Your Heat Press and You

by Tom Chambers

My esteemed colleague and professional writer Kristine Shreve has written much ado about heat presses over the years.  Among those articles are “Buying a Heat Press“, “ Uses for a Heat Press“,  “5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press“, and “A Heat Press Primer“.  I’m sure there are more, and there is a ton of useful information in those articles.

So why am I writing yet another article about a heat press?  Because at some point after you read all the above articles and did all your research, you made the decision and bought a heat press.  Now you have to set it up and learn to use it.  How do you do that?  I know, that may seem obvious and simple, but there’s a bit more to it than just taking it out of the box and plugging it in.  That’s where this article comes in.

Setup

The very first thing you need to do when you receive your new heat press is to open up the manual, read what the requirements are, and do a bit of preparation.  If you have access to the manual before you receive your press, you will be ahead of the game when it arrives.

Before you set it up, you need to have a work area large enough for both the press and the work you will be doing.  If it’s a clamshell, you’ll need enough overhead clearance so the upper platen can be raised and lowered without hitting your knuckles on a cabinet bottom (or anything else).  If it’s a swing-away or drawer press, you’ll need additional space to the side and/or front.  You’ll also need a sturdy table, counter, or dedicated stand to place the press on.

The press should be conveniently located near an electrical source that meets or exceeds the requirements of the press. The electrical requirements will be expressed in amps, volts, and watts in the manual (or on the web site) for the press you bought.

You should make sure that you do not exceed the capacity of your electrical circuit and always plug directly into an outlet, not an extension cord.  Overloaded circuits can cause issues ranging from simply tripping a circuit breaker, all the way up to starting a fire and burning down the building.  My recommendation is that if you don’t know what you are doing here, consult an electrician.

If it is an air operated press, you’ll need an air compressor with enough capacity to supply the press, an air supply line of an appropriate diameter and length, plus any fittings necessary.

Not having appropriate electric and air supplies can also cause issues with the operation of the heat press.

Settings

Once you’ve set everything up, you should familiarize yourself with the features your press offers, especially the controls and how to change the settings.  For example, many presses offer the ability to store presets for various products in memory for easy recall.  This can be a real time saver if you have to press a lot of different products with different settings.

No matter the manufacturer, model, or style of heat press, they all have 3 settings in common.  Those are:  time, heat, and pressure.  Whether you plan to do sublimation, vinyl, transfers, rhinestones, or anything else, every single thing you will want to use your heat press for uses those 3 in varying degrees (bad pun fully intended).

Therefore, you will need to know what those 3 settings should be for whatever you are pressing at any given time, and that the settings will vary widely between products.  Manufacturers and distributors have recommended settings, and you will usually obtain those from your place of purchase.

Of the 3 settings, “time” is most consistent and reliable from press to press.  Typically this is a digital timer that either prompts you to release the press, or automatically does it for you, after your set period of time has elapsed.

You would think that the second setting, “temperature” would be consistent as well, but that is rarely the case.  Most heat presses vary anywhere from a few degrees to 20 or 30 degrees F from their displayed temperature, and this can change as they age.  It is important to know what your actual temperature is, because that directly affects the end results of what you are pressing.

Knowing the actual temperature requires a tool called a pyrometer with a surface probe, and purchasing one will be the best investment you make for your heat press.  It can potentially save you hours of frustration and thousands of dollars in ruined products.

Finally, there’s “pressure”.  On a manually operated heat press, setting the pressure is simply an educated guess.  Heavy pressure means you have to put a good amount of force on the handle to fully close the press.  Light pressure means you only have to put a little force on it.  Some manual presses provide a sensor and graphic display for the pressure, but those should not be taken as precise.  By contrast, an air operated press has an adjustable gauge or dial that shows you exactly how many psi (pounds per square inch) of line pressure is set.

Support

Now you are ready to press.  Follow any additional instructions for your press, but don’t be afraid to experiment either – it’s common to have to make some adjustments to published manufacturer settings as you press different things, and what works on one press may not be exactly the same on another.

It’s usually best to leave your press on even if you won’t be using it for an hour or two.  Turn it off only when you aren’t going to be using it for several hours or more.

Be sure to drain water from any air lines daily, follow any manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations, and keep support numbers handy for any questions or repairs.

