preference.

The iDek Inline Modular Press distributed by Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, offers a landscape/portrait orientation with unique lateral movement and modular, dual and specialty iDek options.  

First Decision: Size
     The first decision to be considered is, “How big a press should you buy?” Do you need a press for making small plaques and knickknacks, shirts or some combination? Even more important is the question, “What size press will I need five or 10 years from now?” Remember, this equipment will last a long time. It’s important to think ahead.
     Most manufacturers build presses in increments of a couple of inches. Often the price of their largest desktop press isn’t much more than their smallest one, so consider buying up. The biggest disadvantages of buying a press larger than you need are:
     1. The larger the press, the larger the footprint (the space it will take up on your workbench.
     2. If you’re imprinting garments, an overly large press can actually be more difficult to drape the garment over. The test for this is to take several different sized garments to a tradeshow and try them out yourself! Remember, you not only have small, medium and large, but you also have child sizes and those XXXLs to deal with.
     Personally, I have two heat presses in my shop, one medium sized that I love for doing quick jobs and garments and a larger one I use for production. The smaller press is a 14" x 16" while the bigger is 16" x 20". The smaller press heats up quicker, is easy to position garments on and doesn’t put off as much heat into the room, so it gets the brunt of my work, but when a large order comes in, there’s nothing like being able to gang up a bunch of items on the big press and turn out the job in half the time. If I had to choose only one, I would always go with the larger model.

The SwingMan 20D TWIN from Hix Corporation, Pittsburg, KS, has dual bottom platens that allow you to lay out products/transfers while the other side is transferring.  

Second Decision: Style
     I’ve already mentioned there are three styles of heat presses on the market: The clamshell, swing-away and drawer type.
     1. The Clamshell: Named for the way it opens, this press is the most common design and the least expensive. It’s usually used for imprinting garments since some of these presses have difficulty accommodating anything over about 1/2" thick. They’re famous for burning your knuckles when positioning shirts around the back portion of the press where hands and the heating element are in very close proximity. In recent years some manufacturers have made some excellent advances on this design making them safer and more accommodating to thicker materials. In a few cases, manufacturers have tried to combine the advantages of the swing-away press with the clamshell.
     If I were to offer one caution it would be a personal preference. Some manufacturers have tried to overcome these limitations by adding adjustments and offering presses that open to a full 90 degrees making loading the press easier and safer. Others open only to about 60 degrees. I would certainly want something that reached one of these marks if I were going to use the press on a regular basis.
     2. The Drawer: To my knowledge, the only press on the market that uses this design comes from Stahls’. It’s an attempt to offer the features of the swing-away design without the big footprint required by a swing-away press and it works well. Unfortunately, my hands-on experience with this design has been very limited, but like most things, this press comes with a trade-off. It doesn’t require the large foot print of a swing-away in the back and to the side, but it requires considerable space in front of the press (where you would normally stand) so think about the layout of your shop when considering either a drawer or swing-away. Other than this design feature, the two styles provide the same advantages over a clamshell.
     3. The Swing-away: This press is designed to accomplish three things: A) It’s designed so the heating element always comes down flat against the substrate being imprinted, no matter how thick it is. B) It’s designed to get the heating element away from the operator’s hands to eliminate the danger of burns, and, C) To get escaping heat away from the operator when the press is open.
     By necessity of design, these are usually heavier presses than the clamshells so if portability is needed, this may not be a good choice. Even the lightest ones weigh over 100 pounds. Where portability isn’t a great concern, I always recommend a swing-away press over a clamshell.
     Most swing-aways will accommodate substrates of at least 1" thick. Some presses extend this upward of 1-3/4" while still others offer replaceable tables to accommodate thicker or specially shaped objects. If you’re imprinting sublimatable products such as paperweights and plaques, 1" is the absolute acceptable minimum.

This compact, upward opening clamshell heat press distributed by Johnson Plastics saves space, travels well and is ideal for heat applying transfers and lettering on T-shirts, youth garments, bags and other small items.  

Third Decision: Manufacturers & Their Claims
     Since heat presses are basically very simple devices (they get hot and apply pressure to things), there isn’t a lot for manufacturers to really talk about. As a result, they often use confusing terminology to make their press sound better than the others, even when they’re about the same. A couple of examples are:
     1. Number of Heater Windings: Heater windings are the heating coils that are embedded in the heater block. Too few windings and the press will have cold spots. What makes them appear different on the outside is the metal cover. What actually makes them different on the inside are two things: A) The number of windings that produce and maintain heat. B) The thickness of the aluminum heating platen itself. The heavier the platen, the better and more evenly it will distribute and maintain the heat. Most heat presses have a ¾" aluminum heater block. Since you can’t see the windings in a heater block, you’ll have to do a little homework. If you can’t be sure what the windings really look like inside the heater block and you have two blocks that are about the same size, yet one has a much higher wattage rating than the other, go with the higher wattage.
     2. Fast Heat Up: Everyone wants a press that heats up quickly. This can be accomplished in two ways—one good and one bad. The manufacturer can cut corners on the thickness of the heater block. The lighter the block, the faster it heats up. The problem is, what heats quickly will also cool quickly. This means more variation in temperature from one pressing cycle to the next resulting in more inconsistency. It’s better to wait a few more minutes for the press to heat up initially than to have to wait several minutes between pressings for the press to return to its assigned temperature.
     The second way is to add additional heater windings in the block. The more windings there are, the faster the press will heat up and the quicker it will recover heat lost between pressings. This is the best possible scenario.
     3. Warranties: Many companies give a lifetime warranty on the heating elements in their presses, however, other parts including timers, thermometers and electrical components are usually warranted for a year or less. The issue for me isn’t so much how long these parts stay under warranty as it is how long they will be available. A good press can easily become a boat anchor just because of a simple part that’s no longer available.
     4. Who is reliable: When considering a heat press that’s expected to last for 10 years or longer, the question should be, “Will the manufacturer still be around when you need them?” Companies that have been in business for a long time have their track record to their benefit, but that’s still no guarantee. As for younger companies, there’s just no way to know for sure.
     5. Customer Service: When you do need a repair part, you’ll probably need it in a hurry. A company that doesn’t return phone calls or is slow to respond to your needs can make what looks like a “good buy” a really “bad investment.” How can you know who has good customer service? Easy, just ask for some references and call them. Customer service may be the number one reason to avoid cheap foreign made presses. Without personalized customer support and parts replacement, that super cheap press may turn out to be anything but cheap! I just had one of my presses repaired. It took two days shipping each way and one day for them to service the unit. No hassles, no debates, no arguments, just good, fast service. And for me, that’s far more important than saving a couple hundred bucks on the initial price!