As always, contact us with any questions.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

5 Things to Consider When Buying a Heat Press

Buying a heat press is a big investment,  and the decision about which type of press to buy should be made carefully to ensure that you get the type of press you need and one that will provide the most utility for your shop. Since a heat press is one of the more costly items that people who create sublimated goods will need, it pays to do the research and the math before purchasing a press. When making your buying decision, here are five things you should consider.

#1 Is Cheaper Better – A heat press is a big investment and, especially if a business is just starting out with sublimation,  the impulse might be to go with a no-name Chinese press from eBay or to start with a smaller press that is less costly.   There are,  however,  a couple of problems with this approach.   One is that no-name presses often don’t have service or technical support which leaves you with few to no options if your press breaks.   Buying a smaller, less expensive press can also be problematic as the size of the press will place limits on what can be sublimated.   The rule of thumb is to assess your needs and take into account technical support and repair options and then buy the biggest press you can afford.

#2 Consider your physical abilities – No, running a heat press isn’t as physically taxing as mining coal or being a mover,  but it does take a toll on the body.   Smaller people may have more issue with opening a manual press.  Standing all day can have an impact on the knees and feet.   There are options like auto release pop-up which can make a press easier to operate.   Don’t assume that everyone will be able to operate a press with the same level of ease.   Take into account the physicality of running a press for hours at a time and do what’s necessary to make that physical toll a little less.

#3 What type of goods will you be sublimating? – One of the biggest questions that needs to be answered before any heat press purchase is the type of goods your shop will be selling.   If the goal is to just do garments,  a flat press,  most likely a swing-away press,  would be a useful option.   If you want to do hats or mugs or something that won’t work well in a flat press,   your best bet would either be a specialty press or a combo press.  For those shops doing a variety of items,  a combo press may be best,  as it combines a flat press with the specialty press options.

#4 Where’s the best place to buy a heat press? –  The temptation to buy a heat press on eBay or Amazon,  where the prices seem cheaper may be overwhelming,  but that’s not always the best place to buy a press.   In our opinion,  the best option for purchasing a heat press is from a company that knows and uses heat presses.   If you can purchase directly from the manufacturer that’s great.   When that’s not possible,  the next best option is purchasing from a supplier who uses the presses they sell and knows them well.   Keep in mind the place that sells you the press may also be the place that provides technical and repair support.   The better they know the press,  the more able they will be to assist you when you have an issue.

#5 Can you add other disciplines to maximize the utility of your press? –  Yes,  sublimation is one decoration discipline that requires a heat press,  but it is not the only one.   If you’re buying a press,  you might also want to consider what you already do,  or could add to your shop which could make a heat press that much more useful.   Rhinestones,  screen print transfers,  adding patches to hats or bags,  there are a variety of options for how a heat press can be used.   Spreading the utility out over a variety of disciplines may help your press pay for itself faster,  and help you justify the expense of a bigger and better press.

Sublimation Hints and Help

Like most decoration techniques,  sublimation does have a learning curve,  although it’s considerably less steep than some other decoration options.   Still,  if you’re just starting out,  or even if you’ve been creating sublimated goods for a while,  there are probably things you don’t know that could help you create sublimated items a little faster and a little better.   Every once in a while we like to do a sort of round-up post where we list some sublimation hints and tips,  in the hope of assisting our customers in their quest for the best possible sublimated product.

Cool, man! A basic step in the sublimation process is letting items cool.   Make sure the transfer paper is removed quickly when the item comes off the press,  and make sure items are laid out separately and not overlapped when cooling.   An item like a sublimated mug can be cooled in a room temperature bucket of water.   Make sure the water is not too cold,  as that could cause the mug to crack.

Humidity is the Enemy! Moisture can make a mess of your sublimated supplies,  so it’s always good to make sure humidity is kept to safe levels.   Protect your sublimation paper from humidity by keeping it in a plastic bag,  or a resealable bin.   If you’re worried the paper you’re using is too moist,  set it on your press for a few seconds.  The warmth will help remove excess moisture from the paper.   The pre-press technique can also work for garments.   Also,  using a cover that absorbs moisture,  like newsprint, in place of Teflon can help eliminate moisture problems.   Just make sure to change out the absorbent cover sheet after every press.

The Heat is On! One of the most common issues that cause sublimation failure is a heat press that isn’t heating up to the correct temperature.   Yes,  the gauge may show the proper reading,  but the actual temperature of the press can vary widely.   Make sure to test the temperature of your press frequently,  using either a heat gun or temperature test strips,  to make sure the press is actually heated up to the required temperature.

Stick to It! Heat tape is probably one of the most underrated items in your sublimation arsenal,  but it’s a must have for every shop.   Use it to keep your transfers securely positioned on your blanks.   Make sure not to tape across the image area,  instead securing the transfers on the sides.    Another useful item is a strong adhesive tape,  which can be used to secure sublimated images onto things like pendants or belt buckles.

Primary Colors! Anyone who prints on an inkjet printer knows about nozzle checks,  but they might not be as familiar with primary charts.   A good primary chart will show solid blocks of color without any lines or gaps.   Running a primary chart and a nozzle check is definitely a good idea if you haven’t used your printer for a while.   For details on how to run a primary chart from your Virtuoso printer,   visit this blog post from Sawgrass Ink.

 

Buying a Heat Press

dc16ap3A question that often comes up in forums and groups about sublimation is what kind of heat press is necessary.   Do you need specialized presses for mugs?  How big should the press be?   Is a cheap press made in China that you found on eBay going to work?  What brand of press do experienced sublimation experts recommend?   A heat press is a larger purchase,  so it’s easy to understand why there would be a lot of questions.   Since we’ve been sublimating and dealing with sublimation supplies (and heat presses) for a lot of years,  I thought I’d try to answer some of the questions I see most frequently.

Q1:  Do you need a specialized press for any good that isn’t flat?  For the most part,  yes.   Hats,  mugs,  plates,  anything that isn’t flat will most likely require a specialized press in order to take a sublimated print.    In some cases,  where a lot of different items will be sublimated,  a combo heat press might be the best option.  This type of press is usually a flat swingaway press that comes with attachments that will allow you to do mugs and other goods that aren’t flat.   A standalone cap press will have a curved platen that allows you to sublimate caps faster and more easily.    Mug presses are generally adjustable and are designed to handle different sizes and shapes of mugs.    If you’re planning to sublimate a lot of one particular item,  investing in a specialty press can be a wise move.

Q2:  How big should the press be?  What’s the biggest thing you’ll ever be likely to sublimate?   The answer to that question will help determine how big your press should be.   Keep in mind that smaller presses may have smaller price tags,  but they aren’t always suitable for a production environment.   When deciding on the size of your press,  you should also take into account how often it will be used,  and for how long each time.    Optional extras like air operated opening should also be considered.   They may add to the cost of the press,  but they’ll save a ton of wear and tear on the operator.

Q3:  Is a cheap press worth the money? There are a lot of off brand heat presses from China available on eBay,  with prices that can be very attractive when you’re on a budget.   Two things to consider before purchasing a press like this are 1) who will service it should it break down and 2)is cheap necessarily going to translate into reliable and accurate?   A press from an eBay seller that may have been made in a foreign country is not likely to have maintenance or tech support attached, and that matters.   Service for a malfunctioning machine can help extend its life and get you back to work faster.   Tech support can help you solve problems and teach you how to use your heat press more efficiently and profitably.     A cheap press may also come with a set of reliability and accuracy issues.   Temperature gauges may not accurately reflect temperatures.   The platens may not heat to the required levels.   There are good bargains to be had,  and there are people who have purchased off brand presses and had them work fine,  but it’s a calculated risk.

Q4:   What brand of press do experienced sublimation experts recommend?  To answer this question,  all I can do is tell you what we know,  from years of experience.    We sell George Knight heat presses,   and the reason we sell them is because we’ve used them.   Our parent company has six plants across the United States,  and all of them have heat presses.   George Knight presses have been in our shops,  working day in and day out for years.     The presses are reliable,  easy to use,  and George Knight has top notch technical support.   So,  when asked,  George Knight is what we recommend,  and not just because we sell them.   We’ve used them,  so we know how well made and reliable they are.   Yes,  they may cost a bit more,  but they’re worth every penny.

If you have a question about sublimation,  please feel free to leave a comment here or to contact us and ask.   We’ve been working with heat presses and sublimation for quite some time,  and we’re always happy to help.