Fourth Decision: Special Features
     1. Manual or Pneumatic: Most desktop presses in operation today are manual. For those who have deeper pockets, however, let me introduce you to the wonderful world of pneumatics. Do you need it? Not really. A manual press will work just as well. Will you ever be sorry you spent the extra money on a pneumatic press? Not if you use it. They’re like air-conditioning or power windows in a car. They aren’t a necessity, but the people who have them sure think they are. Pneumatic presses are commonly available on the larger desktop models and add about $1,000 to the cost of the press, plus an air compressor. In spite of price, trust me—if you can afford it, you’ll like this feature.
     2. Digital Readouts: A timer is a timer whether it’s digital or analog. Although most presses have digital readouts, having controls that give accurate readings and timers that are easy to use is what counts. I prefer having controls that “count down” a job and have an alarm at the end of the time allotted as opposed to just a regular timer.
     3. Pop-open Features: A few of the presses actually pop open at the end of their timed cycle. This is a really nice feature that’s available on many of the new presses and can actually be added to some of the older clamshell presses as well. When considering a pop-up feature, watch how the press opens. Some are known as “jaw breakers” because they fly open without warning. Others use gas cylinders and open slowly.
     4. Sliding Production Tray: Another really nice feature is the sliding production tray, but it’s pricey if you don’t need it. If you plan to make many products at a time, it may be an excellent investment, especially if the product you’re making requires several minutes in the press. Some designs accomplish this using a sliding stage, while others have two stages that are side by side where the heating platen swings from one side to the other. Either way, this option takes up a considerable amount of space and is not portable.
     5. Pressure Gauge: Although the industry clamored for this for years, experienced operators rarely use pressure gauges on desktop presses. They are, however, helpful when less experienced operators or multiple operators use the press. Using a pressure gauge adds consistency to finished products and reduces waste.
     6. Combo Presses: The combo press is one of my favorites, not because of the attachments, but because it’s such an easy press to use. The optional attachments include heating platens for making hats, plates, paper cubes and cups. If you’re new to sublimation, evaluate the combo press carefully since they aren’t the best choices for everyone. These presses are often used when custom heating elements are needed for unusual products such as cue balls or model making.
     7. Teflon Coatings: Most heating platens are coated with a special type of Teflon to prevent sticking. This is a nice feature, especially for those who use their heat presses for other purposes. I’m assured by the manufacturers that this Teflon is not the same Dupont product that’s used on cookware and has been accused of releasing dangerous gases.
Final Decision: Price
     Well, we’re finally down to the bottom line. What will it cost for a respectable heat press? Prices vary from press to press, but this should give you some idea. Remember to add the cost of shipping since many of these presses will be shipped by truck from a central warehouse.
     Clamshell presses: Start about $600 (and can be shipped UPS).
     Drawer presses: About $1540.
     Swing-away presses: Start about $1200.
     Amortized over a 10-year life cycle, this means a top of the line swing or drawer press costing $1350 to buy and ship will cost about thirty-seven cents a day. A bottom of the line press that costs $650, amortized over the same period will cost about eighteen cents a day—pocket change. This is just another reason for thinking long-term when investing in a heat press.
     To sum things up, if you’re thinking about a new press, here are the main considerations: First, the style or type of heat press; that is, a clamshell, swing-away or drawer type. Second, how tough is the press? Don’t make the mistake of buying a hobby press for serious sublimation work—it will only mean you’ll have to replace it in a short time. Third, understand the manufacturer’s claims that go with each model—do your homework. Just because the ad says it’s a great press, doesn’t mean it is a great press for you. And finally, what features do you want or need on your press? Digital vs. analog, pop-up vs. standard, combo vs. traditional, portability vs. stability and so on.
     Buying a heat press is much like buying a new car. Don’t be tempted to buy the first thing that smells good. Check it out, do a little homework, ask the right questions and you’ll end up with a press that will serve you well for many years. All of these companies build good presses, the question is, which press is right for you? And my final word of advice: Think ahead. What kind of press might you need in five or 10 years? Buying a press is not an expenditure; it’s an investment—invest in your future. Plan ahead.