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A Heat Press Primer

Anyone who works in garment decoration will probably acknowledge that a heat press is generally a vital piece of equipment in any garment decoration or ad specialty shop.   Heat presses can be used for sublimation,  direct to garment printing,  inkjet transfers,  screenprint transfers and, in a pinch, simply for getting the wrinkles out of a garment, or the moisture out of transfer paper.   A good heat press, which is the right size and type for your shop, can be a huge asset.  A heat press, on the other hand,  that is the wrong size and type, or which doesn’t function properly can be anything but an asset.   If you’re just starting your business, or are looking to purchase a new heat press,  here are some basic tips to help you make the right decision for your business.

One of the first things to decide is the type of heat press you need.   EnMart sells two types of heat presses – clamshell and swinger or swingaway.    A clamshell heat press is a hinged press where the top platen lifts straight up.  These presses generally require a bit less space,  but they also are a bit more limiting.    If you are going to be doing thicker garments or want to sublimate items other than garments,  this type of press may not be for you.

A swinger or swingaway heat press, by contrast, is one where the top platen lifts up and then swings to the side.   This sort of press requires more space,  as the platen needs to be free to swing.   It also is a bit more forgiving when it comes to the thickness of the items you will be pressing.   Swingaway presses also move the top platen completely out of the way, which allows for easier loading and unloading of your press.

Another thing to consider when looking at presses is the size of the items that you will be pressing.  A 9″ x 12″ heat press may seem like a great way to start because it doesn’t take up much space and it’s less expensive, and for some people it will be the ideal press.    If you are looking at doing a wide variety of garment sizes,  however,  this press may be too small and too limiting for your needs. When choosing the size of heat press you think will work for your business, always take into account the size of the largest thing you think you could ever possibly press and buy a press that will accommodate that size.

You should also take into account your physical abilities when considering the press you will purchase.  You can find heat press which are air operated,  heat presses with auto pop-up functions,  and presses that will need to opened and closed with good old muscle power.   If you believe your press will be used quite frequently, or if you’re a smaller person,  you may want to consider a press which opens more easily and doesn’t rely on brute force.

Finally, when you purchase your press,  you may also want to consider purchasing a digital pyrometer and surface probe kit.  The temperature gauge on your heat press may not always accurately reflect the true temperature of the press.   A digital pyrometer will allow you to spot the differences between the temperature reading on the gauge and the actual temperature of the press.

Sublimation Tip Sheet 4/15/10

Over the years that we’ve been doing sublimation, we’ve learned a lot.  Some of what we’ve learned needs to be explained in detail, and is best suited to a longer blog post.  Other tips and tricks are just small bits of information that don’t necessarily merit their own post,  but could still be useful.   Because we still want to share these tips and tricks with all of you, I’ve created the Sublimation Tip Sheet.  These posts will appear whenever it seems necessary, and will include various sublimation and ChromaBlast tips and tricks which will help you get the most out of your printers, inks, papers and heat presses.

Tip 1:  Sublimation Paper Storage

Properly storing your sublimation paper is important, and can significantly affect the results you get when you print and press.  Most paper can absorb humidity, and depending on the coating, some absorb a lot more than others.  As a general rule, best practice is to store your sublimation paper sealed either in the original packaging or in a reclosable bag in a dark area in a climate controlled office or other area.  Moderate humidity in the 40% range and temperature around 70 degrees with low or no light, is usually considered ideal storage conditions.  Realistically however, these conditions may not be practical, so just try to get as close to that type of environment as you can reasonably achieve, and you should be good to go.

Tip 2:  Heat Press Temperature

A heat press with an even temperature is a vital part of sublimation success, but not all heat presses heat evenly.  To make sure that your heat press does not have hot spots or cold areas which could have an impact on the evenness of your sublimation print,  check your press frequently with a pyrometer.   Taking a few seconds to check the temperature of your press could save you a lot of frustration and wasted blanks.

Tip 3:  The items you sublimate should be Polyester or Poly Coated

This seems like a pretty elementary fact, but I see this question on forums all the time.   For best results, whatever you sublimate should be 100% polyester fabric or should have a poly coating.  If you sublimate a garment that is some percentage polyester and some percentage of another material, the sublimation ink will only bond with the polyester fibers.   This can lead to a patchy,  faded graphic.   Attempting to sublimate a mug or a mousepad that does not have a poly coating will most likely not work at all.

If you have a sublimation or ChromaBlast tip or trick that you’d like to share,  please leave it in the comments or e-mail me at kristine dot shreve at myenmart dot com.